What Hands Are For

What Hands Are For

To the world many of us, as homeschooling mothers, have stepped into the shadows. The focus of our lives, in this season, is raising and educating our children. “I want” is replaced by “I must” as our desires are put aside to attend to the more pressing needs of our children. And yet, we are persons still. Charlotte Mason tells us that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life.” How much of the atmosphere of our homes comes directly from us? Where is discipline if not in the rhythms we lay out for our days and weeks and years? If education is a life, whose life does she mean? As I try to be thoughtful about educating my children and maintaining balance, I keep these questions in my head: When my children are grown, what will they think of how I lived my life? Who will they believe that I am? Is my life a life they would want to emulate?

Looking back to my own childhood I realize that I have lived my life trying to get back to the simplicity and purpose I experienced in my earliest years. I come from a family of doers, people of action, skilled workers, craftsmen. My most treasured memories are working beside my grandmother in the kitchen, making, doing, serving. I remember her hands as she rolled out tortillas, her fingers guiding material through a sewing machine as she sewed a dress for me, her hands held up in worship at church. Though it has been nearly thirty years since she went home to be with the Father, I can see her hands so clearly still.

Whether it is in my blood or because I saw at an early age manual labor and its results, I have always had a strong desire to do something with my hands. It is what hands are for. But I had no teachers. My unskilled fingers made many attempts and many failures, until one kitchen haircut for a friend led me to a scholarship at the most prestigious hair school in the country. Hairdressing was never part of my life plan. When I started school it was still only a “back-up” or temporary occupation to take me through the rest of college. But I never went back to college. I fell in love with the work. I was surprised and delighted to find that, given some direction, my fingers were capable of precision and my eyes were discerning. I came to understand the fulfillment that comes from work well done, to recognize the integrity that comes with craftsmanship and to know that the work I do is a direct reflection of the person that I am.

I left my career more than five years ago to bring up my children and, though I no longer practice my craft with any regularity, the ideas at its core were an excellent primer for Miss Mason’s philosophy. In Ourselves, she says:

Now, everyone carries… in his own breast—a rule by which he judges of the integrity of a workman. He knows whether the work turned out by such and such a man is whole and complete, is what we call honest work…The honest worker he considers a person of integrity, that is, a whole man. (Book I, p. 168)

Though I am now a homeschooling mother of three with too many things on my to do list and too little time to do them, I still seek to be a person of integrity. My hands, which once skillfully wielded a razor blade against the skin of a trusting patron, now scrub pots daily and fold what seems to be an endless mountain of laundry. I must say, while I know this work is important and I know it must be done well and with a joyful sense of duty, in it I do not have the same feeling of accomplishment. The person that I am is not much reflected in the shine of the stainless steel pot (though I do like it shiny) and my household work feels never ending and never finished. To fulfill my own needs toward “wholeness,” I need to do something more. Something to make me feel accomplished, to challenge my skills, to raise them. I want my children to see the love I have for my work, the excitement in the challenge and the fulfillment that comes when the job is complete. My children won’t remember how much time I spent standing in front of the kitchen sink, but they will remember what I was doing in between all the “musts” that make up daily life. They will see how well or ill I used that time and it will embody their perception of who I am.

So as I think about the person I want my children to know as their mother, the person I want to be, I know that I must renew the legacy of making. As I mentioned before, I was skilled in my former profession, but before I began homeschooling, there was little else I knew how to do. I don’t think I am alone in this either. My generation of thirty-somethings wasn’t brought up to build or repair, to sew or to can; we were brought up to go to work and use our earnings to buy what we wanted. When I first came across Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, living books and nature study drew me in, but handicrafts is what made me at home, so perfectly did the ideas behind them complement the feelings I already had toward “honest work.” The ember burning in my heart to do burst into flame and I set out to learn what else I could do with my hands. Between books and YouTube (a resource I did not have as a teenager) I learned how to sew, embroider, bind books, make bread and garden. My knitting skills, frozen since I was seven years old at making rectangles, progressed to several different stitches and knitting in the round. Lest you think I boast, the truth is I don’t excel at many of these things. For the most part, I am only a few steps beyond my children and I can already see areas where they will surpass my abilities, but my enthusiasm for making things is contagious. The idea that we should make and do certain things for ourselves is part of our family culture. Not only with me, but with my husband as well. The children watch as we learn and figure things out and sometimes make mistakes. They see that we are capable and they know that they are capable too.

Thinking back again to my own childhood, what I learned from my family was not “how-to.” Both of my grandmothers died very young; my parents divorced and our family dynamics completely changed before I was ten years old. But in their ways of living, in the way my family worked and brought me alongside, I learned about honesty, integrity, patience and tenacity. I could see the satisfaction from knowing that a thing was done right and, for my own small, childish contribution, I could share in the joy that came when the work would serve another. The idea of handicrafts and work goes beyond our lessons. As my family showed me, it is in the way we live. For years I have brought the children alongside me, watching and helping as they are able. Today my nine-year-old daughter made cookies completely on her own, from finding the recipe to washing the dishes, and alongside her was her six-year-old sister, sitting on the counter, watching and helping as she was able.

So I keep doing things with my hands. I roll out tortillas, I sew dresses and fold my hands in prayer. More than words, my hands will tell my children who I am as mother, who I am as person. Among the many memories this lifestyle will afford my children, I hope there will be fond memories of my hands.

Brittney McGann is a wife, homeschool mom, and church administrator at Calvary Chapel of Chapel Hill. She and her husband are working to restore native plants to their 3.5-acre property, tucked between pastureland and forest. An amateur of the Chesterton variety, Brittney loves writing, making things, painting, and DIY projects. Years of homeschooling have also turned her into a snake catcher, caterpillar collector, and animal tracker.

Copyright 2020 Brittney McGann

3 Replies to “What Hands Are For”

  1. This is such a good article, Brittney! Helps me put things into better perspective. And allows me to do creative things with less guilt!

  2. Beautifully put, as always, Brittney! As I recently turned 40, the legacy I’m giving my children has come much more in focus for me. What do I want them to remember? That is a question I’ve been asking myself often lately.

  3. This is beautiful. We just started homeschooling. My son is only four. I stumbled on this wonderful idea of life. It is lovely

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