Real Simple magazine has been around for about 15 years, and there are only so many aspects of daily life to be simplified. So the magazine turned its attention to laundry, again, for its August 2014 issue. The advice is perfectly reasonable and helpful: you probably need less detergent! But I’ll admit that I was a bit puzzled by Kristin van Ogtrop’s editor’s letter (and since we were already discussing it in the last post, I figured I'd give it its own bit of blog real estate).
Long time readers will recall that she wrote the strange essay, last year, complaining about Lean In. In it, she said she didn’t want to lean in — as if becoming the editor of a major consumer magazine wasn’t evidence of Sheryl Sandberg-level ambition. In this month’s letter, she writes about how she does laundry all the time as the “mother of three sports-playing boys and owner of two spoiled-rotten gigantic dogs who insist on lounging on the (white!) slipcovered sofa when none of the humans are looking.” So van Ogtrop knows her way around the laundry room. “Still, I don’t think there is another activity in my life that I feel I have mastered so completely and yet hate so much. In my experience, there is generally a direct correlation between mastery and enjoyment. Not so with laundry. In fact, the longer I do it, the more I hate it.”
So here’s the question: Why is she still doing it? She’s clearly a busy woman with an extremely demanding job. She also earns big bucks. I don’t know how much, but major magazine editors can certainly earn in the high 6-figures, and it’s not uncommon to hit the 7-figure range (per this New York mag report which puts the editors of The New Yorker, Us Weekly, Time mag, etc. above that). Whatever it is, it’s enough to pay someone else to do laundry if she truly hates it.
I’ve been pondering this for a bit, and have come up with a few explanations for this month’s editor’s letter.
1. She has not internalized that money can be a tool to make life easier. This is a common blind spot, even among extremely affluent people. Laundry seems like something you could do, so you do it. Whereas you can’t actually watch your children while you’re at work 20 miles away, so you have to outsource that. Also, sometimes people feel it sends the wrong message to kids to outsource day-to-day household work, though many people who do their own laundry pay for an occasional cleaning service. Or eat out on occasion. And buy clothing from stores, rather than making cloth themselves. They don’t churn butter. This is not always a seamless argument. As commenter Meghan pointed out yesterday, a laundry service isn’t convenient for many people. But if you have someone caring for your children, you can potentially negotiate doing the kids’ laundry as part of that employment agreement. Or, our affluent person could hire a part-time housekeeper who might come a few hours per week and do laundry as part of the job.
2. She does outsource the laundry…but doesn’t want to tell her readers. Also possible (commenter Ana raised this point). Maybe she did do laundry for years, and now does it a few weeks a year when her housekeeper is on vacation. Part of the whole style of women’s service magazines is convincing readers that the editors are just like us. Though, to be honest, Real Simple’s average household income is quite high. That’s why the magazine can recommend an $825 Tanya Taylor silk dress, and a $345 Malene Birger top (p. 122). Even usual budget items get an upgrade. In the August issue, Real Simple “road tests” body washes, and recommends a $15 bar of Kat Burki Signature Soap, and a $37 bottle of Kai Body Wash. If you’re buying $825 dresses and $15 soap, you can afford to outsource a lot.
3. She does the laundry…but doesn’t actually hate it. People who go into home-oriented women’s service magazines are often quite into the topics covered. I have no doubt that Martha Stewart likes to cook and garden. Maybe van Ogtrop secretly likes doing laundry. That’s great — but why not write about that? She could write about why she likes it and how she came to like it. I know that complaining is the currency of much “maxed out” women literature, but I have a hard time coming around to it.
4. She doesn’t like laundry, but also doesn’t want to let go of “her” job. From what I can ascertain of van Ogtrop’s sports-playing boys, two are older teens (around ages 18 and 15, the youngest one is more like 7). Indeed, she wrote last year about sending one off to college, so if she’s regularly doing his laundry, that’s a little strange. The middle one is old enough to do laundry too. Assigning the job to her kid wouldn’t offload all of it from her plate — unless she had them do hers too, though I sense many women don’t trust boys with their laundry — but it would cut it down a lot. There are many reasons parents make the choice not to require kids to do laundry. Teens are sometimes hard to interact with, and doing their laundry is one way to show you care. They don’t seem to need as much active nurturing (or want it) so laundry becomes the substitute as you watch them flying off into the larger world. You may, quite rationally, know you do it better than anyone else in the household. But parents drive better than teenage boys, too, and yet still wind up teaching them how to get behind the wheel, and sometimes have them drive themselves places. Laundry can be part of growing up, too. Or maybe van Ogtrop’s husband can do the laundry. She did it for the first 23 years of their marriage. Now it’s his turn.