I know I’m weird. I have never really minded doing the laundry. I was taught early and well to take great satisfaction from jobs with clear results. It starts off dirty. A few steps and voila! It’s clean. I can see the proof that I accomplished something. In fact, few things are more satisfying than seeing clean-smelling, neatly folded, bright and tidy clothes tucked into drawers, everything crisp and orderly – proof of course that I am a Good Mum.
I know you can see where this is going.
In our house, thanks in large part to FASD (though, to be fair, not entirely due to FASD), laundry is not that simple.
First, there is the volume. A sensory-seeker who loves mud and slime, who might chew on clothing when under stress, who spits out foods that his body rejects and who might not be able to contain the need to wipe a runny nose until finding a tissue naturally generates massive amounts of laundry. There are up to four changes a day due to continence problems that arise from food allergies and other issues around digestion/food, generating laundry that needs to be addressed daily and urgently and without shaming or blaming. There are of course also favourite stretchy tops and soft trousers that need to be nearly always available.
I try to keep a smile, even as my heart sinks watching the stack(s) of laundry grow.
Attacking this gets complicated.
Our son has some autistic-type traits directly related to his FASD – damage caused to his brain by exposure to alcohol in the womb. He has always had a very special and intense focus on washing machines. I get it, I really do. What’s not to like? The whirring and spinning, bubbles and sounds can be soothing and captivating. Our guy used to sleep in a pushchair parked in front of washing machines (which in England are front-loading and have glass windows).
His interest has deepened. He has become an expert of sorts by watching endless hours of YouTube videos and playing with his armada of toy washing machines which he has begun taking apart and putting back together again with varying success. When he goes to one of his favourite destinations – Currys – he discusses the technical specifications of most top brands with the staff. Armed with that kind of knowledge, he gets nervous and anxious when our ancient washing machine at home rattles a bit in the spin cycle. He worries it is ‘unbalanced’. If he sees a ‘suds lock’, his anxieties erupt if we don’t shut down the machine. He pleads with us to buy a new one. He knows which will fit the space we have.
Once upon a time I might have thought I needed to help him ‘get over it’ – to push on with my own schedule and just do the laundry despite his anxiety. But we are the ones who had to learn. FASD is brain-based. To make it more likely that he can cope with even seemingly mundane things, we have to adapt the environment. In the FASD community this is a bit of a mantra, deriving from the ‘neurobehavioural’ approach made popular by Diane Malbin.
So this raises logistical issues related to timing – if we do laundry when our guy is slightly dysregulated, overly tired or anxious it may lead to a meltdown (although the line is never exactly clear, as sometimes watching the machine can help soothe him).
Then there are practical issues – we need to hang the laundry to dry. Given England’s usual wet skies, that means this laundry is hanging on drying racks in our dining room – making the spaces more chaotic than they already are, which is not ideal for someone with FASD. It also limits the number of loads we can do on a given day (our dryer, never overly cooperative, has died.) On a given day you are likely to see half of our dining table covered in folded laundry.
Which leads us then to the storage issue. Our guy cannot organise himself. His most used clothes are in plastic crates so he can see them and access them. When he looks for something, it all gets jumbled. I could be angry about this, but there’s no point.
Others might think I am enabling ‘bad habits’ by not forcing him to clean his room himself. But while he may be 13, like many children with FASD he has a social/emotion level of about half his age. No, I have no intention that our son will always have a room that looks like this. But in a world where getting him to school and keeping his anxieties down are the top priorities, I have learned over time to priortise my own goals. Of course, the tidiness of his room matters because it helps him to be in a calm and orderly space. We do try to keep it somewhat manageable for that reason and I take lead responsibility on this, but not so I can fulfill my maternal dreams of nicely stacked, sweet-smelling laundry. I do it for him.
But in the end, who cares about our laundry? Why am I writing this?
I believe that alternative parenting needs to be better understood.
People need to know there are layers upon layers of complexities to parenting in houses affected by FASD.
It’s important to look a bit deeper when someone is parenting in a way you find so outside of your box that you are tempted to criticise. You might just see some magic happening.
Whether or not I chastise my son for tossing his socks after he takes them off, whether or not I turn a blind eye to that smear on his sleeve, whether or not I allow a stack of soiled laundry to grow in the bathroom and wait until our son is asleep or out of the house to do the laundry – these are choices based on strategies that might not be apparent to the casual viewer. Of course I see these things and yes, despite the above, I still suppress guilt every day about it all. I do want to be a perfect mum. I do want my house to be perfect – or at least, non-toxic. I admit it, I want stacks of nicely folded sweet-smelling laundry to be IN every drawer in our home.
A little while ago, my son reminded me some clothes in the washer were done and needed to be hung to dry. The he asked if I had any laundry he might do. We agreed he could wash a sheet from his bed. After he loaded and started the machine, he came to me and expressed concern that there might be too many suds. I told him if that made him anxious he could go to his room and I would watch the machine for him. He did. He went and got himself changed and dressed (he was also making slime and has a cold, he realized his clothes needed changing). Most ended up in designated piles. He is content. We have had no meltdowns, no harsh words.
Perhaps to the outside world none of this is remarkable. But in that last paragraph there are many positive signs for the future. During my first week of university I met a man from a large family who had never used a washing machine before in his life. My son with a learning disability knows how to do this at the age of 13. He expressed to me his worries, we agreed a strategy for how to deal with them and avoided the worst outcome of a potentially spiraling situation. There can be glimmers of huge progress in the simplest of things, when we stop to see it.
We can’t change some things around here. But we can change how we react to them. We can adapt and learn how to support our son via his interests to become as independent as he can be. We have had to step right outside of that box of expectations that we had ingrained within us and we have allowed our concept of parenting to expand. We are learning to give it time and patience. We are trying to have more fun along the way.
It really doesn’t hurt anyone or anything to indulge our son in an extra spin cycle or two now and then. Who knew?
He’s been showing us all along what he needs.