Mom On Strike


Posted Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Is it really possible to get teens to clean up? One woman takes a stand and gets more than she bargained forů

The dirty socks, by themselves, were not the thing that drove Karen McLauchlan over the edge.

Nor was it the junk food wrappers and ponytail elastics strewn about the floor, the swiftly mounting piles of laundry or the duty of placing a green vegetable on the table each night.

No, what drove her nuts was that no one even noticed how hard she worked. As far as her husband and three daughters knew, Harry Potter waved a magic wand over their dirty laundry and returned it, cleaned and folded, to their dresser drawers.

And in asking, and asking, and asking her offspring to pick up the occasional dirty plate, she found herself turning into a creature she never wanted to become - The Nag.

"I was like, this is going to change, and I'm going to change it," McLauchlan says.

That's when she launched the bombshell. She was going on strike.

Just so nobody would miss this dramatic development, she announced it to the world in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. For the entire month of January, she wrote, she would no longer clean up after, coddle or cook restaurant-quality meals for her family. They were on their own.

This should be the point where she slams the door and storms out of the house. But no. She had a delusional, utopian idea her family would actually pick up the slack.

So she dubbed it Responsibility Month, and envisioned her brood cheerfully pitching in with chores to make the household run smoothly.

"This isn't a punishment," she says. "I want them to learn how to do things for themselves."

On the other hand, this former attorney and artist savored the thought she might actually get some time to herself.

"You have a lot more time when you're not spending every five minutes picking up after somebody," she says.

'Our mom's quitting'

On a Thursday afternoon a few days after Responsibility Month started, McLauchlan is rehashing it with Lauren, 15, Lindsey, 13, and Cory, 11.

They're sitting at the table in a spotless kitchen in their sparkling, modern Geneva home. Cory has done her part for domestic bliss by making blond brownies, which sit enticingly on a platter.

The talk turns to all the fan mail Karen got from moms after the newspaper published her "on strike" letter. But the daughters aren't cheering.

"At first I was kind of angry because of the way she put it," says Lauren. "We thought, 'Our mom's quitting.' But then she explained. She said, 'I want help. I don't like yelling at you guys.'"

Lindsey didn't know about the letter in the paper until her friends' moms read it. One of them consoled her with, "You can come to dinner at our house if you don't have food."

'Ick, it's so boring'

Despite such drama, Karen persisted in going on strike. She told the girls they could operate on an "every man for himself" basis in terms of laundry and food, or they could cooperate to get chores done. They chose to cooperate.

"So each one has a cooking night," she explains. "I drop them at the grocery store, give them money and they buy the ingredients."

The girls keep track of whose night it is to make dinner on a chart. They also take turns washing dishes and doing laundry.

"The worst thing is grocery shopping," says Lindsey. "It was hard to find stuff. We just went up and down every single aisle. We know where the milk is, but where do you find something like french-fried onions in a can?"

Lauren looks at the bigger picture. "It gives you an appreciation for what your parents do," she says. "Like, if you left milk out on the counter, if your mom didn't put it back, it'd still be there."

Lindsey isn't done complaining, though. "I don't like washing pots," she says. "And, you can't just put clothes in the washer and go to a movie. You have to stay and dry them and fold them, and it's boring."

"Many hands make light work," Karen responds cheerfully.

It's starting to dawn on Lauren, the oldest, that she will actually need to know this stuff someday. "I think about college sometimes," she says. "And I'd like to be a mom." She thinks a moment and adds, "Eventually when I have kids, they'll have to do laundry and cook."

Moms are strange

Karen decides it's time to check the progress of the basement rec room, where the girls have let some mess pile up. She leads the way past an immaculate living room, which is adorned with some of the artistic metal crafts she made and sold when she ran her own company. She also made stained glass and jewelry.

After descending the stairs to the basement, everyone has to step over dirty laundry and pick their way around candy wrappers, empty pop bottles and pieces of games and toys.

This room had been the flash point for Karen's whole idea to go on strike. When she asked her husband Charlie to make the girls pick up all that detritus, he responded, "You make them pick up to your standards."

For Karen, that was the comment that broke the camel's back.

"It said everything," she later wrote in her strike declaration. "These are not OUR household rules, not issues to teach OUR children ... but MY standards, MY issues (unreasonable, of course) and MY problem to enforce same."

Armed with that anger, she decided to go on strike.

Now, many days later, she moves on to a bicycle, explaining Charlie received for Christmas a stand that converts a regular bike into an indoor exercise bike. Then she bends over to pick up some clumps off the ivory-colored carpet.

"But do you think he'd take the mud off the bike before he brought it in from the garage?" she asks. "I think only moms notice when big chunks of dirt fall on the floor. We moms are strange that way."

Right brain, left brain

Once safely back upstairs, Lauren takes out a pot to boil water for pasta, and starts to slice zucchini.

Karen says that she retired from lawyering, but still occasionally uses some of her legal skills for the company she and Charlie own. The company employs computer controls to run the heating and cooling systems of large buildings.

"Early on, we discussed what we were going to do, and we felt one of us needed to be the primary caregiver for the kids," said Charlie in a later phone interview. Because of where they were in their careers, it made more sense for Karen to stay home, he added.

But Charlie, who often works upward of 12 hours a day, realizes she has many talents beyond domestic ones.

"She's one of those rare people who have both right and left brain skills. She graduated from Northwestern University Law School summa cum laude, but at the same time she's a highly accomplished artist," he says. And he wonders whether she's getting enough fulfillment at home.

"I do think that's missing for her," he says. "Prior to this experience, there were times where she'd expressed frustration about things around the house. My response was, 'Maybe you'd be happier not being a full-time mom.' I wouldn't be opposed to her pursuing her law career, even part time. But she insisted she was happy.

"I wonder if other things would bring her fulfillment. I'm not sure she's recognized that," he says.

Karen does have one volunteer project she's working on, though. She has become president of the Fisher Farm Master Association, which is like a homeowners association but larger. She's tackling issues such as retention ponds for the 700-home association.

A month later

We checked back in with the McLauchlans at the end of Responsibility Month to see whether the dirty dishes had piled up to the ceiling.

Nope. Some dirty dishes sat near the sink and the basement still had some disorder, but otherwise, the house would pass muster with Mr. Clean.

"I'm pronouncing Responsibility Month a great success," Karen says. The girls kept up their rotations of cooking, laundry and dishwashing without fail - even through Lauren's final exams at school.

Neither laundry nor grocery shopping got any easier for Lindsey. She still found them annoying, but she did them.

"The good part was that my mom didn't yell at me," she says. "And now I can make noodles and chicken."

Cory did find that her chores got easier, though. "I'm helping with stuff more," she says.

Charlie found that he had really come around.

"We weren't eating as well, " he says, laughing. "We were having, like, macaroni and cheese instead of - well, Karen's a more accomplished cook. But I did enjoy seeing how the girls took responsibility."

Now that Responsibility Month is over, what happens next is somewhat fluid. Karen will no longer be on strike, but she wants each girl to cook at least one night a week.

Next, the world

When asked whether being a mom on strike felt more like being a freedom fighter or a crusader for the rights of the downtrodden, Karen's curious intellect takes off. She says her role models are authors Desmond Morris and Jared Diamond, whose books about human and societal evolution led her to write an essay called, "If Women Ran the World."

Writing essays in her time off from laundry duty? Maybe she did have an intellectual itch that needed scratching.

Now that intellect is going to get an audience. A day after we checked in on the family's progress, Karen e-mails to relay some news.

"I joined the blogging world. I'm at a blog site called Dark Bilious Vapors," she wrote. The site, which she shares with a former law school alum, is at

OK, there's definitely something going on here. Mom goes on strike, gets demands met, becomes blogger in spare time.

"Maybe it's part of a natural evolution where Karen's freeing up time for these other outlets," Charlie speculates.

After 15 years of being Mom, who could blame her?