I’ve been reading and thinking and praying a lot, and usually that leads to me writing as a way of solidifying and recording my own thought process. So, as I try to refocus on important things in the final fortnight before Lent, I will share some of my ruminations with you through a mini series on Motherhood and provide a lens to see past the narrow images of our vocation that are popular in our society. It’s possible that you have already thought of all this yourself. In which case, pray for me! Because I am still very much working on putting it all into practice. It’s also possible that my thoughts will be especially applicable to stay at home (and even homeschool) mothers and housewives, just because that is my own experience right now. But perhaps you will find something little to build upon yourself.

Art or Science?

We’re modern women, yes? When we find a problem, we want to solve it and we will use all of our researching and crowd-sourcing skills (and maybe even an overdue call to mom) to do so.

But we run into another problem. We can read Marie Kondo and still have a Lego epidemic. We can read Weissbluth and still have a child who prefers midnight play to sleep. We can buy all the organizational cubes and the largest planner with all the tabs and a place to doodle too (since we all have time for that?), and we still forget to buy the cinnamon at the grocery store. It doesn’t mean these are not helpful aids… (my husband says Weissbluth’s name with a sense of reverence…), but an ideal is just a step.

I’m going to be very sloppy about my designations of things as art or science because I think both are fundamentally knowledge practiced until they become a skill. But art seems to me to use intuition, balance, and a broader awareness of a possible harmony between diverse elements while science is more closely identified as the perfection and application of a precise process. So, here is my theory…

We must begin with a Science of Homemaking. This use to be a set of skills taught to young women (and young men to some extent). We would learn how to care for clothing and carpets and wood and people. Children would do chores, learn to sew, help with food preparation, and chop wood. But, as the material goods of society became more mechanized in the last century and especially as greater numbers of our population were urbanized, we lost touch with the fundamental skills necessary to provide for ourselves. Provision became reduced to money earning potential. And so our children are drilled in phonics by age 4 and cannot sew a button by 14.

This seems to work out quite well if you earn enough money to have someone else keep house for you and sew your buttons–someone with the skills you lack. But, many of us are not in that place. And even the most professional woman often comes home to a sink of dishes that must be cleaned.

We can clean dishes. For Pete’s sake, I can recite Middle English poetry, travel a foreign country with confidence, sing polyphonic music, and discuss why the piece of art above is particularly evocative to me. But how many household tasks are exhausting? How many chores do we dispatch with little efficiency and a tinge of resentment at every crumb that worked it’s way into the baseboard corner?

I think there’s a science to doing household work quickly and well. And I think that without those skills, we will struggle even to begin to become one of those women who walks through her home like a strong wind in spring–transforming everything she touches into something orderly and beautiful and fresh.

But we are very aware of the struggles of accomplishing anything efficiently in the home, especially when small children are underfoot. JPII called this stage of life the “kingdom of irrationality.” That sounds nicer than “Lord of the Flies in my living room,” which is what my mind jumps to on occasion. So, I think the next essential component is an art, the Art of Discerning Opportunities.

I have yet to come across a book that tells you how to negotiate a hostage situation while vacuuming, but I have managed to do it in a pinch. Mothers have to be good enough at the household chores to continue (or to take a break and return without further distraction) when their attention is needed by the people in the home. You have to find when is a time to “keep company” and have a wonderful conversation about the day with your daughter while you do dishes and when it’s a time to trade a sudsy tea cup for a full, steaming one and devote your full attention to the person in front of you. You have to learn how to prioritize rescue efforts when you face multiple unexpected disasters. I remember once having a situation with two toddlers. Something had spilled in the kitchen, someone had an accident, and someone got tummy sick, all in a 5 minute period. Quick mental calculations discerned which kid was least likely to play in their mess if made to wait just one minute and which flooring surfaces are most vulnerable to penetration. This, my friends, is an art. It’s like juggling, plus bio-hazards…

Science and art take years to master. And even the most confident looking women meet challenges that shake their peace and require them to develop further extensions of their skills to meet the present crisis. As one of my friends once said, we’re not as “bulletproof” as we look.

So, how does one persevere? Through love.

If a scientist can spend hours and years bent over a microscope because of his passion for discovery…
If an artist can practice the same fouette until shoes and toes are shredded for love of Swan Lake…
Surely, we can slow down, examine our methods and try again each day for love of the people around us.

I love the stories of the Gilbreth’s [the family in Cheaper by the Dozen] efficiency studies and their children. Their 12 children were irritated by their parent’s insistence upon time-saving methods of bathing and buttoning, but the goal was not efficiency for its own sake. If you read their studies on efficiency in the workplace, the Gilbreths always wanted to improve quality of life and satisfaction in the workers, not just profits.

Order and attention can ease some of the irritants of communal life. And I think this is central to the Works of Mercy–not to remove suffering entirely, because that is not possible, but to accompany children through those discomforts and teach them through example how to treat little things as little things and big things as big things. Habits of order combined with the art of being attentive to persons cultivates a rich soil for growth. We cannot do this if we go through life resenting the underwear pile.

Dear Jesus,
Today, let me work efficiently to provide for the people I love. Help me also to do these works of mercy out of love for You as if You would be the next guest to eat a meal at our table. Please draw my heart to be attentive to my husband and children around me and to each soul I meet today. Grant me the grace to live and work, to listen and respond, with creativity and perseverance so that this home may be a place where all are welcome, safe, reconciled, and able to fulfill their roles with joy. And lastly, Lord, I trust in Your Mercy that you can make up for any areas in which I lack. Thank You for entrusting this home and the people within it into my care. Help me to return them to you ready for eternal life in the home You have prepared for Your Children. Amen.

P.S. If this sounds hard to you, it’s ok. It sounds hard to me too. But in the next few posts I’ll try to break down why it is hard for us to live up to our ideals and how we can make small steps forward in the right direction!


Katherine McNenly
Mixer and Bowl, 22×28″, Oil