Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Is your suitcase packed?

“Is your suitcase packed?” asked my husband, innocuously but expectantly. My husband Michael, our daughter, and I would be leaving for my family’s reunion in three days. Since my mother was driving up early, while we were flying, Mom had offered to take our suitcases to lighten our load on the airplane.

When my Mom came by that afternoon to pick up our things, Michael’s small red duffel bag was organized and packed, ready to go. My green case was still hidden in the back of our closet. Michael didn’t make a big deal about the fact that he was ready and I wasn’t, but I thought I could sense a hint of “There she goes again, always waiting until the last minute to get her act together.” It’s true that I’m always about 15 minutes behind schedule getting out of the house on vacation day. I am also likely to stop the car and run back for “just one more thing” as we pull out of the driveway. But, let’s look at what leads up to the point where the car pulls away. Getting a family ready for a vacation is an excellent example of the behind-the-scenes orchestration that mothers are expected to do—the kind of work you only notice if it doesn’t get done. My friend Pamela calls it “the invisible three-ring circus” that moms keep running in the background all the time.

My husband is an extremely hard worker, and his office work is almost as much of a black box to me as the details of household management are to him. One major difference is that he receives money, professional acknowledgment, and awards for his work. However, in the case of my work at home, if he doesn’t actively recognize the value of what I do, no one will. That alone could be the topic for another article (thesis, book…) but for now, let’s just look at what we each had to do to get ready for the family vacation.

In addition to getting his office work wrapped up, his vacation preparations were: do a little laundry, pick out books to take along, and pack his own suitcase. This was easily accomplished three days before our departure.

My preparations started months before, when I coordinated the itinerary with our extended family. I bought the plane tickets, and picked them up. The week before we left, I went into full vacation prep mode. Taking care of the dog and cat alone involved over a dozen steps, including:

Making the dog kennel reservation two months ahead of time
Taking the dog to the vet to get shots required by the kennel
Giving the dog heartworm pill, de-worming powder, and flea and tick drops (stealing a few drops of the dog’s flea medicine for the cat)
Hiring a neighbor’s child to take care of our cat, mail, and trash
Typing up cat care and emergency contact instructions on the computer, explaining them to the neighbor, and handing her the key
Buying a new litter box, extra cat food, and dog food
Driving the dog to the kennel, a 20-mile round trip

Then there were the tasks involved with getting our three-year old daughter ready to go. In addition to doing her laundry and setting aside an extra change of clothes for the airplane carry-on, I shopped for snacks and activities to entertain us on the nine-hour journey, and bought a present for her cousin who would have a birthday party at the reunion.

The list of mundane but essential household jobs went on. I sent an email to stop the newspaper, helped my Mom turn off her computer before she left, deposited checks and paid bills, cleaned out the refrigerator, and took out the trash. The evening before the trip, I set out clothes for our daughter to change into at the airport, since we’d get up early and take her in her PJ’s. Then I finally packed her clothes and mine into our shared suitcase and collapsed into bed after midnight.

The morning of our 6:30 am departure, I unplugged the computers, left on some strategically-placed lights and turned off the rest, and thought about what I must have forgotten. I sent my family out to the car, while I packed milk and cold snacks into our carry-on, locked the doors, and checked them (twice). As we drove out of the neighborhood, we stopped to deposit a stack of mail into the box. We were on our way.

Event planner and ringmaster all in one. Is your suitcase packed?