Juggling Act: Packing for a trip is test of mental endurance

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

I can't forget the blender.

It hits me in the middle of the night, yet another item to add to my growing list of what to pack before we head off to sunny Florida for a few days. I can't wait to escape Michigan's gray skies for the Sunshine State, but first I have to survive packing.

And I can't forget the blender. My special needs daughter eats a puréed diet because chewing is a challenge so we can't just run through the drive-thru at McDonald's — or anywhere for that matter — to get something for her to eat when we're out of town. And I don't want her to rely on a weeklong diet of yogurt and mashed potatoes so I'll bring our small Bullet blender to puree food while we're away.

Packing for a trip for most moms is a test of mental endurance.

Packing for a vacation, especially as a mom (and multiply that by 10 for a special needs parent), is a test of mental endurance. I make lists, and more lists, and lists for my lists. I stress about forgetting even small things we'll need. And by the time I get through it, I'll need a vacation from packing from my vacation. 

My husband — the same person who packs two T-shirts and a pair of shorts about 17 minutes before we leave for anywhere and calls it good — always chirps, "Don't stress, Mo! If we forget anything, we'll get it while we're there."

The OCD part of my personality bristles at that approach. I'd rather plan and be prepared. I'm the one who packs the ear drops just in case my daughter's ears bug her while we're out of town, which has happened, or my son's swim googles. And sometimes you can't just easily buy stuff, especially medicine, while you're gone. 

But sometimes I get so immersed in my packing that I see the trees but not the forest. During one trip, I forgot undergarments. On another, I forgot my hairbrush. 

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who pack well in advance and those like my husband, who literally throws open his suitcase and stuffs in whatever is clean before we leave.

I am the former. I plot and plan. I pack for possibilities and different activities, all of which require different attire. But I'm also not an overpacker, especially if I'm flying. I always weigh suitcase before we get to the airport.

When my kids were younger and we'd fly to the East Coast to see family, packing was like doing a Tetris puzzle. There were car seats, baby gear and gadgets, all of which needed to be put in just the right configuration. I'd pack and weigh our suitcases repeatedly, shifting items if the scale tipped over 50 pounds.

Packing was even more intense when my daughter was really young and had severe obstructive sleep apnea. She slept with oxygen at night so not only did we have to remember all the usual onesies, bottles and diapers that babies requires, but we also had to bring medical tubing for her nasal canula and our pulse ox machine. I worked with a durable medical goods provider to have oxygen sent to my in-laws house. I think I deserved a medal packing for that trip.

Studies have been done about the mental load women carry when it comes to household responsibilities and that includes packing and planning for trips. We may live in a modern world and yet, studies have found that women are still handling the majority of household responsibilities. 

Psychology Today had a story last fall about a study that was done by a Harvard doctoral student who conducted in-depth discussion with 35 sets of parents to ask about how household tasks were divided.

The "mental load process" was divided into four parts when it comes to tasks: anticipate, identify, decide and monitor. "Anticipate" could mean realizing that kids have time off for school and realizing something should be planned. "Identify" could mean picking where a family may stay for a trip. 

The study found tasks were much more equally divided for the "decide" and "monitor" portion of decision-making, but "anticipate" and "identify" primarily fell to women.

"In the majority of families, women are more likely to put an item on the agenda and more likely to follow up to make sure it got done," the story states based on the study.

And for my family, that includes packing for vacation. Ultimately, I know it's worth it because it'll make everything smoother in the long run. And I have to remind myself that it's OK to take my husband's approach sometimes too. But for this trip, I'm packing the blender.