In the American classic Little Women, Louisa May Alcott writes:
In France, the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la liberte‘ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into a seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over …”
It’s a comic passage that introduces a comic chapter in which the oldest March daughter, Meg, learns to broaden her interests beyond her babies — primarily for the sake of her marriage, but also for the sake of her sanity — following this advice from her beloved Marmee:
Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”
In the process, Meg discovers that age-old key to personal, marital and maternal happiness — balance. Alcott concludes the chapter:
This is the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be laid, safe from the restless fret and fever of the world, finding loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who cling to them, undaunted by sorrow, poverty, or age; walking side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend, who is, in the true sense of the good old Saxon word, the “house-band,” and learning, as Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.”
Long before I was married or had children of my own, this chapter — “On the Shelf” — resonated with me. It corresponded with my deep-seated desire to live my life in relationship with others — specifically through marriage and motherhood — even as it affirmed that a rich interior life is necessary to be able to form lasting, meaningful relationships and to keep sacred commitments.
It assumed that human activity — both in and out of the home — has as one of its more important aims a peaceful, orderly, happy domestic existence and didn’t fall for the delusion that “real” life occurs outside of the home. (After all, what could be more real than the drama of birth, death and all the growth in between, which ultimately have as their traditional setting the home?) Instead, it asserted that public life is at the service of private life (” … it all affects you and yours.”).
Perhaps most appealingly, it illuminated that “the domestic arts” encompass so much more than cooking and cleaning. Indeed, the most important of the domestic arts is the art of relating to the other members of the family.
In short, “On the Shelf” upheld the Aristotelian notion of oikonomia — the art of ruling or ordering a household — as an endeavor worthy of both man’s and woman’s time and energy, intellect and affections.
It’s my hope that this blog will do the same, as I explore a wide range of topics that relate to the marital and maternal vocation, from those mainstays of cooking and cleaning to the public affairs of politics and religion.
Why “On This Shelf” instead of “On the Shelf,” as the relevant chapter is named? “On the Shelf” was taken, naturally. It’s also a way to distinguish that my vocation is not just to marriage and motherhood generally, but to marriage with this man and to motherhood of these children.
To learn more about me, that man and those children, click here.