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Weirdly Grateful for Laundry: It’s a strange ritual, but I can understand why my dogs roll in our family laundry.

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Photo by Dr. Julie Miley Schlegel

On laundry days, I have a system. We have three hampers in the house: one in the kids’ bathroom, one in our closet, and one for the stuff that needs bleach. The hampers come to my room. The piles are sorted on the floor, and the dogs come sit in the middle of it all and then roll on their backs in the clothes.

I’ve heard of dogs doing this dance on their backs in other situations, too. I’ve read that it’s a ritual, of sorts, to get the smell of something on the animal, or to get the animal’s own scent on whatever they’re lying on. It is an instinctive dance for an animal with a sense of smell 10,000 times better than mine. It’s an imprinting of sorts: I belong to you, and you belong to us.

The dogs are claiming our family scent as their own. They are reveling in their pack.

I can vividly remember thinking back in 2004, after my daughter was born, that there was no way an eight-pound human could generate so much laundry. Adding a baby to the house didn’t add just one more person’s worth of laundry — the blankets, burp cloths, tiny socks, multiple onesies per day, and outfits with blowouts on them seemed to generate a huge daily load.

In 2007 and 2009 we added more babies and exponentially more laundry. The piles just kept growing until this year, when my daughter went to college and I lost a pile.

Through the years, there has been so much laundry. I can remember my friend suggesting a “mandatory underwear only day” after laundry day so there would be a few happy hours with empty hampers and no laundry to do.

When I have time, I actually enjoy doing laundry. There’s something about taking the giant mountain of dirty clothes and turning them into neat, clean, folded piles. It is an area in my life where I can, every week, take disorder and create order, and there’s something soothing about that.

For the record, I don’t enjoy pairing socks. I don’t enjoy folding fitted sheets. I also have been known to leave the piles in the laundry room for days. But the rest of my laundry routine is almost meditative and centering.

As I took the Astros jerseys and rally towels out of the dryer and hung them up this week, I pondered how the laundry is like a timestamp of our family’s life. The Astros gear comes out piecemeal through baseball season, but it all came out at once for the 2022 World Series.

First there was the timestamp of tiny baby clothes filling my house, and then mini toddler clothes. There was the stage where every pocket had a leaf or pecan collected as a daily “treasure.” After Halloween there were inevitably candy wrappers in the load.

As the kids got older, I had pink ballet tights to hang dry. Then the weekly drill team uniforms were also hung, the sequins shining in the laundry room light. The size of the loads increased in the summers with bathing suits and beach towels from trips to the pool and swim team and the beach. The size of the loads increased in the winters with bulky sweatshirts and pants.

The baseball pants sometimes needed to be pre-washed, covered in sand from the sometimes unnecessary slides into home base. There were the basketball and football jerseys. The lacrosse uniforms, which are uniquely malodorous. The Christmas and Easter dresses. The school uniform shirts and the funeral suits. There was that one green camo shirt my son wore for three years. There are the blankets from Costco that give us all comfort.

I have a system where, after being pulled from the dryer, the clothes are folded in stacks. For just over a decade, there were five piles for five people.

There have always been at least five piles. This fall, after my daughter had been gone to college for a week, I stood in the laundry room and cried that there were only four piles of folded, clean clothes, indicating only four people left in the house.

At that moment, I was acutely aware that there will be less laundry in my future. After all the years of so much laundry, I realized it won’t be forever. The amount of laundry we do is on a bell curve: I went from washing just my clothes to all of our clothes, and then eventually will be back to only my clothes again. Each piece is washed, dried, folded and put away like a snapshot of that day in our lives, a labor of love.

It makes me smile that my dogs roll in our laundry piles every week. They are comforted by our family scent, and the laundry is definitely full of our scents. With this ritual, they are celebrating our family, our pack. And, even though some days the laundry is a painful chore, and even though I don’t lie on my back to get my scent on the piles, in a weird way the laundry makes me celebrate our pack, too.

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