A lot in the wash

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a pretty unstructured housekeeper. Most of my work gets done on the basis of what I feel like tackling any given day. But there is one thing that gets done like clockwork, on schedule, every week, Mondays and Thursdays: laundry.


With seven people to clothe, it’s an undertaking. The kids help sort the clean stuff after school, and fold and put away their own things, but the washing is my domain. Always has been, and it always will be… or will it? A while back, whilst unloading the dryer, I realized my oldest girls were at the age I was when I started doing my own laundry. I remember it being a wonderfully empowering thing to be invited to take on this task. My mom showed me how much soap to use, which buttons to press, and the proper technique for cleaning the lint screen, and handed it over without (it seemed) a backward glance.

My kids are capable chore-completers. I’ve got plenty of other things to tackle. Could I start delegating this?

My first reaction, from the control freak portion of my brain, was that it would seriously mess with my system. I’ve got it down to a rhythm, a ritual almost. I don’t need them changing things.

Which brought on the mental chastisement: life is always changing; don’t you want them to learn; you’re being a helicopter parent if you do things for them that they could be doing themselves!

The defensive little voice of reality spoke up next: I am not in any way, shape, or form a helicopter, more a benign neglect/loosen-the-apron-strings kind of mother, and I am teaching them plenty of other things. 

Just… not this.

But, why?

My mind went immediately to my oldest daughter, in the thick of junior high. I have been forced to face the reality that my children are getting older. As in, teen-dom has arrived. Adolescence has more disaster potential than a six-year-old’s cargo pants headed for the washer: instead of rocks and markers and frogs and gum it’s uncertainty and sex and drugs and debate. It’s not all going to be fixable with a kiss or forgotten with a well-conceived distraction. I will no longer know every detail of their lives. I may not be the go-to person for every heartache, and I definitely must relinquish some of my expectations in favor of their choices. Soon they will face the harsh realities that, so far, I’ve been able to shield them from.

So much of life is not easily cleaned up. It doesn’t fit neatly into piles of lights, darks, and colors. You can’t always level out an uneven load that’s making the whole house rattle. There are so many unknowns coming, for them and for me. It’s easy to see when the sheets are washed, dried, folded, and back in the cupboard, but when do you check “teach empathy” and “model responsibility” off the parenting checklist?

So maybe that’s it: in the face of so much uncertainty, laundry is something I can control. Something I know I can do.

I’m not sure of the right things to say about boys, but I can sure get that chocolate stain out of her favorite top.

I can’t deliver spots on the basketball team, but I can deliver baskets of washed clothes.

And if silence or tension grows between us, as I know it could, maybe I can signal my availability, my regret, my love, with clean towels and fresh T-shirts.

Not that my outlook is dismal. I’m actually pretty excited for the teenage years. It can be pretty wonderful. It’s just that, while I’m looking forward to cleaning less oatmeal out of pajamas, I hope I can keep doing this little act of service for my kids. To somehow help smooth out the wrinkles, like a hot iron over a Sunday blouse. I want to send them into this messy world wrapped in a little bit of my love, some kind of constant in the midst of what can feel–I remember–like chaos.

I don’t intend to be rinsing out their undies when they come home from college for the weekend. But for now, I want to hang on to this job.

Just a little longer.


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