Raising two girls, I have found everything imaginable in the laundry. Except, of course, a mobile phone, because that would be attached to an arm or an ear.
During one particular laundry load, at the end of the summer before my firstborn daughter's senior year, it struck me that she would be leaving for college soon. I fretted. Clearly, she wasn't ready. I had not prepared her. I had forgotten stuff -- like how to check pockets before shoving things in the washer.
I know now that this was my pre-empty-nest grief talking, but at the time, the thought of all the things she did not know was terrifying.
With only a few months left of having her home, I resolved to collect the things my 18-year-old needed to know, and to find teachable moments to deliver the messages.
Alas, I had waited too long: SATs, senior year, and friends on cell phones came first. But the list in my journal became an off-to-college goodbye letter, which then became a book, Do Your Laundry or You'll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give If She Thought You Were Listening.
If I had to do it all over again, I would start earlier. I would begin every summer schedule, not with camps and tutoring programs, but with laundry lessons and awkward life lectures. I would let my kids roll their eyes and bash me to their friends, but I would make absolutely sure they had a few things sorted out. Starting with the laundry:
1. Do your laundry or you'll die alone. Yes, we're starting here. Do your laundry regularly. Try every week. Do it before you run out of clean underwear and before you need your favorite jeans. Because when you want your favorite jeans, and only your favorite jeans will do, you will want them clean. You will not want to have the dilemma of choosing between dirty, stinky favorite jeans and jeans that make your butt look (choose one: wide, low, flat, etc.). Either of these less-than-perfect options will undermine your self-confidence, and you will not have the courage to talk to that cute guy. And then you may never get another chance, and... then comes the dying alone part.
If I had to do it over again, I would stand firm on critical, basic etiquette.
2. Pocket your cell phone during meals. If you're eating alone, it's your call. But if you are dining with others, your call is a slap in their face. Even looking at your phone is rude. Turn it off. Don't answer, if it rings. Put it away.
3. Put your napkin in your lap. And don't blow your nose with it. And don't hide your phone there. No one is falling for it.
4. Look people in the eye. (You'll discover this is hard to do while looking at your phone.)
5. Offer your seat to anyone older or less healthy than you. And occasionally to someone who made an inappropriate shoe choice.
I would debunk the myths that the world is serving up...
6. Profanity doesn't make you sound more dramatic or serious. It just makes you sound #!%*ing profane.
7. The Tooth Fairy may still come. Even though you think you have a lot of things figured out, don't give up on magic. If you lose a tooth late in life, for whatever reason, put it under your pillow.
8. Multi-tasking doesn't always save you time.
I would not be afraid to talk about the scary things:
9. Never put anything on the Internet that you would not want to discuss
- in a job interview
- on a first date
- with your mother
10. A friend who is mad at you for taking her car keys is better than a dead friend.
11. Birth control doesn't work 100 percent of the time.
On the way to teaching them what to fear, I would work every day to assure my daughters that it's all really OK.
12. Everyone feels like a fake. Except the real fakes.
13. Don't worry about mastering parallel parking. They are designing cars that will do it for you.
14. It's OK to outgrow your dreams. The dream house of your childhood would not hold your wardrobe today. And the dream job of today may come to feel like a prison sentence tomorrow. What you hope and work for will change as you do, so don't hold too tight to resolutions you may have outgrown. The true longings of your heart -- to flourish, to love, to explore, to create -- will always be part of you. Grip them loosely, and they will float along beside you, just far enough out of reach to keep you interested.
And yes, I would spend more time on sorting and settings and such. Because growing up is all about knowing the difference.
15. Know who your friends are.
16. Know who your friends AREN'T.
17. Know the difference between collecting and hoarding.
18. Honor your fear. It may be trying to tell you something.
19. Don't be paranoid.
20. If you're flirting with everyone, you're flirting with no one. And you're probably embarrassing yourself.
21. Don't joke in the security line at the airport.
22. But try to find humor everywhere else.
Because the things that go without saying... well, they really don't.
23. Don't wad up your clothes. Some morning, today's dirty shirt or sweater will be your cleanest option, and you'll want to tell yourself that you can wear it and no one will be the wiser. You might get away with it, if it has not been smashed under a wet towel for two days.
24. Lint is never in style.
25. Even sloppy people like neat roommates. Sad, but true. Pick up your stuff.
My youngest daughter graduated this spring, and evidence shows I've done a pretty good job. I would like to turn back the clock for a lot of reasons. Certainly, I would not have waited so long to look through the laundry for parenting wisdom.
No matter how young or old our children are, the laundry is rich with memories and metaphors. Because like parenting itself, laundry is inescapable, repetitive, and never really finished.
Portions of this article are excerpted from Do Your Laundry or You'll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give if She Thought You Were Listening, written and illustrated by Becky Blades, Startistry Publishing, copyright 2014.