Real Simple and the laundry

photo-174Real 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.



41 Responses to Real Simple and the laundry


  1. It would SHOCK me if she really didn’t outsource the laundry. I bet she does a tiny bit of it — enough to convince herself she still does it — and that’s it. And I absolutely agree that if she really does hate it and is still doing it despite her income level — there is NOTHING “real simple” about that.

    (even if I do kind of like that magazine :) )

    • Laura says:

      @sarah – we are completely the target market for that magazine. Even if we find things bizarre, we cannot help ourselves from reading it. I talked to an executive at Time once who told me that when they were launching this magazine it focus group tested off the charts. Every month I sort of wonder why — there’s not a whole lot of interesting pieces in any given month — but the concept. Oh, the concept. we want things to be simple! And photographed on muted backgrounds in simple patterns…

      • Diana Watters says:

        …and the feel of that paper they use!

        • Laura says:

          @Diana – also nice!

  2. Chelsea says:

    I wonder if what she hates about the laundry is that is – and never will be – done. It’s not a project that can ever give a person the satisfaction of completion the way, say, really cleaning out your garage can. Even if she doesn’t actually do the laundry herself, she knows that somewhere there is a pile of dirty items to be washed or clean ones to put away. It creates mental “things to be done” clutter.
    Personally, I don’t mind the laundry. For four years, I had to cart it outside to another building (through the ice and snow during winter in WI) so any kind of indoor laundry situation is automatically a piece of cake compared to that. And I fold while watching TV, so again, actually kind of pleasant. But when I go back upstairs to put everything away and see a big new pile on the floor, waiting to be washed, it is kind of demoralizing.

    • Laura says:

      @Chelsea – true, that it is never done. On the other hand, we’re never done eating, either. We have to eat again, and yet people get satisfaction from cooking meals. I sometimes wonder on the question of piles bothering people if this is a total personality thing. I just passed 50,000 messages in my inbox and that fact does not bother me in the least. Whereas other (reasonable!) people get really excited about having nothing in their inboxes. It’s probably the same with piles of dirty clothes some place. It doesn’t bother me, but then again, I’m not running a magazine devoted to organized living.

      • Chelsea says:

        Maybe the difference in my mind between laundry and cooking is that cooking has at least a little bit of a creative component? And there’s an obvious end point when you sit down and (hopefully) enjoy the meal you’ve prepared. There’s nothing remotely interesting or creative about laundry (which I think is why I kind of like it, actually), it just keeps coming and coming and coming…

        • Laura says:

          @Chelsea- please see my response to The Frugal Girl. People try — often with adverse results — to make laundry creative. The human psyche has its needs! But yeah, it’s pretty hard to elevate this activity.

        • Karen says:

          That there is nothing creative about laundry is definitely one of the reasons I like it. I can be creative and enjoy being creative, but I can’t be creative every day, and I don’t enjoy having to be creative on demand. So I like cooking a few times a week, for entertaining, for a special meal. But I find the daily dinner grind to be an enervating chore, much worse than laundry. I only do laundry 1-2X a week, and no one expects it to be creative.

        • Andrea says:

          Actually, though laundry isn’t creative in the usual sense of the word, I read once that you can actually view laundry as creative — part of what it means to create something is to bring order out of chaos, and that’s what laundry (and a lot of other housework) does. So restoring order to our homes is actually creative in a small way, even when it’s mundane things.

  3. I don’t get Real Simple and must not be its target audience. (“Real Simple is neither real, nor simple. Discuss.”)

    • gwinne says:

      I just stopped subscribing. It gave me a magazine fix that I enjoyed but frankly I can do without it. And everything I’d want–like recipes–I can get for free online. But my kid asked yesterday if we still got the magazine! She wanted to read it on our porch!

      • Laura says:

        @gwinne – they’re recruiting young!!

      • I’m more of the cooking magazine demographic, but after having kids they started piling up without being read, even before Gourmet Magazine went out of business. Other favorites: Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country. Though I do miss the in-depth articles about food trends and the industry from Gourmet. Gourmet’s competitors aren’t as good even if I did have time for them (pardon me, even if I PRIORITIZED them or whatever the @#$& I’m supposed to say to make LV happier about my life choices). Cooking Light not so much since their type of dieting is incompatible with my body. We do read Penzey’s, but it’s both short and free!

        • Laura says:

          @Nicoleandmaggie – I have heard good things about Cook’s Illustrated, and I know The Frugal Girl (who comments here sometimes) has recommended it and finds the subscription worthwhile. I’m not really *prioritizing* elaborate cooking right now either :)

          • We still do elaborate cooking, but we don’t get the magazines anymore. We have 3 Cook’s Illustrated cookbooks (Make-ahead meals, American Classics, and The Best Recipe) along with a few ethnic cookbooks we’ve been going through. There’s a certain American/New American sameness to Cook’s Illustrated such that Make-ahead and The Best Recipe are probably all you need to get their entire repertoire.
            *
            Most of Gourmet’s recipes were very simple. Penzey’s spice catalog has been DH’s source for new recipes, plus it always comes with a free spices coupon.

          • Yup. Pretty much adore CI/ATK. Good, solid, reliable recipes.

        • gwinne says:

          Just checked out the ATK gluten-free book from the library. Haven’t tried anything yet but it looks promising (and as it turns out I’m eating the “right” brands of gluten free flours, breads, pasta, etc)

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – not so real, not so simple, it’s true. But those are powerful words — hence why it’s not called “real quick” or “real easy” or some such…

    • Chelsea says:

      My mother in law subscribes to it as a gift for me (she likes it) and what is “real simple” for me is just saying thank you and thumbing through each issue in case there’s a quiz (and there has been…).

  4. Anjanette says:

    I am willing to give Kristen VanOgtrop the benefit of the doubt that she does laundry at least occasionally (kid throws up in the night, throwing muddy kid’s clothes right in the washer, etc), but if she doesn’t outsource most of it I can’t understand why either. I imagine she overestimates exactly how much she does though, as in your oft-used example of how we all overestimate how much time emptying the dishwasher.

    I loved Real Simple when it debuted– it was visually stunning and different from all the other magazines I read at the time. These days, though, I find that the Oprah magazine offers more of what I originally loved about Real Simple, and that Real Simple specializes in making things Really Complicated. Typically these are also things (like laundry) that I’m content doing Well Enough (though I’ll admit that doesn’t have the same ring to it!).

    • Laura says:

      @Anjanette – I think O magazine and Real Simple are aiming for the same demographic, but yes, the O articles are generally longer and more interesting. I think I let the subscription lapse, but probably I should resubscribe. I like the idea of a mag called Well Enough. :)

    • Ana says:

      Yeah, I used to pay for a subscription and loved it, back in the days when they had the papercrafts to illustrate the features. I quit for years, and then got a free subscription last year, I hardly flipped through them, they were incredibly boring!

  5. I don’t really understand why a whole issue needs to be devoted to laundry. It seems like such a simple thing to me. I’ve also seen a blog devoted entirely to laundry, and have wondered how you could maintain a blog for long with such a narrow focus.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I feel like there are only so many ways to make laundry simpler (other than what we’ve already come up with: the invention of the washer and dryer).

    • Laura says:

      @The Frugal Girl – to be fair, it’s not the whole issue. It’s on the cover, and the subject of the editor’s letter, and an 8-page package. So a lot of real estate, but not the whole issue! I am scratching my head about the idea of a blog on laundry. There was a whole book on laundry that came out a few years ago — very high end. I think it’s that people really want to elevate the idea of something that takes a lot of time. But it’s pretty hard with laundry. I read a story once of people at consumer products companies studying how people did laundry, and talking with people about it. They found that people often completely disregarded detergent and machine instructions because they had their own ways that they *knew* were right, and their own special techniques, etc. This often wound up shortening machine and clothing life, but I guess people feel they have to add their own creative component…

      • gwinne says:

        You probably need to have access to a research library to read it, but Maureen Stanton’s essay “Laundry,” published in the Iowa Review, is phenomenal.

      • Oh, ok. But yeah, that is still a lot of space for something that seems fairly simple.

        (Cooking? That’s another story. I totally see why blogs/books/magazines are devoted to it, because the possibilities are endless. But there are only SO many ways to wash laundry.)

  6. Yolanda says:

    I find this whole discussion a waste of time. Men would not waste blog “real estate” discussing laundry – I find that in their favor.

    • Jenna says:

      Yolanda, I had that exact thought last night. I was thumbing through the magazine, was looking at the laundry article and thought, “why am I spending my free time reading about laundry? how many men are doing that?” I put it down immediately!

  7. KP says:

    I don’t understand how she could have that much laundry. My hunch is that most of her clothes (and probably her husband’s) are dry cleaned, not laundered. That leaves her sons’ clothes, sheets, towels, etc., which frankly is not that big a deal.

    • Laura says:

      @KP – I suspect some people have a different mindset about laundry. This may include people who work at home-oriented magazines! When I was looking at the Mosaic logs, I’d see people doing laundry every morning. Like women with 1 kid. I imagine the thinking is that this way it doesn’t pile up. But if you commit to doing laundry every morning, you will do laundry every morning, even if the sheets and towels aren’t that dirty and there’s like one pair of jeans and underwear to be done. There may be special cases with sports uniforms where you need it daily, but I would hope that any team requiring daily uniform wearing would like give you an option to get more than one uniform.

  8. June says:

    I suspect I might actually be in the Real Simple target (assuming these are decided by objective criteria like sex, age, HHI). However, I just don’t understand the appeal of those types of magazines. They seem to be premised on the assumption that women still carry the role of homemaker and that we (women) still live in a world where our entertaining/housekeeping skills are still up for judgment and display.

  9. Karen says:

    I actually kind of like doing laundry. I do it, I don’t generally complain about it. It keeps me on top of what clothes the kids are wearing and what needs to be replaced. I like to sort by color and/or temperature so I like having enough laundry to have, e.g. a full cold delicate load. If I just did my own laundry then it would take forever to have a full load or I’d have to dump it all together in cold, and it wouldn’t get as clean.
    *
    My husband does his own laundry, though, so that helps keep it manageable. He’d probably do more if I asked him to, but asking him to do it is significantly less pleasant than doing it myself.
    *
    I don’t really understand what the big deal about laundry is–there are much worse and much more burdensome chores that people are expected to do, than laundry. For example, I’d much rather do laundry than scheduling, calling people on the phone, keeping someone else’s calendar, or most other administrative, secretarial-type duties. I’d also rather do laundry than grocery shop, clip coupons, or cook dinner every night. But for some reason laundry seems to be the household chore that people complain about most.

    • Ana says:

      Same here…I don’t mind doing laundry. Throw it in, change it into the dryer, and let it pile up until I have an evening to watch TV or listen to a podcast and fold it. I still marvel at my kids tiny little clothes, I suspect the days of that are numbered! My husband and I both do laundry, whomever thinks of it or has a minute when they see the overflowing hamper throws it in, and we each fold a few loads a week… it seems to be 50/50.
      I’d MUCH rather do laundry than any number of other chores, its almost relaxing to fold & put away.

  10. roberta says:

    Timely article for me and insightful how a powerful woman still thinks. What keeps coming back to me from your research and development books is that doing laundry is not an act of love. Wow. I used to think I was doing something really special for my family all those years and I hated it. Thank you for helping me to get everyone else to do their own, it’s worked out wonderful, and my productivity has increased immensely as well as improving my sense of well being.

  11. ARC says:

    I can’t imagine spending money on a magazine issue entirely about laundry. I dislike the task enough already without using my precious spare time to READ about it, too.

    I have noticed recently that I feel like the laundry is neverending. Not sure if it’s because kid #2 is now regularly getting dirty, or because I’m working again, or what, but it’s kind of bugging me and it never used to. But still, not enough to read a magazine about it.

  12. Rebekah says:

    Yikes. I’m struck by how some of your commenters are just nasty. Did you kick their cat or what?! :)

    • Something like that.

    • June says:

      No, clearly someone tried to launder the cat.

  13. Not having read the article, I can speculate… Back when I was on forums there was a Gymboree addicted (literally addicted– she was causing her family major financial problems) mother who was literally always doing laundry. Because with nice clothing you have to be careful to stain remove and to make sure the appropriate colors are together, and to not hurt the clothing. Given what I know of Real Simple, maybe the issue is dedicated to folks like her. Those of us who at most separate the delicates from the regulars and purposefully never buy clothes that turn everything pink are already too simple.

  14. Debby says:

    I actually love to do laundry. My children are grown so I only have to clean up after two of us. I travel extensively for work (150-200+ days a year). Every morning that I’m home, I throw a load in, hang it on the line (or inside on a rack) and go about my day. I take a break from my office mid-afternoon and bring the laundry in. My clothes are clean, I’ve seen the sky, and I’m at peace. I think I’m in the minority.