Carry Your Own Backpack: A Difficult Lesson my Elementary Schoolers Taught Me

Whether we mean for it to happen or not, the early years of parenting seem to establish a pattern that can be difficult to break.

In the baby and toddler years, we get accustomed to taking care of every one of our children’s needs: feeding them, diapering them, dressing them, bringing their toys to them. We do this because our children can’t do these things themselves.

I can’t speak for all parents, but I think there are many of us who struggle to break that habit.

My children are six and eight. They are capable of doing most things themselves these days. Yet still, I often find myself exhausted and overwhelmed from all the things I constantly do for them. For example, while playing together, they’ll ask if they can have a snack. Instead of telling them to pause their game and get it themselves, I stop the important work I’m doing and get it for them. Why?

I hadn’t really asked myself this question until earlier this week, when I caught myself in a super absurd routine. I was walking out to the car one morning to retrieve the kids’ backpacks, so I could prepare them for the school day. The backpacks are usually left in my car overnight because, on most days after I pick the kids up from school, I have my hands full of groceries, mail, and my own belongings. I just don’t have any room left to carry their backpacks. So, each morning, I go out to the car to get the backpacks and bring them in.

And it honestly did not strike me how utterly ridiculous this was until I was making my way to my car one particularly cold and rainy morning.

Why in God’s name am I doing this?

At that moment, it hit me that I have some patterns to break. These patterns need broken not just because my kids need to learn to be more responsible for their own things, but because I need to learn to stop inconveniencing myself for the sake of everyone else.

The following day, and every day since, I tell the children to get their backpacks and bring them inside. I’m not proud to admit that there was some whining and moaning at first. My kids are responsible and helpful; they have both daily and weekly chores they dutifully carry out. But something about asking them to do something they were used to having done for them agitated them. They had taken my help for granted all this time, and it didn’t feel good to have the responsibility of the backpacks put on themselves instead of me.

It only took a few days for the new routine to establish itself, and now they grab their backpacks without me having to ask. Only a few days of frustrations until we made the adjustment.

How many of us are making extra work for ourselves because we just assume we’re supposed to take care of everybody? If we’re being super honest, how many of us are wearing ourselves thin, both physically and emotionally, trying to show up for everyone in our care because we think that’s the only way anyone will love us? How many of us are living in fear that if we stop—if we set boundaries, if we protect our energy, if we prioritize ourselves for one goddamn second—that everyone will leave?

Perhaps worse, how many of us have unintentionally attracted the very people who would leave if we did those things because they are the kind of people who expect our labor in exchange for their love?

To those of you who are like me, I need you to hear me: asking people to carry their own load so you can have some energy, strength, and peace for yourself will never drive the right people away.

Sure, there may be an adjustment period. Just like my children with their backpacks, there may be some whining at first. But your people—the people who genuinely love you for who you are and not what you do—will not leave you. They will adjust.

The only people you will lose when you start telling them to carry their own backpack are the people who didn’t actually love you. They loved you vapidly, inauthentically. They loved what you did, how you made them feel, what opportunities you brought their way. They loved that you loved them without asking for anything in return that might inconvenience or de-center them.

And yes, those people will discard you when you set limits, when you say, “carry your own damn backpack.”

What you and I need to learn—what I fear might take years but what I know is worth the effort—is that the discard says nothing about our worth, our value, or our lovability.

Those people are on their own journey, a path that they believe will lead to their ultimate joy and happiness. They no longer see us as a useful part of that journey. So, let them go. Let them find what they believe will make them happy. Let them go without feeling anger or resentment. Let them go with full knowledge that your life is better, your load is lighter, without having to carry their load all the time.

With practice, perhaps start learning to walk away from those people before the discard happens. Even better, learn to stop “earning” love by wearing yourself down doing everything for others. You’ll find that, with time, you’ll start attracting the people who want to carry their own backpack. Who have done the work to build the strength, resilience, and perspective to carry their load as best they can. When those people ask for you to take some of their load, it will be easy. They will ask you for reasonable support—to carry only what you can and only as long as you have to. And when they have found rest and relief, they will thank you from a heart of sincere gratitude, not expectation or entitlement.

Parenthood is a funny thing, isn’t it? I’d never have thought my kids’ backpacks could teach me such an important lesson I desperately needed to learn. But here we are.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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