Our days are governed by cycles. Ancient patterns, ever-repeating, defining every individual existence.
Cycles of life, in which death is but one step in a greater sequence of renewal.
Cycles of physics, maintaining the perfect equilibrium of the universe.
Cycles of instinct and emotion, our fragile minds forever at the mercy of vortices both vicious and virtuous.
Cycles of myth and parable, deep-rooted stories of repetition and reproduction, laden with meaning and moral. The most arresting concern the eternal torment of those poor, unfortunate souls whose comeuppance is a stark lesson for the rest of us.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, cursed by Zeus to forever roll a boulder up a hill.
Prometheus, chained and gorged upon daily by an eagle with an appetite for liver.
In the east, the Chinese legend of Wu Gang, banished to the moon to chop down a tree that renewed itself eternally.
And in the west, the North American saga of Phil Connors in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over and over and over and–
– then there’s laundry.
Mothers and fathers, all over the world, cursed to keep clothing, towels and bedding clean and available every day. For eternity.
Unforgiving. Unrelenting. Futility and woe.
Before children, laundry was a simple chore, like putting out the bin bags or doing the washing up. Between us we generated two or three loads a week.
Before life with Emma, I laundered maybe twice a fortnight. I am not as particular about towels and bedding. Or trousers.
Before children, we owned a washing machine and a small clothes airer. Modest tools for modest work. Our only complaint was that our towels were never soft and fluffy, for which we were gifted a tumble dryer.
For five years we ran a tumble dryer only to make drying ourselves more comfortable.
Before Alex was born, our washing machine broke down and was replaced. Coincidence. The only laundry-related item on our big list of things to get was a new clothes airer. A bigger one. With children, I argued, we would have more clothes to dry.
Never before in the history of me has such upheaval been so calmly ushered in with such sensible understatement.
Today, the most dominant process in our house is the laundry process. If our home life was rendered as a process flow infographic, you would see cycles weaving in and out of each other all over the place, like bees in a hive.
Most follow a set pattern, like ‘Cleaning the floor after dinner’ or ‘Brushing small person’s teeth’. Many are limited to a small area, like ‘Making a cup of tea’ or ‘Where is the remote control?’ Others might span several rooms, like ‘Bringing in the groceries’ or ‘Oh my God, there’s a wasp’.
There are no processes that travel through every room in the house.
If the smaller processes are drones and worker bees, then laundry is an enormous queen bee, heaving her huge, flabby bulk through every doorway, into every room, up and down the stairs and even into the garden when the weather is nice.
Emma and I are the bee keepers, of course. This is our house and these are our clothes. Our lives have primacy over the processes that facilitate our lives.
Even so, it often feels as though we live only to serve the great laundry cycle. That our house is not our home, but our wash-house – a cottage industry dedicated to washing, drying, folding and putting away. Holding us hostage, lest we otherwise spend our days dressed as tramps.
Or not at all.
Let me give you a quick tour of the house.
In the children’s bedroom we find a pile of clean clothing yet to be put away. It has travelled far, overcome many obstacles. But here, less than a metre from its destination, it has failed to finish its journey. Alas.
On the landing we encounter a similar tragedy: a pile of dirty clothing beside the laundry basket. So close, and yet so far. Meanwhile, towels are heaped on the banister, hanging over the stairs like moss-encrusted gargoyles.
In the bathroom, several flannels are draped over the bath, slowly drying into fuzzy tacos.
In our bedroom, clothes on the floor that should be in the laundry basket, while several piles of clean clothes exist in a state of constant migration – moving around the room but never actually into drawers and wardrobes.
Walking downstairs, we encounter a small pile of clothes on one step. It is either clean, headed upstairs, or dirty, headed downstairs. In the hall, a small coat – spread across the floor like roadkill.
In the sitting room, my chair is concealed beneath a mound of clean clothing – several loads waiting to be carried upstairs. We may also find the children’s pyjamas from last night, carelessly left where they were discarded. In the corner stands the laden clothes airer, a forbidding tower of dampness. Beside it, the cupboard under the stairs, concealing a large basket of ironing.
In the kitchen, a pile of dirty laundry kneels in supplication to the washing machine, while through the porthole another load spins in rapt transfiguration.
Finally, in the conservatory, more dirty laundry, including hand wash items that have not seen the inside of the house for several months.
Our laundry occupies more space in our house than we do. Only the air that we breathe and the dust that we shed has a greater presence.
How could it come to this? This is not the life we chose for ourselves. And the children? They are so small – their clothing a fraction the size of our own. Surely it is not possible that they have tipped us from laundry-as-weekly-chore to laundry-as-life-consuming-hive-tyrant?
But yes, I’m afraid they have been the catalyst for this dystopian turn of events.
First, let’s put it into context. Our house is small – laundry becomes inconvenient more quickly, escalating to life-threatening levels if not controlled. Meanwhile, we are parents – laundry may be the dominant chore but it is not our priority, nor our only daily task.
We are, all in all, short on space and time.
Now let’s walk through the process.
Measured in number of items, babies and toddlers generate more laundry than adults.
They wear more than we do, layering because they lose heat more easily. At any time, therefore, a baby is probably wearing twice the clothing we are.
They change their clothes more often than we do. A fresh change of clothes every day. A fresh change of clothes every night. Or every other night. In between, a fresh change after every encounter with any foreign substance, be it milk or paint, mud or vomit, urine or faeces. The same is true for us, of course, but required less frequently. I estimate an average ten replacement outfits every week in their first year.
So, in a single week, while I make do with the same basic ensemble, changing only underwear and shirts, a six-month-old will add to the laundry basket: twenty-four vests and t-shirts, and twenty-four pairs of socks or tights and trousers. Plus jumpers, towels and a coat. Muslins. Soft toys that have been loved too much, or not enough. And while the children’s bedding is refreshed once a week, same as ours, they are more likely to require replacement bedding mid-week, several times a month.
Their average weekly laundry will fill two laundry baskets. And the washing machine twice over.
But you can’t just throw it all in together. Even if you don’t separate colours, etc., you must be careful about shrinking wool, leaking colour and anything else with a label advising ‘hand wash only’.
Of which there can be a lot.
And sometimes you’ll have to wash a few items that have suffered grievously at one end or the other, and must be rinsed then laundered alone – if not thrown away.
After which the washing machine is treated to an empty hot wash with white vinegar.
Fiddlesome items aside, shoving laundry into the washing machine is a doddle. What happens next is not.
Parents-only washes may contain (for example) three pairs of trousers, ten pairs of pants and socks, three shirts, four t-shirts and a jumper. When the washing machine ceases spinning, I open the door, pull everything out into my basket and carry them to the airer. One at a time I hang them all up. The whole process takes five minutes at most.
Offspring-only washes, on the other hand, contain an amount of clothing known as – technical word alert – a f***load. When the washing machine ceases spinning, I open the door, pull out a manageable heap of soggy rags and carry them to the airer. One at a time I hang it all up. Then I go back to the washing machine and repeat. And again. Maybe once more. Then I slowly turn the drum looking for stubborn items still clinging on. The whole process can take twenty minutes.
Some loads never seem to end. Especially those full of socks…
Child and baby clothing is very efficient going into a washing machine, you see, but the opposite coming out. Twenty pairs of their trousers, for example, take up the same space in the washing machine as one pair of mine. But it takes the same amount of time to hang up one pair of their trousers as one of mine. So, my one pair of trousers: ten seconds. Their twenty pairs of trousers: three minutes plus.
And the item-to-rung ratio is not much better. My trousers take up one rung on the airer. I can only fit two of theirs onto one rung. So, while the airer can accommodate a single load of parent clothes, it may not be able to accommodate everything from a child wash. You end up leaving a finished load in the washing machine, but then the dirty clothing has nowhere to go. Because our garden is small, we’ve never established any outdoor drying facility. On a good day we might set the airer up outside. Otherwise, it’s a permanent fixture in our sitting room. There is nowhere else for washed laundry to go.
Our tumble dryer – once called upon only to fluff towels – became the hero of the family laundry process. At least half the clothing that goes into the washing machine can go into the tumble dryer. While our preference is to minimise environmental impact, of course, sometimes the only way to relieve the post-wash bottleneck is to divert the process into the tumbler.
It doesn’t get any easier after drying, not if you wish to keep their clothing presentable and easy to locate.
I am a ‘folder’. I like neat piles of laundry in laundry baskets and neat piles of clothing in clothes drawers. Other than my socks, everything is organised.
And my socks are all the same, so that’s not much of an admission.
We organise their clothing into drawers for each type of garment. Per child. Putting the laundry away is a chore in itself.
Out of the tumble dryer and off the airer, everything is folded and stacked into huge, unsteady columns, then carried upstairs in several loads, to be returned whence it came. After being deposited on our bed – indefinitely – and sorted into piles, it’s all transferred to the proper locations.
Orphan socks are abandoned on the orphan sock shelf.
Clothes to be ironed are thrown into the ironing basket under the stairs and forgotten about until the children have grown out of them. Trying to iron shirts for baby boys and dresses for baby girls is painful.
Not as painful as trying to fold fitted cot sheets. I’ve even watched YouTube videos on it and still struggle to hold onto my temper.
The sorting, folding and putting away of their clothing takes four times longer than our own – fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on how much has built up.
If we had to do the laundry once a week – even twice – then completing the process might feel satisfying. But it happens every day – several times a day. As you tuck socks back into the sock drawer, more finished laundry is coming up the stairs. While you carry finished laundry up the stairs, more is being hung up to dry and thrown into the tumble dryer. And dirty laundry is being loaded into the washing machine. And carried downstairs from the laundry basket. And dropped into the laundry basket. And socks are being pulled back out of the sock drawer to replace the ones than just trod on a blueberry.
That our old washing machine broke down and was replaced shortly before Alex was born was a coincidence, but a very fortunate one. Our new washing machine has worked hard. And the clothes airer. And the tumble dryer. And the laundry basket. Together they all keep the process grinding along, with the occasional helping hand from us.
Round and round and round it goes, where it stops–
It never stops.
The perpetual presence of all that is laundry. It is our boulder. Our bloodthirsty eagle. Our spiteful groundhog. Not as regrettable as a large beak rummaging daily in your soft bits, or a one-way trip to the moon to combat ever-living vegetation, but still we are chained to it.
Even now, nearly five years into parenting, I have not fully come to terms with the impact of children on the laundry in our life. We stand against it like men with their backs to a door, holding back a growing mass of rabid onesies and dungarees. If we step away to do something else, they break through. If we let down our guard for a second, they are on top of us.
Sometimes, to paraphrase Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, it feels as though we can either get busy living, or get busy laundry. But busy living makes for busy laundry. A day of adventure or a weekend away wreaks havoc. It can take a week for the process to recover from the sudden surge.
Sometimes we have the advantage, sometimes our laundry has the advantage. We can never actually win.
But neither will we ever lose. Without death, no life. And without laundry, no living.
To live a life less laundry would be to not live at all.
All we can do is accept it. Learn from it.
Live with it.
And invest in some industrial strength stain remover – not all patterns need be ever-repeating.