Soooo, to go back to Crunchy Cons, which I read earlier this summer, in addition to his words on materialism, I was struck by Dreher’s meditations on homey homes. In the passage below, he reminisces about a friend’s genteelly crumbling old plantation house:
Three years and two children ago, I wrote about a Shauna Niequist essay that has stayed with me for years now. In it, she writes,
“And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.”
When we had this newest baby, someone brought us sourdough bread and J raved, and it got me thinking about dabbling in sourdough, at a time in my life when I should really only be thinking about how to manage to get all of us properly dressed in one day.
What do you find worthwhile to make and what would you rather buy? Let’s compare notes:
Stock: I like to roast a chicken whole in the slow cooker and then toss a carcass or two back in to cook on low overnight. Easy peasy.
Fancy bread (mostly ciabatta, 90% of the time): I will occasionally buy stuff, especially at the farmer’s market, but Pip eats almost nothing I make myself except ciabatta, so that’s a pretty strong incentive.
Iced tea: This is new, but J’s gotten into unsweet tea in a big way, and it’s sooooo much cheaper than buying bottles and then I don’t have to lug the bottles inside with my wimpy pregnant upper body (non)strength.
Pizza crust: It took awhile for me to find a bread machine recipe for the dough that I loved, but now I’m never going back.
Cookies, brownies, cake: I am not against a box cake (ok, I love box cake), but I recently suggested we make one and Pip was genuinely perplexed, and I realized maybe I’m doing some small part of this real foods thing right with him, even if he mostly subsists on fruit and Goldfish. He loves to bake, so I bake, and sometimes, he even eats it.
Cream of chicken soup: Use that stock!
Biscuits: These are one of the few things I can make now that are honestly my favorite way to eat them. Not that they’re objectively the world’s best biscuits, just that they’re exactly the way I like them. Do you have anything like that for you?
Granola: I like to mix it into my (storebought! for shame!) Greek yogurt.
Bagels, sandwich bread: although I just ran across a recipe for bagel dough in the bread machine, and my brother-in-law made some beautiful bagels…
Pie crust: My mom makes terrific pie crust and I struggle to even work with frozen crust.
Ice cream (90% of the time): It gets rock salt everywhere to make it!!
Pasta sauce (90% of the time): The only time I’ve routinely made it is when we’ve had a CSA, and that hasn’t been since Pip was born. Might be worth resurrecting, though, because I love the fresh taste when you puree it a bit and don’t cook it forever.
Yogurt: Trying to gather the discipline to do this again, because I have a yogurt maker and it saves a ton of money, but it’s so tedious.
Canned beans (vs cooking from dry): Why can I not make normal beans? This is supposed to be easy!!
I could list thousands of others, especially if I spent a little time looking at DIY tags on Instagram (no, I don’t make my own pickles!). Things are always in flux, of course, based on where we are in the life of our family. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make toast for the kids when I’m really morning sick, and sometimes, when the baby’s pretty old and I’m not pregnant yet and everyone’s napping reliably, I can really branch out and take on new skills and recipes.
I really like checklists. I like knowing concretely that I’ve done my work, which is one of the reasons I liked menial tasks like shelving even once I had my MLS. I like report cards.
And that’s one of the hard things about staying at home full time.
Because I can fill my day with any combination of tasks, but I’ll never be able to do all the things.
I make my own bone broth, my own granola, my own pizza crust. I don’t make pickles, or yogurt (though I’ve tried), or hummus. I can embroider, but I can’t knit. I’m not much of a gardener, though I might like to be. I mend shirts that need buttons, but the other day I threw out a cookie sheet because whatever was on it (baked-on potato starch???) was so thick and unyielding that I refused to scrub anymore. I like to bake and I don’t like to iron, so I do a lot more of the former than the latter, and people might be able to tell. (Wrinkles, waistlines.)
Most of the jobs I have had centered around scheduled hours and specific tasks. If I showed up for the scheduled hours most of the time and performed most of the specific tasks, I was doing well.
I like doing well.
Stay at home motherhood is not that way. I need to take care of the kids, keep them safe and tolerably clean and reasonably happy, and it would be good if, barring illness and crisis, I made sure we had regular meals and enough clean laundry to limp by.
Beyond that, it’s kind of up to me, and it’s kind of bewildering.
My question, I guess, is this: How do you, as a homemaker, choose? Frugality? Interest? How do you know if you’re doing a good job? How do you feel good about the decision to hire a cleaner, or buy your produce at the farmer’s market instead of growing it yourself? When you can do almost anything, go deep on any one task, which ones merit your lingering attention?
At the end of March, we bought ourselves a house. And I don’t know if it’s our age or the recovering economy or whatever, but in that time I’ve had four or five other close friends go through the same exhilarating/nauseating roller coaster.
Most of those friends have a kid or two, and one friend asked me how to get unpacked and settled in with kids underfoot and the answer, I suspect, is mostly you don’t, or at least not with much haste.
All of us, we new homeowners, want something Instagrammable right away. We are scouring Pinterest, so impatient to make this new house “ours.” It’s tempting to stay up late unpacking, to spend a lot of money right away for that missing detail, to hold off having anyone over until we’re really settled. We’re Millennials, and we’ve been renting our entire adult lives. We’re ready to really own a place.
Mostly, though, I try to get out of the house with the kids because hey, it’s summertime, and we shouldn’t waste it, but also because when I am chasing off the baby from the electric outlets and fielding the preschooler’s request for a toy we haven’t unpacked yet and thinking about how I should haul another box up from the basement or take a crack at a better kitchen arrangement, I’m not the kind of mother I want to be.
Luckily for me a few weeks into unpacking (or not) we headed down to Tallahassee, where much of the month I stayed in the house my parents have owned since I was seven years old.
It’s a house where I can see work and evolution and process in every room. That evidence is somehow reassuring. My mom’s gardening has changed and improved as she’s gotten to know the soil and entered a new season of life without kids at home when she can devote more time. As far back as I can remember, my parents’ house has been tidier than my current acceptable level, but the level of cleanliness they can maintain now that my father is a full time homemaker differs form how I remember it growing up. And every time something has broken since 1993, my parents have replaced it with something just a little nicer, a little more to their taste.
It all combines to reassure me that there is no static moment when a house is done. It feels overwhelming to think of the projects that loom before us, but so long as we keep the back porch from completing its transformation into a rotted death trap, we’ve got all the time in the world to make this little Craftsman our home. We can afford to play the long game.
When we left Uganda after six months of living on a hospital compound, our friends there gave us the gift they’d given many expats before us: a length of batik fabric.
I was a bit stumped as to how to use our gift — I already had a locally made dress or two. Eventually, I settled on cloth napkins, and my best friend’s sainted mother, who had just made six bridesmaid dresses for me the year before (not to mention my veil), agreed to cut them out for me.
The thing is, if you have cloth napkins, you might as well use cloth napkins. And if you use cloth napkins, you might as well have enough to do a load of just dishrags and bibs and cloth napkins, because you don’t want melted butter or whatever coming off onto your nice clothes in the laundry.
And over time, I’ve really come to embrace cloth napkins as a tiny but not insignificant part of our family culture and our practice of hospitality. I come from a paper napkin tribe, so this is a special Grimm-Bowers thing. I haven’t bought the plain white jumbo pack in years.
A table setting at our house rarely matches, but each set has a story: first the Ugandan napkins, next a few scrounged at a Target after-Christmas sale, then a set from a church sale with Pippin’s godparents, a thick stack from John’s grandmother, a rainbow of vintage napkins snagged at a neighborhood yard sale this fall with my mom and granny.
Once you start looking, cloth napkins are cheap to come by, if you’re not too fussy about matching, and they aren’t much work if you’re not intent on ironing. You can keep a little bin in or near the kitchen (mine attaches to a cabinet) to chuck the napkins and rags into as you clean up after dinner. I do a load about once a week, and fold them in five minutes listening to something fun or watching TV.
It’s a small, green, distinctive touch that helps make our house a home.
The other week, I attended our local chapter’s La Leche League meeting, and while I love offering support and encouragement to other nursing mothers (and receiving it in turn!), I wish there was some equivalent confederation of people trying to figure out this housekeeping-and-childcare thing.
Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader? It’s yet another sign of how we devalue the work.
I wish we could meet around snacks — maybe a new recipe we’re trying out, or a tub of hummus we bought in panic on the way to the meeting. Like at LLL, our kids would play in between us, a hum of energy in the background. We’d talk about work/life balance, and the best way to clean grout, and how to use a slow cooker to get the bulk of dinner done while your kids are still sane in the morning.
You’d bring the extra squash from your garden; I’d bring that book I kept meaning to lend you. Maybe someone would confess to yelling and another to defaulting to frozen pizza, and I’d tell you about the time in the depths of January when I decided to throw in the SAHM towel and apply for a full-time job an hour away in teen librarianship, just so I could feel good at something again. We’d leave refreshed, inspired, and maybe a little wiser.
It’s an ongoing thing for me. It helps that I was raised in a family that values housework, in which both parents adopted and enjoyed certain tasks. (Except ironing, which nobody claimed.) It helps that I’m an introvert who also enjoys structuring her own time. But beyond this foundation, I’ve had a lot to learn — I was a pretty useless kid, and until I was about 25, I moved often enough that I never had to clean baseboards or ovens. (Though I really probably should have.)
Still, here are some of my professional (homemaker) interests at the moment:
I’ve been working on refining my to-do list and meal planning (above). I’ve had grocery and to do lists since about 30 seconds after I made fun of my mom’s in college, usually on scraps of paper or in my planner. I’ve tried a few templates for meal-planning, but for right now, this kind of embarrassing grid my mother-in-law got for a school fundraiser is working well. I can have everything together at a glance, and even if the categories aren’t perfect, the magnet so it sticks to the fridge definitely is. I carry it around the house part of the morning as I begin to get organized, and once it’s up on the fridge, just above the water dispenser, I can reference it throughout the day.
I cleaned out the car on one of our first warm afternoons — the first time I’ve done it since Advent. Awhile back I read an analogy about cars being, basically, just a means of getting from place to place when we couldn’t make the distance with our bodies, and it’s helped me to feel better about our philosophy of car ownership: one fairly reliable, very unkempt vehicle to haul our family around when nothing else will do. And cleaning it out — at Advent I even vacuumed! — helps me to feel a little less embarrassed by the car’s homeliness when we give someone a ride, and a little less panicky when we’re drowning in kid stuff and filth on a long car ride.
Speaking of panicking, how do you keep from panicking when packing for the whole family? J does his own bag, and loads the car, but I’m in charge of laundry, lists, preparatory shopping, and actually gathering up all the materials for three humans. Part of me loves picking out the tiny travel wardrobes and the mini libraries, but the weight of responsibility usually makes me really crabby and anxious and unpleasant, especially on the day we leave. Some of our most successful travel days have been when we’ve decided last minute to leave the night before. No time to panic then! Just listen to an audiobook and sleep and try not to dwell on how you forgot the travel toothpaste. What are your packing tips?