Packing and Preparedness

Very glamorous silicone laundry line in our London flat

I don’t think it would be an overstatement (though it could be an embarrassment) to say that one of my greatest accomplishments of 2019 was packing for six weeks abroad as a family of five in just two checked bags. But it’s true! I researched, and tested out scenarios on a week-long spring break trip to Alabama, and revised. We ended up with tiny wardrobes that saw us happily through London, Kendal, Edinburgh, York, and London again, with only occasional muttered profanity when the complicated luggage arrangements we hauled toppled over while we wrangled three kids in crowded public transportation.

I’m just going to be honest here; this stroller is amazing but we overloaded it enough that it tipped over with a child inside it more than once.

I have always been a methodical packer. As a newlywed, I spent a whole summer putting things into and out of suitcases ahead of our trip to Uganda; J packed his share during a single conference call. I spend so much time thinking about packing that I’ve written a post about it before. My whole adult life, packing has seeped into many of my most boring and stressful dreams. (Whatever, I’m a cool mom.)

Brilliant packing move: one coloring book per kid, even in our very minimalist luggage. Pictured here rolling along en route to Oxford.

In 2019, we spent a full quarter of the year traveling. In 2020, we, like many of you, went exactly nowhere. We arrived back from our annual tour of the South on New Year’s Eve. The next day I found out I was pregnant. I canceled our plans, waited to start puking, then miscarried. By the time I’d scraped myself up off the floor, the world immediately fell apart. So yeah. I was in my very own bed every night of 2020, excepting the one I slept in a tent in the backyard with the kids.

Between the miscarriage and stay-at-home orders, almost half the year passed before I had to pack more than a diaper bag. But when we finally started to venture out on day trips again, I realized that none of my previous packing experience was all that relevant.

The rules had changed. Now we needed hand sanitizer and masks — and should we bring some disposable gloves just in case? We needed a plan for the bathroom, because now, when it was least convenient, everyone was finally potty trained. (I mean, mostly.)

The water fountains are turned off and the bathrooms are closed. PLAN ACCORDINGLY AND BRING A MASK.

What was worse, we had changed. We were rusty, accustomed to never having the things we needed — the extra layer, the change of pants, the spare snack — out of reach, having spent months on end confined to our immediate neighborhood. We’d lost the make-do attitude we’d cultivated traveling so much the previous year, and at the same time we’d lost the freedom to easily run into a store for a replacement if a forgotten item proved essential.

Most of all, we’d lost the confidence that the future is knowable, something that can be planned for. (Given the average weather of London in May and Edinburgh in June, it follows you should pack the lightweight merino leggings and the sundress.) Instead we were faced with the uncertainty that had always been there: maybe you pack all the right things, but it doesn’t end up mattering, because the unpredicted occurs. You can plan for what you might need on that trail, given hungry little bellies and a boy who will wade regardless of the temperature, but you can’t game out what you’ll need if that trail is too people-y and you have to go someplace else, if your kid needs to pee and it’s still densely populated and you don’t want to set foot in the sketchy gas station bathroom in the middle of a pandemic.

Packing has become a lot more like those monotonous dreams that plague me at night — a shifting and uncertain task, without any real guarantee that hard work and forethought will pay off. It’s also probably socked me with some violent grace, though, reminding me that perfection isn’t achievable, that we have always lived at the mercy of outside forces and that the perfectly packed picnic is no guarantor of a pleasant outing. We travel through life, trying to hang on to the things we think we need, but in the end, so little of it is about our own striving.

Still, it never hurts to pack an extra snack.

Melting her brain with Frozen on the way back to the States

2 thoughts on “Packing and Preparedness

  1. I love reading about your travels with kids. Maybe one day I’ll be bold enough to try it.

    Also, what is the brand of that awesome stroller?


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