“Dirty clothes shouldn’t be scary,” said a person who has not opened the door to a 17-year-old’s bedroom room or shared a car with an open gym bag. Or a person who has not sent a laundry-challenged 18-year-old out into the world.
Releasing my daughter into society without being sure she would actually do her laundry was a terrifying moment in my empty nesting transition, and I met it the way I meet most scary parenting encounters – with frantic, jerking shrieks of foreboding and emotional threats: “Your life will be out of control! No one will live with you! No one will love you!…Did I not make myself clear? No wire hangars!”
Being afraid my daughter did not know how to take care of herself and her things turned me into Mommy Dearest; I displaced aggression and spent way too much time passing judgment on her closet. But in the end, though it wasn’t pretty, sending her to college was therapeutic for me. It was the crescendo of a decade and a half of using fear as a parenting tool, and it was the leg of my mom journey that sent me into serious self-analysis.
One morning sitting at my journal, I wondered to myself if my two daughters, then 17 and 15, knew the difference between a mother’s warnings and real risk. Like generations of mothers before me, I had used predictions and exaggerations to make points, I had inflated and fabricated scenarios and lorded threats just to make sure I was heard. I always felt these tactics were cop-outs, that a better mom than I would not need to resort to such things.
As I journaled for days, through years of memories, I realized that stirring up a little fear was a big part of my job description. I remembered, for example, that my children had grown up in a much safer neighborhood than I had. They didn’t need to be afraid to walk to school, or to hang out at the neighborhood shopping center. But living in that safe, shiny “bubble” we had worked so hard to create for them had created its own risks. They were dangerously trusting, and truth be told, they didn’t know what door locks were actually for.
“Don’t talk to strangers” were not serious words in suburban la la land. In fact, the phrase “stranger danger” would set our humor-seeking household doubling over in laughter when properly placed in a conversation.
That’s the funny thing about fear. It’s funny. Until it’s not.
And it’s a parent’s job to clarify the difference. It was my job to make sure my eight-year-old got to enjoy life with enough security to laugh at paranoid clichés like “stranger danger” and also to assure those same words will send a chill down her spine at age 18 when a middle-aged man gets a little too friendly on a deserted subway platform.
That’s why my daughter’s last year at home was so frightful for me. I scrutinized my work and wondered if I’d covered the right material. She was terrified of making a low SAT score but undaunted by the prospect of running out of clean underwear. She did not know that having a laundry routine would save her from the free-floating overwhelm that would endanger her very peace of mind and turn already busy days into frantic clothing searches.
After a year of self-inflicted note making, I bid adieu to my daughter with an e-mail. Subject line: Do your laundry or you’ll die alone. Attached were 200+ tidbits of laundry advice, financial lectures and life lessons that I was afraid she might not know.
It got her attention. She read it all. Not because she was afraid of dying alone, but because she was afraid of the parental financial repercussions if she ignored me. (Those threats have not been veiled in the least.)
Come to find out, the things I’m afraid of for my daughter are things she is afraid of, too. As she got to know other young women at college, she reported that I am by no means the most dramatic or fear-wielding mom alive. Other moms fret and stalk and agonize and warn their daughters with much more flair than I.
I should have remembered this comforting fact from my own coming of age: as we step out on our own, women parent one another with the lessons they learned at home. The ones that make it through the noise are the lessons that are most repeated in mom’s most intense voice.
So . . . sorry, not sorry.
If my two daughters aren’t a little bit afraid of the sound of my ring tone between the ages of 15 and 18, shame on me. If my 18-year-old isn’t wary walking through campus after dark, I didn’t do my job. If my 21-year-old isn’t a little freaked out when a guy on a second date won’t take her home when she asks, I’ve missed a conversation.
Parents of sons likely have an entirely different list of fears and parenting imperatives. I hope that in addition to worrying about their sons’ safety, they are terrified of their sons being cavalier with girls’ hearts and bodies. I can think of no stronger deterrent for a well-raised young man than the look on his mother’s face when she learns of her son’s shoddy behavior.
The only thing we have to fear is NOT fear itself – it is losing fear as a parenting tool. But I’m not afraid. I’m betting that just like the laundry, creatively applied scare tactics will always be part of the job that never ends.
About Becky Blades
Becky Blades is author and illustrator of Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give if She Thought You Were Listening a wise, witty collection of counsel for women of all ages.
She lives in Kansas City with her husband of 30 years and her Maytag front load washing machine.