By Carol Kaufmann, Mama Tricks
I stood in front of an upright ironing board, glaring at the basket load of button-downs, clean but wrinkled. Mother of toddlers, working professional, schooled and world-traveled, a credit card holder, a second-time homeowner. And I am… ironing my husband’s shirts?
This is not who I am.
Like many 30-somethings who entered the work world during the age of excess, I formed a certain ideal of what life would be like once my career was on a roll. I saw examples of the good life flourishing in the D.C. metro area: Manicured lawns done by gardeners, regular help cleaning the house, spiky, animal-skinned shoes, lunches on white tablecloths, black-tie charity events, and vacations at places with names like Guanacaste and Essaouira. I heard the stories. Sometimes I even had a taste of them myself.
But last fall as the national depression sank in and sparked our fears, my American dream spiraled down the potty along with the country’s economic outlook. Now, I’m happy to have a job, given the front-page Post stories of massive layoffs, spiking unemployment and two-parent households with not a job between them.
I know my job and my husband’s are guaranteed only by the thinnest wisp of commitment from our companies. These days, we’re very replaceable—at least that’s how our employers think. The reality is if our jobs go, we’re a few missed mortgage payments away from financial Armaggedon. Every month, our bank account creeps dangerously close to negative numbers, thanks to a preschool deposit, a sink that backs up on a Sunday, a spot on my arm that needed removing or any variety of home/child/health crises.
Yes, when it comes to money, control seemed just beyond my grasp—except what lurks within the four walls around me. And within this lair, I find opportunities to save bucks everywhere and battened down our hatches.
Hubby, who’s up first, makes bag lunches so we don’t waste cash at our favorite sandwich haunts. We’ve weaned our addiction to lattes. I learned to like natural-colored nails instead of manicured ones, eliminated most dinners out, and now think of vacation not as a trip to the beach but as absence of work. I even enjoyed my frugality, now in full force. Doing more with less has become a game, an exercise in creativity to find the best deal, amass the most effective combination of coupons.
Shall I also don an apron while I assume the classic position of a 50s housewife? Watching the hyper-inflated suffocating predicaments of every female character on the 1960s-based drama Mad Men is enough to drive me screaming down the block. Now, I felt like one of them, a slave to the times. (Only not as nattily dressed.)
It’s not as if I’m a spoiled, holier-than-thou princess (OK, maybe a little) who doesn’t know how to roll up her sleeves and do the hard work. But my work, I thought, was to use my brain to create content and read Beginner’s Dr. Seuss, not pushing metal to and fro over seemingly permanent wrinkles.
I remember so well watching my mother, a child of parents who saved pieces of aluminum foil and reused jars during the Depression, diligently pulling out the ironing board, creaking the lever into an upright X, and tackling the laundry basket of Dad’s work shirts. Even before age 10, I realized Mom was enduring a necessary evil.
As I grew, Mom continued to iron. She’d drive right on by the fairly convenient dry cleaner, even though she was as busy as all get-out raising kids, teaching school, volunteering for this and that, taking covered dishes to new neighbors and shut-ins. I’d ask why she didn’t just drop off the laundry and save herself a little time? “Because I can do it myself,” she’d tell me. “Why waste the money?”
The more I learn to discern the fragile moment between a perfect crease and an iron imprint, the more I understand her question. Why spend the money, indeed, when times call for using it for more important purchases—quality fruits and veggies, college accounts, credit-card debt reduction—and in these days especially, a few bucks for someone who could really use it.
And why do all important lessons seem to come from our mothers?
As it turns out, I like seeing a line of freshly pressed shirts hanging along our furniture, a visible, tangible reminded of a job I can do. My husband, who takes his turns at the board, is tickled—even thinks it’s hot, for some odd reason—when I press the shirts and pants he’ll wear that week.
I had grown too big for my britches, as Mom would say. I had forgotten a basic tenet of good living that my hubby and I swore in our wedding vows we wouldn’t lose sight of—that it’s the simple things, after all, that provide a quick jolt of peace. So I iron because I can.
Hard times purify. They force those of us who think we’re above little details, to get over ourselves and put some muscle back into work. They remind us that being able to take care of ourselves because we’re capable of doing so is a gift.
Copyright 2009 Carol Kaufmann
Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.
First appeared on thewellmom.com, September 7, 2009.