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A Happy Mom's Secret: Don't Do Your Own Laundry

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(Part 4 in the "Core Competency Moms" series)

Sarah, a Philadelphia-based mom of several small children, has a dirty secret: She doesn't wash her own clothes.

No, she doesn't employ a maid or "laundress." She's not wealthy. Nor is she working 60 hour weeks at a corporate job that leaves no time for chores. She's a stay-at-home mom. But as she told me recently, she simply hates spending her afternoons stuck in the laundry room. "Folding the laundry requires uninterrupted time that I don't have," she says. "If I stop mid-load, the kids and dog will inevitably trample my work."

So she contacted a business called We Wash It Laundry that usually caters to Philadelphia-area college students. It turned out that We Wash It does pick up, wash & fold and delivery for private homes as well as dorms. They charge $1.10 per pound. For Sarah, this comes out to $25-35 per week. Given the time she saves, this is a small luxury on a per hour basis. It's one Sarah is happy to splurge on in lieu of, say, going out to eat.

"A lot of my friends cannot believe I don't do my own laundry," she says. They tell her it only takes a little bit of time (though they haven't added up the hours). They tell her to just put the kids in front of a DVD while she folds shirts. But "I don't want to spend less time with my children," Sarah says. "I want to spend less time doing housework." After all, families may have fond memories of cooking together, she says, but no one waxes nostalgic that "My mom always had piles of laundry in a basket."

She's onto something. Laundry has long been the bane of many a mother's existence. In theory, it could be the bane of many a father's existence but...let's face it. This is usually mom's chore. Things have gotten better since the days of washboards and clotheslines. Still, if you've got small kids who roll in the dirt, wipe their noses on their sleeves and spill milk on their pants, loads of it can pile up. Mount Never-Rest looms in the hamper, ready to eat your weekends. In Sisyphean fashion, once your clothes are clean, they just get dirty again. So some moms are starting to ask "why?" Doing laundry is no more a quintessential element of motherhood than sewing your children's clothes. In fact, sometimes it can distract you from being the kind of mom you want to be.

While I'm writing this series of posts on Core Competency Moms about the issues facing working mothers, I first discovered the joys of outsourcing laundry when I was a single, childless, and strapped enough that I ate toast for breakfast rather than cereal. My cockroach-infested walk-up here in New York lacked a laundry room, so I had to go to the Laundromat across the street. I quickly noticed that trying to be on hand when a cycle ended could tie you to the block for the better part of a morning. I also noticed that the Laundromat offered to wash and fold for about 50 cents a pound. I ran the numbers and decided to buy myself back part of my Saturdays by drinking less on Saturday nights and using the cash to have someone else keep my clothes clean.

It's a habit I've kept after getting married and starting a family. Yes, my new apartment building has a laundry room. But our closest laundry service does a much better job than I do. When my husband and I do our own laundry we sometimes overload the dryer and wind up with wet clothes draped over the bed. The laundry service presses our T-shirts. They even match our socks!

This isn't surprising. Why wouldn't a company that specializes in laundry do a better job at it than a couple of amateurs? With their rows of machines and quick folding ability, the professionals who run these small businesses are bound to be more efficient at the process. That's why they make a profit, even though we pay less than $10 an hour for the time we save. This - in microcosm - is the whole idea behind the outsourcing revolution that's swept through corporate America over the past two decades. Companies have become more nimble and profitable by farming out insurance plan management, for instance, or manufacturing parts, and focusing on what they do best. When businesses and people focus on their core competencies - laundry services on laundry, and you on whatever you do - everyone comes out ahead.

Of course, hiring a laundry service is a bit more usual in Manhattan than elsewhere. Many of us don't have washers and dryers right in our homes. But the calculus isn't that much different for hauling your baskets to the basement of your own home than to the ground floor common laundry room. It takes a little less time, but not much, and so affordable laundry services do exist across the USA. We Wash It does Philadelphia. A quick Google search turns up Alabaster Cleaners in San Francisco, and The Clothesline in Milford, Connecticut, among others. Generally, these services charge a bit over $1 per pound for pick up and delivery. A few national dry-cleaning franchises, such as Pressed4Time, have entered the business. Your local dry-cleaner might let you outsource this chore as well.

"I am surprised that more people don't do this," Sarah says - at least for their own clothes (sensitively skinned babies may need special detergent, and that's harder to pull off, though some services offer such an option). Yet few harried folks use these businesses. When I ask why, I get three reactions.

The first is of the "I couldn't afford that" variety. For some people that's true, but given the number of folks who buy their lunches rather than make them, and buy their clothes rather than stitch them, possibly not. Sarah's total of $25-35 per week is not insignificant, but once you get beyond the subsistence level of income, economics is a series of choices: to turn down the thermostat, for instance, or buy a smaller house but outsource some of its care.

Second, some proportion of people either doesn't mind laundry, or actually enjoys it in its own right. I giggled all through writer/philosopher/lawyer Cheryl Mendelson's book, Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens. This ode to detergent speaks lovingly of how nice girls wash their underwear, and about the fresh scent of air-dried clothes. Some people enjoy playing doctor; if laundry is your particular fetish, fine.

But the last reaction is the one I find most odd. Some women get slightly offended and say something along these lines: It's my job to take care of my family. Culturally, we still believe that "caring for a family" means cooking, scrubbing, vacuuming, lunch packing, weeding, back to school clothes shopping and, yes, laundry, in addition to the emotional work of nurturing children's brains and souls. For years, all these labors have been roped into the job description of "mom." Added together, they take up a lot of time. In 1965, women who were not in the workforce - i.e., women who were homemakers - spent 37 hours a week on household activities. In other words, making a house really was their full time job.

Perhaps children had cleaner clothes back then. The sheets got washed more often. But is that really what kids need? Or do we have a situation like in the gospels, when Martha was obsessed with cooking for Jesus, and got upset that Mary actually sat and listened? You can argue whether moms of small kids should be in the workforce, but it's hard to argue that spending 37 unpaid hours a week on housework is the best use of anyone's time.

All of us find time in short supply these days. I would argue that unless you are making a conscious point of involving your kids with the laundry - a good idea if they're 10, not so easy if they're 2 - doing loads of it is actually taking time away from them. Better to spend your Saturday going on a long family bike ride than carrying down load after load.

We were faced with the choice of quality time vs. laundry one recent weekend. I'd been gone off and on for much of the previous two weeks, and once I emptied my suitcase, it quickly became clear that we had at least 30lbs of work ahead of us. Rather than do all the loads, I dropped the bags off with the laundry service, and picked them up on Friday afternoon. As a result, we had clean clothes for the weekend, and didn't have to spend Saturday hovering in the laundry room, ready to remove the loads as soon as they were done. Instead, we all took a road trip to the zoo, where my 1-year-old son squealed in delight as he encountered the petting zoo goats. We spent the evening with some friends who had a goat-sized dog. This also inspired delighted squealing.

My son isn't going to remember anything from this chunk of his life anyway. But if he could, I doubt he would have preferred a Saturday of laundry to the zoo and hanging out with a puppy.

"I find it so interesting that it is commonplace in our society to outsource childcare, but the burdensome routines of keeping house are, for the most part, not outsourced," Sarah says. Finding a laundry service has let her spend more relaxed time with her little ones without dreading that Sisyphean chore. "We have all been happier ever since."

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