If there is one thing I have learned, it is that there is a Chesterton quote for every occasion. But Chesterton's wit and wisdom especially come through when he is addressing home and family life. A collection of his essays entitled Brave New Family is a very jovial look at family life and a storehouse of insight. His praise for home, especially as the domain of the woman, is unequaled. His expose of the folly of anti-biblical family patterns is winsome and compelling. Time and time again, he uncovered the foolishness of feminist and egalitarian practices, though in his day they were only in their infancy. His wit was disarming and engaging, even when he carving an ideological opponent up. Here we will look at some of his gems, with a few comments along the way.
The challenges and excitement of home life are rarely matched in the working world. And very few tasks are of such momentous importance:
Nothing is so important as training the rising generation. Nothing is really important except the rising generation. They tell us this over and over again, with slight variations of the same formula, and never seem to see what it involves. For if there be any word of truth in all this talk about the education of the child, then there is certainly nothing but nonsense in nine-tenths of the talk about the emancipation for the woman. If education is the highest function in the State, why should anybody want to be emancipated from the highest function in the State? It is as if we talked of commuting the sentence that condemned a man to be President of the United States; or a reprieve coming in time to save him from being Pope. If education is the largest thing in the world, what is the sense of talking about a woman being liberated form the largest thing in the world? It is as if we were to rescue her from the cruel doom of being a poet like Shakespeare; or to pity the limitations of an all-round artist like Leonardo da Vinci. Nor can there be any doubt that there is truth in this claim for education. Only precisely the sort of which it is particularly true is the sort called domestic education. Private education really is universal, Public education can be comparatively narrow. It would really be an exaggeration to say that the schoolmaster who takes his pupils in freehand drawing is training them in all the uses of freedom. It would really be fantastic to say that the harmless foreigner who instructs a class in French or German is talking with all the tongues of men and angels. But the mother dealing with her own daughters in her own home does literally have to deal with all forms of freedom, because she has to deal with all sides of a single human soul. She is obliged, if not to talk with the tongues of men and angels, at least to decide how much she shall talk about angels and how much about men.
If children and education are important (and who doubts that?) it makes no sense to devalue motherhood, or privilege working moms over stay-at-home moms:
We cannot insist that the first years of infancy are of supreme importance, and that mothers are not of supreme importance, or that motherhood is a topic of sufficient interest for men, but not of sufficient interest for mothers. Every word that is said about the tremendous importance of trivial nursery habits goes to prove that being a nurse is not trivial. All tends to the return of the simple truth that the private work is the great one and the public work the small. The human house is a paradox, for it is larger inside than out . . .
Parents have more at stake in how their little ones are raised than teachers do:
In another small way there is something of illusion, or of irresponsibility, about the purely public function, especially in the case of public education. The educationist generally deals with only one section of the pupil’s mind. But he always deals with one section of the pupil’s life. The parent has to deal with, not only with the whole of the child’s character, but also with the whole of the child’s career. The teacher sows the seed, but the parent reaps as well as sows. The schoolmaster sees more children, but it is not clear that he sees more childhood; certainly he sees less youth and no maturity. The number of little girls who take prussic acid is necessarily small. The boys who hang themselves on bedposts, after a life of crime, are generally the minority. But the parent has to envisage the whole life of the individual, and not merely the school life of the scholar. It is not probable that the parent will exactly anticipate crime and prussic acid as the crown of the infant’s career. But he will anticipate hearing of the crime if it is committed: he will probably be told of the suicide if it takes place. It is quite doubtful whether the schoolmaster or schoolmistress will ever hear of it at all. Everybody knows that teachers have a harassing and often heroic task, but it is not unfair to them to remember that in this sense they have an exceptionally happy task. The cynic would say that the teacher is happy in never seeing the result of his own teaching. I prefer to confine myself to saying that he has not the extra worry of having to estimate it from the other end. The teacher is seldom in at the death. To take a milder theatrical metaphor, he is seldom there on the night. But this is only one of the many instances of the same truth; that what is called public life is not larger than private life, but smaller. What we call public life is a fragmentary affair of sections and seasons and impressions; it is only in private life that dwells the fullness of our life bodily.
Home life is wonderful because one gets to work with people – indeed, the very people one loves the most! Motherhood must be regarded as among the most rewarding of professions.
Chesterton called the called family life the “wildness of domesticity.” He pointed out how a complementarian pattern of role relationships turned the family into a smoothly functioning organism, as husband and wife live off of one another. It is our wealth and materialism that have made family life seem boring and unattractive:
For instance there is a plutocratic assumption behind the phrase ‘Why should woman be economically dependent upon man?’ The answer is that among poor and practical people she isn’t; except in the sense in which he is dependent upon her. A hunter has to tear his clothes; there must be somebody to mend them. A fisher has to catch his fish; there must be somebody to cook them. It is surely quite clear that this modern notion that woman is mere ‘pretty clinging parasite,’ ‘a plaything,’ etc., arose through the sombre contemplation of some rich banking family, in which the banker at least went to the city and pretended to do something, while the banker’s wife went to the Park and did not pretend to do anything at all. A poor man and his wife are a business partnership. If one partner in a firm of publishers interviews the authors while the other interviews the clerks, is one of them economically dependent? Was Hodder a pretty parasite clinging to Stoughton? Was Marshall a mere plaything for Snelgrove? But of all the modern notions generated by mere wealth the worst is this: the notion that domesticity is dull and tame. Inside the home (they say) is dead decorum and routine; outside is venture and variety. This indeed is a rich man’s opinion. The rich man knows that his own house moves on vast and soundless wheels of wealth: is run by regiments of servants, by a swift and silent ritual. On the other hand, every sort of vagabondage or romance is open up to him in the streets outside. He has plenty of money and can afford to be a tramp. His wildest adventures will end in a restaurant, while the yokel’s tamest adventure may end in a police-court. If he smashes a window he can pay for it: if he smashes a man he can pension him. He can (like the millionaire in the story) buy a hotel to get a glass of gin. And because he, the luxurious man, dictates the tone of nearly all ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ thought, we have almost forgotten what a home really means to the overwhelming millions of mankind. For the truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay it is the only place of anarchy.
Wealthy families, perhaps, have to work harder to maintain the wildness of domesticity. For the poor, it’s there all along, provided they commit to making the family work. In other words, women’s emancipation has simply produced a new form of slavery. The feminist agenda has not delivered on its promises; it’s been hawking damaged goods. For some reason though, many keep buying it up. Again, on the foolishness of feminism, Chesterton’s analysis can’t be beat. Feminism generates myths which run counter to reality:
Some of us (who cannot be called conservative in the sense of content with social conditions, and who have even been called revolutionary for out attempts to improve those conditions) have nevertheless come to have a profound suspicion of what is called progress. And the reason is this: that there does not seem to be a principle, but only principles, of Progress. There is not a stream, but a sort of eddy or whirlpool. There could not be a stronger case than this particular ideal of Independence. It is not made the principle of social reform. Even the social reformers would be the first to say that they depend on dependence; on the mutual dependence of comrades and fellow citizens, as distinct from the individualistic independence they would denounce as mere isolation. It is not made the ideal of the proletarian or wage earner, either by the Communist or the Capitalist system. Both the Communistic and Capitalist are alike in not thinking of the individual worker as independent. They will discuss whether he is well paid, whether he is well treated, whether he works in good or bad conditions, whether he is dependent on a good or bad business or a good or bad government; but not whether he is independent. Independence is not made the ideal of the normal man. It is only suddenly and abruptly introduced in one particular relation, in the case of the exceptional woman. She is only independent of her husband, not independent in any other real relation of life. She is only independent of the home-and not of the workshop of the world. And it is supremely characteristic of this confusion that one well-meaning individual should make a yet finer distinction, and resolve to be independent in the dressing room, but not in the dining room . . . She is independent of the breadwinner, but not of the bank or the employer - not to mention the moneylender . . . It is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they serve their husbands . . . They [these ‘liberated’ women] would rather provide the liveries of a hundred footmen than be bothered with the love-affairs of one. They would rather take the salutes of a hundred soldiers than try to save the soul of one. They would rather serve out income-tax papers or telegraph forms to a hundred men than meals, conversation, and moral support to one. They would rather arrange the educational course in history or geography, or correct the examination papers in algebra or trigonometry, for a hundred children, than struggle with the whole human character of one. For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons…But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean . . . To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays: to be Whitley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will not pity her for its smallness . . . .
Chesterton, no doubt, is overly romantic about the family and domestic life. Some of his views may seem a bit extreme. But then again, he was dealing with extremists! He understood that feminism stems from, and breeds, chauvinism. His enthusiasm and praise for the home, especially the maternal and wifely role of the woman, must be emphasized today as perhaps never before. He smashes to pieces the foolish worldview of modernist egalitarianism and points us to ancient Christian wisdom that is sadly lacking in today’s church. We must ask: Why are we tempted to forsake our biblically-shaped heritage in this vital area of family life? Why are we embarrassed by our tradition’s nearly universal practice? Do we really believe modern, egalitarian families are happier or experience a greater quality of life than traditional families? We would do well to heed Chesterton's counsel in this area.