Friday, September 20, 2013

Washing the dishes by hand

When my second daughter was almost a year old, we bought a dishwasher. I had chronic eczema on my hands, related to the many forms of washing that come with raising small children; using the dishwasher made a huge difference to my skin. I was pathetically grateful to be able to shove the baby bottles in and have them washed while I got on with other tasks. For five or six years, I sang its praises.

Now my kids are older, and we have moved to a house with a dodgy dishwasher. The machine fits relatively few dishes; then thunders away for an hour or so only to render the dishes less than half clean. We soon decided we had to replace it with an efficient, effective model. However, we haven’t had much spare cash this year; so until we can afford it, we have been washing up by hand.

To my surprise, we have discovered that it’s no big deal. Now we’re well past the stage of three little kids eating five meals a day, and the dreaded baby bottles, the washing up is no longer onerous. I’m beginning to realise that I don’t want to replace the dishwasher; instead, I just want to rip the faulty one out.

When we had the dishwasher, I used to spend a long time loading it, arranging and rearranging to fit the maximum in. It was like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Then I washed whatever didn’t fit. Now, I spend no time loading the dishwasher. The time I once used to load it is now spent just washing up. The things that went in the machine – cups, plates, bowls, cutlery – are quickly washed in the sink. The things that didn’t go in the machine – plastics, saucepans, knives, bread boards – I always washed by hand anyway. So rather than spend ten minutes loading the machine, then doing the leftover washing up, I now spend fifteen minutes doing the washing up, full stop. If anything, it’s quicker.

Our former machine was relatively quiet. Even so, you could hear it in the background for the hour or more it took to run through the cycles. Every evening was punctuated by swishes, gentle whirrs, and gurgles from the sink. Now, once the dishes are washed, the house is silent: no humming, no machine noise, no gurgles. I am enjoying the quiet.

We don’t have a dishes roster. Some nights, my husband and I do them after the kids are in bed. It’s not a bad thing, because of instead of going straight to our separate books or screens, we have a chat over sink and tea towels. It grounds us, and helps me feel like we are sharing the tasks of homemaking in a small, but not unimportant, way.

Other nights, we do them with the kids. We put on dance music and the kids wiggle their bums around as they dry. Sometimes, my nine-year-old washes. There are evenings when everyone grizzles about having to contribute, but they always step up in the end; ultimately, they can’t resist the music and the chance to dance with mum and dad in the kitchen!

Studies have shown that kids who have chores around the house tend to have good outcomes; it really is character-building. I reckon this makes sense: there’s nothing more demoralising than feeling useless. Yet we live in an age of labour-saving devices, compounded by a culture of perfection; and this seems to mean that many kids make no practical contribution to their households. At the extreme are the kids I know (aged 6, 7, even 8) who have looked at me blankly when I put out bread, butter and fixings; they have never been entrusted to make their own sandwich and don’t know how to start, let alone hold a knife.

My partner and I are too disorganised to assign formal chores to our kids. Occasionally, in a burst of good intentions, we give them specific tasks, but we rarely enforce them (and to those of you who have functioning rosters, I salute you!). However, the dishes have become something that the kids can do. It’s hardly the level of responsibility many children have, but it makes them feel useful, and communicates that they are contributors to family life.

The kids also set the table. With that job comes a privilege: to choose which plates we will eat from. I inherited a pile of old English crockery from various family members. The pile is constantly added to by my slight crockery addiction; I am forever picking up plates at op shops. But when we had the dishwasher, we rarely used the old stuff. It didn’t stack well in the machine; and I couldn’t bear to have the hand-painted designs worn off by the heat and powerful soaps. The crockery became a collection. However, since we began washing up by hand, we eat in vintage style. My kids prefer plates ringed with roses, or marigolds, or mixed bouquets - everything tastes better on a pretty plate!

The plates get me telling stories: about grandmothers, and families, and other houses I have known. Later, as we wash up, I keep remembering: the extended family and the meals we have shared; the view out the kitchen window of my childhood home; the sight of my father washing up every night; different group houses and their grotty kitchens; church kitchens and tea towel fights. And here am I, far down the great current of time yet still surrounded by a host of loved ones as I run water, squeeze soap, swish plates and scrub pans as has been done for time immemorial.

It may not be for everyone. But for me at this life stage, for the quiet, the ease, the opportunity for contemplation, the conversations I have with partner and kids, the dancing round the kitchen, the pretty plates, and the richness of the memories: well, I have fallen in love with washing the dishes by hand.


  1. I've always quite enjoyed washing dishes by hand, it has an almost meditative quality for me. But then... a husband and now a baby and we have a dishwasher. I'm grateful for the dishwasher at this stage of life but it's not something I want to rely on forever. Just this hectic bit of time really.
    Sounds like you've developed a fun family activity out of washing up. I really like that idea.
    Enjoying your blog, I've just discovered it :)

    1. Different life stages have different needs and different small pleasures, I reckon - even as tiny as blasting the stereo and handing round the tea towels!!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...