Laundry. The word strikes fear in the heart of every mother. The endless piles of socks. The unclaimed clean clothing of school-age children. The mountain of still unwashed articles that has multiplied and replenished the laundry room.
Everyone has her own theories about how to handle the job. A friend of mine once said that she never tries to smell a teen boy’s shirt up close to see if it has been worn. Instead, she holds it at arm’s length. She can smell it fine from that distance.
Another suggested purchasing several dozen pair of identical socks. That way it’s easier to match them, and when one wears out, it doesn’t matter, because there are plenty more to match with the single one.
Kelly Smith, a mother of several girls, has a system like that. “Our socks are never folded. They are just in a big sock bin where kids go digging for what they like.”
To her, time is more important than neatly folded socks in a drawer. I agree. There are a lot of other things that I would rather be doing than folding socks.
Smith has the same issues we all do with laundry, but decided to be sure it didn’t run her life. “We don’t have set days for the girls to do their laundry. They just know that it is expected of them. Their laundry is to be off of the floor. Their clothes must be hung up, and they are in charge of looking clean every day.
“It seems to work for our family, as my older daughters are very responsible and have been good examples for the younger girls.”
I have my own ideas, too. Some of them came the day I was doing a major sock-folding after the job had been neglected for far too long. We had 24 feet of varying sizes that needed clean socks every day, so it didn’t take long before everyone was out and the clean sock basket was overflowing. Or was it two baskets?
We sorted out the socks with each color in a stack. The white stack was a mountain, but I was hoping it would stay put for a few more minutes until I could get the rest folded. The girls were willing to help sort by color, but when it came time to match them up, they faded away. So I was sitting there, surrounded by socks, actually enjoying the peace and quiet that comes when I am doing a job that no one wants to help with.
Then I heard a sound that no mother likes to hear when her living room floor is covered end-to-end with apparel: The doorbell.
I froze. Do I pretend I’m not home? That wasn’t going to work when six pairs of little feet come pounding down the stairs to see who is visiting. So I did the next best thing. I opened the door wide, invited her in, and we laughed together about the state of my house. We had a great visit and I survived the embarrassment.
Then I got smart. Well, smarter, anyway. I decided that this was something the children needed to do for themselves, just as Kelly Smith’s girls did. Teaching them how to do laundry the week before they move out doesn’t really do me much good, so I started teaching everyone over the age of 12 to wash their own clothes.
Yes, there were ruined items. Sometimes they used too much detergent or left baskets of clean laundry in the washroom. But at least I didn’t have to do the work. I also was freed from the panic that comes when they realize their favorite shirt is still dirty and they want to wear it the next day. It wasn’t my problem anymore.
It takes patience to teach children to do their own laundry and being too fussy can backfire. “I have a very good friend who I referred to as the Laundry Nazi,” says Smith. “Everything has to be folded just right. Everything is ironed just right. Her kids are terrified to even play outside for fear that they may get a stain. I want my kids to know that life is life, and laundry is laundry, and it's not a big deal if the two things collide.”
Her attitude has paid off. “I often wake up in the morning to the sound of the washer and dryer already going from a responsible 12-year-old deciding she needs to get her laundry done early in the day before school. I think our carefree attitude has taught that responsibility, but yet it is their responsibility. I grew up with the mom that had my laundry waiting for me on my bed every Tuesday and Saturday, all folded and ready to be hung up. It really taught me nothing.”
There was an extra bonus to my new method. The children started working together, with the older one getting the clothes washed, and the younger one putting them in the dryer and taking them back upstairs. When the youngest was about six, I was done washing clothes for the children.
I also realized they were well on their way to being more independent and able to care for themselves when they headed off to college. My sock basket wasn’t overflowing anymore, and I’m okay with that.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.