We have a magic washing bin in our house. Every time I empty it, I open the lid again and it’s full. Full of tinned spaghetti-stained t-shirts, milk-soaked cot sheets, muddy mini-jeans, dribbled-on dribble bibs, and socks. Tons of socks. With pro-creating comes mounds of washing. One follows the other. It would appear to be the natural order of life. Then there’s my clothes: clean every morning but peeled from my body at the end of the day covered in a variety of saliva, snot, baby sick, wee, poo and milk. If it emits from a bodily orifice, I wear it, not quite with pride.
With a household of five, there’s at least five washes a week: a dark one; a light one; a bedlinen one; a wool one and probably another dark one for good measure. Get it wrong at your peril: a woollen jumper in a hot wash or a tissue in a pocket can ruin the whole morning. Some people find doing the washing satisfying in some way: the sorting into colours, the array of products to tackle every stain; the clean detergent smell when the clothes are hung to dry; the folding; the putting away. I find it tedious and never-ending. I am drowning in washing.
So I spoke to my mother. She says that I have it easy. When she was a mother of young children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she spent every morning standing at the twin tub washing terry cloth nappies. I didn’t really understand what this meant so she explained the process. First she disposed of the paper liner (i.e. the part that held most of the excrement) and disinfected the nappies in a bucket. The twin tub, now a mythical beast, was a rectangular appliance about a metre long by half a metre wide. My mother would fix its pipe to the sink tap and fill up the drum with hot water. She then added a pile of nappies with detergent and the agitator in the drum would swish the nappies around, before she lifted them out with tongs, rinsed them in the sink and spun them in the next section of the drum. Then they were hung out in the garden or on a clothes horse. Only the nappies were done separately; when she was washing clothes, she would use the same water, putting the whites in first, then the coloureds and, finally, jeans. I’ve no idea what I was doing during this whole process, but I assume this is why my mother’s generation put their babies in their prams in the garden for the morning.
But then she had it easy, compared to my grandmother. In the ‘50s, she had a square Parnall washing machine and an electric wringer. She had to feed each item of clothing through the wringer and then back again. Her mother, my great grandmother, had an old copper boiler (i.e. a large pot) in her kitchen. It had a gas ring underneath which heated the water for the clothes. The clothes went into the boiler and my great grandmother poshed them up and down with a wooden dolly. She didn’t have a spinner, or a wringer. My mother remembers squeezing out sheets in the yard; one person at one end, another at the other. She had a flat iron too, that she heated on the gas stove and then spat on to see if it was hot enough.
By this point I am thinking of my Hotpoint washing machine and tumble dryer with an emotion similar to fondness. I often put on a ‘goodnight cycle’ when I go to bed and in the morning the dirty washing is clean. I cannot imagine a copper boiler, a wooden dolly. I also have a sense of guilt: at least they reused their nappies. I don’t want to calculate the volume of landfill that I have contributed to, by putting three children in disposables. I imagine the ground filling with pyramids of nappies containing cold excrement, like Ferrero Rocher on a platter at the Ambassador’s drinks party. I don’t know anyone who uses cloth nappies and I wonder why they are not more popular when we try to be ‘green’ in other aspects of our lives. We recycle our cardboard, compost our food and worry about waste, but we draw the line about recycling the nappies. I guess we want to maintain the simplicity of our lives; we don’t want to return to the hardships of our mothers and, let’s face it, we’re still squeamish about shit.
It is also because I am aware of the one constant in my generational scenario: it is still me, the mother, that does the washing or the majority of it at least. My four-year old daughter likes to fold the clothes; my two-year old son kicks the neatly formed piles like leaves in a park. I will try to teach them both to help with housework but I wonder what position my daughter will be in in thirty-odd years time. I hope that her generation will be eco-minded enough to use cloth nappies but perhaps by then there will be a magic robot-pixie to complement the magic washing bin, who sorts, washes, dries, folds and puts away the clothes.