On Perspective… And Laundry

When I do laundry, I tend to do all of the laundry. As in, every article of clothing my boys own. All of our towels, every sheet, and all of the items that my husband and I wear on a daily basis. It’s not unusual for me to do six loads in one day. (I’ve done twelve loads in a row more times than I care to admit.)

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Why do I take pictures of such things?

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No wonder I find laundry to be such an overwhelming task.

Yes, I know there are solutions to my problem. I know that I really just need to take the whole thing bit-by-bit. But I seem to be stuck in that all-or-nothing cycle: waiting until the laundry piles up, finally tackling the whole mountain at once, and then running away from the task. Rather than taking the initiative to make life easier on myself, too often I just sigh and groan and berate myself for landing knee-deep in stained shirts and soiled sheets. Again.

This Sunday, I visited my grandmother: my spunky, 90-year-old grandmother who personifies the following approach to life at an advanced age:

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My Mom-mom had a little gift for me. “See this?” she said. “This is what I used to wash Sue’s laundry when we were living over the funeral parlor. I’d wash her things with it every day.” (Sue is my father’s older sister, who was just a baby when my grandparents lived in a small apartment over their little town’s funeral parlor.) Mom-mom was smiling. “You can even have the dirt!” she laughed.

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The simple device hit me like a ton of bricks.

At home, I had the following waiting for me: three baskets of unfolded clean laundry, at least four more baskets of dirty laundry, and a newish, 2nd-floor washer and dryer. Oh, and boxes of disposable diapers. Because I know myself well enough to realize that cloth diapering might just push me over the edge.

Let’s recap here:

  • Modern-day laundry facilities on the same floor as our bedrooms + plenty of clothes and linens + disposable diapers = an overwhelmed Julie
  • A small washboard + only a few pieces of clothing + rudimentary cloth diapers = a contented Mom-mom

And that’s just the laundry. I have a dishwasher and a microwave and children’s television programs to occupy my boys when I need a break. I have plenty of space. I have the means to purchase as much good food as my family can eat. I have adequate heating and cooling, plumbing and electricity. I have a husband who changes diapers and cleans bathrooms.

My grandmother’s father abandoned her family when she was a toddler. Her mother was left to return to her parents’ home with their three small girls. They lived in the attic, where there was no heat in the winter and far too much of it in the summer. They shared the rest of the house – and its one bathroom – with Mom-mom’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the many railroad workers my great-grandmother fed on a daily basis. Mom-mom’s role in the family business was to stand on an overturned bucket at the sink and wash the workers’ dirty dishes. Later, my grandmother would raise six children in another one-bathroom house: this one the size of two of my fourteen rooms, combined.

So, do I feel like an ungrateful wretch, or what?

Kind of. Certainly that simple washboard – and my grandmother’s amused, happy face when she gave it to me – put me in my place a little. It reminded me of how fortunate I am. It made me view my household tasks differently. It made me think that I should approach my responsibilities with a little more perspective.

Now, I’m not big into unnecessary guilt trips. I’m not one to think that everything that is wrong is happening right now, right here: a symptom of excess in my own age and society. No culture has ever been without its struggles and sins. And just because I don’t share the particular stresses my grandmother experienced, it doesn’t mean I don’t have any.

It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with the daily tasks involved in caring for children and keeping a home. Undertaken individually, of course, the tasks aren’t particularly difficult: making a meal, changing a diaper, doing the dishes or the laundry – all simple things. But in real life they rarely are undertaken individually. Children sit on your feet and crawl between your legs while you cook dinner; they buck and kick and twist while you change their diapers; they whine and brawl while you work to ensure they have clean dishes and clothes. With good cause, we parents feel like we’re pulled in a hundred different directions. It’s understandable that we become overwhelmed.

But we still have a choice. We can choose to sulk and angst and convince ourselves that we just can’t win. Or we can choose to let all that frustration roll off our backs. Far too often, I do the former. Some people seem to be able to survey the mess in their homes, their uncooked meals, and their disheveled children and let out a good, hearty laugh. God bless those people. I am not one of them.

I’m the perfectionist, OCD type who sees flashing neon signs over every toy lying on the floor, every sink of dirty dishes, every scrap of dirty clothing: “WORK, WORK, WORK,” the signs say. I am easily overwhelmed, and I find all those signs, along with the chorus of calls and screams and roars from my boys, overwhelming. So I either attack all that work with abandon, or I shove it to the side and pretend it doesn’t exist (all the while feeling guilty). The former is not sustainable, the latter is not healthy.

But Mom-mom’s washboard gave me an idea.

I need to approach my work differently. I need to have more perspective. I need to relax. Not as in “Relax! This stuff doesn’t matter anyway!” But as in “Relax. This stuff isn’t nothing – it’s not something to be gotten over. It’s necessary work, worthy of your time and attention. It’s your part, your version of the same important work that women have always undertaken to care for their families.”

Regardless of whether I’m doing one load of laundry or twelve, I should be more at peace while I’m doing it. I should be grateful. I should remember the alternative: not just of a sentimental-looking washboard, but of generations of women who did (and still do) their washing in buckets and basins and rivers. I should sort and transfer and fold our clothes with care. I should use those moments to remember, to ponder, to imagine – not to berate myself. I should feel honored to have a small measure of labor that echoes those who came before me.

A little over three years into my role as mother and homemaker, I’m continuing to learn more about myself every day. I’m a better mother – a better, happier person, I think – than I was when I began this important work. I still frustrate and disappoint myself on a daily basis, but I’m improving. Slowly (slowly) but surely.

Thank you, Mom-mom, for that lovely washboard, and for all it represents.

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Three Years In

Three years ago this month, I was put on bedrest to wait out the last few weeks of my first pregnancy. One day I was at work, surrounded by boxes and stacks of papers that I needed to go through before the baby came, and the next I was making my third “oh, never mind” trip to Labor and Delivery, at which point my doctor said, “Enough. Get thee into bed.” (Or something like that.) At any rate, the experience was something of a shock to my system. I went, overnight, from life as a professional, (officially) working woman to a stay-at-home mother and homemaker.

And it was hard. Not that it was physically or even mentally hard at first – I mean, I was mostly laying low, swollen feet up and massive belly resting uncomfortably. But it was emotionally hard. In part because my exit came sooner than I expected: I felt guilty for leaving my successor with so many loose ends and I didn’t get to have that last day at work to walk through the office and say goodbye to the people and the place and know that that’s what I was doing – saying goodbye. The greater part of it, though, was coming to terms with the fact that my life was changing in a big way. I’d spent nearly a decade as an independent, professional woman. And suddenly I was facing a vastly different way of living my life.

I’m not saying that I had doubts about what I was doing – I didn’t at all. I had always, since I was a little girl, wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I enjoyed my work and I was very grateful to have had the experiences that came along with it, but I had always hoped to be able to choose full-time motherhood over a career someday. And here it was: that opportunity, that blessing! But it was still hard to transition to that new way of living my life. I don’t know about you, but any change is a little difficult for me to accept and a big, life-defining change (wonderful as it might be) is a lot difficult. Transitioning from being single to being engaged? Hard to wrap my mind around. Becoming a wife? Harder. Becoming a mother and spending so much time within the four walls of my house and not seeing lots of other people on a daily basis and being fully dependent on someone else’s paycheck and having a tiny person rely on me every single moment of my day? Way harder.

Two days oldOf course, once the baby arrived, my day-to-day life (not just the idea of my life changing) was challenging in much more tangible ways. Life with a newborn is a special kind of difficult. It’s beautiful and full of wonder, but it’s also demanding and stressful and exhausting. Yes, before you know it, that short but intense period passes and you settle into to your new normal. But with that first baby, at the beginning of my “job” as mother and homemaker, I felt lost.

Which really shouldn’t have been all that surprising. I’d felt lost when I began my (other) two jobs, too. My first (well, my first grown-up, real-deal job) was straight out of college. I was working for the federal government, in a field I didn’t know, with people who spoke what sounded like an alphabet soup of a language. (Let me tell you, those Feds know how to do acronyms.) My second job was working as a lobbyist, in an environment I understood, but advocating on issues that were unfamiliar to me. Both times, I felt like I’d been thrown into a lake and told to swim – on a day so foggy I had no clue which direction I should head in, let alone any concept of what the coastline looked like or even how big the lake was.

But, of course, I figured it out. Soon enough that coastline emerged from the fog and I had a frame of reference. I began to develop an understanding of the issues with which I was tasked, and then I was able to discern the direction I needed to go in. With both jobs, I found that there was something special about the three-year mark: that point at which things fall into place and you suddenly just get it. You understand your environment, you know your role within it, and you have the tools to do the work that needs to be done.

That’s where I am right now, in my third and most important of jobs: mother/homemaker. Now, don’t hate me for saying that I suddenly get motherhood. I’m not claiming that the job is easy or that I have it all figured out. I’m just saying that it’s really nice not to feel lost anymore. There are plenty of things I mess up or I’m lazy about or that just plain ol’ throw me for a loop. But on the whole, I do get it now. My “job” makes sense to me and (on most days) I’m confident that I can do it well.

So, yes, this month I’m three years in, and I love that.