My husband gave me a very nice handbag for Valentine’s Day.
There’s no subtext, sarcastic or otherwise to that effect – it was a beautiful item, expensive enough that I never would have bought it myself (and that’s what gifts are for) but not expensive enough to make me gasp: “Are you crazy ?” or wonder what exactly this gift was about (at certain times in my life, February 14 was known as “All Excuses Day”).
It was also way too small. Or so I thought.
Being the mother of three, most of my “handbags” are actually shoulder bags that could easily pass as overnight bags. They’re big, they’re roomy, and even when they’re new, they quickly take on a haggard appearance.
Because they are filled with everything anyone could possibly need at any time.
Wallet, keys and phone, of course, but also pens, notebooks, tissues, folded reusable shopping bags, a pill bottle filled with Excedrin and ibuprofen, and several small make-up bags. One contains mascara, eyeliner and lip balm, as well as plasters, Neosporin, antiseptic wipes, a sewing kit, half a dozen hair ties, bobby pins, more ibuprofen, several packs of antacids, tweezers, a glasses repair kit and a small bottle of perfume.
In another you’ll find all of the various membership and rewards cards our family owns, as well as more paracetamol, the really big plasters, a small roll of medical tape, and a pair of small scissors. A fairly new addition includes masks enough for the whole 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 also come in handy for securing half-eaten bags of crisps and small bouquets of wildflowers at the roadside.
On most days, my bag also contains a variety of snacks, sunscreen, and a small camping towel that I started carrying in the early 2000s when one of my kids was guaranteed to spill a drink on me at least once a day. There was a time when I carried underwear and socks for any child under the age of 5, but those days are long gone, along with the need for crayons, crayons, and drawing paper.
(Also gone 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 that he regularly carries.)
It’s a lot, but not one thing in my bag went unused. And not just my kids. I’ve sewn straps for weddings, proms, and quinceañeras; helped staunch some non-familial nosebleeds; removed the splinters from complete strangers and had my first aid supplies drained in one day by adult friends not quite prepared for the rigors of sightseeing.
Does it make me happy in a “Price Right” fashion to produce problem-solving items when they are needed? Naturally! Has it sometimes made me question the wisdom of adults who seem to go about their daily lives under the assumption that 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, so we all have our blind spots.
Ironically, I only carry a bag much smaller than a sports duffel when I travel, but that’s because either my husband or I carry a backpack.
As I stared at the fancy new purse my husband gave me for Valentine’s Day, I realized there was no way everything I had would fit.
And then I thought, maybe that’s the point. As anyone with a mother’s bag knows, the literal baggage of parenthood is often very heavy on the shoulders. (Not too long ago, I developed pain all the way up my left arm that I feared was heart related. My doctor prescribed muscle relaxants and looked pointedly at my bag, which hung from my feet like a sleeping bulldog.)
I am still the mother of three children, but two of them are grown and the youngest is 16, mature enough to carry her own purse. Their requests for hair bows are only occasional; they carry their own masks, hand sanitizer and even snacks. So why am I still treating my bag like a diaper bag for the next step?
Because it’s the last vestige of their youth, therefore – tangible proof that I was once 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 bleed, first aid when they fell, crackers when they were hangry, and thread needles when they tore their dresses clothes that get out of the car.
Of course, there were many times when, as Dorothy told the Wizard of Oz, there was nothing in that black bag that could heal their pain or solve their problems. But that made it seem even more important to have the smaller things at hand.
Children become young adults very slowly, then suddenly; it’s hard 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 children who would not have been there under normal circumstances. Kids who, ever since they were under my roof, still look to me to play mama with a capital M.
That too was tiring at times (and very hard on all our large devices), but now the two oldest are gone and the youngest has just passed her driving test.
No one here needs me to tell them to slather on sunscreen. Half the time they tell me.
I could have kept the nice bag my husband could have given me for special occasions, but I think his real (perhaps ignorant) 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 to wear as they go through life, instead of expecting it to be produced by their mother as if by magic.
It is also time for me to accept that directly producing solutions is no longer my job. There is sadness in that realization, but also more than a flash of elation. The lightness of my new bag is strange and a little creepy, like I’m untethered. I keep thinking I left something behind – which of course I have.
I kept the patches and ibuprofen though. Also the hair elastics because, children or not, they are very handy.