Op/Ed

Faith Gong: The therapeutic benefits of… ironing?

“Vacuuming can be therapeutic,” the middle-aged woman told my 22-year-old self.

We were standing in the bedroom that I would occupy for the next year, located in a wing of her Greenwich, Connecticut compound. I was a recent college graduate, working as a classroom teaching assistant in a tony private girls’ school by day and taking graduate classes at night. Until recently I’d been living with two other young teachers in a dingy apartment in Stamford, but when this woman, whose three daughters attended the school at which I taught, invited me to move in with them, it was like manna from heaven. I’d pay no rent, eat meals cooked by the household chefs, live minutes away from work, and have access to the compound’s gym, pool, and tennis courts. In exchange, I would serve as an additional “responsible adult,” with some occasional duties driving the children to school and activities. 

I’d also be responsible for my own cleaning. 

“You don’t mind vacuuming your own room, do you?” the woman of the house asked apologetically, before adding, “I find that vacuuming can be therapeutic.” 

It struck me as an absurd statement from this woman with perfectly highlighted and coiffed blonde hair, her toned body clad in spandex as if headed to a workout (with a personal trainer, of course.) In addition to my humble presence, this household was kept going by a staff of cooks, cleaners, gardeners, trainers, and tutors. Right next to my bedroom was the office of madam’s personal secretary — although she did not work outside the home, she somehow still required a secretary. Her husband was employed as a high-level investment banker at a Manhattan firm; he disappeared in the predawn hours each morning into a chauffeured Town Car. 

Of course I didn’t mind cleaning my own space — I’d spent the past six months cleaning up after two housemates (and their boyfriends.) But when was the last time this woman had actually vacuumed? For her to suggest that she occasionally practiced vacuum therapy smacked of Marie Antionette skipping around on her tidy personal farm.

That was over twenty years ago, and I can honestly say that in the decades that have passed I have never once found vacuuming — or any household cleaning, for that matter — to be at all therapeutic. I complete my household chores with resignation because I want my home to be comfortable, welcoming, and attractive. (Also, if I’m honest, because I’m driven by the voices of my Puritan ancestors whispering that other people will judge me as slothful if my home is messy.) 

But there is one chore that I have refused to do on principle, except when absolutely necessary, and that is ironing. 

I grew up with a mother who ironed everything, and I have pleasant memories of standing at the ironing board in my childhood kitchen helping her flatten the laundry. When I left home, however, my ironing days were done. 

Somehow along the way, I did procure a clothes iron (I suspect my mother gave it to me) and an ironing board (I have no memory where this came from, but it’s cheap and rickety.) These tools sat gathering dust, awaiting the moment every couple of years when my husband — who generally takes charge of his own laundry — would request my help ironing a dress shirt for some important event. 

Otherwise, I just didn’t see the point of ironing. Setting up the board and heating the iron felt overwhelming simply to press out a few wrinkles. Apparently the desire for unwrinkled clothing dates back to at least the 1st century BC, when the Chinese used metal pans of hot water to smooth out the wrinkles in fabric, but I felt more enlightened than the ancients. “I don’t iron” became one of my most firmly held tenets. Who had the time? If I avoided buying any linen or 100% cotton, and if I removed my clothes promptly from the dryer, I could stave off the most egregious wrinkling. Iron your clothes and they’ll begin to wrinkle almost immediately once you put them on your body, after all. 

Clothes weren’t the only thing I didn’t iron: We have an entire drawer full of cloth napkins and tablecloths, which we use almost daily. I did my best to smooth and fold them soon after removing them from the dryer, but most remained somewhat rumpled. I figured that nobody could judge me, though, because they were Good For The Environment. 

This year, my mother gave me a beautiful floral tablecloth and matching napkins for my birthday. “They’re 100% cotton,” she explained as I unwrapped the package. “I know you don’t iron, so feel free to return them if they don’t work for you.” Naturally, I took this as a challenge. 

But last week, after having used the cotton napkins and tablecloth for my daughter’s birthday, I had to admit defeat. Some of the napkins emerged from the dryer so wrinkled that they resembled cotton accordions. It was one of those rare mornings when I had nothing pressing to do, all the kids were home, and the toddler was napping. I lugged out the ironing board, heated up the iron, and tackled the napkins. 

I had the immediate sense that ironing was exactly what I needed to be doing at that moment. To my shock, it was deeply satisfying to smooth out those wrinkles and produce a stack of crisply folded napkins. Life is so full of wrinkles: The people I love the most wrestle with challenges and heartbreaks, illness and death and suffering never stop, and I can barely keep pace, let alone solve any of these issues. But I could solve these napkins — all it took was a little time, patience, and the touch of a warm iron. 

I attempted to explain the surprising pleasure I’d found in ironing to my daughter, who was sitting nearby. She looked at me sideways and quipped drily, “Gee, I really can’t wait to be middle aged!” 

I’m not sure that I’ll make it a regular habit, but the truth is…ironing can be therapeutic.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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