A day or two ago a friend of mine re-posted one of those “mommy-thoughts” that are always floating around on Facebook. This particular quote went something like this:
Someday all those piles of laundry will be gone,
and you will miss them.
It is a beautiful sentiment – a reminder to treasure the time with your children while you can, and not to feel guilty or overwhelmed if the endless household chores that come along with having children go undone. I expressed a very similar sentiment only a few posts back in reflecting on my children’s demands for what I too often see as “my time” (see post Parenting in the Air https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/parenting-in-the-air/).
When I read this Facebook quote, however, it had the opposite effect on me. It didn’t assuage my guilt for the massive pile of unfolded laundry heaped onto my couch. Rather, I got a guilt-slap right across the face. Guilt because I desperately wanted to fold and put away that laundry and I had been planning to do just that as soon as the kids and I got home. You see, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone, while I waited outside the kids’ school to pick them up. I’d had a busy day and I had not had the chance to get to the laundry in the morning as I had planned, and the thought of leaving it there for one more night tied my insides into knots.
Because the thing is, at some point the laundry really does need to get done. For one thing, there’s the couch. We need to actually be able to sit on it. I am not complaining about my apartment. At 131 square meters it is really a decent size for an apartment in Milan and I know a number of my friends here will roll their eyes at me if I say I don’t have enough space. But with four people and all their stuff (including the bags full of new Christmas things we just brought back), that space fills up quickly and there is certainly none left over for a dedicated laundry area. In terms of clean surfaces not otherwise occupied with more than their share of clutter there are:
tables (but we need those for eating, and homework, and art activities, and games),
- beds (but we need those for sleeping, and rare is the day that clean laundry is taken down from the line, folded, and replaced in the appropriate drawer or wardrobe all within the 16 or 17 hour period that is my waking-working day);
- or the couch (the single de facto option).
I usually manage to maintain a sufficient lead on the clean-but-wrinkle-forming pile that it only really covers the chaise lounge side of the couch, leaving two or even three spots free for the comfort of the family bums. This advantage, however, requires me to continually be working to decrease the pile, so that the newly dried clothes can be taken off the line to make room for the next load that is sitting in the washer and will develop mildew if it is not taken out and hung up.
For another thing, there is the fact that the children (from whom the laundry is threatening to steal my time) need clean clothes. Granted, they have a lot of clothes – much more than they really need because Gymboree was having ridiculous sales while we were home at Christmas and I just couldn’t resist. These bursting drawers, however, are of no help during the school week when the children have to wear their school uniforms. These uniforms are not cheap, and they have an impressive capacity to attract and display dirt, paint, food, and all manner of other grime. What is more, there are two separate uniforms for each child – standard and gym, which have to be worn on specific days of the week depending on the scheduled activities of the day. All this means that we do not have an endless supply and they need continually to be washed. When the laundry monster gets an advantage on Mommy the inevitable result is an increase in my morning crabbiness in direct proportion to the amount of time it adds to our usual morning rush for me to locate the needed items of apparel. If one or more of the items are not in their appropriate drawer the general result is a moaned “Oh, fudgesicle” and a frantic effort to root through the pile of unfolded laundry on the infamous couch (or through the stacks of folded laundry waiting in the hamper to be put away) all while trying not to disturb the questionable order of these mounds with my efforts. If this search is unsuccessful, the hunt commences in the dirty clothes bags, usually accompanied by a more colorful expletive muttered under my breath when the item is found, and proves to be in the hamper for a very good reason, leaving me with the question of whether Princess Imagination can still squeeze into the Gigglemonster’s size 4 shirt, or whether I can rely on my notoriously hot-blooded daughter to keep her blazer on over short sleeves instead.
To repeat, the laundry really does need to get done! Ideally this would happen while the kids are at school, and when I was a working mom I couldn’t understand how stay-at-home moms with school-aged children could complain about not having enough time. Now I know. There are so many activities that have to get squeezed into that magic, shrinking time frame “when the kids are at school.” There is the actual transit to and from school (which usually eats up an hour, either because I leave the car at school and walk home or because I have to arrive-super early and sit in the car in order to get a decent parking space), as well as grocery shopping, and Bible study prep, and training for the 10K run in 10 weeks (OK – not strictly a “necessity” but this is the one chance I will probably ever have to do something like this and it is good for my health, so lay off), and the necessary shower after that, and time to connect with friends (which I will also argue as a necessity when living as part of a very inter-dependent ex-pat community in a foreign country where most interactions make me feel like an idiot because of language incompetence). Plus, you have to remember that there is no dryer, so laundry involves much more than transfers from hamper, to washer, to dryer. It also involves all the time to individually hang each item (in a way that won’t create weird marks at the shoulder or hem), wait for them to dry (which can take from 8 hours to 3 days, depending on the weather outside and whether the building has cranked up the thermostat that controls our radiators), and then individually take down each item and move everything to the couch for it eventual progress to the folding and putting away stages.
So, when I fail to accomplish all these tasks in the 6 short hours the children are at school, I have three options:
- Add this to the list of household chores that I have to complete as soon as the children are in bed. Dinner dishes are a pretty inevitable element to this list, as is tidying-up (a.k.a. – pick up all the toy cars, and dolls, and marking pens scattered arbitrarily across our limited floor space, which will make the journey from the bedroom to the kitchen at 4 am when the Gigglemonster howls for more milk a dangerous proposition in sleep-fogged darkness). If we are expecting company the next day or if the cleaning lady is coming (yes, I know, how dare I complain about household chores when my saintly Tina comes for 8 hours every other week to achieve more genuine cleaning that I could achieve in a month!) then the tidying needs to be much more intensive. And the result is that even without folding and stowing laundry I am exhausted, if not comatose, by the time I sit down next to my husband on the couch — or as close to him as is permitted by my piles of laundry and his piles of papers and work folders (which he has pulled out in part because he has work to do and in part because I am clearly too busy for him). That’s not the way to sustain a healthy marriage. He needs my time, and attention, and energy just as much as the kids do. While he is more patient with me than the kids, he doesn’t deserve to always come last, so laundry can’t always happen during “his” time.
- Anticipate that I will have one of those all-too-frequent jolts of writer’s inspiration at 1:00am (what is it about 1:00am?!) that is more destructive to sleep that an Italian buon caffe (that is, espresso in American). In which case, I can utilize my unwelcome insomnia to tuck into the laundry pile with all that jittery energy. The problem is, the creative energy that woke me up does not seem to be satisfied by the mundane task of folding clean clothes and putting them into divided hampers to be delivered to the appropriate bedrooms once their occupants have woken at a normal time for human activity. No. That energy is not going to be mollified enough to allow my return to bed for a few hours of much needed slumber until I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and make a little progress on the pesky novel that is trying so hard to be born.
- So, I am left with option #3. That is, to violate the sacred time the universe has given me when my young children actually want my attention, and squander it on the ever replenishing laundry pile.
And yesterday, that is exactly what I did. I took about 30 minutes of the precious two hours between our return from school and zero hour for starting dinner preparations, and I put clean clothes onto hangers in closets and I folded them and put them into drawers.
And do you know what? I still managed to be a good mother. I took a mini-break between each fold to catch the ball the Gigglemonster was throwing to me and gently lob it back. I didn’t go chasing after it when he or I failed to catch it – “Mommy’s doing the laundry, Honey, you need to go get the ball” – but I still played with him, and he was none the worse for a little extra exercise. And I carried on a conversation with Princess Imagination that enabled her imaginative play (right now it is mostly based on the characters from Disney’s Cinderella), although my role was restricted to vocal participation.
And I don’t feel guilty any more. In fact, I’m a little proud of myself for finding a way to get the work done in a positive way in front of them. My children are not being raised in a penthouse environment where meals mysteriously appear on the table or beds miraculously make themselves while the family is out doing other things. My children see the work that goes into maintaining our household. They see that Mommy works hard, just like Daddy does, and when they complain about our busyness they hear that we do it for them. I can’t always be present to them in exactly the way they want me to be, but acts of service are a language of love as well.
And so, I will love them through their laundry.