Not waving, but washing


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.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday


My Petit Canard
Pink Pear Bear
Cuddle Fairy

Ways in which perhaps we should be turning into our mothers

There are clearly ways in which I should be turning into my mother, but for some reason I am not. So following my previous post, for fairness and completeness, I wanted to acknowledge the ways in which I should be more like her. I know this list doesn’t apply to lots of my peers, who are much less domestically hopeless than I am.

Here are a handful of them (although I am sure the list is non-exhaustive – just in case you’re reading, Mum):

  1. By running a tight ship

Thrifty housekeeping, by which I mean housewifely tricks such as meal planning, budgeting and making leftover food into tasty meals for the following day. How many times do I keep cold mashed potato in the fridge intending to make bubble and squeak but never get round to it? (In fact I don’t think I know how to make bubble and squeak.) Or a chicken carcass which could be turned into stock or a healthy broth? My mother grew up in 50’s Yorkshire when “ee by gum, times were tough,” as we used to say to annoy her. But now I’m older and a little wiser, I know that life was much more about the hard graft than I will ever know and I admire her for not abandoning her economising principles in a throw-away society.

  1. By knowing how to ‘make do and mend’

When my mother was younger, socks were darned, leather patches were sewn on jumper elbows , cardigans were knitted by hand and embroidery was a common pastime of a woman in her prime. Most of my clothes as a child were made from Clothkits patterns. Most of my daughter’s clothes are from H&M, Next and Boden. The haberdashery department at John Lewis is a fascinating new world: a treasure trove of thimbles, bobbins, press studs, satin ribbons and coloured threads.  Am I part of a lost generation of terrible-at-textiles women, or is it just me? I know it’s not just me because some of my friends’ mothers mend the holes in their sons-in-law’s trousers and knit their grandchildren cozy hooded jumpers, while their daughters are doing the online weekly shop and buying birthday presents from Amazon. I’m not advocating a return to the 1950’s England of village fetes, jam-making and the WI (although that pre-EU dystopia may soon be repeating on us like Great Auntie Mabel’s homemade elderflower wine), it’d just be useful to know how to sew on a button with dexterity.

  1. By being more house-proud

My ‘down-time’ – i.e. when the baby is having his morning nap – tends to consist of doing what I term ‘essential iPad admin’ (including the shopping referred to in 2 above, as well as emailing with a bit of social networking thrown in). I have already been reprimanded by my mother for this. By midday she would have already washed 20 terry cloth nappies in the twin-tub, peeled 11 spuds, polished the brass, plumped the cushions, mopped the floor and lined the shoes up for cleaning. My daughter’s school shoes are lucky to get the once over with a baby-wipe twice a term and a good friend who bought us a silver salt-shaker for a wedding present complained that it looked like pewter a few months later.

  1. By attempting my own Bake-Off

When I bought my first flat, I used to keep empty butter packets in the fridge like my mother did when we were growing up, but I didn’t really know what they were for (something to do with making cakes?). I gave up after a while, since I had to throw them away unused every month or so. Plenty of my peers can bake really well, so this isn’t necessarily a generational thing. My baking tins sit pristine at the back of the cupboard and when I attempted to make chocolate crispy cakes for my daughter to take to school for her birthday, I put cold syrup into warm melted chocolate and the mixture turned irreparably solid. Fortunately my mum was there to make a new batch.

   5.   By being green-fingered

My mother was gardening the day before she gave birth to me. I imagine her having her first twinge while kneeling by a flowerbed with a trowel in her hand. I didn’t have a garden that I was responsible for until I was in my mid-thirties and it took me a while to realise how utterly time-consuming it is to tend a garden so that it looks passably good and you don’t have to apologise to guests if they trip over a molehill on the unmowed lawn. Strimming, trimming, planting, plucking, pruning, deadheading, digging, raking, hoeing, sowing, shovelling, tending, watering, weeding: seriously, who has time for all of this? Fortunately, the garden is full up with a climbing frame, trampoline and assorted plastic toys so there’s not much room for nice flowers. My favourite plants are our pale pink Camelia which flowers in early April for my son’s birthday and a Rhododendron whose vibrant dark pink flowers blossom for our daughter’s birthday in late May. And that’s about as much as I know.