By Olivia StrenUpdated Nov 09, 2018
Illustration: Patrick Doyon
On his first day of preschool, my three-and-a-half-year-old son, Leo, lay in his pyjamas, weeping violently.
“I don’t want to go to school,” he cried. “I want to relax!”
I tried—uselessly—to comfort him, but he continued his protest. “I can’t go!” he sobbed. Tears pooled in his eyes and, like a beleaguered 1950s housewife, he told me, “I have so much laundry to do.”
Leo finally resigned himself to the injustice of the Fates (a.k.a. preschool) on the condition that he got to do a small load of laundry before we left the house.
Despite the speed wash, drop-off was traumatic for all. Leo wailed in a gulping, consumptive way, and when I left the building, the teachers took him to the window so he could see me off. He pressed his little hand against the pane—as if this was the last time we would ever see each other.
About seven minutes later, I got a phone call from his teacher, who told me Leo had settled down and was doing great now—after a visit to the school’s washing machine.
“It’s a Whirlpool, Mummy,” Leo later reported. “A front-loader! It’s nice. But I like our Miele better.”
It is not an overstatement to say that my son is obsessed with doing laundry. He doesn’t know how to put on his own shoes and can barely brush his own teeth, but he can have a conversation with you about the “agitator” in a top-loading washing machine. (I didn’t know what an agitator was until last week—it’s the central spindle that twists back and forth to agitate and clean clothes, in case you didn’t know either.)
The other day, I took Leo to a three-year-old’s birthday party, and while all the other kids played with toys and balloons and begged for cake, Leo cleaned the lint filter in the family’s dryer. And when I recently took him to my sister’s house, he skipped the hellos and made a beeline for her state-of-the-art LG washer and dryer.
“Hi, guys!” he greeted the appliances instead. “Wow, look at you two. You’re so big,” he said, awed by their hulking stature.
And yesterday morning, when my husband and I were in the deepest REM sleep (a cherished moment), Leo busted in like Kramer from Seinfeld, with a pressing proposition: “Do you want to do laundry, Mummy?” As if he couldn’t imagine anybody not longing to greet the first flush of dawn with a load of whites.
Obviously, this sort of wake-up call is not pleasant, but there is an upside to Leo’s obsession. I’ve watched enough soap operas in my life to understand the importance of blackmail. And, with toddlers, blackmail (I mean positive reinforcement) is critical. On a recent trip to Florida, Leo discovered that he enjoyed the beach almost as much as pre-washing my husband’s dress shirts. The only thing that enticed him to leave the surf, without a full meltdown, was the promise of laundering our sandy beach towels.
Meanwhile, after months of failed potty-training attempts—toys, stickers and every last M&M on Earth appeared to hold no appeal—we discovered the magic of bribing him to forsake his diapers with a visit to the “laundry store,” a.k.a. The Home Depot, or heaven, as far as Leo is concerned.
And that is nothing compared to the paradise that is our local laundromat, an ever-thrilling Eden we happened upon by pure chance. Leo and I were en route to a toy store when he stopped abruptly, eyes gleaming as if he had just spotted the world’s biggest ice cream cone. “What is thaaat, Mummy?” he said. We never made it to the toy store.
On a subsequent trip to the ’mat as a potty-training reward, Leo began talking about the rinse cycle with a man who had more tattoos (of the lizard variety) than teeth. And I have a photo of him that day, beaming with joy and holding what very well might be a stranger’s underwear.
People can’t help but ask me, with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, when Leo’s affection for laundry and washing machines started. Truthfully, I can’t recall. Though I do remember that about six months ago, my parents began to save their laundry for Leo’s visits. “Is Leo coming over today?” my dad asked me on a snowy Sunday. “I have to clean the sheets.”
I also remember, on one such visit, finding my mom bare-legged and Leo bare-chested in the laundry room on a freezing February day. Evidently, finding no more items in need of laundering, they proceeded to undress. Upon my entrance, Leo scanned my outfit, layer upon layer of potential delight, and announced, “Mummy, I think your shirt is very dirty. I have to clean it now.” At which point, the machine beeped and Leo clasped his hands. “Oh! My laundry’s ready.”
I’ve tried to unravel Leo’s fascination, but he loves it all: the buttons, the soap spinning to suds, the lights, the twirling, how the clothes emerge wet from the washer and then warm and yummy-smelling from the dryer. There also seems to be something comforting in the ritual and cozy predictability of it all. But it’s foolish to try to understand, let alone define, the nature of love—especially young love. Instead, my mind tumbles with other questions, mainly: “Why can’t he just nurture a nice little dependency on Paw Patrol?”
I remember my grandmother once telling me that when your children are young it is the best time of your life. It was the sort of wisdom, the kind rusted with just enough regret, that seemed designed to make you feel badly. As I recently watched Leo do the gazillionth load of laundry (you’re welcome, hydro company), I told myself I’d better enjoy this spin cycle, because this was the best time of my life. This moment in my cold basement was its joy-filled summit, and soon the buzzer would sound, Leo would be older and I’d be old. Leo interrupted these cheerful musings. “I like fabric softener, Mummy,” he said. “How ’bout you?”
Before I had a baby, I read that one of the truly wondrous things about parenting is watching an infant go from limpet to individual, with opinions and idiosyncrasies and passions—in this case, particularly strong feelings for Persil laundry detergent. If his ardour for laundry has been, let’s say, surprising, I’ve also worried about it. Most of parenting, as far as I can tell, is an exercise in wondering: Is this normal?
“You wouldn’t worry if he was this passionate about dinosaurs,” my therapist offered. This was true and sensible, so I found comfort in these words. But then I left Leo alone with YouTube for about 15 seconds, and I walked into the room to find him sucking his thumb, engrossed in what appeared to be a consumer report on mega-capacity, water-efficient LG washing machines. “I love Electrolux, too, Mummy!” he said.
I immediately called our paediatrician. Calmly, the doctor advised me not to worry about what is “normal,” but instead to support Leo’s fascinations—as long as we also encourage him to foster other interests.
Leo does have other interests—he loves cars, music , our cats and the moon. He also enjoys eating cake and is beginning to cultivate a casual interest in sump pumps and wind turbines.
His love of laundry has not quite gone through the wash cycle. There is hope, though. I picked him up from school recently and found him sitting on a bench in the playground, enjoying a tête-à-tête with a teacher. She told me about their conversation.
“Leo was just asking me if I liked ‘winterbines’”? Seeing her confusion, I translated for her. “Oh, yes, he likes wind turbines!” “Aha!” she said.“He also wondered if I had a top-loading washing machine.”
Of course he did.
As she waved goodbye, Leo ran toward me for a hug and we headed home for a school-less weekend—so much joy to be had, so much laundry still to do.