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The decline of the family has roots in the demise of the household. While the two realities are intimately connected, they are not identical. The household is a social form, a domestic community; the family, too, is a social unit, but it shades into the purely biological fact of consanguinity. One can be part of a family without being part of its household. This distinction is important if we are to understand and renew family life.

Threats to family life can be characterized in more than one way. There is a great deal of sociological data regarding marital relationships, parental relationships, sibling relationships, and homes broken or disfigured in various ways. My focus here is different. We need to attend to something that most of us have experienced to such an extent that we hardly notice it. This is itself a sign of our situation. Were someone from most any other age in history transported to our time, he would immediately recognize—beyond cosmetic changes—when walking the streets of town, city, or country a striking fact: People do not really live in their homes. Mom and dad are at work. The kids are off to school. And when they return, it’s often with takeout food that gets eaten while each member of the family is looking at his own screen. The bustling little community that was the household—the context in which parents would raise their children to be responsible adults and citizens, even in seriously diseased polities—has practically ceased to exist.

Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father ­usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. This living together can be done in different ways. As the ancients recognized, the polis is a place where we live together. Civic organizations, sports teams, and churches are places of shared life. But it is in the household that nature has done her best to offer us common life. Instinct draws a man and woman together to form a family; the household turns this instinct into an ongoing form of life.

Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.

For Aristotle, the household is a family understood as a community of daily life. The family, the Church, and civil society are true societies. They have a real metaphysical standing because they are intrinsic to the human condition. We are domestic animals, political animals, and religious animals. This means the household, like the Church and civil society, is properly the subject of rights and obligations. Government must respect the rights of parents and recognize the sacred sanctuary of the home. Even more significantly, the household has a rich common good. This common good is not simply some extrinsic good, something that unites the members of the household because they all desire it. Rather, shared action toward that end is itself an intended good, an essential aspect of the success or flourishing of a true society. The family is not together just for the sake of some end; it is together for the sake of being together.

Partnerships—for example, a credit union or most business corporations—are also unities of order, but they have unity in a lesser mode than a true society. Two things make this clear. First, unity of action is not sought as desirable in itself. We might enjoy the common project of building widgets or selling products, but the end of our activity is profit, or some other objective extrinsic to the good of cooperative action itself. Second, the common good that unites the members is merely instrumental to their private gain. We can, for instance, speak of the “common good” of the partners in a purely monetary business venture, but this good is in reality an aggregate of private goods. Again, because we are social animals, our workplaces are often pleasant, cooperative environments. But at some point, if the pay gets too low or the prospects for advancement too dim, we quit. These unities of order are partnerships but not societies in the full sense. They have no common good in the richer, more proper sense of the term, a good that can be shared by many while suffering no diminution. The new law partner can dilute profits. The newborn child subtracts nothing from the good of family life.

Russell Hittinger emphasizes united action as an end in itself in his account of societies as opposed to partnerships: “A society does not just aim at a common objective, but intends to have it brought about by united action. Think, for example, of a family, a faculty, a crew-team, or an orchestra. In each case, the reason for action includes the good of common action.” To be sure, each of these societies seeks extrinsic goods. But the failure to achieve that good does not constitute reason for dissolution, as it probably would in a partnership. For a true society, united action of the members is itself a constitutive element of the perfection of the community, and a reason for its very existence. The losing team strives to get better and the orchestra to play more difficult pieces. The troubled family seeks greater harmony. And it is the striving and seeking itself that is part of the good enjoyed.

This is perhaps most easily illustrated by a few snapshots of a family or household. Parents and children in the kitchen preparing a meal. A parent teaching a child to read. A family sing-along, or a hike in the woods. Family members working in the garden, or constructing a shed together.

None of these actions in themselves constitute the true end of the family or household. A household is not a cooking class or hiking club. The activities should be understood as ordered to a more ultimate end, such as sustaining life and passing on human goods to the next generation. At the same time, each of these actions expresses and reinforces corporate unity, which is a great good in itself. The father bonds with his progeny. The mother knits her life together with those of her children.

This cannot be said of hired hands constructing a shed together. They may take pride in their work, but their fellowship, if indeed they have it, is superadded, not intrinsic. Two workmen whose skills are well matched but who share nothing of themselves with each other may make a great team. But they do not make a society. Shared activities between parents and children, by contrast, have an intrinsic valence toward greater union of persons, even if those activities produce meager results. One must walk slowly with young children, which often means forgoing distant destinations and ambitious hikes. But what is lost in achievement is gained in communion.

The shared activities of the members of a household are thus themselves common goods of the ­household, and they are perhaps the most primal archetype of unity in action that is desirable in itself. It is not for everyone to serve in civic organizations, or even to enter into corporate worship. But for most of human history, domestic life—the household—has been the primordial experience of shared life ordered toward a common good. Family activities—be they work or leisure—represent a way of being united that, at least in kind, is an essential constituent of human flourishing and happiness.

Here we have perhaps the foundational lesson of home life: what it means, and what it feels like, to be a member of a social unity of order. When we worry about the social implications of divorce, single parenting, and cohabitation, we are not simply moralizing. We intuitively recognize that fewer and fewer of our fellow citizens experience life as members of a ­society, life ordered toward a common good. Our culture today does not suffer from a loss of consanguinity. People know who their fathers and mothers are, and they know the names of their siblings. In that sense, we still have families. But more and more we lack households, ongoing domestic communities of parents and children in which a shared life is experienced. This loss debilitates us morally, spiritually, and politically.

For this reason, we need to be especially attentive to the distinction between family and household. The notion of household (in Latin domus, Greek oikos) picks out a “family” precisely inasmuch as it is a social unity of order. This allows us to see that the household can, and historically often did, include persons who are not members of the nuclear family. The term “family,” at least in English, does not highlight the societal aspect of this community. In common usage, my brothers and sisters and I are still parts of one family, even while we now have families of our own. We are not, however, still parts of one household; we are each members of different households. There is no problem, given common usage of the term “family,” in saying that I belong to two families at once, that of my wife and children, and that of my parents and siblings. There is a problem, however, in saying that I belong to two households at once. Why? Because a household refers to a society of daily living. I cannot both live with my family of origin and start a new household. “For this reason a man leaves his father and mother . . .” 

When I left my parents, I did not say, “I am leaving your family.” I did say, even if not in words, “I am leaving your household.”

Why does this distinction matter? It is because in failing to see the difference, we often fail to see what we have lost, which is less a matter of conjugal union, children, or even marital faithfulness, but more a loss of shared life in a household, the unity in action that anchors our everyday lives. The fact that we do not think in terms of households is part and parcel of having lost a sense of the nature of family life.

When we think of a family today, or even a home, we do not think of a real community characterized by substantial daily common action. Rather than a community woven together by common actions toward common ends, we have a kind of home base, a staging area in which to rest and refuel for remote daily activities. We should by all means attend to the sad realities of broken families. But too often, even married couples with children fail to live as a household. The work of repair and renewal is often needed among religiously committed couples faithful to their marriage vows but swept up into our highly ­individualistic, accomplishment-oriented culture.

We must begin by reckoning with human nature, for the household emerges out of the natural inclinations that draw men and women together. The philosophical and theological traditions, including Sacred Scripture itself, identify the natural differentiation between man and woman as crucial for common flourishing in the household. In The Estate Manager (Oikonomikos) Xenophon offers a powerful statement of this view: “I think that the gods exercised especially acute discernment in establishing the particular pairing called male and female, to ensure that, when the partners cooperate, such a pair may be of the utmost mutual benefit.” Xenophon gives three reasons why this pairing is naturally beneficial. First, it serves procreation; second, it provides that people will have support in their old age. The third reason, which he explains at greater length, is that man and woman are suited to different tasks in the work of the oikos, the household.

Noting that nature gave man and woman equal shares of “memory” and “awareness,” as well as “the ability to be suitably responsible,” Xenophon nonetheless suggests that nature has fitted man for “outside” work, woman for “inside” work. While these terms might mark a physical separation, the two works are essentially linked to each other as codependent principles of one reality: the household. Xenophon concludes: “In so far as the two sexes have different natural talents, their need for each other is greater and their pairing is mutually more beneficial, because the one has the abilities the other lacks.” This succinctly sets out what the Western tradition has held to be not only a matter of common sense, but a divine gift. And the place that man and woman first discover this divine gift is in making a household together.

Where does this leave us regarding life in the household? This is a vexed question in twenty-first-century America. Working-class families often face economic pressures that require mothers to work outside the home. Among the more educated ­classes, women are trained for professional life. This socialization can make it very difficult for women to ­reorient their priorities and sense of self toward “inside” work. Similarly, while a man’s work in the ancient model was “outside” but still usually intrinsic to household life, today his work is tenuously linked to home by a salary.

Where the old model had a distinction between inside and outside work, as two principles of one project, today there is a separation between a man and woman’s work—from each other and from the home. As a result, men, women, and children are deprived of the most natural context for shared work.

There is no single solution here. But for starters, we must see the labor of men and women—in both reproduction and production—as belonging by nature first of all to the household. It is no coincidence that in the last century, the rejection of a natural difference between man and woman has coincided with the decline of the household—the community within which that difference most finds its place. The demands of the market economy are powerful. We debilitate ourselves if we entertain fantasies that men and women will simply adapt themselves to a reasonable division of working within and outside the home, when common practice and economic pressures dictate otherwise. The upshot of this way of thinking almost always shortchanges the household, as now women imitate the orientation of men toward the workplace far more often than men imitate the female orientation toward family life.

Religious conservatives tend to adopt traditional attitudes toward the family, while at the same time accepting as given the removal of economic production from the household. Again, there is no ob­vious solution here. Economic realities run against old-­fashioned cottage industries and long ago eclipsed the small family farm as the model of domestic life. Never­theless, we must address a key question: In view of the household as a society of daily life, wherein people should experience what it means to live together, is the work of reproduction (as understood today) sufficient to constitute the life of a household? Can the “work” within the household really just consist in the various aspects of raising children, while what we call economic work (an ironic turn, given that oikos, the root of “economic,” refers to the household) is done almost exclusively outside of the household?

In this regard, men perhaps face the greater challenge. Although many women have entered the workforce fairly recently, since the Industrial Revolution, men have worked well beyond the confines of the household. They have been socialized to see “work” as distinct from “home.” As a consequence, husbands and fathers face a dramatic and pressing need to develop habits that reinvigorate the life of the household. Men need to think about how to orient their families around common projects and enterprises. These need not be profit-making, but they must be purposive and “productive.” It can be gardening or home improvement. Or it can be charitable projects or civic engagement. Whatever form it takes, there is no substitute for the shoulder-to-shoulder unity of the family doing work together.

A man and woman start a life together for the sake of starting a family. Raising children certainly entails a significant amount of activity, and this activity especially characterizes the life of the family society. It is no surprise that homes in which parents are raising children tend to be the homes with the most activity in them.

But raising children is not a stand-alone activity. In fact, insofar as it becomes a stand-alone activity, child-rearing becomes impoverished and less effective. In traditional households, the primary stuff of day-to-day life was the work of providing for ­material needs. Such work was the first and most natural context for the personal formation of children. Of course, as children grew older, uniquely “educational activities” were introduced—usually in the form of academic work. It goes without saying, however, that academic education was always ancillary to a more fundamental human formation.

Human formation begins with certain ordinary functions of daily life. Wherever there is life, there is laundry, and dust, and dishes. These chores can provide a regular opportunity for members to work together for the sake of the household. Another interesting aspect of these ordinary functions is that they require us to be at home. The robot Roomba notwithstanding, you still have to be physically present to do the dishes or make a bed.

Yet beyond the host of things, animate and inanimate, that need to be tidied, scrubbed, or mended, human life has more basic needs that always call for attention and so offer context for shared life. These needs seem to cluster around bodily nourishment. These especially can be the salvation of the household. Mouths always need to be fed, so food must be produced, prepared, and served. Of these three stages, the first can be done again, to some real extent, and with great effect, in more households. The movement toward local production of food can be harnessed as a means of revitalizing life in many homes. Two generations ago, victory gardens became commonplace across the nation in service of the war effort. Perhaps today they might be cultivated for an even more primal cause.

But it is in the second and third stages of getting people fed that we all can have the context for joyous, rich, daily shared life. Food preparation is an art available to all and useful to all. Even in its tedious, indeed relentless character, there is something here in which people always have and always can come together. Who among us doesn’t have images of Grandma in the kitchen? It’s as though that wooden spoon was an appendage to her arm. She might not have spoken many words that we remember, but we can still taste that food. And we remember how those times felt, and we feel that love again.

In view of the binding power of good work, all ages can be invited to join the labor. Not everyone can make potatoes au gratin, but everyone can peel potatoes. Each of us has a place at the counter, if indeed there is something being done there.

And then of course there is eating together. Our place at table is where we receive our portion of the humanity we share. Sitting in that chair, I know I am a full citizen of this community, as I feed upon the common store of human sustenance of every kind. God is thanked and praised; humans are thanked and praised. And then we listen and we speak, each according to his place. A person who belongs here is a person who belongs. A person who lives here is a person who is alive and will never be alone.

How the old folks at table talked and talked. It was as though there were no tomorrow, nor even the problems of the day. God only knows what they talked about. But we can talk again, and we can live again, together—right in that place nature has offered us, our home. 

John Cuddeback is professor and chairman of philosophy at Christendom College.