The Things She Carries

How heavy is your diaper bag?

Just this summer I officially stopped carrying my Big Diaper Bag on most days. Both kids were out of diapers (!!!!) and accidents were rare (fingers crossed) and we could usually make it through most of a day out and about with water bottles, a few snacks, a lollypop or two, and some luck packed into my small mommy backpack with my keys, phone and wallet. And that FEELING of leaving the house so unencumbered (as much as one can be unencumbered with two children in tow) was incredible. 

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My diaper bag, ready for a mom-tastic day!

I calculated that my diaper bag, when fully loaded, weighed well over 25 lbs. Diapers (two sizes), wipes, butt cream, juice(s), travel milk cup, spare pants (and underpants), bibs, table covers, snacks, backup snacks, healthy treats, escalation treats, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, gigi (security blanket), spare gigi, sunscreen, water for Mom, toys for the train, book I will never read, and more were packed into my lovely diaper bag. 

I selected this bag very carefully before I was a Mom, and, with all the naiveté of someone not-yet-a-parent, I also bought a small matching handbag because, I imagined, I would simply bring *my* things for an evening out in my clutch and the baby’s things would be meticulously packed away in the diaper bag for relaxing evenings out on the town as a family. 

The reality was, is, of course, that I put that clutch away for nearly six years while I was hauling around that giant, overstuffed, diaper bag like the pack mule we all never intend to be. When we did go out, I carried that bag. Even though my husband offered, I felt lost without it. It was my self-imposed burden to bear. 

As my physical load has lightened, I noticed that my psychological load has not. I don’t carry as much stuff around with me in my arms, but my brain and my time are as overstuffed with tasks as my old diaper bag configuration was. 

In her amazing article in Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley describes trying to explain the phenomenon of Emotional Labor as she urges her husband to take notice of the myriad of tasks it takes to run a household. The article is titled “Stop Calling Women Nags - How Emotional Labor is Dragging Down Gender Equality,” and it speaks to the frustration - often coming to a boiling point (and requiring, as Ms. Hartley gently describes, ‘damage control,’) once the beleaguered Mom has Simply. Had. Enough. 

Recently I vented about this with my Book Group friends and was not surprised to find myself in good company. That week, my husband asked me to find a sitter so we could go out with friends who were randomly in town. It was a short-turnaround request and a holiday, two strikes against me, but what made it more frustrating, I found myself saying, is that no matter what the outcome of my efforts, his life wouldn’t change. He could still go out - or not - because it’s assumed that I will simply stay home with the boys. Somehow that’s on me. 

Heads nodded and everyone had a story to tell about forgotten pacifiers and too much screen time. One friend sent me a message later detailing how her that very night, her husband hadn’t put their child to bed with his diaper on (as he’s supposed to) because “He didn’t want to wear one,” and so she was faced with the dilemma of either diapering him before she went to bed (as her husband assumed she would) or cleaning up a late-night mess. 

“Really?” she wrote, “Really? I have a title for your blog post… ‘Emotional Labor  vs. Dumbassery.’ “ 

It’s funny because it’s true, but it’s also a revealing element of the Parenting Culture. 

In Hillary Clinton’s raw and revealing new book, “What Happened,” she mentions how even as the first woman partner in a law firm in Arkansas, she was the one responsible for the Emotional Labor in their family. Remembering the birthdays and the spelling tests and getting the clean leotard out for ballet class, which is on for Tuesday but cancelled next week… It struck me that even as the First Lady of Arkansas, as First Lady of the Nation, she always had that role in addition to Everything Else.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama called herself the Mom-in-Chief, which polarized feminists and as mentioned in this piece from Salon, seems to degrade any experience of Motherhood that’s not 24-7. “These notions, sometimes referred to as “intensive motherhood,” leave little room for women to focus on careers, activities or commitments outside of caring for children.”

So Mrs. Obama’s attempts at so-called-balance were just as precarious and full of self-doubt as any of the rest of us.

I remember reading Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift in college, long before I ever considered having children and I wondered to myself how my mother did it all but also WHY did she do it all? I now know the answer: She did it all because she had to. I loved my father but he did not play a substantial role in my family’s Emotional Labor Force. 

So how did I end up here, with so many of my educated, independent, intelligent Mother friends and women of power alike? Did we create this by insisting on carrying the load ourselves? It’s hard to put it down, because, especially for SAHMs like myself, it’s what we do. It’s ‘all’ we do, when someone asks us what we do all day, and we struggle for an specific answer.  

Perhaps it’s that element of Dumbassery, as my eloquent friend put it. Or perhaps we just need to call out these inequities and ask for more with the understanding that it might get done differently than we would have done it, but that’s OK. Great, even. 

In our situation, I explained my frustration and my husband got it. He handled the arrangements and we found a way for us all to win. Another friend told her husband that she needed a break and he booked both a sitter and a restaurant. There’s hope for us all. Hopefully next time, neither one of us has to ask. 

When we decided that I would stay home with the kids, I realized that the majority of household tasks would fall to me. And I feel the need to add that my husband is a great Dad, a wonderful partner, and an active part of keeping our house running smoothly. But as lives, as marriages, evolve, we are entering into a new phase. Our family still needs me - and the things I do - more than ever, but they are different things now than when they were babies. I’ve been carrying this weight because I insisted on holding the bag, all of the time. That was on me. But it’s time for a change.

I’m happy we are finding ways to lighten the load, together.