In Defense of Domesticity

The Norwegian secret to enjoying a long winter is to see the freezing months as something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured. According to a seeker of human happiness, this makes all the difference. They even have a word, koselig, which means a sense of coziness. People gather around the table for a good meal, light candles, sip hot cocoa, and snuggle under fuzzy blankets. The Dutch call it gezelligheid, the experience of belonging, spending time with loved ones, a general sense of well-being and togetherness. The Danish word is hygge. Sitting by the crackling fire with your family on a cold night, reading to your son as he cuddles in your lap, Christmas gatherings … you get the idea. Although it’s usually translated as “coziness,” it’s much more than that. It’s an attitude toward life, a way of being. And real coziness is not possible apart from a love and respect for homemaking.

In Norway, “bars often supply wool blankets and sheepskin or reindeer pelts that you can pull over your lap while you sip a pint or share a bottle of wine,” observes a convert to koselig:

At one dinner party, I even noticed a big basket of hand-knitted Norwegian wool socks that guests could borrow to curl up on the couch, and soon got my own personal pair, which had been made by a grandmother. That only intensified the koselig factor, because you could sense the care and love that went into them. Dinner itself was koselig, largely because it was held at a friend’s home among a small group of close-knit friends who prepared their meal together, refreshed one another’s wine glasses, and brewed countless pots of thick, rich coffee. An evening such as that, I was told, is considered more koselig than simply meeting at a restaurant, because of the privacy generating a kind of openness, playfulness, and honesty that would be harder to achieve in a noisy public place.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Notice that the way to make a bar more cozy is to make it more like home, that the care and love of a grandmother and the privacy of a home are “more cozy” than anything that can be achieved in a “noisy public space.” Notice also that coziness is a human estate, not something to be worked at poorly, or selfishly, or alone. Sitting on the couch and watching Netflix all by yourself is not koselig. There’s a “community aspect” to getting cozy.

You can’t buy community, and you can’t fake it, either. An absent father can’t randomly gather his family around the fireplace and expect everyone suddenly to be cozy. Real koselig takes more than warm bodies in close proximity and sheepskin slippers. Like anything worth doing, authentic coziness takes work: prior investment in relationships, domestic chores, food-prep, caring—in a word, housekeeping. But it’s worth it. In the doldrums of a dark winter, family nights, social gatherings, and dinner parties are a reminder that we’re all in this together.

I want to suggest that koselig reminds us of what we live for—friends, to be sure, but primarily the home. It reminds us that homelessness is a tragedy. And home reminds us of the priority of the family. We’re not just “social creatures.” Society does not conceive us, and nurse us, and love us. We’re not like baby sharks, either. We don’t just swim away from our mothers after we’re born. We are family creatures, and we were made for more than homelessness. Like koselig, you can’t buy a family, and running a home takes work. But it’s worth it. The secret to enjoying life, then, is to see it as something to be enjoyed—at times even endured—with others, ideally with family. Home makes all the difference.

So why do people still hold up the 1950s baking soda advertisement with a smiling woman, hair neatly coiffed, preparing a nutritious meal for her family, and say, “That serene smile is a lie”? In an era of Adbusters and critical thinkers, you’d think someone would hold up the 2015 advertisement with a smiling woman, hair asymmetrical and tapered in the nape, preparing a PowerPoint presentation for her clients, and say, “That serene smile is a lie!”

The myth of “domestic captivity” is still huffing and puffing and blowing homes down. It’s a mood, an atmosphere, one cannot help but breathe. It has led thousands of men and women to see themselves as baby sharks or “social creatures.” It has emptied innumerable homes of mirth and meaning. It promises autonomy and financial gain, but it doesn’t make the world a warmer, cozier place.

Homeless at Home
Ask any ten people what they live for, and they will say their families. Few will admit that they live for money, or work, or power because it sounds shallow, and it is. So why do popular forms of feminist ideology talk as if living for family is vassalage, and living for a career is freedom?

For example, when I was recently grocery shopping, I picked up a November 2015 print copy of Good Housekeeping, only to read that while women once toiled at home for their nuclear families, today “[t]hings are better than ever—fewer hours spent on chores!” The opening lines clarified:

Today it is a brave new world in many ways: 66% of our respondents work outside the home, and we live in an era populated with time-saving devices—Homemaking 2.0!

Now, this is admittedly the opening “hook” to what is an altogether fun, statistic-packed survey, but it expresses a popular sentiment. Overlook for a moment the assumption that technology leads to a “brave new world”—an ironic phrase for both Shakespeare and Huxley. What was the platitude of citizens in Huxley’s Brave New World who were above washing the dishes and spoiled by an abundance of material goods, presumably because of advanced technology? “Ending is better than mending.” Mending means more hours spent on chores, and a throwaway culture would rather not do chores—Homemaking 2.0! Overlook for a moment the technophilia, as if the key to domestic happiness is purchasable time-saving devices. Overlook the upside-down belief that the key to good housekeeping is less housekeeping—as if the problem with housekeeping is housekeeping itself! I just want to zoom in on the cold absence of koselig in the idea that happiness is ultimately found outside the home.

Few will admit that they live for work, or money, or power, but almost anyone plucked from the millennial hoards will tell you they want to “change the world.” And the best way they see fit to “make the world a better place” is not firstly through family, but through work, money, and power. And going out for drinks with like-minded friends. And riding a bicycle and recycling. Those who put a priority on the family must be told—or subtly made to understand—that maybe not everyone wants a guitar case full of crushing regrets or to lose sight of “who they really are” in a pile of laundry. The office is a stage for self-dramatization! Self-actualization is to be found primarily in gainful employment! “Who I really am” is always out there, not here (that is, not here at home).

The myth of “domestic captivity” isn’t just for the upwardly mobile. When an acquaintance of mine who is a telemarketer had her first baby she confessed that she just couldn’t wait to get back to work because—well, duh!—she’s a twenty-first century woman! Under the glow of the florescent lights she could be somebody. Besides, if she stayed home, what would she do? And the daycare specialists give her baby better care anyway—they get paid for that kind of thing! Her husband, the child’s father, didn’t seem to mind: perhaps he had caught a glimpse of the woman his wife “really is” when she’s at work, the woman he could never know at home.

Where are the critical thinkers when it comes to the widely held belief that if a woman has a job away from home she can achieve a dignity and self-actualization that no job at home could confer on her? How is becoming a corporate underling an improvement on being a domestic partner? How is becoming a CEO any better than becoming a homemaker? It’s not—unless, of course, you are living for work, and money, and power, and drinks with like-minded friends. Wendell Berry puts it this way:

Why would any woman who would refuse, properly, to take the marital vow of obedience (on the ground, presumably, that subservience to a mere human being is beneath human dignity) then regard as “liberating” a job that puts her under the authority of a boss (man or woman) whose authority specifically requires and expects obedience? …How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to? …How have men improved themselves by submitting to it?

The myth of “domestic captivity” and its mistress, “career as self-actualization,” orients men and women alike toward an ideal of homelessness. Rather than passing on to our children a cultural inheritance and a sense of belonging in a community, and therefore responsibility for that community, we condition them someday to leave home and earn money in a theoretical future that has nothing to do with here and now and everyone around them—and to believe this is their ticket to freedom! “Who I really am” is no longer discernable by the immediate but remains necessarily speculative and mercenary, found primarily in gainful employment.

Today marriage is popularly understood as two successful careerists in the same bed, as Wendell Berry keenly observes. It is an association in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended:

Marriage … has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other. The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple does their consuming.

In the pursuit of freedom (which we mistakenly conflate with autonomy) we have successfully made it possible to be homeless at home. Our kitchens resemble cafeterias, our homes motels. Afraid of losing “who we really are,” we go to great effort to ensure that home will not become a prison of domestic captivity. In the process, we have made the home boring. Its joys are purchasable, perfunctory, and disposable. We hurry through our domestic chores and meals in order to go back to work, or to watch the millionth show on Netflix, or to buy something that will make us feel a little less estranged. We are nostalgic about koselig because, like the home, coziness is by and large a thing of the past.

Keep It Koselig
Have we entered a “brave new world” because of time-saving devices? Is less time doing chores improving the quality of family fellowship? Or could it be that these very devices are in part to blame for the harrowing of the home?

As I describe in Mud and Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred, it was a sorry turn when, as a widespread phenomenon, men began to leave their homes to make their living in the city. Up until the late nineteenth century, most people in Western culture lived on small family farms. For almost all of human history, family and home life were tied to the farm. And on the farm each sex held its own accomplished and satisfying sector in domestic life which the other would honor and respect: for men, tilling crops and machinery maintenance; for women, raising the children and preparing the food. Home was a joint effort. It might have been a hard life, but it was a family life.

Urban industrialism, however, took men away from their homes. For the first time, domestic work was viewed as less progressive and less important than the distant and increasingly specialized world of professionalism. Fatherhood became more abstract. A man was to provide the money, little more. His life and work were no longer in the same place. He lost his coherent role in the family, and has since been struggling to understand himself.

Women also suffered. Marriage and family were no longer the shared life they used to be. Processed foods and laborsaving devices removed much of the art, and much of the dignity, from the woman’s role as mother. She was left at home to manage menial household tasks. Domesticity became dull, something to be outsourced. Even a woman’s role as child-bearer and mother has been taken out of her hands and into those of specialists, often men. Hark! The advertisers are singing! The domestic arts can be traded in for purchasable products so everyone will have more time to sit around. We have been so successful at freeing up time to sit it’s actually killing us, and it will take more than a height-adjustable standing desk to get us on our feet again.

The result of all this has been not only a growing chasm between men and women, not only a diminished view of the home and family, but a loss of koselig. If men had not left the home, women would never have felt restricted to it. And now that both have left, the kids are home alone. No wonder they dream of leaving! Let us put a scissors to all those yarns we weave on morning television and in public schools that respectable work is segregated from the place and people we love—from the home.

What do you live for? Whether we are aware of it or not, every home is a statement put forward. Every domestic arrangement is a premise from which the meaning of life is to be inferred. “The art of koselighet is making your home a place other people want to visit and spend time in,” it has been observed. “In Oslo, that means making sure nobody thinks your house is cold. Ever.” I would suggest the real temperature of a home is not be gauged by a thermostat, but by a question: What do you live for?

Where the Heart Is
What if the Norwegian secret to enjoying a long winter is a hint at the secret to enjoying life? Authentic coziness is not just warm fuzzies and “free time.” Koselig cannot be faked. It takes real relationships and real work.

What if the “drudgery” of housekeeping is not drudgery at all? For if we make husbandry and housewifery a drudgery, then we also make a drudgery of eating and living. We lose the conviviality of one person with other persons, of one member of the family with the whole family. To quote Wendell Berry again, “There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, and pleasing.”

Only someone who cannot distinguish between these kinds of work could boast “66% of our respondents work outside the home.” Only someone who has reduced coziness to pumpkin spice lattes, iTunes playlists, and time-saving devices could argue that in the “real world” a family could never be so cozy. The “real world” might be increasingly commercial, compartmentalized, careerist, and cold—but it doesn’t have to be.

Home and work are not mutually incompatible. The household is not peripheral or antithetical to the economy. The household is the economy (oikonomia, “household management”). The household economy involves work for both husband and wife that involve skills and disciplines unique to husbandry and housewifery—carpentry, gardening, baking, education, hospitality, and soul care.

Deep down, I am convinced, everyone wants koselig, and not the cheap imitations. We long for place, for belonging, for home. True coziness is not simulated, purchased coziness. You can’t buy it, and you can’t get it without work. We are not like baby sharks, and we are not just “social creatures,” we are family creatures. In marriage, we belong to each other, to our children. In family, “mine” is not as meaningful as “ours.”

What self-actualization can be achieved in employment outside the home if it cannot be achieved firstly within the home? What joy is there in working away from the home if there’s no home to leave in the first place? The creation and management of a home is the first priority because the family is first.

You can rearrange the furniture in the conference room, open the meeting with an icebreaker, even light candles, but it’s just not the same. You can redecorate the office and hang pictures of the kids above the desk and wear wool sweaters and drink steamy cups of coffee, but no one is fooled. The real ingredient to koselig—the real ingredient to human happiness—is found first at home. Everything else is just mood lighting and drinks with friends. Home is where the heart is, if your heart is in the right place.


  • Tyler Blanski

    Tyler Blanski, a Catholic convert, is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010).

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