Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A while back, I announced to my husband that I had an idea for an invention that was going to make us rich. Like a good sales person, I started by explaining the problem: Almost every day, I ended up going out of the house looking like a slob. I’d put on a nice, crisp pair of jeans and a spotless shirt in the morning; then, by the time I ran out the door to the grocery store or soccer practice or whatever the activity of the afternoon was, my shirt and the top part of my jeans would be splattered with some mix of ketchup, spitup, cooking oil, and a couple of substances heretofore unknown to science.
“So,” I explained, “Here’s the invention: It’s a piece of fabric that goes over whatever you’re already wearing, for when you’re doing messy work. Then, when it’s time to leave the house, you can take off this fabric covering, and your clothes underneath will still look great!”
I waited for my husband to jump out of his chair and pronounce me a genius. Instead, he said: “Umm, are you talking about an apron?”
It’s amazing that in the span of one generation, a clothing item that was once a staple of married women’s wardrobes could become almost entirely obsolete. Though our grandmothers used aprons regularly, women my age didn’t see much of them in our own childhoods, and rarely use them ourselves. The common thinking about why the apron fell out of favor, even with stay-at-home moms who might have a use for one, was that it came to be associated with unpopular concepts like traditional gender roles and stifled housewives during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ‘70s.
That’s certainly true, but I think the reason for the apron’s decline goes even deeper than that.
One of the cornerstone beliefs of the modern secular world is that the meaning of life is to maximize your personal pleasure and comfort; therefore, people are encouraged to minimize phases of life that might involve hard work or service of others. This probably impacts women with young children more than anyone. They receive the message loud and clear that their situation, with all the mess and physically demanding work that goes with it, is the very antithesis of a good life. No way to thrive here, the thinking goes. Best to have the minimum number of children you may want, and then get sterilized or use contraception to make sure that this phase of life is completely finished, so you can get back to real living. Women start to think that they should accept this sad fate of looking (and feeling) tired and sloppy, that the only solution is to just grit their teeth, power through, and get past this time of life as quickly as possible.
In this mentality, you can see how women feel like they couldn’t possibly be open to more children. Going grocery shopping with stains all over your shirt for a couple of years is one thing; it’s another thing to do it for decades.
This is why I’d like to see the apron make a comeback. It is the essential accessory for a life of service. Donning an apron is a simple act that sends a surprisingly powerful message, especially if you’re a mother. It’s a symbolic gesture that indicates that you’re seeking to thrive now, here in the midst of the toil that comes with nurturing new souls; that you see the work of serving others not as a temporary phase, but as a key aspect of a well lived life. Taking the time to fasten the strings of an apron around your waist sends a message (to yourself, as much as to anyone else) that it’s worth the effort to protect your clothes so that you can look nice at the end of the day—that self-care has not been shoved to the backburner just because you have children.
Obviously, I don’t think that aprons are the cure for all the world’s ills. The forces that discourage women in the vocation of motherhood probably aren’t going to be vanquished by a single wardrobe item (except for maybe this one—cute!!) But I do think that there is a direct relationship between apron-wearing and embracing a life oriented toward the service of others. It will be hard for women on a large scale to be open to messages of openness to life until they understand that it is possible to thrive during the childbearing years (in other words: that you actually don’t have to frump around the grocery store in a stained t-shirt, even if you have young kids). If more women who understood this were more bold with their use of this underappreciated clothing item, it just might send a message that our culture desperately needs to hear:
The work of serving other is messy. Life is messy. But that’s why we have aprons.