As a child my father was fond of telling me that nothing was certain in life except “death and taxes”. I have no idea if he knew he was quoting Benjamin Franklin, or if he even knew who that was. As an adult with a family to care for, I realised with a degree of certainty that the famous quote should include “Laundry”.
I can mark my growth as a better functioning human by the state of the laundry baskets throughout my house, and throughout my life. In my twenties, a new mother, I moved away from the city to immerse myself in small town rural life. I made some wonderful friends, but I was aghast at how the conversation would turn to housekeeping, and the one-upmanship which always followed. Born in a feminist era, I wasn’t brought up to keep house. My identity was forged around what I could achieve in the world of work, around whether I could hold my own in a discussion about politics, or literature. I didn’t identify with a conversation about how often the sheets were changed on the beds, or what I used to clean the loo. At this time, washing for just three, with the energy of youth, I had optimism a-plenty about my place in the world.
A decade later, with a still-growing family, I was steadily more resentful of my place in the order of things. “I studied for this?” I would ask myself bitterly, “I have a degree, for goodness sake, why am I at home washing socks?” Laundry, as anyone who does it regularly enough will know, is not a finite task. It is never done. Like Sisyphus with his rock, if you wash a pair of socks, or a school uniform, or a t-shirt, or some underwear once a week, every week, and if that clothing was made to last, or handed down from child to child, you will wash that item five hundred and twenty times over ten years. Or, more accurately, you will gather it, wash it, dry it, fold it, and maybe iron it, then redistribute it five hundred and twenty times, which I have to admit sounds even less than it feels.
Moving back to a city area, with two children at school, and now in family life for the long haul, my thirties were a desperate blur of working and washing. Again, the conversation in female groups sometimes turned to housework, and now, in keeping with the affluent area, and the enormous houses these women populated, and the tremendous pressure to keep these lifestyles airborne, the mood was viciously competitive, and teeming with paranoia. Queen bees in the group let it be known that they “always iron everything”, and, “You have to iron their polo tops, because, well, you have to”. My ironing pile grew and grew, clothes sat in it for weeks at a time, lost to all, and I eventually spent a fortune paying a mute french teenager to tackle it for me while I attempted to become a teacher.
Times change and after my last child, so did I. The depression and anxiety of my menstruating years gave way to the fatigue of peri-menopause and the terrifying advent of Chronic Fatigue. There. I wrote it. Those horrible, horrible words, words I wish I’d never seen, never read and never wanted to understand. How strange is the world though, that even in the midst of personal disaster, a falling apart life, a baby who wakes every hour and a half for about a year (or was it six months? I don’t really know), even when I wasn’t able to walk with my ten year old to school, even when I had to go back to bed after the exertion of having a shower, even though I once sat on the sofa all day, pacing myself so that I could get to Parents’ Evening later, somehow I still got through the laundry. I’m sure it is the same the world over. I remember being struck by a news report in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. It measured seven on the Richter scale, and killed hundreds of thousands, yet reports in the aftermath noted that people were cooking in the open air and had strung up lines on which to dry the washing.
Another decade on, I have made peace with the baskets, the tub and the dryer. I no longer feel the pressure to be CEO of a global organisation. These days I can usually glimpse the bottom of the baskets once a week, and if I need help, I have learned to ask for it. I have come to find doing the laundry a grounding, reassuring occupation in a fast-paced world. You could almost call it, like motherhood, a valid meditation. Outside, they might be storming the Bastille. Or maybe those are tanks you can hear rolling over Tiananmen Square. Was that the Berlin Wall coming down, or was it the world’s biggest ever bomb? As the wheel of time clanks round, and at a time of major changes to Western politics, I’m not sure what’s coming next, but I know I’ve got a wash load to do.