The Lonely Hausfrau

I know that Wes closed the comments on his last post because Frau Luther had taken offence—and justly so. I wanted to weigh in, though, because I’m the writer for Spiritual Friendship who has the experience of being the lonely hausfrau and I think that talking about what hospitality looks like, not only from the point of view of single people longing for inclusion in family life but also from the perspective of people with families who are willing to open their doors, is important.

I want to say right up front that I get completely what Katharina is talking about. It’s not that she’s overwhelmed because she made bad choices or any of the other things that some people in the com-box seemed to imagine. It’s that she’s a mother with multiple kids, and being a mother is frustrating a lot of the time. I have six. Lonely single people often don’t appreciate the loneliness of being stuck in a house day in, day out with a group of people whose conversation consists primarily in blaming one another for the large hole in the fabric of your sofa (and you just replaced that sofa. Like a month ago. Because your autistic kid ate large holes in the last one), and in babbling endlessly about who is in love with whom in Artemis Fowl. Yes, I love them. Yes, I’m happy that I had them. Yes, there are times when they are just so cute it breaks your heart (my two year old, for example, has recently composed his first song. It goes “I love you! I love you too! I LOOOOOOVE YOOOOOOU!!!” He sings it with incredible emotion and vocal expression given his age.) But there are also times when you are sitting in a dark corner digging your nails into your pillow and wanting to die—or else kill the children/husband. But generally suicide looks like the more rational option. On those occasions if I read about the sufferings of my celibate brethren I think “The biggest problem you have is that you have too much time to yourself? Seriously? Poor baby. Why don’t you go watch a play and drink a frappacino until you feel better. I’m gonna go change my fifty-seventh poopy diaper of the day.”

Talking about who has the bigger Cross is, of course, an endless and fruitless pursuit. I think a more effective approach would be to imagine what hospitality, and the reception of hospitality, should look like. There are two conjoined vices that make the practice of hospitality fraught with danger. The first is Marthaism, the second is obliviousness.

The first is a problem that a lot of housewives suffer from. We feel like we can’t have guests over unless we have the house all prepped and ready for a posh soiree. Or at least until we’ve thoroughly cleaned up the cat poo in the mud room. We have to provide the food, the drinks, the roaring fire, the fresh roasted chestnuts and the glittering literary conversation. The children must be decked out in super-cute finery and coached in advance not to sing rickety-tickety-tin at the sing-along because it will frighten the guests. I admit that there have been days when you could have found me in the kitchen, trying to make roses out of pickled ginger and leaves out of wasabi to complement my home-made sushi while secretly resenting the fact that my guests were out on the balcony drinking an exotic collection of fine European beers.

The second is a problem with the guests. Single people are often just oblivious to how much work it is to look after a family, and they don’t realize that they’ve just walked into a staged production of “My Perfect Home” when they show up for a three course meal and a conversation about Heidegger. They sit down with a glass of mulled cranberry wine after supper, and they don’t notice that the dishes need doing and the kids need to be put to bed. In a lot of cases even if you ask outright, “Honey, could you and the guys maybe clean up the kitchen while I read the bed-time stories” they say something like, “We’ve just started a really interesting game of Warhammer. Maybe later. Oh, and could you put on another batch of this? It’s really good.” At this point the white-knuckled hostess goes off to read Green Eggs and Ham thinking of her guest as Sam-I-Am. (That Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am. Man am I going to rip the teeth out of that Sam-I-Am…)

If we’re going to talk about community and hospitality, we need to acknowledge that what we’re talking about is a mutual and reciprocal exchange of selves. The hostess needs to lower her expectations of herself. She needs to be able to offer her family home as it really is, including the juice-stains and crayon drawings on the wall and the strange smell in the bathroom. The guest needs to act more like a member of the family and less a privileged VIP. The best occasions of hospitality are the ones where everyone takes the time, first, foremost and up-front, simply to enjoy each others’ company and be together. And where after that is over, everyone pitches in to make sure that the kitchen is not an inviting environment for fruit-flies and rats. The occasions where the adults have time to engage in some much-needed intelligent conversation, but the guest also takes the time to go off and teach something to the children or look at the Playmobil world that the kids built in Mommy’s closet. If hospitality is done right it provides an opportunity for single people to take some of the weight off the shoulders of married people and also an opportunity for married people to take some of the loneliness off the shoulders of single people. We have complementary needs and complementary gifts. In theory, at least, it’s a perfect solution.

Can this work? Not without frustrations. The fact is that living with other people is a fraught enterprise—even if it’s only for a couple of days. We go in with an expectation of relief and bliss, and then at some point we find out that we’ve really been invited to is a Cross-carrying party. We have to step up. We’re expected to sacrifice, and to offer solidarity, and to get outside of ourselves, and it’s nothing like the long-awaited vacation that we planned or anticipated. But if you can get into that vibe…if you can put yourself aside…if you can be there for the other, and make it into a form of Communion, then yes. It can work. But not without sweat.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

14 thoughts on “The Lonely Hausfrau

  1. As a formerly single person and current stay at home dad, this seems pretty much exactly right to me. I still remember (and thanked in a Christmas card this year) the couple that allowed me into their home when I was a lonely single grad student. They let me play with their kids and talk to them while they made dinner and I baby sat for them occasionally and they allowed me into their lives. I am sure I was more oblivious than I should have been. But they were gracious and didn’t worry about asking me to participate In family life, which is what I really wanted and needed at that point in my life.

  2. There was a comment Katharina wrote on the last post that caught my attention. She identified herself as “some literal nobody stay at home mom living at 130% of the Federal Poverty Level”. That spoke volumes to me… maybe because I’m an advocate for issues related to homelessness and poverty.

    Something that both an LGBT person and a family living in poverty experience in our culture is social stigma… it can be extremely alienating. I think the concern may be less about the presentation and preparation of a dinner party… and more about just getting food on the plate to feed their children. So I get where she would take issue with single folks going on about hospitality when most have no mouths to feed other than their own. And what parents have to deal with… I just say kudos to you parents because a few days with my nephews just about kills me and makes me thankful to be an aunt that gets to go home to peace and quiet. But other times I think about how different it would be if I had a child and family of my own… and what an awesome gift that is. But then I think about how poor I am and how much it costs to raise a kid.

    Something I don’t seem to see discussed on SF (maybe I’ve missed it) are things about how 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT. A study here in San Francisco found that a stunning 29% of the overall homeless population here is LGBT… which is very disproportionate to the overall LGBT population in the city. That’s very different than “their visions seem to be filled with dinner parties and wine glass clinking and rich conversation over great books and fine liquor, and calendars full of ~social obligations~.” BTW… I got a real kick out of that description… and I think she raises a valid point about a class-based element to the discussions.

    Katharina… keep up the good fight. And know that there is a queer Catholic chick in San Francisco advocating for families like your own. As for ~social obligations~… you should do what I do…. invite people over that bring food and do the cooking for you. 😉

    • I volunteered at a shelter for homeless youth when I was an undergrad, and I noticed that a significant number of them were LGBT. I’m also aware of the statistics showing a significant disproportion in the number of homeless youth who are LGBT.

      You’re right that this is an important problem. I’ll add it to my list of topics to think about, and try to come up with something useful to say (though I should warn you that it’s a long list, and is currently dominated by Austin Ruse).

      • I worked with homeless LGBT youth for years so if I can be of any help just let me know.

        Your current list is dominated by Austin Ruse? You must be a glutton for punishment! I read that post… and then read some of his other work. I don’t have the time or energy for him to be on my list, but I’m glad you do. Actually, he might want to look into homeless LGBT youth issue… it might help him develop some empathy.

    • Thanks for drawing more attention to the class aspect of this, Kelley. I also want to point out that while 130% of poverty sounds ghastly, I am sure, to someone in the middle class, it also isn’t an uncommon or outlying place to be. While our family size means we have to stretch the dollars further, the actual wage my husband makes is statistically quite ordinary. Medical techs, bus drivers, retail and restaurant supervisors, warehouse workers, receptionists, security guards, call center staffers, all these people who get the basic labor of this country done from day to day, make around this wage.

      But when one hears talk about “our culture” it typically draws on assumptions and examples far out of the reach of these average, normal American people. We are assumed to be exceptional, irrelevant, beside the point–if any thought is given at all. To say this is problematic barely touches the surface. To try to talk about the church without talking about the ordinary people who belong to it is irresponsible; and to draw conclusions about the culture without addressing the real lives of the average citizens operating within it borders on the delusional.

      (It is often assumed, when the topic does come up, that we are uniformly uneducated, inarticulate, pathetic, less sophisticated in our theological understanding or struggles around sexuality.)

      I am reluctant to shed more light, though, and this is the problem, because it would depend upon my disclosing things that are laden with a great deal of stigma, and subjecting myself and my family to further (often hostile) scrutiny about our choices and the intimate details of our lives.

      But when you hear 1 in 5 families in your state is on food stamps, or 60% of kids qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, etc, those people come from somewhere, or, actually, everywhere. All around you. People who work full time and wear ordinary clothing, and read books and blogs.

      It is hard to overstate just how thoroughly someone who lives a modest lifestyle just above poverty is shut out of most churchy stuff, too. We’re grateful to not be in the bread line (as many of us have done time there at some point and know how bad it is) but also really aware that we aren’t really the sort of people they want to advertise having in this building, either. If you are educated and clean up nicely you can pass somewhat, but there are so many hidden costs to inclusion. And I mean literal costs. Having the money to make food for 10 or 20 people and throw much of it away, for instance. And the disdain thrown our way can be pretty pointed. I’ve gone on a bit, but you get the idea.

      • Katharina… my research the last couple years has been around the social stigma of homelessness and poverty in our culture, so I completely understand your reluctance to shed more light. Many are unaware of the struggle of the working poor in our country. The gap between rich and poor in this country is widening, but it’s not just about income. Most of America’s educated and wealthier folks never experience or are even exposed to broader American culture, especially lower-class culture. It’s as if they are living in a bubble.

        “It is hard to overstate just how thoroughly someone who lives a modest lifestyle just above poverty is shut out of most churchy stuff, too.”

        I’ve found this statement to be very true… at least from what I’ve seen. Sometimes I wonder (and I’ve asked, which makes some uncomfortable)… why does the Church in the U.S. seems to be focused on the elites? I’m not discounting the good works of charity they do, but I’m not speaking about charity, I’m speaking about the social stigma in our culture and how all classes are part of the body of the Christ. I’m loving how Pope Francis is challenging us! I think a big part of why he has caught the attention of so many in the U.S. (non-Catholic too) is because he’s speaking out about the economic injustice that is plaguing our country.

        I ran across an interesting article that captures the experience of poverty for many… I know it’s capture some of my experience.

  3. Melinda, thanks for this. I’ve admired your writing for a while, admittedly in some part for completely egotistical reasons–we have a lot in common, beyond just having a lot of child chaos in our lives at the moment.

    I do have to say to the rest of the group, though, in case anyone is listening still, that it was incredibly hurtful to encounter analysis here to the effect of me being somehow a bad mother or having reproduced recklessly. That REALLY should be in the category of things it just is not socially acceptable to say, regardless of how offended and aggrieved you feel towards the target. Especially given that everyone here, of all places, should be well aware of what the expectations are for Christian sexual ethics and Catholic ones in particular, and that it requires a great deal of yielding to fertility. It should be understood here, of all places, that my children are not objects that were chosen, wisely or unwisely, whether my pregnancies were planned or not. To encounter the epitome of “contraceptive mentality” in the form of “she’s not cut out for so many children!” and so forth, used to slap me in the face for daring to be frustrated with what is, after all, not just my vocation but my workaday job, was really, really upsetting.

    We live in a 2 bedroom city apartment. I don’t have the escape mechanisms someone of greater means has. There is no sitter and “date night,” no meals out most of the year other than McDonald’s, no summer camp, no gaming systems, no subscription series, no shopping jaunts for fun. I write, I chat with my friends online, I read when I can. I am not doing this for “edification” of any audience of my betters, I am just trying to make the best sense of things that I can.

  4. Thanks for this post, Melinda.

    When I think about the hospitality that has meant the most to me as a single person, when I think about the kind of hospitality that has actually “worked” to drive away my loneliness, I think of arriving at my friends Jono and Megan’s small apartment after a day of work. Megan had had the kids to herself all day and was usually exhausted. After a chaotic dinner with them and other friends, I started washing their dishes while they put the kids to bed. Then we all, tired and sometimes irritable, would collapse in the messy living room and drink cheap wine that we found on offer at the lowest shelf at Tesco. We’d often talk about meaningful things, such as the challenges of parenting or how good the Harry Potter books were and whether the final movies would ever live up to them, but sometimes we’d just turn on the TV and go cross-eyed.

    Or I think of being invited over to my friends Mark and Ruth’s house every Monday night for dinner. They had teenaged children at the time, so there was less overt chaos. But I was usually walking into some amount of stress. Ruth had usually just arrived home from work at the hospital. The kitchen table was strewn with half-finished homework assignments and coupons to take to the grocery store. A quick curry was heating on the stove (no ingredients that hadn’t been purchased in bulk at Costco and couldn’t be cooked in less than half an hour), and everybody seemed slightly harried or distracted when I first arrived. Often there would be a long-term houseguest of theirs who joined us too, such as the young woman who was staying with them because her solo life had become unbearable due to some truly horrific circumstances. Point being, this wasn’t posh, big city high life with the clink of champagne glasses and arcane conversation at dinner parties about what was in the latest issue of the *New Yorker*. This was, rather, me being welcomed into untidiness, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. And *that* is what made me feel like I belonged. Believe me, in those moments I wasn’t pining for some high-flown “social life.”

    I like this passage from Lauren Winner’s book *Mudhouse Sabbath*:

    “As Christians, we aren’t meant simply to invite people into our homes, but into our lives as well. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, isn’t an imposition because we aren’t meant to rearrange our lives for our guests—we’re meant to invite our guests to enter into our sometimes-messy lives. It’s this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining (i.e., deadly dull parties at the country club) into hospitality (i.e., a simple pizza on my floor). As writer Karen Burton Mains puts it, ‘Visitors may be more than guests in our home. If they like, they may be friends.’

    “I don’t find inviting people into my life that much easier than inviting them into my apartment. At its core, cultivating an intimacy in which people can know and be known requires being honest—practicing that other Christian discipline of telling the truth about where we live and how we got there. Often, I’d rather welcome guests into a cozy apartment worthy of *Southern Living*. I’d rather show them a Lauren who’s put together and serene. Often, telling the truth feels absurd.”

    That is what I, at least, have in mind when I advocate “hospitality.” Maybe I need to be clearer about that. I am NOT picturing something that costs a lot of money I and my friends don’t have, nor am I thinking of some constant buzz of intellectual conversation.

    At any rate, thanks again for the post. We’re all in this together.

  5. Katharina,
    It seems that my comments in particular were hurtful to you. I was actually going to respond to you on the other post, but the comments closed. So, I am glad I have the opportunity to say here that I am sorry I was not more sensitive toward you. One of the challenges of the internet is that its not always possible to know the personal details going on in a person’s life. I did not see your other posts on your own site until after the fact and it became clear to me, then, that there seems to be hardship in your life right now. It also became clear that you did not seem to perceive or desire your blog to be taken as public commentary as much as for your own friends. Although I think its understandable given that your post was put onto the web that it would be mistaken as public commentary and open to critique as any other kind of public commentary.

    I also want to clarify something. I have never at any time thought you were a bad mother. After seeing my sister raise five children (and still raising them), as well as a cousin with four children whom she home schools and also struggles financially, I have no illusions about the incredible amount of work and stamina that goes into being a parent, especially of multiple children.

    I can see how you took my statement as indicating I thought you were a bad mother or as judgment for having multiple children. That is actually not what I was trying to convey. But its my fault for using poor phrasing. As I tried to explain to Daniel, I was trying to understand the depth of your frustration and why some people experience life difficulties in different ways. I think when we don’t recognize that people experience life difficulties differently that it leads to judgmental attitudes (i.e. this is easy for me, why isn’t it easy for her? She must be deficient in some way).

    For example, I remember when my sister got pregnant 3 months after giving birth and already had two other small children. Needless to say it was a rather difficult time for her and sometimes she would feel judged by other mothers who didn’t feel like she had all her ducks in a row because things were overwhelming with 4 small children–especially with one an infant and one a 1 year old. That kind of judgment happens when we don’t recognize that–as I said in my previous comment–“The fact is we all find different life circumstances difficult for different reasons–based on personality type, the resources we have in our lives, etc”. It was obviously a more stressful time for my sister in that particular season–not because of being a bad mother–but because of her unique circumstances.

    My cousin, for example, finds motherhood more stressful in many ways–not because she is a bad mother–but because they struggle financially and she is homeschooling four different class levels and growing their own food and yada yada. Also, I know that I would struggle more than some mothers with motherhood–not because of being a bad mother–but because I am an introvert and not having quiet space to refuel can make most introverts feel insane. I would imagine that for an introvert mother–multiple children would be a greater challenge that for an extroverted mother. At least it would be for me. And that has nothing to do with the quality of parenting.

    So, to reiterate, I was trying to understand why your post was worded as harshly as it was–and attributed it to stress you must be experiencing. My mistake was trying to psychoanalyze that stress rather than simply expressing my grief at the post you wrote and engaging directly with the ideas in it.

    The problem was not that you do not have legitimate concerns or suggestions to make. I think any one of the people who reacted to your post would have responded much differently if it had been communicated more respectfully toward those of us you were critiquing. But as it was, I think many, including myself, found your words to be rather hurtful. Again, not because of the concerns you were raising per se, but rather it came across as unkind toward celibate gays and trivializing them as if their concerns are not legitimate–but rather merely romanticized petty complaints. If you think that we all romanticize family, you have not understood us or what we are trying to wrestle with on this blog.

    My hope is that what all of us can learn from this experience is that regardless of our struggles in life–single or married with kids–we not allow our own pain to stifle our compassion for others who happen to experience painful circumstances that are different than our own. And I will be the first to apologize for not being a more compassionate listener.

  6. Melinda,

    Thanks for your post. It is helpful to get your perspective. I certainly think that some single people or guests in general can be oblivious or self-absorbed and add to the burden of a family, rather than a help. Single people can be self-absorbed just as much as some married people can be self-absorbed. In fact, I think we all have a tendency to be primarily concerned about our own situation first. I personally offer to babysit the kids of my friends and also try to wash dishes afterward if they invite me over, help with food prep, etc. One thing I don’t do enough of, that I feel I should consider more, is having my married with kid families over to my place for dinner. But I often feel very inadequate because I have such a small space. And I know its harder to entertain kids there.

    I don’t think any one on this blog is advocating to be dead weight to harried overworked parents. But, I think its good to point out that engaging with other people outside the family can take extra energy especially if a person is introverted. I have a very good friend that I don’t get to see nearly as much as I would like because as an introvert she finds the energy she has to give engaging with her husband and daughter to be all that she has by way of resources for human engagement much of the time. And I understand that.

    I have been reflecting on the whole family thing and what I think about these ideas being expressed about romanticizing family. I think some people do. I personally don’t. As an introvert, I understand what a luxury my alone time is. I know that if I had children it would bless me, yes, but would also be a cost. If I ever have kids it will be through adoption. And I would go into that knowing my life would change drastically and it would be a new kind of ministry and giving.

    I could be wrong but I don’t think most celibate gays romanticize family. I think many of us are suffering legitimate effects of lack of intimacy (and yes I know married people can have a lack of intimacy in their lives too especially if the marriage is bad). There are scientific studies that show the psychological and physical effects of isolation. Some studies show married people live longer than single people. As one example of an effect in my own life–as a single person I don’t experience regular meaningful touch. I get a quick hug maybe once a week. This is true even though I have many friends. Its part of our touch-phobic culture that many people are uncomfortable with affection and tend to rely on their significant other for most of their touch needs. I would probably do better if I lived in Italy. In any case, the lack of touch causes an oxytocin deprivation. I actually experience physical pain from oxytocin deprivation. I also struggle with higher levels of anxiety as a result. When I go to visit my best friend for a week or two and I get hugged deeply every day and I am sleeping in the same house as other people and just sitting and watching TV with her and her husband, my anxiety levels diminish considerably. And the physical pain I feel also decreases.

    I have found that singleness gets harder and harder as I get older. It wasn’t so bad in my 20s when everyone else was single still too and we were going off on our college or whatever else adventures. Even my early 30s were not too bad. Toward my later 30s it definitely got harder, even unbearable. Its not because I have any romanticized notion of family life. Its because I am experiencing real psychological effects of singleness. We, as human beings, were never designed to live apart from family. That is a relatively new phenomenon. In the early 1920s only 7% of people in America lived alone. Throughout history if someone wasn’t married, they often lived with relatives. There was a greater sense of clan than just the weird “one man one woman” insular unit.

    Celibate gays are not the only ones trying to figure out family in this new strange culture we have. Marriage, kinship, friendship, everything is being reconfigured and re-evaluated. Our mobility also changes a lot in terms of relationships–family and friend-wise. So, family has changed even for family. Why are many mothers so overwhelmed and at a breaking point? Because they are isolated too. People don’t live near their relatives anymore who would could normally help out. And we have lost any sense of kinship where relatives feel a responsibility to help each other in daily life (except in some American cultural groups that still retain this). Its the same reason we don’t take care of our elderly well–a task very difficult to do if you are trying to do it on your own. But if you have multiple cousins, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and grandparents all living in the same town there are a lot more resources–financially, emotionally, and physically– for everyone helping each other out.

    In this way, I think married people have a lot to contribute to the conversation we are trying to have here at S.F. because we have all lost family support. And we are all in need of greater connectedness. I don’t know what the answers to some of these problems are but I hope that married folk like you and Katharina will help us to brainstorm around this–not only for the sake of gay celibates and other singles, but for the sake of those who are married with kids who are struggling and need more family support in their lives as well.

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