Of all the practical aspects of parenting, laundry has always been my nemesis. Babies produce record-breaking amounts of it, and I found it impossible to keep up with the soiled onesies after the arrival of my firstborn. That the laundry room in our apartment building opened after I left for work and closed soon after I got home didn’t help. Nor could my husband, then a resident on 72-hour shifts with furlough for showers and rest.
The laundry multiplied, of course, with the arrival of our other boys, though by then we had moved across state lines to an apartment building with a washer and dryer in each unit. I wrote odes in my head to those mechanical wonders and the joy their 24-hour availability brought me, especially since my workday had lengthened to include a 3-hour round-trip commute. Still, I struggled to balance our family’s need for clean clothing (and towels and linen) with my own need to sleep.
As it turned out, the end of the spit-up stain era was just the beginning. The boys’ attire grew larger, their activities more efficient at attracting hardcore dirt as they advanced from toddling to Little League. Meanwhile, circumstances beyond my control ushered me into a lower-key, less gainful career. There were days when doing laundry provided me with an endless cycle of busy work to help me through a difficult period of transition. More often than not, however, it was a reminder that in the process of redefining myself professionally, finding meaning wasn’t going to be easy.
Years passed, and the boys each reached the age when they could – or should, as many suggested to me – do their own wash. I wondered when, if they leave the house at dawn and return after dark, with only a short window for dinner and homework. Because I freelance mostly from home, the chore continued to fall to me.
But around the time my eldest was ready to go for his driver’s permit, laundry had become a source of household conflict, and a metaphor for the many distractions that have kept me from moving forward with pursuits of my own. Neatly folded shirts and pants would sit in baskets for days, and inevitably, clean and dirty clothing would end up comingled. I’d want to shout, to remind everyone that I’d done that laundry when there were other ways I could have spent my time.
The moment had come, both for them and for me. I decided that regardless of their schedules, the boys would have to do their own laundry as a prerequisite for taking the wheel of my van. Like walking and learning to ride a bicycle, driving would put them one step closer to full independence. Laundry in its way would, too, even if it wouldn’t take them to faraway places.
The count was two sons doing laundry on their own, one to go, by the late spring last year. They were all feeling carefree in that pause between the end of school and the start of their summer plans. For most adults, of course, life isn’t divided in that way. Work weeks blend into one another, regardless of the season, and it is other obligations, not only the laundry, that keep me from writing for longer periods of time.
During that very brief window, my boys were all home, their beds all occupied. My nest and my heart were full with the rarity of it, and these facts combined to create a new distraction. Overwhelmed with emotion, I couldn’t stop myself from offering to do their laundry.
I stood over the washing machine, a bottle of Shout in my hand, listening for the silence I know will come when they move on to the next stage of their lives, leaving behind the echo of their childhood. I suddenly felt ashamed to have let the small stuff – that Everest of laundry and who knows what else – detract from my gratitude for having them in my life, even on the hardest of hardest days. I set the cycle to warm and turned on the machine, understanding that these are not blessings that come to everyone, nor are they gifts to be squandered.
I can’t say for sure I’ll ever finish writing my book or if, in the end, I’ll look back with satisfaction on what I have created during my second career. But I hope that God-willing, my boys will go on to have laundry relationships of their own, as it should be, and that I will not be washing their clothes forever. When that time comes, I will neatly fold up the memories of running a launderette in our basement, keeping them out on a shelf where I can reach them, and I’ll let the thrum of the washing machine play like a lovely old song I can’t get out of my head.