Am I my daughter’s laundress?

That’s a rhetorical question, and of course you’re all going to tell me, “No! At 17, your daughter is old enough to do her own laundry.” And you’re right.

But… it’s complicated.

Today is Daughter’s first day back at high school as a senior. Last spring, I decided it was time for her to do her own laundry. Since she was in the throes of finals and SAT prep, I figured wait until the start of senior year – a nice, clear delineation point.

Why have I been doing her laundry up until now, though? Plenty of teens do it themselves. If we had a larger family – if I were like my friend Janine, with three children and an hour-long commute each way to a corporate legal job in Silicon Valley – my daughter would have been doing her own laundry for years. I know what Wendy Mogul and all the other parenting experts say about the need to give teens responsibility, not coddle them, not be helicopter parents, and so on.

But here’s the thing: Doing her laundry has felt like love to me.

My own mother did everything for us. Granted, she was a stay-at-home mom in a pre-feminist era, but she did everything! She did our laundry, made our lunches, dusted and vacuumed our rooms, I think even made our beds until we went off to college. It was excessive. My sister, brother and I should have been given more responsibility. But none of us turned out spoiled, selfish or slovenly. We felt loved and cared-for.

Now an adult myself, I want to do things for the people I love. With Sam, I reflexively look for little ways to help — pick up his dry cleaning when he has a busy week, save the science section of the New York Times for him when he’s traveling. He does the same for me. When it comes to laundry, we both do each other’s. One shared hamper, throw it all in the machine, dump the clean clothes on our bed to sort and fold. It works well and we pretty much end up doing an equal amount.

So it’s felt weird over the years to think of NOT doing Daughter’s laundry too.  Particularly with an only child, it felt like sending a message of exclusion: “Sam and I will take care of each other, but you’re out on your own.”

One solution might be to bring Daughter into the mix and have her take a turn doing the whole household’s laundry. Great idea – in theory. In practice, it would mean one more task to nag her about and fight over. I don’t want my clean underwear held hostage to the riveting social life and general procrastination of a teenager.

So I’ve done her laundry. But last spring, as we started looking at colleges, I realized it was time to stop. I didn’t want her to show up in her freshman dorm not knowing how to turn on a washing machine.  It’s like making our pre-schoolers learn to dress themselves and tie their own shoes. Doing laundry for her may = love, but forcing her to learn how to do her own laundry also = love.

So, okay. Resolved. It’s day one of senior year and time for me to retire as laundress.

But I have this feeling of dread. I picture piles of (dirty? clean? indistinguishable?) clothes on her floor and wails at 6:15 in the morning, “I don’t have any pants to wear!”

And as she becomes ever more independent in so many other ways, I already miss this one little way of still taking care of her.

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11 Responses to “Am I my daughter’s laundress?”

  1. Foodie McBody Says:

    We live in piles up to our thighs here. Clean? Dirty? Who knows.

  2. Foodie McBody Says:

    PS. I’m also the mean mom who stopped making my kids’ lunches when they were about 9.

  3. Pam Says:

    When I had hip replacement surgery the summer before last, Nick was given the task of doing the laundry – since I couldn’t. He performed the job admirably and without complaint, until the time that I was able to carry the baskets up and down the stairs again on my own. I was the one who couldn’t stand waiting for him to get around to doing it. It is too wasteful for him to do his laundry separately from his father’s and mine – so, I live with the slightly guilty knowledge that at least I know he can do it – but that I prefer being in charge. Isn’t that what being a parent is – really?

  4. debra solomon Says:

    Jake once called me late at night to ask me if powder blue was a dark or a light. I should have taught him better.

  5. notdeaddinosaur Says:

    Suggestion: Don’t worry about it so much. If you want to keep doing her laundry for her — whether for love, for practicality (avoiding the “I don’t have any clean pants” drama), or whatever — go ahead. Show her how to work the machines, by all means, though do keep in mind that it’s not exactly rocket science. Once out on her own at college, she’ll muddle through one way or another. You did, remember?

    There are as many ways to raise kids as there are families. Do what works for you and chill. Life is short; this year will go fast. There are plenty of other things to worry about, both now and in the future.

    And for the record, I don’t bother with lights and darks. I do a “fold” load (underwear, socks, t-shirts) and a “hang up” load (pants and shirts); then again, I also don’t bother with bleach, and do everything with a warm wash and cold rinse. Simplify. That’s my motto.

    -Lucy Hornstein

  6. Anna Mindess Says:

    Ilana, I like how you out the feeling of love that’s behind still ‘taking care’ of our grown kids. In our case, my daughter somehow decided to be in charge of her own laundry early on. (I think she got tired of folding our underwear and clothes – as that’s how we ‘shared’ the chore before that.)

    I don’t think your daughter will suddenly feel abandoned. Of all the tasks of growing up, it seems that laundry has the clearest set of cause and effect. One day of “My favorite jeans are dirty!?!” will empower her with the ability to satisfy her own needs.

    My daughter is now home for a couple of weeks before returning to college after 10 weeks as a camp counselor. I’ve been enjoying ‘taking care’ of her too. It’s a treat to make her favorite foods before she goes away again. But I realized that what she really needs before she moves to her first apt. is to learn to cook, so I am morphing making dinner for her into making dinner with her and teaching as we do it. Her feeling of pride as we all eat the dishes ‘she’ prepared is the sweet reward for me.

    • Janice Dean Says:

      I love the approach you describe, Anna. I learned how to do laundry on my own in college because my parents have never owned a dryer and I never had enough clothing growing up to make running loads of only my clothes be practical. It would have been nice to have had more laundry experience, especially of the “you get practice with parent still here to help” variety. Laundry and cooking aren’t the only skills that I would have loved to learn via your strategy (managing money also comes to mind).

      Interestingly, my husband *did* have to do his own laundry growing up, but now I do laundry for both of us. It mostly comes down to the same factor that we don’t have enough clothing for her/his loads, and I don’t want him laundering mine! :)

  7. Patti Says:

    There’s no one “right” approach to this one. I relate absolutely to your feeling of wanting to hang onto this way of taking care, showing love. OTOH, she does need to know how to do it for herself next year.

    You could ask her whether she’d prefer to do her own separately from now on, or take a turn every other time doing the family’s laundry as a whole? You could certainly stipulate that if she’s doing the family’s, it must be done between X and Y time.

    It kind of depends on what your approach to it is. If you’re a family who does laundry weekly at more or less the same time, the right solution will be different from a family like mine where we just do it when the hamper is full or we’re leaving town soon. Having multiple energy- and water-gobbling loads is undesirable, but so is having your clothes held hostage… I did my daughter’s through high school, pretty much, but she had to sort her own stuff into my piles.

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