I don’t mind doing laundry — it’s clean and warm at the finish. But what will make me madder than a linen skirt in hot water is finding clean laundry thrown in with the dirty because a teenager doesn’t want to take the time to put it away. I try not to take it personally, but I fail. I mean, who raised these hooligans? Aren’t millennials supposed to be up in arms about the environment? This is a waste of water, electricity, detergent — and most of all, my time.
My kids don’t care about any of those things and, as a result, have reduced me to a lab rat.
Now that I’m on to this scam, I’m eager to catch a little sloth in the act. I sniff suspicious items that look unworn: socks that don’t have that stretched-foot, wrinkled-ankle look, T-shirts that may have a faint crease down the center suggesting they were recently folded. I’m searching less for a bad smell than for the obvious scent of Bounce Outdoor Fresh. (It needs to be said: I accept all underwear as dirty. I won’t go there. If a pair of clean undies gets through, I’m fine with that.)
Sniffing clothing from the dirty laundry pile is not something I enjoy, but the payoff keeps me coming back. This little laundry game reminds me of B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments. They showed that if you want to train an animal to do a certain behavior you shouldn’t reward it every time it does the desired behavior. Instead, it is more effective to reward the animal only some of the time and then, only at random intervals. They call this “intermittent reinforcement.” It is the most difficult to undo behaviorally. It’s what makes gambling addictive and children bratty. The gambler gets a win just often enough to stay interested. A kid crying for a toy in the store does it because, every now and then — and you never know when — mom gives in.
Instead of casino tokens I’m playing with tube socks and T-shirts and instead of slot machines the device is my nose. The payoff? Not cold hard cash, but the satisfaction of reducing my laundry pile by one item and showing my children I will not be had. When I get a hit, I am reenergized. It’s proof that the search is worthwhile. Aaah HA!! I exclaim in a swirl of delight, disappointment and righteous indignation. And I become ever more vigilant. This is a side to motherhood I never expected.
In my quest to bust my children for taking me for granted and destroying the planet, I get a lot of false alarms. As they get older and sneakier they also produce laundry that is less obviously dirty. They don’t soil their clothes the way preschoolers do — on the outside. The contamination from teens shifts to the inside. I see a T-shirt that looks clean, the sleeves still pressed together at the armholes, and I salivate over my imminent taste of victory. I empty my lungs, making room for the whiff of all whiffs and am hit with…defeat. Square in the olfactory glands. I have learned the hard way to keep a safe distance and take shallow breaths.
Last night my son brought his laundry down.
“Make sure there isn’t any clean laundry mixed in there, please,” I warned him.
“There isn’t,” he said.
“Oh, good. Because if I do find any, you’ll lose your phone one day for every clean item I find.”
After five minutes in the laundry room he took three T-shirts and one sweatshirt back up to his room.
Ah, the sweet smell of victory!
— Sarah Press Dickerson
Sarah Press Dickerson disappointed her family many years ago by not becoming a doctor of any type. She instead followed her heart and has enjoyed an illustrious career as a stay-at-home mom of three for the past 18 years. Sarah is a humor essayist who lives with her husband and children in Charlottesville, Virginia.