Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Dirty Little Secret of the Proverbs 31 Woman

A man gave his testimony at our church the other night, sharing all the blessings he had received from God throughout his life, including the fact that his wife was a true "Proverbs 31 woman."

My initial reaction was one of guilt, mingled with admiration....and maybe a little envy. From experience, however, I had to stop and consider that this man's definition of the Proverbs 31 woman might be different from mine. (We'll call her P31W for short.) So what exactly did he mean by a P31W?

I can only figure he meant she conforms to the ideals of the Western culture for women who primarily stay at home and single-handedly take care of every need of their husbands and children. She "looks well to the ways of her household." Her house is continually spotless, there are punctual, homemade meals on the table three times a day (including pies, cakes, and other goodies for dessert), and when the drawers and closets are opened, there are clean, neat clothing there ready to choose from. They never run out of salt or pepper, toothpaste or toilet paper. In fact, the roll is always on the holder, never on the counter. Her grout is white and so are her teeth. You will never see her in her jammies, not because she wears a cotton or fleece gown (depending on the season), but because she is up and dressed immediately after making the bed. Of course.

Though your definition may be different and include or exclude some of these things, this is what I think of when I think of a true P31W. Yet, while reading Courtney Reissig's book Glory in the Ordinary, I was shocked to find I've had it all wrong. The P31W had a dirty little secret.

Courtney points out,

"We have done a great disservice to families in the Christian community as we have elevated the Proverbs 31 woman to saint status. She is praised for her tireless work, yet we forget to mention that she had servants."

Did you get that? She had servants!

Courtney goes on,

"She was no more a supermom than we are. Her place in Scripture is not to tell us how to be the mom of the century. Accepting help from our friends, our husbands, our parents, and anyone else who wants to lend a helping hand is not accepting defeat. It's God's gift of rest to you. Take it. Embrace it. And let the rest go."[1]


Now, I'm not saying we should make sacrifices in the budget for a cleaning lady and a chef. But I am saying that if you are unable -- not unwilling, mind you, but unable -- to keep up with the basic provisions of a reasonably clean environment, clean clothes, and nourishing food for our family, then something has to give. You need to ask for the help and accept it when it is offered.

First of all, however, I am a firm believer everyone living in a home should be contributing to the needs of that home, according to his or her ability. Even small children can be taught to clean up after themselves. If your child is three years old and you are still picking up her toys, you are not only not availing yourself of the help you need, you are also robbing your child of an important character trait. It takes time and patience to teach a toddler to pick up their things and put them away, but the reward of their assistance will bear even greater fruit as they mature. Children not only learn personal responsibility from this exercise, they also derive a feeling of satisfaction and purpose through it. The sooner they can help the better.

Our granddaughter Elsie helping set the table, age 3

And just let me say here, if you have teenage or adult children living at home who aren't helping with the laundry, dishes, and and other housework, then you missed the parenting boat a looooooong time ago. I've known more than one family whose adult children are home all day while their parents are out working. I don't know what they do all day, but I guarantee you, in that situation, mom and dad shouldn't have to do much of anything when they get home from work. If adult children aren't working outside the home, they had better get busy working IN it. It's never too late. Enlist their help now. And if they resist or refuse, I'll come over and help you move their stuff out to the curb. Seriously.

Even my 78-year-old father, whom I care for and who lives with us, does what he can around the house. He has been a tremendous blessing to me as he puts away the clean dishes, sweeps the kitchen floor, and puts away his own clothes. He can't always help me because of his health, but he certainly does what he can when he can. I resisted him at first. I felt like he was being critical of my failures to keep up with the housework (P31W guilt). But then I realized his own need for feeling significant and useful. His contributions, however small, help to fulfill his purpose in life. Now I swallow my P31W pride and accept his help with grace and gratefulness.

My husband also helps around the house. He pretty well has all of the garbage chores under his care, as well as all the yard work, gardening, and heavy lifting. Our washer and dryer are in the basement, so, though I do all the washing, drying, sorting, folding, and putting up, he takes the four baskets of laundry down to and up from the basement for me. He even does the dishes on Sunday afternoons to give me a break once a week from that responsibility. I appreciate it all so much.

I know some women live in isolation from their extended family, have husbands who refuse to help around the house, and have many little ones who cannot contribute to the household chores. Yet, perhaps there are others who could lend a hand at times. Are there friends at church to whom you could reach out, or maybe you could exchange help with other young mothers in your same situation? In Glory In the Ordinary, author Courtney Reissig offers advice on how to go about finding help in those situations as well.

However, for some women it may mean actually investing in hired help. If you can't afford a cleaning service or a chef, can you afford a teenager? I was blessed to help a woman from our church when I was a teenager. She had cancer and could not keep up with the housework. I went over once a week for two hours and did whatever she needed help with at the time. I mostly vacuumed, but I also washed her kitchen cabinets. She paid me a modest fee, and we were both happy. Our daughter also functioned as a mothers' helper to families with many children when she was a teenager. They couldn't pay her much, of course, but what she gained in on-the-job training was worth a fortune. I am so grateful for the contributions those mothers made to our daughter's development and character, and I am blessed to see the fruit of it as she guides her own home and rears her children.

Though it can be a challenge to rethink what it means to "look well to the ways of [your] household," it is important to understand clearly how the P31W narrative actually plays out in the time and culture in which we live. It will most certainly play out differently for me than it will for you as each woman and household are different. Yet, rather than beating ourselves up while comparing ourselves to others -- even the P31W --, let us pray for wisdom in how to direct our homes and to know how and when to get the "servants" we need in order to succeed.

[1] Courtney Reissig, Glory In the Ordinary: Why Your Work In the Home Matters To God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017), pp. 105, 106.