Dirty Laundry Saved My Baby's Life

Adapted from my essay in the collection The Imperfect Mom, ed. Therese Borchard, 2006


I have a laundry problem. Well, maybe that’s putting it too strongly: perhaps it is better to say I have "issues" with laundry. I'm not good with the taking-it-out-of-the-washer-and-putting-it-in-the-dryer-in-a-timely-fashion part; I'm not good with the taking-it-out-of-the-dryer-and-folding-it-up-in-a-timely-fashion part; I'm not good with the taking-the-folded-piles-and-putting-them-in-the-closet-in-a-timely-fashion part. Right now as I type this, my laundry mocks me, from the wadded up clean clothes that have yet to be folded on my bed, to the mounting basket of dirty clothes in the baby’s room, to the wet clothes molding in the washer to the dry clothes wrinkling in the dryer. I am, I fear, laundry-impaired.

I'm aware, too, of the metaphor of laundry, and what my reluctance to deal with it means. I really do want to move on, I really do want to use what I already have, I really do want to take the things I’ve dirtied and make them clean again. And yet I fight against the dull repetition of it all: I want the triumph of things done and not the frustration of things undone. I find myself wishing futilely for everything to stay new, pristine, untouched by experience. When I see the laundry goading me from its slovenly lair atop the already full hamper or the basket or the table, I resent the way it represents all the things that change, the way the newness always fades, the need for decay and rebirth.

Self-cleaning clothes, I think: clothes that never need to be cleaned, that always stay new, intensely blue or perfectly creased. That’s what I need. No laundry, ever—and perhaps with that, no need to deal with the way things change, with the importance of maintenance. The world opens up to me as I imagine it: dishes that no longer need washing, furniture that doesn’t need dusting. I could be free from the drudgery that currently defines my life as a mother. Gleaming countertops, cat-hair-free carpet, fresh-smelling clothes; none of the defeating, endless cycle. None of the work.

Putting the laundry away, clearing the blue plastic basket to make room for the next load that waits in the dryer, I feel like Sysiphus, the man in the myth who was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a mountain, whereupon it would roll back on him and he would have to repeat the effort again, for all of eternity. Stuffing the T-shirts in drawers, I am reminded that Sysiphus received this punishment for loving life too much, for having the gall to wheedle his way out of the underworld and then refuse to go back. The Gods did not take kindly to that. But Sysiphus did not want to go under, and neither do I. I do not want to be lost in the mundane. I do not want to be submerged. And so of course that’s where I am. Sysiphus and I, our pride got us where we are.

Today, with laundry all around me, I berated myself for failing yet again, for pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it fall back on me. If only the baby would take a nap, I thought, I could get through this mess, just put everything away and finish with the laundry once and for all. But then I remembered, if Nate actually did take a nap, there were a million things I needed to do that mattered more than laundry. And I felt guilty about that.

Some time later, I realized Nate needed changing. He is beginning to walk now, his eight-month-old chunky legs propelling him like a wobbly drunk as he grips my index fingers and staggers through the house. So we walked to his room together. The laundry piles were in their usual places, and I did my best to look right past them. I hoisted him up to the changing table, unsnapped his onesie, and leaned down to grab a diaper from the cabinet on the right of the table. Suddenly, I felt his legs whip past the hand I had left hovering next to him as I turned my gaze to the diapers for just a moment. I looked to see him spiraling, falling from the table, turning in mid-air like a chubby junior member of Cirque de Soleil. In an instant he was on his back, hands up around his ears, his face stunned, open-mouthed, but without a cry.

His head missed the diaper pail by centimeters, I realized as I turned to scoop him up, my body coursing with adrenaline. But why wasn’t he crying? Was he unconscious? Was he hurt? No. He was surprised but completely unharmed. I realized as I picked him up from his landing pad of burpies and shirts that his two-foot fall had been cushioned—by a generous bed of dirty laundry.

Nate whimpered as I picked him up and pressed him to me, moving clothes out of the way to make room for us to sit on the futon. The guilt descended upon me like a 20-pound baby falling off a changing table: how could I have turned my head, even for a second? How could I have been so lax? A good mother would never have let that happen, a good mother would have had the diaper prepared, no need for furtive rummaging through the cabinet, no need to peer into the jumble of wipes and baby products in search of what she needed.

But, I reminded myself, a good mother would have done her laundry. A good mother wouldn’t have left a basket of dirty clothes lying around right next to the changing table, and that’s surely what saved Nate from serious harm. Dirty laundry saved my baby’s life, I thought to myself, laughing as Nate suddenly grabbed my hair and shrieked with excitement.

Maybe I had been reading too much into my laundry issues, making a metaphor out of a laundry pile and blaming myself for bad housekeeping and pathological resistance to change, when really what all my laundry meant was simply that I have two kids and no cleaning lady or babysitter, that I get behind sometimes and put the laundry last on my list. Maybe the subtext of having dirty laundry is nothing deeper than the fact that sometimes putting off the inevitable, hanging on to things just the way they are, can serve a purpose in some unexpected way.

Still, I put Nate down for his nap. I arranged the diapers in the changing table cabinet. And then I picked up the dirty clothes that saved his life and put them in the wash.