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Nashville Scene Family Planning

It all comes out in the wash

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  Back when the rest of my college buddies were planning to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, or sign on as crewmen of the Rainbow Warrior, or at the very least write the Great American Novel, my friend Tina had what seemed like a more manageable goal: to marry and have four children, preferably two of each gender. Considering the global population already pushing five billion at the time, I regarded this as a frivolous, if not outright irresponsible, plan. Marry and have a bunch of kids? Oh, please.

Fifteen years later, not one of my college friends has lived out his or her previous lofty ambitions--either socially conscious or artistic--and neither have I. We're all just average folks working at average jobs and basically getting by. So lately I've been wondering if maybe Tina had it right all along, if maybe there's some value to modest ambitions after all, to making a difference in the world one child at a time. Then Tina herself called to congratulate me on the birth of my third child.

"So," she said, "three's a lot of kids, huh?"

"Well, not as many as four."

"Oh, dear Lord," she said. "Who wants four kids?"

"You," I said. "Two boys and two girls, remember? You're only lacking that second girl."

"No more kids for me," Tina answered. "What I didn't know in college is that the number of children you can handle is directly contingent on the amount of laundry you can physically do: I maxxed out on laundry one kid back."

I considered this proposition. Compared to my college concerns with replacement-rate reproduction and planetary carrying capacity, this theory seemed infinitely more practical. You could even express it in mathematical terms: if x = the number of hours in the week available for laundry and y = the carrying capacity of your washing machine, then x + y = the rate of reproduction your family can sustain. Simple, logical, clear.

So I started to calculate the ideal size of my family according to the laundry equation. Normally I myself can get by with a single outfit each day, but my husband, who dresses for both work and sports, goes through twice as many clothes. If there's an infant in the family, however, that number rises considerably for both of us. My husband has been known to go through three different shirts before he gets out the door, finally spit-up free, at 7 a.m. And while I'm perfectly willing to wear spit-up on my shoulder all day, I draw the line at poop. If there's green dung on my shirtsleeve, I change clothes. Between the milk-guzzling baby and the raisin-loving toddler I now change about eight dirty diapers a day; hence the chances are pretty strong I'll also have to change my own blouse more than once. Adult clothing total: approximately 13 pounds per day.

Then there's the matter of children's clothing. The infant who spits up on his parents rarely neglects to leave a fresh deposit on himself as well, requiring almost as many changes of clothing as the toddler, who runs though several ensembles daily simply by virtue of his pretense at independence. Because he will not suffer the aid of his mother, virtually every change in activity requires a change of attire. All through with the yogurt? Time for a fresh shirt. Play-dough lost its allure? Time for new jeans. Don't kick the dirty diaper! Oops, let's find another pair of socks.

My oldest child, thankfully, is neither clumsy nor careless, and if he were a sedentary child he could probably make it through a day wearing only the clothes he dressed in that morning. But he is not a sedentary child. He is a boy who, as soon as he is released from school, springs into the sap-beaded pine tree at the foot of the driveway, who lies down in the sandbox and allows his brother to bury him alive, who goes out of his way to stomp through mud puddles, and who rolls joyfully through mounds of sugar-maple leaves, utterly regardless of the mire of dog-doo lurking underneath. Factor in at least two outfits a day, plus pajamas, for him. Children's clothing total: 19 pounds per day.

But wait. That's 19 pounds in temperate weather. What about the additional undershirts and thermal underwear and wool over-socks and polarfleece jackets that go along with winter? Add another eight pounds per day during cold weather. Multiply that number by five if it snows.

And let's not forget linens. All those towels and bath mats and dishrags. All those saturated sheets from diapers fastened too loosely, or with the diaper's occupant carelessly pointed in the wrong direction. All those guest towels and sheets when grandparents come to pay homage to the filthy children who share their genes. I figure my children and relatives generate around 35 pounds of fouled linens a week, not counting a towel each for my husband and me.

So back to the equation: 13 pounds of adult clothing + 19 pounds of children's wear + 5 pounds of linens (35 pounds per week divided by 7 days) = 37 pounds of laundry per day in good weather, 45 pounds in bad. My washer can handle about 15 pounds per load, for a grand total of 3 loads of laundry per day, not counting the many times a stomach virus invades and increases the number of wash loads exponentially. At roughly one hour per wash load to gather, sort, wash, dry, fold, and put clean things away, the number of hours I spend attending to laundry each week exceeds the number of hours I spend writing this column, dining with my family, and keeping up with the events of my age combined. If I had all those laundry hours back again, I could write a novel, harness the power of nuclear fusion, and save the whales all at once.

"I believe we have too many children," I remarked to my husband that night, over the din at our dinner table.

His eyes glazed over while I explained the law of laundry dynamics. "I don't get it," he concluded. "What's the big whoop about laundry, anyway? It's not like you're wading in the Amazon, beating clothes against a rock."

I put my fork down. The children fell silent, instinctually aware that storm clouds were gathering.

I paused for an instant, mentally flipping through my Rolodex of Shakespearean invectives, searching for the vilest to spew forth upon a man who was wearing his fourth shirt of the day. But in that second between the clarifying oxygen and the stream of outrage--an instant in which my husband began to look both remorseful and full of dread--a beautiful idea suddenly bloomed, a perfectly clear thought came to me, a sheen of inspiration sparkled in my eyes. I closed my mouth and folded my napkin. I calmly rose from the table and headed down the hall.

I was booting up the computer when my husband peeked in our office door and cautiously asked what I was doing. "From now on, the laundry's all yours," I said, not even bothering to look up. "I find I won't have time for it anymore."

As he stood there, still processing this news, I started typing. Fate and Family Laundry, I spelled out across the glowing screen, An Introduction For Beginners.

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