Kenny Rogers, on Laundry

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

Know when to fold ’em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

I learned this lessons the long, hard, drag-em-out way. At least when it comes to laundry.

See, my mom is a champion folder. I have watched her cram 50 articles of clothing into a $5/bag at the thrift store, then balance a basketball on top. And she taught me well. In high school I carried a small, utilitarian purse. I had a reputation for magically packing everything in there. Nail clippers? Yup. Needle and thread? For sure. First aid kit? Look no further. Chapstick? That’s gross. Get your own chapstick. But I carried tinted and moisturizing varieties for myself.

And my clothes? Artistic OCD. My shirts were folded the KonMari way (yes, even color coded) long before Marie Kondo wrote her books. I invented capsule wardrobes- I literally hand-illustrated my packing list when I traveled, so I could be sure everything matched and I would have everything I needed.

Then I got married and had kids.

With our first baby, it “sparked joy” for me to meticulously fold every tiny article of clothing. But by the time we were up to two, three, four kids, the deck was stacked against me. They produced SO MUCH LAUNDRY. And although I could wash and dry four loads a day, folding was a nightmare. All those little shirts. No sooner would I get them folded, than some little person would come and knock the stack over, just for fun.

Folding was overwhelming, so I avoided it. It got to the point where I was amassing the clean laundry in a spare Pack-n-Play until folding time. If you are familiar with the story of Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, you have the idea.

Before our fourth baby was born, I desperately asked my mom and sister to help me. The three of us folded for 3-4 hours: a collective 9-12 hours of work. The job wasn’t even finished, but I had to release them for dinner.

So I started to research. How do other moms do this? Repeatedly, in every blog, in every conversation, I encountered the same answer:

Don’t fold.

I cringed. I didn’t want to “let myself go” like that. Folding is BEAUTIFUL, darn it! So instead of heeding veteran advice, I taught my oldest two daughters to fold their own laundry and kept on folding the younger kids’ clothes.

It wasn’t until their dresser broke that I cracked. I was finally worn down enough to try something different. We bought IKEA Kallax units and filled them with Sterilite baskets, which I covered with fabric and labeled with tags to identify the contents. Laundry gets sorted directly from the dryer, then each child is responsible for taking their clothes to their room and putting them away in the correct “drawers,” no folding required.

My husband and I both held our breath to see if it would work. With only a few weeks to go before Baby #6, the system was about to be put to the ultimate test.

And it was AMAZING. My two oldest daughters flawlessly executed the plan, keeping the laundry washed, dried and put away while I rested with their new baby sister. In the year since then, I have been thrilled with the difference this simple yet profound change has made.

But the song isn’t about laundry. It’s not about gambling, either. It’s about life. I’m guessing I’m not the only one to cling to a way of doing things even when common sense screams for change.

Oh, how I judged those non-folding parents. What sloppiness! Never mind that my “neatness” had resulted in week after week of my poor husband excavating mountains of laundry from an old Pack-n-Play to find clean underwear.

Along with pride, it was also habit and tradition. “My mom is a great folder, and so shall I be!” and other lofty thoughts crowded out reason.

And honestly, it was a sense of loss. I really do love those beautiful folded drawers. I would love for every drawer in every home to look so tidy. Admitting I can’t have it all is a little bit sad.

But, as the song says, the lesson isn’t never fold. The lesson is to learn when to fold. Kenny Rogers rewrote Ecclesiastes 3 for gamblers and homemakers.

True story: I still color code my shirts. I packed my hospital bags in my first trimester. And for our beach vacation in August (four and a half months away), my illustrated packing list is pinned to my bulletin board.

These things still “spark joy” for me, and that’s as it should be. It’s letting go of the rest- the pride, the unhelpful habits, the wasted grief and futile labor- that has made the difference. Letting go has freed me to enjoy the “Life-Changing Magic” of a tidy drawer, and a semi-tidy life, simultaneously.

Every gambler knows

That the secret to surviving

Is knowing what to throw away

And knowing what to keep

‘Cause every hand’s a winner

And every hand’s a loser

 

And the best that you can hope for

Is to die in your sleep.

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