Thursday, February 19, 2009

Capacious Project - Susan Elmslie

Susan Elmslie lives in Montreal and teaches at Dawson College. Her first trade collection of poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006) won the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and a ReLit Award. Her poems have also appeared in journals, anthologies, and in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree, 1996). She won the Arc Poem of the Year contest in 2007 for her poem, “Box,” which was also selected for the Best of Canadian Poetry in English, 2008 —guest-edited by Stephanie Bolster and published by Tightrope books.

Skip-Hop Diaper Bag

I have been carrying it for four years now, since my first baby was born. And though it’s had heavier use since the arrival of the second baby, the bag’s still holding up well. Actually, it’s in perfect condition, except for the salt stains on the bottom. Those stains ground it; they say “gear” rather than “fashion accessory.” They say “jolie-laide.”

If the contents sound like the bourgeois-domestic version of an epic catalogue, that’s because it is more than a diaper bag; it carries everything needed to keep four lives in balance when we venture out en famille. The bag is magic. We pull from it a seemingly endless supply of necessities and some unexpected treats. Poof, presto! It has rarely failed to save the day, supplying the just-what-is-needed to calm the predictable and freak storms of need on the seas of parenting. It’s saved my composure on more than a few occasions. Lugging it, I feel ready for battle. No diaper blowout or hunger-induced meltdown will put the kibosh to our outing—or at least that’s the hope. That’s the armour this bag provides: the confidence to venture out with youngsters in tow.

We both carry it, my husband and I. So it had to be gender-neutral in style and user-friendly. No fuzzy ducky motifs for us. The selection of the gear itself was involved. I spent several hours researching online, talking to friends, assessing our needs—which were swelling like my belly. Months from the birth, I had the luxury of time to choose wisely. And this is one piece of baby gear I wanted to get right. The cost of some diaper bags is obscene. (You can buy a used Matt & Nat “Paltrow” diaper bag, made from recycled water bottles, for $200 on the Montreal Craigslist! New, this bag costs almost $300. I like the eco-friendly angle, but I wouldn’t pay that much for a diaper bag unless it was bullet proof!) While I knew that any bag would do the trick, I was also sure that some were better than others. I didn’t want to go through several. The image of countless discarded bags in landfills is enough to make me break out in a sweat.

Eventually, I set my heart on a black Skip-Hop—which looks more like a messenger bag than a tote for dipes and wipes—and since they were not widely available in Canada, we bid (and won!) in an eBay auction. But despite its blithe-sounding moniker, I neither skip nor hop while lugging it. Often it is suspended from the straps of our “stroller system” (the marketing savvy of the person who came up with that term both impresses and repulses me). The Skip-Hop has these great adjustable straps that, in two clicks, transform it from shoulder bag to handle-gripping pouch. The first time we travelled with this bag—to Bermuda, when my daughter was five months old—nearly a dozen people asked where we got it. That’s more people than fawned over the baby.

Everything our bag contains has been carefully chosen; it has to be worth its weight. Miniature-sized items are especially prized. Some items are lifers. Some are on stand-by; they get crammed in if need dictates. Or the anticipation of that need registers before we set out.
Of course there are all the essentials for an infant. Some things you can’t stint on. Five or six diapers. Wipes. Change pad. Bum balm. Kleenex. Two spare infant outfits, complete with undershirt, socks and warm cap. A flannel blanket. A spare pacifier. Two wash cloths and a burp cloth. During baby’s first weeks it’s even held a spare top for mom and/or dad. And always a spare set of breast pads.

For the potty-training pre-schooler: a spare pair of underwear and slacks, a Pull-Up, and toilet seat shields. And very ingenious: a little tube of tablets that become cloths when you add water. Thanks, Q!

Then there’s the just-in-case medical kit sealed in a big Ziploc bag: infant and children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Saline nose drops. A few cotton swabs. Polysporin. Band-Aids. Lip balm for everyone in the family over two. Badger brand sunscreen. A tiny sample-sized package of Tylenol Ultra-Relief (laced with caffeine) for the parents. Sometimes, for excursions to places like the Brome County Fair, a can of saline wound wash is crammed in. Sometimes a thermometer. Always ear plugs—a set for the parent and extras to offer to anyone trapped in seats nearby. The extras are a force field against stranger-rage; they pacify big babies who can’t self-soothe.

The children’s vaccination records. My son’s glasses case. A little net to cover the stroller, to keep at bay the women of a certain generation, who feel entitled to touch any baby within arm’s reach.

Spare Ziploc bags for used diapers and soiled clothes. Purell and alcohol-free spray sanitizer. Hand lotion. And a lipstick for mom, because sometimes it does matter.
A protein bar for the famished breast-feeding mom. Three organic granola bars. Lozenges. A set of small cutlery and a clean sippy cup.

A very small pad of paper or Post-It notes. Two pens. There has to be two, in case one is left behind somewhere, or one of us needs to draw or play tic-tac-toe with our preschooler. Sometimes, when we expect to wait a long time before a doctor’s appointment, I slide in a magazine or slim volume of poetry next to the change pad.

The diaper bag functions as my purse, too; I don’t carry another handbag. So my keys must be stuffed into a zippered pocket along with my slightly downsized wallet. A dedicated pouch on the side of the bag holds my cell phone. Depending on the season, a miniature umbrella and individually-wrapped plastic rain ponchos may be crammed in the bottom of the bag.

Sometimes toys or small books, things to entertain while dining out.

At times the bag has been so tightly packed that you practically need a crowbar to pry a diaper out. One anecdote bears telling here. When we went on a calèche ride in Old Montreal and the bag (which I’d set on the floor of the horse-drawn carriage) was, unnoticed by us, up-ended along the way, and was lodged upside-down between the rear fender and the step, hanging that way for a good cobble-stoned block or so, the entire contents should have spilled out into the street. But incredibly, only one thing—a pack of Kleenex?—fell out. A German tourist ran after the carriage to return the dropped item and alert us to the dangling bag.

I’ve always been a careful packer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a list, days or weeks before a trip, itemizing everything to take along. For the return trip, the list also ensures I don’t leave anything behind. And should my luggage go missing, I’ll know just what I lost. I’ll be able to email a precise list. When I was a freer-and-easier (childless) young woman, I used to remind myself that it didn’t matter if I forgot something I needed for my trip—as long as I had my credit card and my birth control pills, I’d manage. I waited a long time to have kids, so everything would be pretty much in place, all my ducks in a row. But where does it come from, this need to be überprepared? I’m sure it goes back to the house fire we had when I was three. The feeling of being stranded on the curb in your housecoat, while every other material thing you associate with comfort is consumed by flames. Seeing your mother helpless to meet your needs. Those sorts of feelings stay with you. After that you don’t want to leave the house without the things that will make you and yours feel comfortable and secure.

I’d like the Skip-Hop to carry whatever I lack: a heal-all, a saving grace, a benediction, the ability to stave off pain. I’d like not to need what it contains—to know each and every day that we have what we need, and that we may not be prepared for, but can handle, anything. In a couple of years we won’t need this bag because the kids will have grown. I’ll miss the all-consuming and sometimes heavy task of taking care of them during the diaper-and-breast-feeding years. But I won’t miss hauling the gear, the lugging, the schlepping.

Then maybe I’ll auction my Skip-Hop on eBay, share the magic, or at least the salt.

Read more about the Capacious Project here.

To view all the contributions to the project go here.