The Upstairs and Downstairs of Modern Housewifery

 

The Upstairs and Downstairs of Modern Housewifery: How to be the lady of the manor AND the scullery maid without going Edith on everybody

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Every Sunday night when the season is right, you will find Mr. Gore and me, after banishing…er, tucking in…the children upstairs, settling down into our favorite living room chairs to catch up on the latest drama at Downton Abbey.

This historically-trenched soap opera thoroughly entertains me, and the characters are often referenced in our house.

A lover of history, it is just pure fun for me to see a page from the past come to life on my television screen, and the opportunity to visually become better acquainted with the practices and lifestyles of years gone by is a gift, of sorts, even though the propagation of modern beliefs can be laid on pretty thick, at times.

I can overlook that, though, for the pleasure of hearing Lady Violet’s latest display of side-splitting drollery.

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But as I was anticipating a new season of Downton this week, and daydreaming about the maids who work downstairs and the ladies of society that live upstairs, I realized, maybe for the first time ever, how many tasks I am personally responsible for as a homemaker, in general, and a homemaker with children, in particular, in my home.

The same is true for you, I’m quite sure of it.

Ignore the little fact that Downton is a vastly larger estate than many of us will probably ever even visit on this side of heaven and that our own houses are surely elfin in comparison, and just stay with me for a minute.

For starters, I literally go upstairs and downstairs a lot. We built a two-story house five years ago because I thought it would be “fun”, and when I’m not hauling baskets of stuff from the downstairs to the upstairs, I’m hauling baskets of stuff from the upstairs to the downstairs. And when I say “baskets”, I mean baskets.

But those aren’t the only “upstairs and downstairs” I’m talking about, the literal ones.

I’m talking about how, as homemakers and mothers, we juggle the upstairs and downstairs of an entire estate.

We are the “lady of the manor.” The event planner. The scullery maid. The chamber maid. The housekeeper. The chef. The nanny. The chauffeur. The lady’s maid. The butler. Add homeschooling to that, and we’re also the governess!

And I’m not pointing these things out to whine – puh-lease don’t get me wrong on that! – but, rather, to present a realistic picture of what we’re up against.

Mostly so I can get to this single question: Why in the WORLD are we continually heaping all this crazy guilt upon ourselves?!

What is with the insane, superhuman expectations?

Why do we continually feel like failures because we can’t “do it all”?

Tell me, if Mrs. Patmore was teaching George and Sybbie their lessons and giving them their baths and tucking them in at night and keeping the entire house clean and all the laundry done, do we sincerely think she would have time to make a fancy, gourmet meal even ONE time a day? No way! PB&J for lunch it would be, no problem.

Could Lady Grantham arrive at her nightly dinner party, perfectly coiffed and at ease after a hectic afternoon of cleaning out the automobiles, weeding the rose bushes and dusting the ceiling fan? I’m going to pretend like she couldn’t.

And so, while this silliest of blog posts is in no way grounds for entitlement or pity, it IS a light-hearted attempt to wake you up, woman.

In today’s culture, we ARE the upstairs and the downstairs of our life and we have a LOT on our plates, which calls for some very practical wisdom.

Namely, this: Pick a lane, m’lady.

We cannot “do it all”, every day. It’s impossible.

So instead of habitually trying, and then crashing and burning into sizzling heaps of frustration, why don’t we just start picking a few things to do really well in one day and call it good?

It’s simple, really, especially if you think of it in terms of the Downton staff…

Let’s see, who shall I be today? Will I be Mrs. Patmore, and make a really delicious and beautiful and painstaking meal for my family? And a homemade three-layer cake, perhaps, for dessert? Wonderful! But this means I can’t also try to pull a Mrs. Hughes and orchestrate a deep-cleaning of the house.

Or, if I DO want to be Mrs. Hughes and get all of my rooms tidied and oversee the organization of the entire house, I CAN’T be Mrs. Patmore. I will give myself and my family grace and order a pizza instead! (Or at the very least, pull out a Crock-pot.)

Shall I be Mr. Carson and get all of our affairs in order?

Shall I be Lady Grantham and host some friends for the evening?

Shall I be Tom (circa Season 1) and shuttle us hither and thither, running errands?

Shall I be Mrs. Crawley and fill up my day with good deeds toward the community?

Shall I be Lady Edith and…um…gaze worriedly into the distance? (Poor Edith. God bless her.)

Shall I be Anna and tend to the ones I’ve been entrusted with? Shall I gently brush their hair and groom their fingernails and see to their winter wardrobes?

Or who knows? Maybe I’ll be Mrs. Hughes on Saturdays, so we can start the week with a clean house. Then I can be Mrs. Patmore on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Or maybe I’ll be Mrs. Hughes in the mornings while the big kids do their independent schoolwork and be Mrs. Patmore from 3:00 – 5:00 in the afternoon. But then I can’t be Anna or Tom or Mr. Carson, too.

Or maybe…just MAYBE…I’ll be Lady Mary Crawly and I’ll put on my fancy clothes and I’ll go out to dinner.

Even better? Maybe I’ll be the Dowager Countess and sit in my favorite room with tea and scones and read a BOOK if I wanna!!!

(Okay, you’re right. There’s only ONE Dowager Countess. Forgive me for trying.)

Obviously, I could go on and on with this crazy string of mathematics, but you get the point.

How about we stop trying to be Downton-Abbey-in-the-flesh and simplify things a bit?

How about we work hard at whatever it is that we set our minds to, give it our very best, love the people we’re doing it for, commit the whole lot of it to our Creator, and then…

well, RELAX.

Mistress of the manor, why in the world would you shame yourself for the Mrs. Patmore meal that your friend just described cooking on Facebook??

You’ve been Mrs. Hughes-ing it all. day. long.

Dear lady, how could you possibly feel like a loser to come home to a messy house today? You got a houseful of kiddos ready and chauffered them around from morning till evening! And brought groceries home, to boot!

So here’s what I think you should do, and this is a gentle, Mrs. Hughes-esque order. (Because, really, why would ANYBODY, in their right mind, argue with Mrs. Hughes?)

You’re going to stop pretending like it is possible to be an entire household staff all day, every day. You’re going to put in your hours as one who is working for the Lord, and at the end of a long day, you’re going to focus on what you’ve DONE rather than what you HAVEN’T done and you’re going to feel good that, though things will never be as sparklingly perfect and well-run as Downton, you do a pretty bang-up job at manning the upstairs and the downstairs of your own personal estate.

And then, just for kicks, you’re going to fix yourself a treat, you’re going to set yourself down, you’re going to put up your feet, and you’re going to enjoy a couple of hours of mindless television.

May I kindly recommend PBS?

Sunday, 9:00 p.m., Eastern time.

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Thanks for reading!

Special thanks to the blog Austenprose for helping me get my Downton titles right: A Downton Abbey Etiquette Primer: How to greet the Earl of Grantham and other British forms of address

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Bath Poo. A True Story.

My baby had an “accident” in the bathtub yesterday, reminding me to finish this true life glimpse into the step-by-step process of recovering from bath poo. Proceed with caution, unless you have personally experienced the horror of bath poo, in which case, I offer you this piece of solidarity, with all my love.

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When babies poop in the bathtub...

After missing your morning opportunity for a shower before your husband goes to work, you finally send the big kids upstairs to play at 10:00 a.m., you strip your rambunctious 1-year old down and start him a bath, and you quickly get in the walk-in shower right next to him.

During the first shampooing of your hair, right after your hair gets all sudsy and almost ready to rinse, you notice that the baby is being very still and that his face is slightly red.

Then you hear the grunting.

Oh, Lord,” you pray, “please let it be constipation. Just this one time? Just until later this afternoon, maybe? Pretty please??

Trusting that all will be well, you proceed with your sudsing, you begin to daydream a little about what needs to be done that day, and then you realize that your baby has stopped grunting and is playing in the water again.

Perfect,” you muse, happy that your constipation prayers have come true.

And that’s when you see the toy in his hands.

It’s brown.

Last time you checked, all of his bathtub toys were black-and-white penguins from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

“Ack!” you yell, throwing your hands up in panic, berating yourself for being so naively optimistic.

You venture closer to the bathtub and see that the little brown playtoy is one of many brown playtoys, some big, some small, some so exceedingly tiny that you know this is a code red situation. All bath-poops are bad, but some are REALLY bad.

You slick your shampoo-filled hair into a bun to give you a good headstart before the soap starts to drip into your eyes, you turn off your shower and you tiptoe as quickly-yet-carefully as you can to the side of the tub where you immediately grab the baby’s hands before surveying the nightmare.

Your attack plan presents itself without conscious thought and step one is definitely to get the baby out of the water. You grab him by the trunk and lift him out of the water…

now where are you supposed to put the little booger?

Standing right beside the tub will have to do.

“Stay here,” you say, pointing down at him like he is a puppy, knowing full well that he has no idea what you’re saying.

You berate yourself for only knowing how to say “more” and “milk” in baby sign language.

Step two is to go fishing. You grab the big, clear plastic cup that just happens to be nearby (thank you, Lord!) and start scooping the biggest pieces of poo out of the water so you can drain the tub, and the saddest thing, in your mind, is that you have done this before. Many, many times. With four children in your house, you’ve probably fished for poo at least twenty-five times in your life, which is funny because you didn’t know that poo fishing was a thing before you had kids.

Before long, the cup is getting too full of water to catch any more pieces. This is a real predicament.

Meanwhile, the baby has started wandering about on the tile floor behind you and you are so flustered by this and worried over his haphazard slipping and sliding that you just plunge into step three and start grabbing poo with your bare hands and tossing them quickly into the cup.

Now, with the added poo, the cup is really full of water and the only course of action is obviously to proceed to step four by quickly covering the top of the cup with one hand and draining all the excess water back into the tub, like you’re a human colander.

A bundle of poo is resting affectionately on your hand, which is just like you’d think it would be – SHOCKING AND SO GROSS – but soon the water is all gone and you can flip the cup back over.

The big cup of poo and nothing but poo.

(When you bought those pretty plastic cups at Target, you never dreamed they would be used for this purpose).

The shampoo has started to drip down onto your face now and is apparently running into your mouth because you can taste it. You sputter and spit into the tub and wipe the suds off of your forehead with your shoulder, all while holding a cup of poo.

The baby is still wobbling and falling and grinning his face off behind you. He hasn’t had this much fun since the day he emptied a giant bag of miniature M&M’s on the kitchen floor!

You finally get the last big piece of poo out of the water, and scrunching your nose, you plunge your arm into the littered water to pull the plug, sending any last tiny vestiges of ickiness down the drain.

Your baby has fallen on the tile now three times, but he’s still smiling, so you just go with it.

You dash to the cabinet above the bathroom toilet and grab the Lysol wipes.

You zip back to the tub, turn on the hand-held sprayer, and start washing down the sides and bottom of the tub before grabbing a huge wad of Lysol wipes and disinfecting the tub with the vigor of Rosie the Riveter.

During this cleaning frenzy, the baby has made his way to the toilet and is happily splashing in the water, but since you have one eye closed to block shampoo and you are freezing to death, and since you know he is about to receive the scrubbing of his life, and since you are SO close to being finished, you find this rather fortuitous as it is keeping him busy and he is no longer ice skating on the bathroom tile. But you still call out his name and tell him that “that is a no NO!“, just so he’ll know you heartily disapprove of his behavior.

You rinse off the disinfectant and you start a new bath for the baby.

While his bath fills up, you scrub his bottom with wet wipes and you vigorously wash his hands in the sink.

You return him to the bath before turning on the shower so you might rinse out the shampoo that has nearly dried into a meringue on top of your head.

Five seconds into your rinsing, however, the baby pulls the plug out of his bath and you have to hop over to put it back in place, scolding him while he blinks at you with his precious baby eyes.

This is clearly a fun game, and so he does it five more times, and your shower water gets less hot with every trip you make to the bathtub and back.

Finally, panting and frazzled, you finish your shower and while you are hurriedly drying off, you realize the big kids have wandered back downstairs and are hunting you down in the master bedroom.

Your oldest daughter is calling for you to tie the sash on her dress, your youngest daughter is jumping on your bed and you can hear your son’s voice drawing closer to the bathroom. You shriek at him not to come any closer because you’re drying off.

You frantically get dressed, and you realize there is still a big cup of poo sitting in the floor. You grab it, dump the offending contents in the potty, and flush it resolutely away.

Then, because the cup still looks rather disgusting, you rinse the cup in the toilet water to get the excess poo off so you can disinfect it in the sink and then put it in the dishwasher so you can throw it away and then burn it.

But first you have to get the baby out of the bathtub. He has drained the water again and keeps falling in the slippery tub and his lips are tinging blue from the cold. You set the cup down on the counter and turn to fetch him.

You wrap the little stinker in a towel, you take him to your bed, dry him, diaper him and dress him, all while chaos resumes in the master suite, with your entire litter present and talking and wiggling at one time.

And then, in the haze of the mayhem, you absentmindedly hear the sink water running, you hear one of your children say “ahhh…” in thirst-quenching relief, and you hear a plastic cup being set back down on the bathroom counter.

And…

scene. 

~

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Grey Photography

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The Dollhouse Effect

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I was tidying up the playroom at my mom’s house and had sat down for a minute in front of her giant three-story-plus-an-attic dollhouse to put the furniture back where it belonged and straighten up the mess.

“How ironically funny,” I thought to myself. “This is basically what I do all day, every day, but on a teensy-tiny miniature scale…”

Put the chairs back in place. Straighten up the slipcovers. Gather up all the tiny bits and pieces and put them in bins or buckets or baskets. Move the porch swing out of the master bathroom and put it back on the porch…

just kidding. That last thing only happened in the dollhouse and has never taken place in my actual house. Yet. 

But, you know what I was really struck by as I sat on my bottom in front of that precious particle-board construction?

If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I can flip this dollhouse anaIogy around, treating my homemaking duties just like I’m a silly little girl arranging her toys.

Meaning, everything must be in its place and look a very certain way or I will go to bed that night concluding that I am a failure on the housekeeping front. And, sometimes, on my most controlling days, after I deep-clean and tidy everything up “just so”, I will have this desperate urge for us all to just leave the house until bedtime so we won’t mess it up again!

“Let’s go drive around, kids,” I’ll be tempted to say. “We’ll, you know, go…look at stuff?…until it maybe gets dark outside?… and then we’ll order take-out and eat it in the car before going home and going STRAIGHT to bed. Yay! Fun times! Family togetherness!”

All because I have arranged my dollhouse how I want it and I don’t want anyone else to play with it for the rest of the day. 

Now, I don’t know if this is a natural inclination that women have wrestled with for centuries, or if it is a new issue that we have picked up in the age of catalogues, television and, oh yes, you KNOW I’m going to say it, Pinterest, but it really does cause a girl to wonder…

When did we start seeing our homes as dollhouses?

When did the roofs we live under become anything other than a shelter to keep us warm and dry and safe from the outside world?

Did Father Abraham’s wife, Sarah (who ALSO had many sons), get bent out of shape when her tent was messy? Did she stay up late arranging her silk, tasseled floor pillows and dreaming of a day when no one would sit on them and smush them out of shape? Did she think her tent looked its very best when it resembled a showcase tent, or a tent-hotel that no one had checked into yet?

And when it boils down to it, is this a neatfreak issue or a “keeping up with the Jones’s” issue or a materialism issue?…

You know, I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions, but I DO know this. Regardless of its origins or motivation, the dollhouse effect feels so very wrong.

It is one thing to express creativity in our homes and work hard to produce a place of beauty to please our eyes, but we can get so weird about it.

For example, while knowing it isn’t true that houses really look like the ones we see on television, we fight for such a house, anyway. And even though it is obvious to us that the dwellings we admire in magazines are nothing but gussied-up dollhouses that have been “staged” for a photo shoot, we continue to compare our homes to them, allowing a needless root of discontentment to spring up in our hearts at how miserably our own castle holds up.

And before you know it, we’ve gone and modeled every room in our home after houses that somebody else told us we should have…

There should be five perfectly fluffed pillows on the couch and a basket of neatly folded throw blankets nearby, and there should be shoe cubbies that keep all of our footwear organized, and the dining table should be gleaming and featuring some sort of gigantic seasonal centerpiece, and the sink should be glistening with nary a dish in sight, and the laundry baskets should be completely empty, and all the clothes in the closets should be organized by color, and there should be a line-up of bright, shiny rainboots at the backdoor, and the toys in the playroom should all be in labeled bins, and there should be three blankets of varying textures and prints layered on the master bed (along with a gazillion shams and throw pillows artfully arranged at the headboard), and the bathroom should be completely untouched with a shelf boasting a giant glass canister of bath salts that we never use because they make the bathtub feel icky and gooey and another canister holding twenty bars of soap, and oh!, then another one filled to the brim with those natural-looking sponges that look so darn pretty in a jar (even though no one in our family uses sponges!), and…

and…

and in the midst of all this stagery, I think we can somehow forget what the purpose of a house is.

To LIVE in, you dummy.

(Sorry, I was talking to myself there, but feel free to include yourself if it applies).

And all the stuff that is inside a house is supposed to make the living more enjoyable and/or comfortable, not become the source of our insanity and stress.

Now, before I go on, I have to assure you that I am not advocating laziness or carelessness, nor am I bashing home decorating and organizing; I deeply value hard work and I love beauty and I crave order and I believe in taking good care of our things and I want to continually teach my kids to respect their loved ones by helping and doing their part around the home.

But I also never, ever want to forget that my family does not live in dollhouse.

We live in a people house, and we’re kind of supposed to live here. And if houses are for living in, then…

couches, by golly, are for sitting on.

Pillows are for smushing up into a ball to make the small of our back feel more comfortable on the couch.

Throw blankets are for unfolding and curling up in.

Dishes are for eating spaghetti on.

Napkins – even the cloth ones! – are meant for wiping our messy spaghetti mouths on.

Tables are for catching the extra spaghetti that falls off of our plate.

Floors are for walking on (and catching the spaghetti that fell off the table).

Beds are for sleeping in.

Laundry hampers exist to hold dirty clothes; no dirty clothes in the world? No laundry hampers.

Bathrooms were created to be the epicenter wherein every manner of our dirtiness is purged and cleansed.

Closets are for hiding our piles of clothes.

Toys are for playing with!!!

And this precious lil’ white farmhouse we built five years ago and moved into with our budding family? This is our home, one that, for the love of Pete, I want to live in and let my family live in.

Which leads me to what I set out to write about today in the first place. With all these things in mind, by the grace of God, I am learning to see the difference between a lazy mess and a beautiful mess, a dollhouse and a real house. Lazy messes are sickening – they make your stomach turn because you know that you can do better and that your family deserves harder work than that.

But beautiful messes, once you learn to let go of that stinky quest for magazine-quality perfection, cause your heart to quicken inside of you as you realize that this…this!…is the reason you work hard as a homemaker in the first place, to give your family the room and the freedom to live.

Beautiful messes happen around good food and lively conversation.

They happen when siblings are taking a splashy bath together.

They happen over art supplies and blank canvases or an empty table and a couple of jars of Play-doh.

They happen over movies in the living room, throw blankets and pillows and popcorn all over the floor.

They happen in a room full of toys that inspire the imagination to soar, where dinosaurs can play with Calico Critters, even though they don’t match.

They happen in sandpiles and mud puddles and snow-covered yards.

They happen when all the decorative pillows are off the bed and families are cuddled up to sleep together.

They happen when we are living life with the ones we love.

And, sometimes, they happen over afternoon cookies and coffee, inspiring you to sit down and share what you’re learning about homemaking with the world.

Grandmother (or “Mother Bear”, as 3-year old Betsie has dubbed her) had come over for the afternoon, and the three of us had sprawled out in the schoolroom to enjoy a snack together. We talked. We laughed. We read books. We lounged. We made crumbs. We made spills. We lived!…

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It was beautiful.

And it reminded me that this is why I buy pretty decorations and sweep the floors and keep dishes clean and fluff the pillows and wipe off the table, not so our home can look like a dollhouse or the latest issue of the best home decorating magazine…

but that I might make room for the next beautiful mess.

~

p.s. If it makes you feel any better about your life, this is what our shoe cubby looks like. I just don’t know where we’d put that one flip flop if we didn’t have it. I’m super glad we paid money for it.

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How to Iron Without Having to Iron

How to Iron

How many of you have little girls?

How many of you love to buy precious clothes for your little girls?

How many of you have been sad to realize that the most precious clothes usually need to be ironed?

And so how many of you let those precious clothes hang in the closet because you never have time to iron?

Yeah, me too.

Until my mom showed me this mind-numbingly simple tip that has completely changed all of the above.

It is so simple and so obvious, I just want to slap myself on the forehead everytime I realize that I never would have figured this out on my own, but would probably have kept hanging up those beautiful wrinkled-up dresses and looking at them forlornly every Saturday night when I laid out church clothes because I knew I didn’t have time to iron them.

“Next week…” I’d think.

But no longer!

Every single dress that hangs in my daughters’ closet is ready to wear and generally wrinkle-free, and in case you need a little boost like I did, here’s how that happens without ever plugging in the iron…

This is what a typical dress looks like when you pull it out of the dryer. Obviously, this is unacceptable.

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But ironing this tiny collar and bow just isn’t at the top of my priority list. Plus that’s a great way to burn my most important blogging fingers.

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That’s why my girls’ nice clothes (and some of my boys’ clothes!) never make it to the dryer anymore. Straight out of the washer, I place them on a thick, plastic hanger and, using my fingers, I smooth out the wrinkles and straighten out the collars and bows until they are ready to air dry.

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Here’s the bow before I “iron” it with my fingers…

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and here it is after…

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And, just like that, this sweet little sailor dress is basically ready to wear (minus the fact that it is still wet). Mind you, it isn’t perfectly pressed, but for this frazzled mama of four children, it’s like Proverbs 31 praiseworthy.

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Here’s another example of a tricky little girl’s romper that, if put in the dryer, would be a mess. Ruffles are the worst, are they not?

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But after hanging up the romper and smoothing out the ruffles with my fingers, they look tidy and spiffy!

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Here’s the bow on the romper’s pocket before I “ironed” it…

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and here it is after…

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Every little dress in our collection receives this exact same treatment, and believe me, it makes my laundry room very happy.

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I hope it makes your laundry room happy, too!

(But don’t thank me, thank my mom).

~

If you are like me and need to really have things spelled out for you, here are a few more tips, in detail:

  • Sometimes it helps to toss these clothes in the dryer for about five minutes on your lowest heat setting before you attack the wrinkles. It will get out a few of them for you!
  • Now, grab the top of the article of clothing with one hand and the bottom with the other and pull, firmly enough to beat the wrinkles, but gently enough to not rip anything. What are you, a backwoodsman? Do this all over the article of clothing, smoothing out all the fabric with your hand. Then, smooth out the bottom hem. Then, smooth out the panel and all buttoned areas, pull out pocket flaps and smooth them down, put your hand in the pockets to straighten them, smooth out any sashes and pull them taut, and fluff up any bows. Lastly, do the collars and, after placing your hanger on a hook or doorknob, give everything one last once-over. Basically, however the clothing looks when you walk away from it is how it will dry.
  • Don’t do all of your high-maintenance clothes in one load. I’ve done that a few times and it feels so overwhelming to see all of them lying in a heap that I have to “iron” before I can move on to another chore. I have instead started a habit of keeping these items in their own hamper and, with each load of laundry I wash, I throw in just a couple. Doing it this way is practically painless, and it ensures that clean dresses are being hung back in the closet almost every day.
  • And you know what that means, right? We are actually WEARING all the pretty clothes we have purchased instead of letting them go to waste! Hip hip hooray!!
  • If you aren’t too picky about perfectly ironed duds yourself, you can do this with your own clothes, as well. It gets the major wrinkles out around hems, collars, pockets and panels and allows you to look presentable enough. I do all of my button-ups this way, and it keeps me wearing them, even though they sort of look like I took a nap in them.
  • Go fix yourself a tall glass of sweet tea and congratulate yourself on being the QUEEN of the laundry room!!

~

If you have any questions or just want to tell us how brilliant we are or how we’ve saved your life, feel free to comment below!