Smiley: ‘I don’t think I will ever again use my new machine without thinking of that mom and others like her who don’t have the luxury of forgetting about the wash.’ (Guido A.J. Stevens/Creative Commons)

How the Laundromat gave me some perspective | Sarah Smiley

Navy Wise

Last week, our washing machine broke and our car flooded from the rain. The good news was that (1) we weren’t in the path of a hurricane like many of our friends and family in Florida, and (2) my now retired Navy husband is neither deployed nor otherwise away with the military, so he was home to help with these household “emergencies.”

He could deal with the car, and I — well, I ended up at the Laundromat.

Dustin did offer to go for me, but I’m not stupid. By going to the Laundromat, I could bypass the usual “what’s for dinner”/“can you drive me to [insert some place across town]” after-school rush. So I volunteered to take laundry duty. I mean, how bad could it be? I don’t love doing laundry, but usually, the biggest problem I have is forgetting that I have wash in the machine in our basement. If it’s been a few days and soured, it needs to be washed again before it’s dried. That’s the biggest problem with laundry.

It had been a while since I’ve been to a Laundromat. In fact, I can’t remember if I’ve ever been to one, unless you count washing machines in an apartment or dormitory basement. I realize how this makes me sound. And during my three days at the Laundromat, I learned something about life, about those who are less fortunate and about myself.

The biggest of these is that I have been incredibly—and unknowingly— privileged to have a washing machine in my home. Doing laundry at a Laundromat is expensive. In fact, it’s so expensive that Dustin and I calculated that it would be more cost effective to just buy a new washing machine than to wait three months for the replacement part (itself expensive) and pay for the Laundromat in the meantime.

We are lucky we have that option. In one week, I spent more than $65 at the Laundromat doing laundry for myself, my husband and our three boys. I also lost about six hours of productive time. Needing to use the Laundromat meant that I sometimes had to either (1) leave work early, (2) make dinner later, (3) or go to sleep late. It cut into time I might have otherwise spent working, connecting with friends, exercising or enjoying my children.

So, imagine a family who can’t afford a washing machine and therefore has no other option. Imagine working just to pay rent and put food on the table and thinking that things like a washer and dryer in the basement are a luxury.

As I sat in the hard plastic chairs, with the machines whistling around me, I thought a lot about these families. I figure I watched many of them come and go. I wondered how they make ends meet and what they might be doing if they didn’t have to come to the Laundromat. And then I remembered a colleague who once told me that the reason some families don’t let their kids play after-school sports is because the extra laundry is just too expensive. That didn’t make sense to me at the time. It does now.

If you don’t have a washing machine in your home, when you have to expend extra time and cash washing laundry, you know that a potty-training child peeing in the bed night after night will be expensive but unavoidable. You know that a kid will inevitably throw-up and soil a half-dozen towels. You know you can’t prevent the dog from being sprayed by a skunk and needing multiple baths. But you can tell your kids they aren’t going to play soccer or baseball or basketball, because that’s laundry you can avoid.

I’ve never thought much about sports laundry, aside from the usual mom-to-mom complaining. I’ve never thought about the extra expense or time it requires for families who use a Laundromat. Until last week, I never thought about Laundromats much at all. I’m ashamed to admit that.

I ended up meeting a young mother while I was at the Laundromat. We bonded over watching “Ellen” on the television hanging from the ceiling, and she helped me choose different settings on the machines. We talked about motherhood, too, because she had her child with her — a child with more patience than mine, who have never had to wait at a Laundromat. And then, several hours later, I watched through the window as she left. It was about to rain. She was pulling her clothes —and her child — in a wagon. They were running to beat the rain. And there sat my dry, comfortable loaner car in the parking lot.

I quickly threw my clothes into a basket and ran outside, but my fellow mom was gone around the corner before I could offer her a ride.

Our lives: so similar, and yet so different.

In a few days, I will have a new washing machine. Laundry will again be something that’s done quickly between other tasks, like making dinner or getting ready for work. I will probably leave wet clothes in the machine and forget them.

But I don’t think I will ever again use my new machine without thinking of that mom and others like her who don’t have the luxury of “forgetting” about the wash.

— Sarah Smiley’s Navy Wise column is syndicated and is a periodic feature of the Central Kitsap Reporter. Contact her at

Sarah Smiley

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