Family Work

This is a repost. I wrote it in 2017.

Kathleen Slaugh Bahr, a BYU Associate Professor of Family Life, helped my thinking tremendously  when I heard her speak in 2000, at BYU Campus Education Week. I was going to publish the link so you could read the whole article and I still will, but I am going to put the whole essay on this blog because it is that good and helped me realize the value of a mother working alongside her children, when I heard it, read it and reread it many times, back in the day. It helped me feel so concrete about my role as a mother. Her words (and her co-author’s) helped me realize how important work was for the bonding of my family. The work  and skills learned were also a critical component, but the closeness that came from working together  has made all the effort worth it. Now 17 years later, after so much Familywork (I have made it a compound word and I also have  capitalized it, because it was that important to me.) with my children, everything she says is so, so true. I am grateful that she helped me in my younger years so, so much.

By Kathleen Slaugh Bahr and Cheri A. Loveless

family working drawing

“I grew up in a little town in Northern Utah, the oldest daughter in a family of 13 children. We lived on a small two-and-a-half-acre farm with a large garden, fruit trees, and a milk cow. We children loved helping our dad plant the garden, following behind him like little quail as he cut the furrow with his hoe and we dropped in the seeds. Weeding was less exciting, but it had to be done. I was never very good at milking the cow. Fortunately, my brothers shared that task.

“In the autumn, we all helped with the harvest. I especially loved picking and bottling the fruit. It required the hands of all 13 of us plus Mom and Dad. We children swarmed through the trees picking the fruit. My dad would fire up an old camp stove where we heated the water to scald the fruit. My mother supervised putting the fruit in jars, adding the sugar, putting on the lids. My youngest sister remembers feeling very important because she had hands small enough to turn the peach halves if they fell into the jars upside down–and they usually did. When the harvest was complete, I loved looking at the freezer full of vegetables and all the jars of fruit. They looked like jewels to me.

“Caring for our large family kept all of us busy most of the time. Mother was the overseer of the inside work, and Dad the outside, but I also remember seeing my father sweep floors, wash dishes, and cook meals when his help was needed. As children we often worked together, but not all at the same task. While we worked we talked, sang, quarreled, made good memories, and learned what it meant to be family members, good sons or daughters and fathers or mothers, good Americans, good Christians.

washing windows cartoon

“As a young child, I didn’t know there was anything unusual about this life. My father and mother read us stories about their parents and grandparents, and it was clear that both my father and mother had worked hard as children. Working hard was what families did, what they always had done. Their work was “family work,” the everyday, ordinary, hands-on labor of sustaining life that cannot be ignored–feeding one another, clothing one another, cleaning and beautifying ourselves and our surroundings. It included caring for the sick and tending to the tasks of daily life for those who could not do it for themselves. It was through this shared work that we showed our love and respect for each other–and work was also the way we learned to love and respect each other.

“When I went to graduate school, I learned that not everyone considered this pattern of family life ideal. At the university, much of what I read and heard belittled family work. Feminist historians reminded us students that men had long been liberated from farm and family work; now women were also to be liberated. One professor taught that assigning the tasks of nurturing children primarily to women was the root of women’s oppression. I was told that women must be liberated from these onerous family tasks so that they might be free to work for money.’

“Today many social and political forces continue the devaluation of family work, encouraging the belief that family work is the province of the exploited and the powerless. Chief among these forces is the idea that because money is power, one’s salary is the true indication of one’s worth. Another is that the important work of the world is visible and takes place in the public sphere–in offices, factories, and government buildings. According to this ideology, if one wants to make a difference in the world, one must do it through participation in the world of paid work.

“Some have tried to convince us of the importance of family work by calling attention to its economic value, declaring, as in one recent study, that a stay-at-home mom’s work is worth more than half a million dollars.1 But I believe assigning economic value to household work does not translate into an increase in its status or power. In fact, devaluing family work to its mere market equivalent may even have the opposite effect. People who see the value of family work only in terms of the economic value of processes that yield measurable products–washed dishes, baked bread, swept floors, clothed children–miss what some call the “invisible household production” that occurs at the same time, but which is, in fact, more important to family-building and character development than the economic products. Here lies the real power of family work–its potential to transform lives, to forge strong families, to build strong communities. It is the power to quietly, effectively urge hearts and minds toward a oneness known only in Zion.”

1. Study by Edelman Financial Services, May 5, 1999, (see

Next post, continuing “Family Work” with “Back to Eden” by  Kathleen Slaugh Bahr and Cheri A. Loveless Continuing the Family Work article in BYU Magazine, Spring 2000.

Pictures also from BYU magazine.

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