Last week, I went through my to-do list on Instagram using a Victorian-era strategy.
The idea comes from a chapter titled, “Comfort for the Discouraged Housekeeper.” It’s the last chapter in an updated version of The American Woman’s Home called Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, and in it, Catherine Beecher tells those of us who feel discouraged exactly what to do when we feel overwhelmed by homemaking:
- Make a list of everything that needs to be done in your home—every last thing.
- Cross off anything you cannot do.
- Select a few things you can do really well—”exactly as they need to be done.”
- Select a few more that you will do as best you can, and that you will keep trying to do until you improve.
- Accept that everything else will either happen or it won’t,
“…until you get more time, strength, and experience, to increase the list of things that you determine shall always be well done.”Catherine Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, p. 461
Why did I feel the need to work through this exercise?
I started this experiment with all the optimism in the world, confident that focusing on homemaking was just what I needed to infuse my life with a sense of safety. I was sure that pursuing a goal I cared about so much would automatically make me successful. This goal wouldn’t be like any other goal I had tried and failed at in the past. Pursuing something that really matters—for me, for my family, for my purpose in life—would certainly be so motivating it would feel easy. Right?
Here’s the thing: what makes us feel safe is not always what feels easy. And if we reduce “safe” to “easy,” or “comfortable,” or any other state of being that doesn’t require us to ever do anything difficult, we do ourselves and our families a great disservice.
There’s a theme in Catherine Beecher’s writing that comes up over and over again, and it’s not a theme our 21st-century ears are used to hearing: self-denial. Beecher believed that the chief characteristic of the family was the self-sacrificing devotion the older and stronger members showed to the weaker. Self-denial, in her view, was the primary means by which parents raised children who were healthy, hardworking, and kind.
She’s not wrong.
Every parent of an infant practices self-denial. As Beecher points out, infants provide no practical value to their parents. They do not work, do not provide conversation, do not contribute anything that, by objective standards, we would consider “useful”. Yet the parents of the infant serve her, meeting her most basic needs at the expense of their own sleep and self-interest. They set aside what they “feel like” doing, prioritizing instead the wellbeing of this small, helpless person because they love her—because, “troublesome” as she may be, they know she matters.
We sacrifice for what matters.
It’s easy to understand self-denial when we’re talking about a baby’s immediate needs. Of course we would set aside our desire to sleep if a child needs to be fed or changed. We’re all aware that giving up a full night’s sleep is just one of the necessary sacrifices of parenthood, especially in those early days. Commitment to the child’s best interests is part of the deal; this seems obvious to us.
But what about the less tangible aspects of family life, of home life? What about the cultivation of an atmosphere of serenity, of safety? Do we accept the inevitability of sacrifice when it’s not in response to an immediate need like hunger or a wet diaper?
What about the cultivation of that environment when it’s not about an infant? What about creating that environment for ourselves, for our spouses? Are we willing to sacrifice for that? Do we acknowledge that this matters, too?
The thing we have to accept is that everything worth pursuing requires some element of sacrifice. Do you want to become a doctor? Great; now you need to get through medical school, and to do that you need to set aside a lot of things you want to do—things like sleeping in and having all your weekends free—to pursue something you’ve decided is more important. Do you want to buy a house? Fantastic; now you need to say no to buying things you want but don’t need, because you’re saving your money for the more important purchase: a house.
Do you want to create a home that feels safe? A home that equips the people in it to fulfill a purpose that goes beyond their own lives?
Then a certain amount of sacrifice will be required.
Where Sacrifice Meets Safety
This is a hard balance to strike.
I crave safety because the world feels unsafe. Safety matters, and it matters enough to sacrifice for.
But if I now become a taskmaster, driving myself to achieve, achieve more, do, do better, be the best, be better than that, then I destroy whatever sense of safety I’ve managed to establish so far.
I make self-discipline my master instead of my tool. And instead of homemaking being a path to safety, I turn it into another threat.
That’s why I sorted my to-do list the way Miss Beecher’s book instructed me. That’s why Beecher recommends doing this exercise in the first place—because perfectionism turns our homes into workhouses instead of safe havens. And the harder we push ourselves to attain an impossible ideal, the more tightly we cling to whatever fleeting illusion of safety we manage to grasp hold of, seeking comfort in things that numb our pain rather than soothing it.
Self-sacrifice is necessary. But sacrifice without purpose is just an act of senseless cruelty we inflict on our already wounded psyches. It doesn’t lead to safety or to peace or to any of the things that really matter.
Today, I’m repurposing Catherine Beecher’s to-do list method with my purpose in mind. If you, like me, are overwhelmed with the state of the world and with the state of your home—if you long to make your home a place of safety but can’t seem to figure out how to begin without immediately burning out—I invite you to try this along with me.
- Walk through your home and take note of anything that needs to be done. Daily chores, weekly, monthly. Projects you’ve been meaning to do. Things that annoy you in your home that you haven’t found the time to remedy. Make your list.
- Which of these things, if done, will make you or your family feel safe, calm, at peace? Which things, if left undone, make you feel anxious, tense, on edge? Highlight or circle them.
- Of the things you selected—the things that contribute to safety and calm—which can you do “exactly as they need to be done”? Which matter the most? Which are you confident you know how to do?
- Which can you “persevere in having done as well as they can be done”? Beecher cautions us to be sure we select only as many as we’re sure we can try. If you’re not sure, leave it off the list.
- This is the hardest part: “make up your mind that all the rest must go along as they do” until you’re able to add to the list of things you’ve chosen to do well.
I’ll admit, this part is hard for me. I want to do everything, I want to do it well, and I want to do it now. But I’ve committed to follow Catherine Beecher’s advice, and her advice is to start small and to take my time.
“Many housekeepers fail entirely by expecting to do every thing well at first, when neither their knowledge or strength is adequate, and so they fail everywhere, and finally give up in despair.”Catherine Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, p. 461
Here’s why this exercise matters.
Building a home that feels safe is not always going to feel easy. Like everything that truly matters, it’s going to require some sacrifice on my part, some self-denial.
And self-denial is hard.
But if I’m going to push myself to do hard things—if I’m going to require sacrifice, a setting aside of what I want to do in favor of what matters more—my sacrifice has to mean something. It can’t be a random stab at a perfectionistic ideal that doesn’t, ultimately, contribute to my overall purpose.
Self-denial can be kind—but only when it’s in service of what matters most.
The fact of the matter is this: I’m not always going to feel like doing the things that will, ultimately, make me feel safe. And when those moments come—the moments when what I want right now conflicts with what I really need—I need to know that every task on my list is worth sacrificing for.
I, the perfectionist, who am still so very imperfect at showing myself kindness, need something to tell me when to power through and when to stop and rest. When to keep trying, and when to let go.
I need a way of knowing when self-denial is kind—kind because it moves me toward something that matters more than what I want in this moment—and when it becomes cruel, exacting a level of excellence that doesn’t really matter, at least not right now.
As counterintuitive as it feels to leave so many things undone, my purposely incomplete list makes success—and safety—possible. Yes, things that matter require self-denial. But not for everything, and not all the time, and never beyond what I’m able to do with the time and energy I have right now.
“…it is never your duty to do any thing more than you can, or in any better manner than the best you can. And whenever you have done the best you can, you have done well; and it is all that man should require, and certainly all that your heavenly Father does require.”Catherine Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, p. 461
These days we’re living in—they’re hard. They take their toll on us. We have to acknowledge that we can’t do it all, and we certainly can’t do it all well.
But we can choose what matters. We can choose what matters most.
And we can choose to sacrifice to do those few things well.
Because the reality is that we’re going to sacrifice something. We can sacrifice our desire to do what’s easy, our impulse to avoid what’s hard both outside our homes and within them.
Or we can sacrifice meaningful safety.
We can choose self-denial, and sacrifice our comfort for a moment—
—or we can choose what’s easy, and sacrifice what matters most.
“Safe” might not mean “easy”—
—but “hard” can still mean kind.