Mary McNamara: I thought I'd be happy to finish motherhood's many chores. Then I choked up over laundry

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

This column is the latest in a series on parenting children in the final years of high school, "Emptying the Nest."


As I did what felt like my 18th load of laundry last weekend, most of it belonging to my 17-year-old daughter, I felt a strange catch in my throat.

In a little over a year, my three-decade indenture as a full-time laundress will come to an end. With my youngest child away at college, the only clothes I will be regularly loading in and out of the washer and dryer will be my own. (And my husband's — but at this point he only wears, and re-wears, soccer pants and sweatshirts so the addition is negligible.)

For a moment I honestly thought I would cry. Over the freaking laundry. Where once I would grumble and complain — why am I doing this kid's laundry when she could do it herself? — I take bittersweet comfort from the task.

But that's the way it's been as my third and final child draws ever nearer to deserting the nest, as the role of "mother" becomes less CEO and more consultant emeritus.

You'd think I'd be relieved, excited even. A career in motherhood involves many repetitive and relentless tasks — changing diapers, assembling lunches, keeping track of doctor and dentist appointments, filling out school forms for each child Every Single Year.

But none are as omnipresent and unavoidable as the laundry. Picking up all the clothes, washing and drying all the clothes, folding and putting away all the clothes. Yes, I have learned to remove pretty much every stain the natural world can produce, but the years of my life that I have lost to matching socks alone do not bear calculating.

And soon even that tie to the myriad children with whom I've shared my life — the milky-skinned infants, the bright-eyed toddlers, the scrappy elementary school explorers, the sullen but still suddenly cuddly tweens, the amazingly capable and occasionally helpful teens — will be broken.

My youngest may still panic if her basketball uniform is not dry yet, but it's been years since anyone burst into our bedroom at 11:30 p.m. to demand that I start a load of wash right now because "tomorrow is pajama day and my cute ones are dirty." Even longer since I was informed, mere minutes before the school-start bell, that one of them did not have any clean underwear because all of the used pairs "somehow" wound up under their bed. (For years, I stashed packages of children's underwear all around the house. Don't judge me.)

My youngest child still manages to fill a just-moments-ago empty laundry basket to the brim by dint of "cleaning" her room, but as I realized fighting tears over this weekend's laundry, at some point this too will stop.

Let me be clear: I will not miss doing piles of laundry, per se, any more than I miss having to cut grapes in half or comb out everyone's hair looking for lice or figure out how to make dinner for five people on very different schedules, when the youngest will only eat chicken nuggets or grilled cheese, the eldest wants beef with every meal and the middle child is now a vegetarian.

What I will miss is what the absence of those tasks implies. We mark so many of our children's firsts, but aside from various graduation ceremonies, we rarely even notice the lasts.

The last time we gave them a bath, heaved them onto our shoulders, picked them up at all. The last night we tucked them in, read a story, played the Tooth Fairy. The final night/early morning in which our sleep was shattered by the appearance of a young person announcing they had wet the bed, had a nightmare or needed $5 for a field trip.

I remember quite vividly the daily grind of getting three children out of bed, dressed, fed, combed and in possession of backpacks and lunches while I gulped down coffee and wondered just how long I could keep this up.

How long did I keep it up? I honestly don't know. These days, as I hear my 17-year-old respond to her own alarm, make her own lunch and head out the door with only a quick word or hug from her mother, I can't remember the day, or even the year, that early-morning madness stopped.


No doubt it was a gradual change — my eldest children are just two years apart, but there's a six-year age gap between the middle and third child. There was certainly a final day of assembling three lunches and dropping three children off at school.

Except I did not know that then, any more than I was able to mark the last time each of my children climbed into my lap, the last time I told them to brush their teeth, the last argument over homework or sleepovers, the last look at a family room covered with discarded shoes, hoodies, school papers, books and crumpled snack wrappers and the last yell, "Everyone get in here and pick up your stuff!"

OK, a version of that might have actually happened over Christmas, but you get what I'm saying.

So much of what we do as parents is exhausting, irritating and occasionally terrifying and/or infuriating. When we are in the midst of it, surrounded by people who are, in fact, utterly dependent on us, it seems endless. I remember thinking that I would never have the time to read a book or take a shower without interruption, never be able to sit down for more than two minutes, or lie down at all, without at least two small bodies appearing out of nowhere to hurl themselves upon me.

For more than 20 years, nothing that I had previously considered mine belonged only to me. When I wasn't at work (and sometimes when I was), my time, my thoughts, my possessions, my body became communal property.

It was wonderful, and incredibly difficult, and then it was over.

Oh sure, my clothes still go missing occasionally and my now-adult children do, on occasion, hurl themselves upon me as I lie reading on the couch. When two or more are gathered, the refrain of "mom, mom, MOM" can still ring skyward.

But the cacophony of three kids home from school or wondering what we are going to do this weekend is long gone. No one tugs at my shirt demanding to be picked up or to let me know their sibling has done something terrible or to drag me into the backyard to see a very cool bug.

My youngest still occasionally looms over me, offering me tales from school, demands and requests, her need for advice or a hug. She still has things she wants to show me — her latest thrifting haul, a funny video she made, a prize she won.

But soon even that will come to an end, at least on a daily basis. Soon much of my motherhood will occur over texts, or phone calls if I'm lucky.

My older kids, like older kids everywhere, think their youngest sibling is spoiled. Comedian Nate Bargatze has a bit about this that begins: "I have a sister and she is 10 years younger than me and apparently she was raised by her best friends."

There are arguments to be made against this; younger children often complain about the dearth of photos of them as babies, or that their early memories are built not around the playground and Mommy and Me classes but being dragged to their older siblings' soccer games and dance recitals and generally fighting to be heard.

Certainly the last child does benefit from a relaxation of rigor, which is, in part, the result of experience — the first child is, essentially, a test subject — and exhaustion.

But the youngest child also spends time in a nest that is almost empty, with parents who are suddenly aware of all the "last times" they've missed. With mothers like me, who actually gets a little choked up when she realizes she has read half a book without being interrupted once, or fights tears when she realizes that her laundry burden will soon be halved.

Which is precisely why I don't make that girl do her own laundry. Pretty soon it won't be there for me to do.

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