There was a time when a sink full of dirty dishes kept me awake at night.
From the earliest days of our now seven-year marriage, my husband and I had a basic understanding: whoever cooks doesn’t do dishes. Perfectly reasonable. The thing is, my husband is a soaker. He actually says, “I come from a long line of soakers,” which is code for, “Sometimes I do the dishes, and sometimes I just stick them in the sink.” And on the days when he’d opt for soaking, I’d start stewing, and I’d keep right on stewing long after I’d gone to bed. It only got worse after we had kids.
Dinnertime quickly became my least favorite part of the day. I wanted our food to be as healthy and delicious as possible, so I’d knock myself out to make meals that dazzled. I also wanted the kids to eat everything on their plates, and I wanted it all to happen quickly so we didn’t mess with bedtime—and invite end-of-day meltdowns. I put so much pressure on the simple act of dinner that when I emerged from putting the kids to bed, the last thing I wanted to see was a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. How could my husband not recognize my herculean efforts? And how could he justify doing absolutely nothing to contribute to the process?
Here’s what typically happened: annoyed, I would grab the sponge and start doing the dishes, feeling sorry for myself as I went along. Why do I have to do all the work around here? Why doesn’t anyone else care if our house is a mess?
Sometimes I’d skip right over martyrdom and go straight to ticked off. I’d still do the dishes on those nights, but I’d do them noisily—sighing audibly, throwing the silverware in the holder a little too forcefully—all the while sending hate vibes and scolding my husband in my head. This is wrong and you’re a jerk! Once or twice I’d actually say things out loud to this effect, and we’d end up having a big fight, which didn’t leave either of us feeling any better.
The dishwashing chores weren’t always so fraught; in fact, sometimes I actually enjoyed them. I had read Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions on infusing daily chores with mindfulness—what he calls “washing the dishes to wash the dishes”—in his classic text, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Heck, I’d even championed them in my own book The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide. So when I managed to drop into that zone, I could become absorbed by the sound of the dishes clunking in the sink, the feel of the sponge squishing in my hands, the satisfying sight of a once-gunky pan coming clean. But, in truth, that exercise in mindfulness was mostly an attempt to keep myself from thinking mean thoughts about my husband while I cleaned the kitchen. It was a diversion.
Or so I thought. While I didn’t think my mindful dishwashing practice was doing much more than taking the slightest edge off my irritation, it was actually secretly, albeit minutely, transforming my attitude toward everything—chores, kids, my husband, even my work.
Gradually, I realized having a clean kitchen is important to me. And while I still preferred that my husband do his fair share of the dish duty, the fact that I felt alternately defeated or ticked off wasn’t serving anyone. So I started accepting that sometimes I did the dishes. I wasn’t enthused about it, at all, and when I did the dishes with this mind-set, I spent a lot of my mental energy thinking things like, Scott doesn’t value cleanliness the same way I do, but since it’s more important to me, I’ll just do it. I considered this an improvement, but I was still busy rationalizing why it was okay that I was doing the dishes. And I still wasn’t feeling all that keen on Scott.
Over time, though, it dawned on me that these sessions were opportunities to practice, and I started to shed another layer of dishwashing drama. I realized that the dishes need to get done for all our sakes, and sometimes that meant my husband would do them and sometimes I would; it wasn’t about keeping track of who did it and when. That was a big shift. It didn’t change the reality of how often I did or didn’t do the dishes, but it made a big difference in how much of a toll it took on me when I did.
Then something cool started to happen. I actually began to welcome the sight of dirty dishes in the sink, because it meant an opportunity for me to decompress. When I didn’t waste energy thinking about all the ways it was wrong, I could just enter a zone where I was totally absorbed in what I was doing and my thoughts naturally quieted down. The dishes got done, and I got a little mental downtime.
The best part of releasing all that judgment? My husband spontaneously started doing the dishwashing more often. Not because we talked about it, but because the energy around the whole conversation had shifted.
Now I’m in an even different place. The dishes get done, or they don’t. If I do them, I think, Great, I’ll savor this opportunity to get my mind and body working on the same task. If my husband does them, I think, Great, I’m going to sit and read or play with the kids and just enjoy the fact that the dishes are getting done. And if they don’t get done, I know they’ll get done tomorrow. My angst about this issue has totally receded.
Along the way, I’ve created space for some major benefits: My husband and I no longer have that recurring bone of contention, which means we can enjoy each other’s company in the evenings so much more. And now that I don’t feel obligated to have a squeaky clean kitchen all the time, I’ve been able to move my own needs way up my priority list. I’ve committed to seeing a personal trainer one day a week, and when I do restorative yoga at night I can sink more deeply into relaxation. I also have a lot more time to put toward other things, like launching new projects or simply being with the kids.
I can’t say it was quick: it’s been five years since my daughter was born, and I spent many of those evenings banging away in the kitchen. But it’s proof that little things have big benefits. And that even when your practice feels like it’s not really doing much, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. Kind of like soaking a crusty pot in warm soapy water overnight.