By vocation, I am family man. In my professional life, I am a teacher. My wife, with a steady history of paid labor and even more hours dedicated to humanitarian causes, does much of her work outside the home. But as the needs of family have pulled us and the workaday world has pushed us, our lives gravitate ever closer to home, where we are repeatedly called to fulfill practical needs, adjudicate conflicts, soothe emotions, remedy pain, and instruct. In this respect, family life is busy.

On occasion, our home resembles the caricature popular in American of family life as a source of exhaustion. And, even when it doesn’t, people without children occasionally remind us. All the same, there are rich rewards in responding to the call of family life. Parents take joy in their children’s affection, their naïve creativity, and the happiness their virtues bring when practiced. Family breeds respect for the sacrifices of our ancestors and presents hope for a future that exists beyond our days.[1]

This essay will focus on the idea of poeisis, from the Greek, which refers to the act of “making.” Commonly, we associate poetics with aesthetic creation. The root of “poetry,” it describes transformative, inspired creativity. In language arts, it lends our words greater depth, expanded resonance, and even new meanings. Poeisis is distinguished from techne, also Greek for “making,” which is reserved for practical production, the root of “technology.” Here, we aim to talk about the poetics of the family—not as biological production, but a source of cultural production and creative resistance to a world that would define us in terms of our economic value.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau introduces a notion of poetics as “Walking in the City.” De Certeau, responding to social critics who conceive of the mundane lives of common people as dull and oppressed, finds creativity in the masses. Though everyday modern life is framed by top-down organization, mandates, and obligations (which he calls “strategies”), underneath are countless popular interventions (“tactics”) that express creativity, pleasure, and resistance. Everyday people are “poachers,” making meaning and expressing their own spirit against the backdrop of worldly power. He writes:

The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. (103)

As authorities dictate rules, schedules, and norms, we create “wiggle room” to make daily life habitable. We pause for conversations during tasks, use restrooms or cigarette breaks to share kind words, add flourishes with our handiwork, marvel at the sky as we toil, cut meandering paths as we move about, savor our meals, laugh heartily at life’s comedy, ad infinitum. Thus, the drib-drab authoritarian realities inscribed onto the social world by bureaucratic, corporate authorities are subverted by the making of our lives. Billions of lowly people, each with a singular existence and intricately woven mind, lovingly created with a unique immortal soul, exist as a testimony to the tendency towards fecundity and freedom that is part of our world.

In a time when the vast apparatus of culture is organized by commercial media entities that are indifferent to (or perhaps even hostile to) the spiritual needs of the vast audience for which they provide “programming,” the need for poetic practices that can move us from passive consumers to active cultural makers is urgent. If, following de Certeau, we argue that such “poetics” are hyper-local, originating in the individual person’s desire for conviviality, the home is a logical site for the cultivation of such freedom, which might then radiate outward.

At this point, it should seem obvious that the home is a site of “everyday life,” offset from the rigid protocols that define institutions. A few moments on a playground reveals the many ways in which the child’s imagination is a whirring dynamo of diversion that alters the systemic designs of an automated world. Any order can be questioned and any word can be turned into a game (a joke, a riddle, a rhyme, a funny sound). Adult action can become absurd and absurd trivialities can be carried out with seriousness. Such freedom is the starting point of family poetics.

Take, for instance, my son Vincent and his best friend Robin. Robin often seeks to play something domestic, emulating her mother’s down-to-earth hospitality. Together, they play house, making “grown up” conversation over imaginary meals. Vincent, against my peaceful nurturing, invariably introduces some element of danger into the domestic mise-en-scene (recently, werewolves attacked). Another kid might show up, peddling fake ice cream. An older sibling interjects some absurd complication, earnestly or facetiously or both. They haggle through the story, it sprawls into a bizarre epic, sticks become swords, rocks become rubies, mud becomes potion, etc. It could end in skinned knees and tear-stained cheeks or the call to bath and bedtime (sometimes all of the above).

I am educated enough that I could disapprove of how they play. For my part, I always urge peaceful play, so I could start with the recurring external enemy. A neighbor, upon hearing screams (or laughter?), might think to call in a wellness check. I’m sure someone could see Vincent’s combat “toxic” or Robin’s domesticity “problematic,” their wrangling as arguing, their resistance to interlopers as exclusions or the interlopers bossy, the scrapes, bruises, and splinters unsafe, and the various schemes to evade bedtime downright bratty. Never mind the injury they inflict on genre and against entire universes of intellectual property.

Taken alone, the tactical state of childhood itself mounts a magnificent resistance to the rigidity of the adult world. But children do not live in a vacuum: they live in homes; they form the family. We do not leave the child’s natural irreverence to its own devices, for as with the fruitful freedom indicated in de Certeau’s work, its value culminates when it’s united to a proper purpose. With the guidance of parents and siblings, the child’s intrepid disruptions are nurtured towards good goals. Thus, parents have a responsibility to guide their children as they grow, and the children have a responsibility to open their parents’ eyes to see the world as it is presently. This is not to say that we must indulge our children and their fancies, but that we have the opportunity to become rejuvenated through their play and to seek to make a better world for the sake of our children. This is a gift that should not be underestimated.

In addition to the dynamic relationship between the parent and the child, the home contains other relationships as well. It requires all manner of necessary work, most of which is unrecognized outside of the home, as it is inseparable from the relationships that it supports—cooking, cleaning, mending, fixing, healing, minding, caring, protecting, teaching, etc. Indeed it seems unending; more tasks emerge as soon as one is completed. But there is other, less practical “work”: playing, reading, gestation, eating, creating, chatting, arguing, laughing, singing, napping, etc. Millions of minute occupations present a constant stream of opportunities for growth. This web of being that fills the day forms the person in such a way that no effort is wasted. In this respect, the home offers us models for a kind of domestic church insofar as it can be a picture of perfect integration of activity and contemplation—we prepare the meal that we enjoy together; the act of sharing the meal joins us in solidarity; in this meal we bring our affection for our progenitors into consideration of the hope for our progeny. Work and play appear seamlessly alongside each other, as do pain and joy, sorrow and hope, the beginning and the end.

Of course, the great gift of the home goes much further than de Certeau’s tactics in upending the drudgery of the workaday institutional world. For the home does more than provide moments of respite in a busy day. It exposes the workaday world for its pretensions. The home operates by a kind of harmony that is absent in the workplace. An employer imagines a workplace in which nothing is wasted, in which all efforts are recuperated and performed with a high degree of personal investment.[2] Of course, families are never perfect and often do things they wish they hadn’t, but the fact remains that the efforts we commit to our families (and the lack thereof) are never without consequence. Everything is incorporated into its ecology and nothing escapes (oikos, the root for ecology, is Greek for “family” and “home”). Thus, we can never escape our responsibility in this regard. We can abuse our responsibility by attempting to evade it, but we never cease to be responsible to it, the way we can escape responsibility from a job. A workday ends. We can call in sick. We can be fired. We can quit. The world of the public aspires to totality, but this is a false promise.

And just as the institutional world aspires to be a parody of the home (providing cradle to grave, wall-to-wall, Earth-to-heaven accounting for all things), it also seeks to turn the home into a parody of the workplace. Thus, we transport alienation into the home through the professionalization of family life—education is reduced to credentials and “best practices,” cooking becomes commodified, housework is service work (for many, performed by service workers), lovemaking is “sex work,” socialization is entertainment, social existence becomes “emotional labor,” etc. The result is alienation from the fecund relationships of domestic space as relationships become calculable economic goods.

Into the notion of the home as a form of drudgery, media industries insert themselves as a form of release. I am not against television or games, altogether. But the introduction of televisions, then computers, then mobile phones, are each instances of such impositions, making family life less a kind of making and more an opportunity for quiescent consumption. They may enter the home quite innocently, but they can easily become artificial babysitters, disconnecting family from the social obligation to make life together. Suddenly, the parent is free to work, while the child watches. What we watch is often antisocial and corrupting, and soon we are not only wasting time, but chasing negative influences and novel desires (not to mention surveillance and regulation). De Certeau once called the television a “celibate machine” driven by desire for feelings of union that will never be consummated, in a frustrated romance with self-actualization (de Certeau 31, 150-53). The constant yearning for completeness at the core of consumer culture, as symbolized by the celibate relationship of the child in front of his television, is treacherous precisely because it takes away our capacity to “articulate the reality of things” to represent “being” in “form” (de Certeau 153). The relationship today’s children are developing with screen-based media and consumer goods can never be consummated or reciprocated (and as the child grows into adulthood, these frustrated relational simulations “mature” into other obsessions and addictions). In this way, the natural ecology of life in the home can be disrupted.

If we think of the home as an organic alternative to the structures of the workaday world, we might first take steps to cherish it more fully and guard it more carefully against the incessant effort to transform it into a sad parody of public space. And in doing so, we might see more keenly those aspects of modern society which connive against our virtue. Secondly, we might celebrate the poetics of family life as a thing of beauty. This may lead us to cultivate positive attitudes and tactics that contribute to positive flourishing in the broader world. Thirdly, within the poetics of our home, we might seek and find patterns paralleled in the creativity of the Divine. These practices can be a powerful aid in our vocation, one which can form us into something better should we choose to labor creatively to meet its needs.

I realize that this brief meditation on the life of the family only gestures towards its complexity, glossing over many other blessings and challenges. Still, I feel it an important gesture, as it asks us to think of the family as a starting point for a culture that moves out into the world, rather than a refuge into which we shrink from the world.


De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1984.

  1. I will set aside, for the purposes of this essay, the ways in which family life is challenged by the mobilization of socioeconomic inequalities. A number of popular narratives (“family is a privilege,” “we have to make our own family,” “the nuclear family is a myth” etc.) are often used to discredit reflections on the value of domestic life (as if the cruelty of imposed austerity can negate what is quite literally a “birthright”; as if we don’t all work around imperfections; as if the concept of family doesn’t precede the modern stereotype of the suburban family). I hope to address this cliched pop skepticism of family life (and the managerial ideology it serves) in a different essay. As a modernist curiosity, consider Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, the engineers who applied scientific management to their household, for the sake of efficiency. The Gilbreth’s story in the book Cheaper by the Dozen (written by two their children, Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Carey), which has been adapted for the screen (three times). Thank you to Jeff Bilbro for reminding me about Gilbreths.

    Image credit: “Snap the Whip,” 1872 by Winslow Homer via Wikimedia
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  1. Wow. Many, many years since I played crack the whip. Often the shortest among my peers, I experienced a real thrill of danger when I was at the end.

    Love the quote about long poem of walking. This is a great social insight, too:

    “just as the institutional world aspires to be a parody of the home (providing cradle to grave, wall-to-wall, Earth-to-heaven accounting for all things), it also seeks to turn the home into a parody of the workplace.”

    It is sad that “play date” is now a common term. It is inimical to a spontaneous desire to get together. And parents hovering over the actual play will surely undermine its spontaneity, too.

    • “Play date” is really funny. As a practice, the idea that play is something scheduled is kind of sad for kids. But the tone seems very professional and proper, like something that might get sent to your outlook calendar.

  2. Another example of turning the home into the workplace is the 20th century habit of bathing before work rather than afterward. In some parts of the world, the preference is to be nice and clean for spouse and kids, not for coworkers.

    • Similarly, we teach a model of social hygiene to kids that is focused on the career as the the socially valuable partner. We teach high school kids to manage their social media profiles in a way that will preserve the appearance of virtue for prospective colleges and employers in the way we used to tell kids to save themselves for their future spouses.

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