This is an emergency Ask Auntie Leila because the young lady who asked me the question is getting married in two weeks (I guess by now it’s one!) and she’s feeling overwhelmed.
Here’s the question:
“I love all of your practical housekeeping, cooking… etc. posts. What advice would you give to a young bride who is just setting up house and figuring it all out?”
Me: “Um, could you be more specific? Because as of now the answer is “read the whole blog”!
Her (we’ll call her Happy but a Little Overwhelmed, as she wishes to remain Anonymous): “Haha! I supposed I was a little vague. I guess more specifically, how to organize a new house and new things that are obtained from that registry (I did read that post and thought it was wonderful), how to set up housekeeping and what to do to keep it all running smoothly? What you wish you had known when you were young and just setting up house. Not married yet… but two weeks from today I will be, and feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of having to make some many decisions about how things will be done! My mother was never the best at keeping house, so I don’t have her example to follow.”
Here’s a version of my response that is not “Read the blog and also wait for my coming book that collects and organizes all my thoughts on that which ought to be normal and obvious, but which is instead forgotten or overcomplicated, not that I’m an expert, far from it, I just like telling people what to do.”
I will attempt to be, if not brief, at least pithy. This answer is doing what I usually try not to do, which is dump everything in at once. But rather than go over it all again, bit by bit, which takes about seven years, apparently, I thought it might be helpful if you haven’t been reading all this time to know that there’s a lot here already.
So, lots of links to other posts. You will be thrilled to hear that I have finally figured out the (simple) way to have them open in a new tab (thanks to Rosie telling me). So grab a glass of iced tea and prepare to open tabs!
So here goes:
1. Enjoy the honeymoon! Don’t worry, you are already far, far ahead of the game just by identifying the need to set up housekeeping and indeed be the arbiter of how your house is kept.
In fact, since it takes most of us at least a decade or two to figure out that there is anything to be identified, let alone that we are the subject of this identification, you can take some time off while patting yourself on the back.
Spend this little reprieve doing a couple of things, things with which I will continue this list.
2. As soon as you get home — yes, your new home! — make your bed with the pretty sheets and bedding you received as gifts. If you can possibly wash the sheets first, do, but if not, don’t worry, just do it soon. Remember, your bedroom is the sanctuary. So this is your first lesson in housekeeping. Do this and the rest will fall into place (especially as you peruse those posts). Put a pretty tablecloth on the table and make a nice supper. Rosie explains this process of getting yourself settled (even if the circumstances are tricky) in this post about temporary living and this follow-up one.
I feel like if she can do it as a Marine wife moving around all the time in the first seven months of her marriage, who can’t? The key is making things pretty! Don’t worry as much about organizing. Focus on pretty — at first in your bedroom and at the table. If you can put some things up on the walls, do it.
3. As you open your gifts, consider returning the items that don’t make your heart go pit-a-pat, even if they are things you yourself registered for. Deirdre’s Registry post will give you food for thought, and there’s no shame in realizing that perhaps for some of the items you might have succumbed to a combination of enthusiasm for getting all the stuff, inexperience about what is truly helpful for you in your circumstances, and the store’s capitalization on those two states of mind.
So, I’m not talking about making rash determinations on unusual gifts. Sometimes it takes time to assimilate those unique items, sometimes they fit a need or desire you don’t yet know you have but the giver is more experienced, and often they are not returnable in any case. (We talked about this at length amongst ourselves as Deirdre was writing her post, and the conversation continues in the excellent comments.)
Mainly, before you completely open every box after unwrapping, be honest about whether the things will fit in your new home (which I will proceed to assume is going to be modest and small, in the approved newlywed mode). And don’t worry if you decide to return some things. The gift was given for one reason: To make you happy. You might get, instead, something different or scaled down — for instance, three of the 12 pots and pans in the set, which are bound to be sold separately back at the store, until such time as you actually have a baseball-team number of children — at which point you don’t need three sizes of sauce pot, you need one 20-quart Dutch oven. If that makes you happy, the gift-giver will be happy. Were they aware. Which they will not be.
Another way to say “makes your heart go pit-a-pat” is this quote which you probably have already seen, from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
4. Ponder the things you have each brought into the house from your previous lives apart as you find places for them. Again, don’t do anything rash, but just ask yourself if you have done what so many of us do, which is simply move things because they are things and moving is what you are doing. That box of t-shirts from high school? The collection of souvenir mugs from basketball venues? Just don’t put them too far back in the closet. Here’s how to finally clean and organize anything.
5. Have lots of conversations about your future together and how you want it to be. Talk about what you really love about homes you have experienced. Get to know each other’s hopes and dreams. Don’t let people’s exhortations and misplaced urgency about you enjoying your newlywed state rob you of this enjoyment. Yes, You Only Live Once. Yes, there are lots of fun things to do as newlyweds. Yes, you may someday find yourself owning two minivans and incapable of thinking beyond the three travel soccer games you have coming up this weekend.
But still, the real fun of this period in your life is hoping and dreaming. Do what you want to do to get ready for your future — not what other people deem appropriate for putting off that future.
In the course of these wonderful talks, maybe use some of the time to set priorities, especially about how you will spend your money. Housekeeping is all about living well, within your means, and using your resources with wisdom, to achieve your goals.
I wish I had done that, since you ask — really thought through what would be important to me five, ten, and twenty years on — and then worked to make those things happen. Some goals I think are worthwhile: a home of your own; the education of your children, should God grant you children — the environment you want as they are growing up; a place to vacation, where the children will make good memories and have a lot of freedom; a good activity that you can all do that you really enjoy, in terms of recreation. (By education, I am not talking about saving for college, which I think is pointless for most people of modest means. I am talking about having a good home library, musical instruments, opportunities for interacting with interesting people, access to nature.)
6. Carve out some space for creativity. Use your ingenuity to make it happen where you are. Think about how your creativity can serve your future. If you are imagining a home filled with quilts or knit blankets… or your own paintings… or refinished furniture… see how you can make it happen.
7. Read. Now is when you have time to read about how to cook, how to clean, how to do those creative things, education, right thinking, gardening for that someday when you have a little plot to call your own or can access a community garden; frugality, so many things! Now is the time to read good novels and to get those 1000 Good Books under your belt so that you aren’t rushing when you suddenly need to get your children’s reading in order — and to get a start on the 100 Great Books so that you yourself can join the Great Conversation if you haven’t already.
8. Use Pinterest well. Does that sound frivolous? I firmly believe that it’s a great tool for the homemaker. Back in the day we cut out pictures we loved in magazines and kept them in a file. Now there’s Pinterest. I gave you tips for using it in this post about some decorating books I love. The internet is a boon for homemakers, as long as you don’t get caught up in perfect. You’ll be using it a lot as you seek answers to your questions, so keep a record of what you find interesting, helpful, and beautiful. Go back and edit often. Pay attention and it will really help you.
9. Remember, you can do a lot in an hour. You can do what you want to do and think should be done — especially if you are showered, have a plan for dinner, and have the laundry process under control (this one perhaps won’t be as much of an issue for you now, but cast a thought in its direction anyway).
You can also look at your hours and think about how to make them orderly, bringing time into contact with God’s inner life. This is liturgical living. Make your Sundays different, right from the start, and you will find everything else falls into place. Soon it will be Advent. Live it well, and everything else falls into place. That is the key.
10. What I mean by enjoy and you do what you want to do is something very mysterious: This week you don’t have sanctifying grace to participate in the life of Christ with your spouse — next week you will. It’s not up to Auntie Leila to do more than brush you off, set you on your feet, and give you a little push. You will run the race your way. And a marvelously unique and fabulous way it will be!
You are making your home — your contribution to the world, a great adventure! There are means, and you will discover what they are, because you are clever and have an inquiring mind. And those means will lead you to the end: nothing less than God’s kingdom.