Jerry Mathers. His was the name I used to stump my dad in a game of 20 Questions on a highway somewhere between Ohio and Tennessee. Mathers had played Beaver on the popular 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver, whose reruns I loved watching as a child.
Ours was not a Leave It to Beaver family. When my brother and I were young, my mother worked nights at the hospital to put my father through graduate school. After my father got his first professorship, she worked at the campus infirmary, where the school bus dropped us each afternoon. Until dinner, which we ate in the cramped infirmary kitchen, my brother and I roamed the campus like wild cats.
As a little girl, I loved the illustrations from a 1967 Little Golden Book, My Little Mommy. “This is my house and I am the mommy. My children are Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny.” The narrator, in her smocked brown dress, waves goodbye to Billy “who works in the city. He has a new car. Isn’t it pretty?” She happily does the dishes and sweeps the floor, wiping “the fingerprints off the door.” Those housekeeping jingles put me to sleep for years of nights.
I wanted that home. And in many ways, I have it today. The husband. The children. The house and the two-car garage. (Dishes and dirty clothes, too). And while I am grateful for this life, I realize now that my childhood hope for home wasn’t really about a certain kind of house or family, nor even the certain kind of wife and mother I’d be. As Goldilocks might say, My Little Mommy was a story too small.
To be human is to long for home. And in Christ, everyone gets that—the married and unmarried, the childless and child-full.
God as Homemaker
When the curtain opens on the created world, we find God busy at work. He labors, not simply to make a beautiful world, but a habitable one. In God’s estimation, the world was not only good because it was his handiwork, but also because it could be home.
Though the Genesis accounts share commonalities with other ancient creation myths, they also stand in stark contrast, especially in the relationship God intends to share with humanity. In The Dictionary of Creation Myths, David and Margaret Leeming note some of these similarities and differences. “As in the Enuma Elish, humans in Genesis are created from clay, and man works for God. He tends the garden, and names the plants and animals, but unlike in the Enuma Elish, God creates a paradise specifically for man, and has a relationship with him.” In other words, the Lord made a home for his people and intended to share it with them.
God was the world’s first homemaker.
We don’t usually think of God as homemaker. That title seems most fitting for the June Cleavers of the world, who greet their little Beavers after school with freshly baked cookies. But a careful reading of history bears out how much homemaking has changed in the last 350 years since the industrial revolution. Home has not always been the exclusive province of women.
As Judith Flanders illustrates in The Making of Home, housework in pre-industrial America, as symbolized by the one-pot stewed over the fire, was a shared responsibility. The men trapped, shot, and butchered the animals; the women plucked the birds and cleaned the fish. Men grew the wheat; women grew the vegetables. Men cut and stacked the wood; women tended the fire. Men and boys carved the wooden trenchers and spoons; women and girls wiped them clean after the meal. Everyone took part in getting dinner on the table.
With industrialization, however, came dramatic shifts in the nature of work. Factories began to replace farms; home was less and less a shared space for women and men. New technologies, like the cookstove and the loom, allowed for domestic chores to be more than purely utilitarian tasks—and a new source of female pride. Even the nature of child-rearing responsibilities changed. While 17th- and 18th-century sermons in America had been primarily addressed to men, mothers (and the home) became revered in 19th-century sermons. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote at the time, the home becomes “the church of childhood, the table and hearth a holy rite.”
In what historians have referred to as “The Golden Age of Domesticity,” the home became the female sphere—and homemaking, “women’s work.” With these changes, our story of home shrinks.
When the Story Doesn’t Fit
What are some of the implications of the too-small story of home?
First, to make home “women’s work” eclipses the important responsibilities husbands and fathers have at home—for housework, for child-rearing, for hospitality, to name a few. According to Scripture, managing his household, or “homemaking,” is a critical quality of every church elder (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5). Women and men alike are charged with the care and keeping of home. Moreover, to narrowly define God’s ideal of “home” as marriage and children leaves the unmarried and childless to feel as if they have been excluded from the good life. We need a bigger story that reflects our call to image a homemaking God in the world—whatever our marital and parenting status.
My church in Toronto is populated largely with young professionals, many unmarried. My 30-something friends haven’t intentionally delayed marriage for career, though many of them now find themselves in the anxious creep toward 35. Toward 40. They’re struggling with questions like: Should I move closer to my family? Buy a house and stay here in the city? They’re struggling with fears like: Is loneliness my unmarried fate?
I fear they have no vision for home apart from wedding rings and baby strollers and soccer games on rainy Saturday mornings. But I don’t blame them for that. They’ve been given a too-small story, a story almost unrecognizable from the story Jesus himself told when he relativized blood lines and loyalties. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mothers” (Matt. 12:48). They’ve been sold Naomi’s bill of goods when she told Ruth to return to Moab: “The LORD grant that you may find rest . . . in the house of [your] husband.” Naomi having conveniently forgotten her failed happily-ever-after (cf. Ruth 1:1–9).
A better-fitting story of home is this: God promises home to all of his people—married and unmarried, childless and child-full. Home, in God’s kingdom, doesn’t begin at the altar. In part, home is restored to all of God’s children because Christ has promised that “if anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). We all have home because God, through the indwelling of his Spirit, makes it with us. In us. Moreover, home, as human community, is given to each of us through the belonging we’re meant to find in the church—“the household of God” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). In the church, we have new brothers and sisters, new mothers and fathers.
Best of all, home will be redeemed most fully for all of us when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven like a bride dressed on her wedding day. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). That’s a far bigger, better promise than marriage and minivans.
That’s a home worth setting our hopes on—even if ours is a Leave It to Beaver life.
Editor’s Note: For more of Jen Pollock Michel’s thoughts on home, pick up her new book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, 2017).