Ode to the Mothers in their Sisyphean Joy

Forgive me, please. I’m about to do what a man is not likely now or ever to be encouraged by prudence to do: I’m going to speak for women. Not all women, mind you. But women nonetheless, which is perilous enough.

Though the women in my life are in fact considerable in number and unparalleled in quality, I recognize I am not in any position to speak as if from them alone I could know “women” generally. So I speak in generalities for the sake of convenience, economy, memory, and force. My generalities hold generally only for what and whom I have particularly known, and I don’t intend for the heuristic banners under which my thoughts march to do any more than help me organize the ranks. If the banners I will use do not also rally your own thoughts for battle, please forgive me. And pity me—a fool who rushed in.

And, one last caveat (“Oh, get on with it, Michael!” I can hear my wife saying.): I may be speaking for the women in my life, as I said, but for means something very specific in this context. I’m speaking only in behalf and not on behalf of them. The women in my life don’t need me to speak in their place, I understand, but it is needful that I speak in their praise, for they know better than most that it is not glory to seek one’s own glory. In the end, I have decided it would be better for me to be known foolish so that they can be known wise. So again and for the last time for now: forgive me, please. I mean well.

Philosophy Class

This past Saturday was the last session of my History of Philosophy class at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. It ran from 8:30 in the morning (a time at which I wouldn’t normally be awake) and ended at 4:30 in the afternoon. I had gone to bed at my normal time the night before (around 2 in the morning), and various deadlines and anxieties had been curtailing my sleep for almost a week before this.

Coupled with this, as I am sure you can imagine (or perhaps you know from experience), seven hours of lecture with a lunch break wedged into it is grueling, but, again additionally, this is a philosophy class, and our last one of the semester.

We sprinted through Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and at the end of the class, at the near peak of my sleep-deprived and philosophy-surfeited haze, we began to tackle Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, which he wrote as an absurdist argument against suicide. Imagine a very compelling argument against killing yourself that makes living more depressing than suicide, and you will have approximated the thrust, though not the worth, of his essay. To the point, Camus likens our life and its interminable search for meaning to the eternal punishment of Sisyphus.

But Who is Sisyphus?

Sisyphus was a human in Greek mythology who vexed the gods greatly because he regularly outwitted them (you could almost say he punked them) in his life. And he outwitted them even in his death, actually.

When Sisyphus was about to die, he instructed his wife, quite solemnly, that she should not bury his body, pay him respects, or follow any of the exacting rules of Greek funereal decorum. Instead, he commanded her to cast his dead body into the city square like so much garbage. She, dutiful wife that she was, did exactly as he asked after he died, to the horror of their neighbors, I am sure.

So Sisyphus, now in the Underworld, pretends to be livid that his memory is being so ill-treated by his widow, and—playing on the manifest chauvinism of the gods—he convinces Hades the maiden-stealer to allow a return journey to the land of the living just this once, so that Sisyphus can rebuke his wife for her insubordination. Otherwise, Sisyphus argues, the whole gods-ordered structure of human society (particularly the submission to authority under the gods) could fall apart.

So Hades allows Sisyphus to go back, but instead of rebuking his wife, Sisyphus beelines it for the beach, drinks in as much life as he can, and refuses to return to the land of the dead. In fact, he must be forcibly dragged back kicking and screaming.

By this point, the gods are so exasperated with him that they devise the most horrible punishment they can imagine for this proud man: he is given an undying compulsion to get a large stone to the top of a medium-sized hill, but before the stone reaches the top of the hill, it always rolls back down. And Sisyphus, with his undying compulsion, must return to the base of the hill and start again. Forever. Meaningless, interminable, cyclical, frustrating sweat of the brow. That is the Sisyphean hell.

And then Camus breaks into the myth and says, “No, this is not hell. This is life.” And yet Camus would have us live this life anyway (and as much of it as possible) as a constant protest against the meaninglessness we know as the only certainty because we should be unwilling in any event to submit ourselves to the ignobility of false resolution. Both the despair of suicide and the hope of faith, say Camus, are two quite similar ways to give up—to be a loser. And giving up is lame, even though life is meaningless.

“Sisyphus” by Friedrich John nach Matthäus Loder

Feminists and Sisyphus

But, as I’m listening in class, it strikes me that the lengths that Camus has had to stretch his reason to recognize the vanity of human endeavor seems a peculiarly male problem. It seems to me that the women in my life have (and even have had), unlike Camus and the other great philosophers, no illusions concerning the reliability of their thoughts or the permanence of their deeds. So I mention this to the professor. And he says that similar points have been made by feminist analysts of the myth and of Camus. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir has this to say:

Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty, and torn again. The housewife wears herself out running on the spot; she does nothing; she only perpetuates the present; she never gains the sense that she is conquering a positive Good, but struggles indefinitely against Evil. It is a struggle that begins again every day.1

And then another feminist critic, Elizabeth Bartlett, folds de Beauvoir back into Camus’s reading of the myth:

Yet when I read de Beauvoir describing housework as “like the torture of Sisyphus,” I also think of Camus’s statement that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” (Myth 91). Sisyphus’s happiness lies in the way he responds to the tediousness, the repetitiveness, of his task. The rock does not crush him. He turns, and goes back down the mountain, ready to begin again.2

But that is the wonder, isn’t it? How do women respond to the tediousness without being crushed? And that some do respond to the tediousness and are not crushed cannot be denied (at least not by me). How have they done it? How do they do it? It amazes me.

Domesticity and Its Discontents

Feminists of a certain sort tend to undermine the value of housewifery as a profession. And other people, right-heartedly perhaps but wrong-headedly, attempt to salvage the masculine utility of domesticity by insisting that a housewife actually does so very many jobs in the home and in fact would have to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year if she were being hired for them—secretary, maid, chauffeur, private chef, baby sitter, etc.

You never hear any of these defenders say prostitute, though, as if the housewife’s companionship and intimacy is just another job the husband pays her for. But if they did go there (like fully actualized Marxists), they might realize how silly the entire comparison is. Putting a price on everything is a peculiarly masculine method of valuation. It means everything can be owned or involves a transaction, and that is comforting to men generally (though the history of monetization has not been all that friendly to women).

But a prudent and competent woman—an excellent wife—is worth more than (really other than) riches (Prov. 31:10). In that sense, she is not able to be owned because she is priceless. Only lesser women (and lesser men, for that matter) have a price.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that domestic labor isn’t worth money. It certainly is, as anyone having to pay for a secretary, maid, chauffeur, private chef, or baby sitter can attest. But that is not the extent or the crux of the worth of a housewife (or a day laborer either, but that’s another topic).

But it’s important to understand that both the feminist critique and the contra-feminist defense of female domesticity generally refuses to adopt any value system but a masculine one. As de Beauvoir intimates above, she thinks domesticity is basically hell. But my wife might respond, “No. Domesticity might be a man’s hell. But it isn’t a woman’s hell. It is my life. I’m very good at it, and it brings me unceasing joy.”

Vanity of Vanities

Besides, what is the alternative? If Camus is right, and he probably is right as far as he is willing to go, the CEO of Apple should have no more confidence about the intrinsic meaning of his life or legacy than the crackhead living for his next hit. Being a housewife is no more intrinsically meaningful than being the President. To say otherwise is to fall into the “masculine” illusion of unified resolution that it took all of Camus’s (and Western philosophy’s) prodigious and dead-eyed lucidity to debunk. Is the escape from domesticity an entrance into the masculine illusion of self-serving glory?

And lest you think I go too far in saying Camus is right as far as he is willing to go, Solomon says as much in Ecclesiastes:

It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. (Ecc. 9:2–3a)

Solomon spent most of his life, tireless energy, and inestimable wisdom and riches to find out what any of the women in his harem could have told him most readily: life is a cyclical and inherently meaningless slog cut short by death. My wife and mother could have told him that without so much trouble.

Domestic Bliss and Sisyphus

So why do they keep going? Camus, and some suspicious feminists, might say that housewives are merely diverting their attention from their Sisyphean hell with all of their interminable labor. After all, it was Sisyphus’s self-aware ability to reflect on his futility as he descended the hill back to his stone that made him an absurdist “hero” in Camus’s eyes.

It would seem that most housewives don’t even have a spare moment to reflect on their condition. And feminists perhaps want to wake them from their domestic slumber. But why? So they can be more consciously miserable in their domesticity? Or so they can forsake their families for the meaningless futility of some other more “prestigious,” more public vanity?

At the same time, I’m sure some women actually are trapped in meaningless and diverted domesticity. But I know my wife and my mother are not. They have reflected on their lives and on their value. I have seen both of them cry in frustration over their unending labors. I have heard both of them weep over the thanklessness of their duties. They are not Stepford wives.

Honestly, I doubt there’s a wife and mother in the world who has not come to grips at some point and to some degree with the futility and vanity of her endeavors. That’s a peculiarly male illusion, remember? Why so many feminists have any desire to adopt and perpetuate it is beyond me.

So: that women should be perfectly aware of the Sisyphean nature of domesticity does not surprise me in the least. What surprises me, what astounds me even, is how these same women who have bitterly wept in frustration in the night should still be frying eggs in the morning with a radiant smile on their faces for every one of their ungrateful little children.

My Attempts at Domesticity

Honestly, I don’t understand it. Last night (after I had thoroughly exhausted my already spent faculties in philosophy class), I baked a chocolate cake (that I’ve made quite successfully before) which I basically ruined this time: I forgot to grease the pans, I over-cooked the cakes, the top layer fell apart in my hands, I made too little icing, I applied the icing before the cake was cool, etc. It was a lop-sided, dense, too-many-crumbs-in-too-little-icing mess of a cake.

Then I had to clean all of my dishes. My mother helped me. I finished emptying the dishwasher, and loaded it. Were we done? No. More dishes from the other sink. Glasses from the table. Cooling racks from the counter. Frying pans full of bacon grease someone had left to calcify on the stovetop. Now all clean. Were we done? No. Wipe the counter. Then sweep the floor. Then run to your bed before you remember anything else. Think about your stupid cake on the way. It’s 3 in the morning. It’s not good enough, but it will have to do.

And this was nothing. My cake wouldn’t meaningfully feed our family for a single meal. And it was worse than my last cake. In my mind, I wished I had never made another cake. If I had only made the one cake, I would have only ever made a good cake. That memory could stand forever. A monument to the fact that I can make a great cake. A permanent success that will last a lifetime, and who knows? Maybe beyond!

I ruined that by making a second cake. The second cake shows that the first was basically an accident of variables beyond my control. It wasn’t really me or even a representation of me in the first place. I made it for my sister, not for myself. It was good for its time, and that is all. There is no permanent success.


But my wife and mother, paragons of grace and forgiveness, never focus on the impermanence of success. They preach the impermanence of failure. “This cake was bad, but you can do better next time,” my wife says. And this is not wishful thinking. It’s true. I will make another cake, and I am thrilled by the opportunity I will have then to fix my mistakes. The domestic life is a redemptive life, and my mother and my wife are matrons of redemption. 

The beauty of their submission to God is that even intrinsically meaningless, cyclical, frustrating, and absurd things can be used to accomplish things of lasting and eternal significance because significance does not depend on us. Meaning and significance depend on God. Solomon didn’t explain the “why” of this, but the concluding upshot of Ecclesiastes is pretty straightforward in the “what”:

The conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. (Ecc. 12:13)

Again, Solomon didn’t need to work so hard to figure this out. He could have just asked his mother.

  1. Simone de Beauvoir,  The Second Sex, (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 474.
  2. Elizabeth Bartlett, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 217n19.

6 responses

  1. Thanks, Michael, for bringing to mind some thoughts and memories I had while reading your article. I list a few here:

    1. Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You.
    I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
    I have no good besides You.”
    As for the saints who are in the earth,
    They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.
    The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied;
    I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood,
    Nor will I take their names upon my lips.

    The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;
    You support my lot.
    The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
    Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.

    I will bless the LORD who has counseled me;
    Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.
    I have set the LORD continually before me;
    Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
    Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
    My flesh also will dwell securely.
    For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
    Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.
    You will make known to me the path of life;
    In Your presence is fullness of joy;
    In Your right hand there are pleasures forever. Psalm 16

    2. When all six of you children were young, we lived in a three story house with two bedrooms and a bath on the top level, a main kitchen/living room level, and a basement, which included Mema’s apartment and the laundry room. One day I collected the mixture of dirty and clean clothes (ones that had been washed and folded but left on the floor to be stepped on and mingled among the soiled ones) from yours and your sister’s bedroom. Then I managed to carry the two stacked laundry baskets full of clothes down the two full flights of stairs to the basement. As I struggled down the hall toward the laundry room, I happily glanced at my mother in her room and thought, “I love my life!” 🙂

    3. Lines from a hymn:
    “In thy wife thou shalt have gladness, she shall fill thy home with good,
    Happy in her loving service and the joys of motherhood.”

    4. One of Wayne Rogers’ funny sayings:
    “‘A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.’ That’s because she never finishes anything.”

    5. I vaguely remember a late 1970’s TV commercial by, I think, a job placement service that encouraged women to leave all the work, drudgery, and unfulfilled life of an exhausted mother and homemaker behind and find a more exciting and meaningful job outside the home. And I thought, “Of course that means that all that work and childcare will not be waiting for somebody to do when we women get home at the end of the workday. It just somehow will take care of itself. ”

    6. What a wonderful reminder that ours is a life of redemption, with each new day bringing with it an opportunity for improvement and success.

  2. I have not yet been a wife or mother, but even just this Mother’s Day, I have heard stories and recalled memories that prove that the way we do these small, mundane, never-ending tasks – how we go about them from day to day – is exactly what inspires our children and builds their character over time. Thus, the task may feel like suffering, and it may indeed feel everlasting, but in some crazy way, it does “produce an eternal weight of glory.”

  3. I’m so glad Rachael Starke retweeted your post. I would hate to have missed it! I struggled so with domesticity in the early days, because I had an Ivy League education and hadn’t yet learned to make a bed or cook a meal.

    But now, 38 years later, I just returned from helping my youngest daughter prepare for her first baby, and was full of joy to cook and clean and set up the nursery and walk the dog — using the skills I had gained through all those years of so called futility.

    Your post is a keeper.

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