Overpacking for Family Trips is a Form of Self-Soothing

Whether it’s a sewing kit or a dozen books or a tea chest, you brought it to feel better about being someplace that has sparked a sense of discomfort.

As of this writing, I see my family twice a year; once in the summer that includes extended family, and once at Christmas that’s just Jermusyks. A different house is rented every time (everyone chipping in as they’re able) and whoever’s closest/arriving by car declares what they’re planning on bringing and or puts out feelers for what everybody else wants.

It’s mostly great because you don’t have to worry too much about whether or not there will be something to eat when you arrive. Because hunger upon arrival seems a Universal Constant, if you ask me. But you probably noticed the word mostly.

Between “mostly” and “great” there’s everyone’s particulars. We each have our way of starting the day and ending the day and just getting through the day. Everyone has different viewpoints on things regarding how strictly they adhere to their particulars, and the strictness differs from one particular to the next.

This leads to people making requests for the things they want/need, arriving at the house hangry, and finding that the thing they were looking forward to being there being not the thing that scratches their itch. It can make settling into the house and making the most of the visit difficult because of the need to do something immediately to adjust.

Again, this happens to everyone about various things to varying degrees. But I have OCD, which means I got plenty of examples of which I will only share three. You’re welcome.

Example 1 – Coconut Oil

This past summer I requested a particular brand of coconut oil (to avoid it breaking in my luggage and getting on my clothes) that is only ever sold in jars slightly smaller than your average pasta sauce jar. The person to whom I made the request brought their leftover coconut oil, a reasonable amount that happened to be at the bottom of a giant container originally purchased at Costco.

Fun detail, I requested coconut oil and then brought my own long spoon to use with it. I use a long spoon with the smaller jar to avoid getting the coconut oil on my hands because while coconut oil is great moisturizer, it’s also a cooking oil that doesn’t need to be on the sun-exposed skin of someone very prone to sunburns. I spent the week putting half my forearm plus the long spoon into the container to get at the oil at the bottom followed by 10-15 minutes of making sure I had scrubbed all of it off my arm before applying any sunscreen.

I had requested a particular brand in the hopes of getting a small container of coconut oil. The logic of the person receiving the request was: make sure Rosie has coconut oil. I have since decided to just pack my own coconut oil in my travel tea chest rather than run into this confusion in the future.

Example 2 – Grocery List

Beverages aren’t the easier thing in the world to travel with, so it makes since that no matter what a request for certain beverages will need to be made. For me that was a particular brand of chocolate almondmilk that I like to use to make porridge, and the brand is one that only makes almondmilk. The person to whom I made the request got me nondairy chocolate milk made from soy.

Don’t know if you know this but flavor-wise almonds pair super-well with chocolate. Also, unfermented soy products get broken down by the body in a way that can disrupt hormone production and potentially cause fertility issues. I made the porridge once, it didn’t taste as good what I usually make, and I spent the rest of the week just drinking the stuff so it wouldn’t go to waste (and my OCD-brain praying like a madman that my ovaries would survive).

Since over the summer my request had assured me that I’d get the right substance, if not the right brand, I thought for sure a brand that only makes the one thing would assure my at least getting the right kind of nondairy milk. The logic of the other person was: make sure Rosie has nondairy milk that’s chocolate-flavored. I have since decided that for the foreseeable future I need to come to any and all trips with a grocery list for the week in hand, hijack the car of someone who drove there, and go to the store alone so that I don’t have to worry about their input stressing me out or to explain myself.

What These Examples Have in Common

In both scenarios, I thought that I’d get the brand I want or that the brand (if looked up for at least a visual reference) would communicate why that brand had been specified. The folks on the receiving end have their own particular logic in those situations, sometimes based on an old story in the family (Rosie’s gotta get her daily chocolate fix) or grappling with a new story (how badly something might disrupt Rosie’s OCD-management routines). In the end, there’s no hard feelings, I tried something and then decided that I should handle those things differently.

Granted, my examples are two of my particulars, and with a little more emotional unpacking I may change my mind about how I handle them again. But maybe there are things you overpack because you don’t trust those traveling with/hosting you will be able to provide on your needs, so you provide for yourself.

Example 3 – Clothes Hangers

When was the last time you heard about someone staying at a hotel or AirBnB or whatever and there were totally enough hangers for all their clothes? Most likely never, people fold their clothes to go into their luggage, then either keep them in the luggage the entire trip or put them in the dresser. Because there’s always a dresser because it just rounds out the look/feel of the room.

Correction: The last few Christmas there was no chest of drawers into which I could unpack my luggage. It was super-weird there not being dressers. Yes, I prefer to hang my clothes, but still it was very weird because the other rooms mostly had dressers. My theory is that they did it to maximize the number of beds in the rooms.

Example 4 – Books

This is the biggie for a lot of us. I’ve been known to bring 15 books on a one-week trip, just in case there’s down-time. Well, since my sister had kids that downtime has been nonexistent and I’ve been able to let go of needing that many titles.

Still, we all do this one. We’re visiting someplace new, looking forward to adventures, and we have brought mental sustenance in case the destination we’ve chosen turns out to be a flop and spend all our time in the room reading and eating. A pleasurable trip in and of itself if that’s the plan from the very beginning, but oh! how so very often it’s not.

In The End It’s All an Elaborate Security Blanket and We Are Each of Us Linus

Kids carry around security blankets in order to carry with them the person who most-swaddled them in their infancy, usually their mommies. As we grow we continue to assign our sense of security to certain things to feel that early warmth. We assign it to our homes and traditions and physical items we carry with us as a means of taking care of ourselves with the same attention to detail that was shown to us in our infancy.

We all need this in different ways and degrees, this mothering of ourselves. It’s exhausting to go to person after person in our lives/families and symbolically ask “Are you my mother?” It’s harmful to our relationships to expect the answer will be yes, even if you’re symbolically asking your literal mother.

At some point, we each of us grapple with the reigns of that mothering being handed over to us. When we overdo things in order to feel grounded and safe, it’s because we still have more to learn about being mothers to ourselves.

We are both babes in our own arms in need of soothing, and new parents terrified of f*cking up.And it’s going to be okay. We’ve survived every mistake this far. We can survive a few more.

Also published on Medium.