Column: I have put down my mom-bag. A bittersweet goodbye to the things I carried
For Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a very nice handbag.
There is no subtext, sarcastic or otherwise in that sentence — it was a lovely item, expensive enough that I would have never bought it myself (which is what gifts are for) but not expensive enough to cause me to gasp, “Are you insane?” or wonder what exactly this gift was about (at certain points in my life, Feb. 14 has been known as “All Apologies Day”).
It was also way too small. Or so I thought.
Because I’m the mother of three, most of my “handbags” are actually shoulder bags that could easily pass as overnight bags. They are big, they are roomy and even when new, they quickly assume a haggard look.
Because they are filled with Everything Anyone Could Possibly Need At Any Time.
Wallet, keys and phone, obviously, but also pens, notebooks, tissues, collapsed reusable grocery bags, a pill bottle filled with Excedrin and ibuprofen, and several smallish cosmetic bags. One of these holds mascara, eyeliner and lip balm, but also Band-Aids, Neosporin, antiseptic wipes, a sewing kit, a half dozen hair ties, bobby pins, more ibuprofen, several packets of antacids, tweezers, a glasses repair kit and a small vial of perfume.
After more than a year, my husband and I have a movie date (“Together Together”) and it was very weird and extremely wonderful.
In another you will find all the various membership and rewards cards our family possesses as well as more acetaminophen, the really big Band-Aids, a tiny roll of medical tape and a tiny pair of scissors. A newish addition contains masks enough for the entire family as well as antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.
Also more hair ties. With three long-haired females in the family, you can never have enough hair ties, which are also handy for securing half-eaten bags of chips and small bouquets of roadside wildflowers.
On most days, my bag also holds a variety of snacks, sunscreen and a small camping hand towel that I began carrying in the early 2000s when one of my children would, guaranteed, spill a beverage on me at least once a day. There was a time when I carried a change of underwear and socks for whichever child was under 5, but those days have long passed, along with the need for crayons, colored pencils and drawing paper.
(Gone too is the early-marriage era when I carried my husband’s wallet, keys and sunglasses; after years of failed attempts, I finally found a bag he wears with regularity.)
It’s a lot, but not one thing in my purse went unused. And not just by my children. I have sewn on straps for weddings, proms and quinceañeras; helped stanch any number of non-familial nosebleeds; removed the splinters of complete strangers and had my first-aid supplies depleted in a single day by adult friends who were not quite prepared for the rigors of sightseeing.
Does it make me happy in a “Price Is Right” sort of way to produce problem-solving items when they are needed? Of course! Has it sometimes made me question the wisdom of adults who appear to go about their daily lives assuming they will never need a sewing kit, tweezers or an over-the-counter pain reliever? Sometimes. But then I almost always forget the napkins when getting food to go, so we all have our blind spots.
There’s a good reason the birthrate is declining in California and the U.S.. We’ve made parenthood way harder than it should be.
Ironically, the only time I carry a bag much smaller than a sports duffel is when I travel, but that’s because either my husband or I is carrying a backpack.
Gazing at the lovely new bag my husband gave me for Valentine’s Day, I realized there was no way everything I carried was going to fit.
And then I thought: Maybe that’s the point. As anyone with a mom purse knows, the literal baggage of parenthood is often very tough on the shoulders. (Not that long ago, I developed a pain all the way down my left arm that I feared was heart-related. My doctor prescribed muscle relaxers and looked pointedly at my purse, hunkered at my feet like a sleeping bulldog.)
I am still the mother of three, but two of them are adults and the youngest is 16, mature enough to shoulder her own burden of purses. Their requests for hair ties are only occasional; they carry their own masks, hand sanitizer and even snacks. So why am I still treating my purse as a next-step diaper bag?
Because it’s the last vestige of their childhood, that’s why — tangible proof that once upon a time I was needed in a very visceral way. Three wonderful people (four, if you count my husband) once relied on me to produce, as if by magic, tissues when their noses bled, first aid when they fell down, crackers when they were hangry and threaded needles when they ripped their dress clothes getting out of the car.
Of course there were many times when, as Dorothy said to the Wizard of Oz, there was nothing in that black bag that could mend their hurts or solve their problems. But that made having the smaller things on hand seem even more important.
My son and I have a very deep “Lord of the Rings” bond. We weren’t going to let a few thousand miles keep us from watching the Amazon prequel together.
Children become young adults very slowly, then all at once; it’s difficult to know what evidence of their early years to keep and what to let go, including your own role as a parent.
For the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, our nest, like many, was filled to overflowing with kids who under normal circumstances would not have been there. Kids who, since they were under my roof, still looked to me to play Mom with a capital M.
That too was exhausting at times (and very hard on all our major appliances), but now the two oldest are gone and the youngest just got her driver’s license.
No one here needs me to tell them to put on sunscreen. Half the time, they tell me.
I could have kept the lovely bag my husband gave me for special occasions but I think his real (perhaps unwitting) gift was the suggestion that I put down some of the maternal baggage. My children still need me, but those needs have changed; in many cases they need me to actively resist the urge to rush in.
It’s time they figure out what they need, what they should carry as they move through life, rather than expecting it to be produced, like magic, by their mother.
It’s also time I accept that instantly producing solutions is no longer my job. There is grief in that realization, but also more than a flicker of elation. The lightness of my new bag is strange and a little bit scary, like being untethered. I keep thinking I’ve left something behind — which of course I have.
I’ve kept the Band-Aids and ibuprofen, though. Also the hair ties because, children or no, they come in very handy.
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