The title of this post comes from a friend’s comment. She was having trouble putting her toddler to sleep and exclaimed that “I don’t know how women with eight or ten kids do it, without deputizing the older kids into adults.”
Well… yep. People have written about this before, about the loss of childhood when the older kids have to take care of the younger kids. It still amazes me today, when I see my friends with two or three kids, that some children’s chores are like what I used to read about and scoff at as unreal – for money, light and almost unnecessary tasks.
My main job as a teen was folding laundry. In a household of eleven (two parents, nine children – though at times some boys were away in yeshiva dorms), laundry was a twice-a-week, five-loads affair. My mother would load the washing machine and dryer in a seemingly-endless cycle, and bring up overflowing baskets from the basement.
She would plop the basket down in the living room and shout, “Dainy! Laundry!” And my evening would begin.
I sat on the couch and sorted the clothing into piles, one for each member of the family on the seat of the couch around me. The back of the couch was reserved for towels and linens.
At some point, I had asked my mother to do the darks first, then the delicates, then the whites. It made it easier to stack each pile, since the darks were mostly shirts, skirts, and pants while the whites and delicates were underwear.
Between loads, if I was done with one before the next was dry, I would snatch a glimpse at a page or two of my book and rest my back – it always began to ache by the third basket, as I sat on the couch and leaned over to pluck garments from the basket in front of me.
My older sister’s job was washing dishes. Every evening after supper, she would stand at the sink and wash what seemed like mountains of dishes. I was envious – I wished I could immerse my hands in warm soapy water and watch dishes become clean one at a time. I asked my sister, begged her, numerous times, to switch jobs with me. But why would she? She enjoyed washing dishes too.
When I was in seventh grade, my baby sister was almost one year old. After my mother had changed her and put her in to bed, I was charged with patting her to sleep. I would sit on a stool near her crib, reach one arm through the slats, and rhythmically pat her butt. She preferred being patted on her butt, but I would move my hand to her back every so often, just to mix things up a bit. When my palm began to feel numb and tingly, or my arm began to ache, I would turn around on the stool and use the other arm. As I patted, I would sing – ayleeloolee sometimes, and sometimes songs from my seventh grade concert.
When I thought she was sleeping, I would lift my hand and wait. And count – one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi – and if there was no sound or movement after one minute, I would slowly, carefully, stand up and tiptoe out of the room. But if she mewled, an adorable little sound that grated on my ears, back went my hand and the patting resumed.
When she was about three years old and I was fifteen, I was no longer patting her to sleep. But I was tasked with bathing her every night. I would run the bath, feeling the water with the inside of my wrist to check the temperature. My mother would shepherd her into the bathroom, kicking and screaming – “she always gets water in my eyes! I don’t wanna!”
I would sit on the floor near the bath I had drawn, as my mother coaxed my sister into the bathroom. I shut the door once she was in, and began the process of getting her into the tub.
“Come on, get undressed. The water’s getting cold…”
Inevitably, I always had to add hot water to the tub.
Once she was in the tub, the hair-washing adventure began. I would place one hand along her hairline to protect her face and use the other hand to pour water over her hair. I’d massage shampoo into her hair and, if she and I were both in good moods, make “herner,” horns and shapes with the lathered hair.
And then the torture. She would lean her head back, I would clamp a hand on her forehead, and rinse the shampoo from her hair.
“Its getting in my eyes!” she would shriek, and “lean your head back!” I would yell, and after frequent breaks to towel off her face, frustration and tears (hers, and a little mine), we would be done.
I would hand her a soaped-up washcloth and stand up. “Okay, wash yourself,” I would say, leaning wearily against the bathroom counter. If I was in the mood for it, I would let her play for a bit while I sat on the closed toilet and read my book.
In high school, one of the most popular chesed jobs was Help-a-Mom. Girls would be assigned to a home where they would help a mother of little children with the cleaning, or watch or bathe the kids while the mother cleaned up. My friends wanted me to join them so we could go to one home as a group. I shuddered at the thought and signed up as a homework tutor for a third-grader.