I have three children under the age of four. This was not entirely on purpose. The original plan was to have two, but the second one brought a twin sister, so three it was.

As I cart my small herd of children around in a stroller only slightly smaller than our car, people have many questions. “Are they twins?” “Are they all yours?” “Why are you stealing my coffee?” “Can you tell your children to stop touching me?” So many questions.

From those expecting a first or second baby, the most common one is: “What’s it like to have so many small children?” At first, I would smile and say it is hectic or that we are really busy. People would smile back and make their escape before I handed them a baby. It was the short answer, but not the right answer.

The longer I thought about it, the more I realized the perfect answer was right in front of me. Parenting young children can be summed up perfectly by only one thing: the mom purse.

What’s the mom purse, you ask? Well, it is that giant bag you see every mother carrying.

Let me describe it further. Despite the epic size of this bag, it is always overflowing with things. Also, the person carrying it can never find whatever thing she needs at the moment. You will often see her put it down and start pulling a strange assortment of things out in search of the one thing that seems to be perpetually at the bottom of the purse. These things can include but are not limited to snacks, toys, baby wipes, diapers, tiny pairs of underwear, assorted fast-food napkins, mints, dry shampoo, and probably a phone or wallet. (Those things are definitely at the bottom.)

If you have children, you probably own a mom purse and are nodding your head in recognition. Or maybe you are nodding because you are sleep deprived and about to fall asleep. Either way, you have seen these giant bags of new motherhood, whether they be in diaper bag form, backpack, or grocery bag.

So, why is a mom purse the best way to describe parenting young children?

First, it is always too full. As mentioned, mine is full of the necessities of taking young children out of the house. It has the minutia of daily life in it, from diapers to toys to a million tiny things my kids MUST bring on a five-second errand. It is also the keeper of the special occasion items: the tickets, the health cards, the birthday cards, the water bottles, the medicine for the dog. Unfortunately, also the vet bill for the dog.

You want rocks? I’ve got those. Twelve dandelion stickers? I have that, too! Need a tiny hummingbird toy? What color do you want?

Honestly, this is one reason moms are so tired. All these things seem tiny but begin to add up in weight quickly. After an hour out with the mom purse, my neck hurts, my back hurts, and I am sweating up a storm from all of the crap I carry around for everyone else.

We parents talk about how tired we are from chasing our kids around, but no one talks about how much we will be lifting every day. On any given day, I carry the mom purse for probably at least an hour and usually with a child on my hip. I lift children, carry groceries, wrestle babies while changing diapers, bend to pick up those toys I keep stepping on, and high-step over baby gates I am too lazy to open. The mom purse is just the beginning of all the stuff we moms physically do for other people. My family members are not the only ones benefiting from this arrangement—my chiropractor is doing quite well, too.

The physical toll of new motherhood is real, but the mental load is just as real. The purse is physically full of stuff, but my brain is also filled to the brim with information about other people. Those tickets I mentioned earlier? I am the one who has to remember to bring them and what time we need to leave to get there. I am not only the keeper of the health cards but the maker of appointments and usually the person attending them. That dog medicine? I went and got that. I made the appointment, too.

The point is, for every physical thing in the mom purse, there is a thought or action that had to be completed by the wearer of said purse. Why not delegate? Well, my husband does a lot of things, too. The problem with having such young kids is that they are just too little to do most of the things we need done. I can’t send my 4-year-old to the vet with our 65-pound chocolate lab. I can’t have my 1-year-olds carry their diapers. Men don’t typically carry purses, so sadly (due to a million gender norms I can’t get into now) women end up with most of the load. Parenting is heavy business, both physically and emotionally.

You will notice in that long list of the mom purse’s contents, there is almost no mention of the mother’s own things. Very observant! Have you had coffee today? It shows.

Anyway, there is no mention of the mother’s stuff because you can’t fit it in the purse. With all the things you carry for others, your stuff gradually gets pushed out. It happens so gradually you don’t even notice. You start out with a purse full of our own stuff and then one day, realize you are down to having only a couple of cards in our phone case. And wait, didn’t you also buy a bigger bag? Yes! You definitely bought a bigger bag so you could put your water bottle in it, but someone just keeps putting snacks in there and so your water bottle sits on the counter.

Your purse is so full of other people’s crap you no longer have any space for your stuff . . . in YOUR purse. If there is a better metaphor for parenting young children, I haven’t found it.

All the time and space you used to have for yourself is pushed out by the time and space you now have to devote to other people. (Other people who are not very grateful, might I add.) Small children have a surprising number of things that can’t be left at home. So, what happens? You start to re-evaluate your necessities. I don’t really need my rewards cards, you think. I could just buy a drink when I get there. I don’t really need keys because I can just climb to the third-story window. I need my cardio today anyway.

Sure, you become much more minimalist, but you also start to lose yourself in all the things and needs of others. You pare yourself down to the bare minimum because someone else needs something. This reframing of ourselves as secondary to our own lives is one of the hardest things I have faced in new motherhood. From conversations I have had with other new parents, it seems to happen to all of us at one time or another. Some people go along with it joyfully, some grudgingly, and others fight it tooth and nail. We have to make space in our lives for ourselves, just like we have to carve out space in our purses for our keys, and it can involve some trial and error to figure it out.

So, if parenting young children is like this big, heavy purse that hurts your back and steals your life, why do people do it? Well, mostly because it’s too late once the kids arrive. Also, people don’t like it when you toss your children at them in the store and say, “Your turn!”

No, just kidding. It’s because your life is full but in all sorts of ways. Your life is full of stuff, yes, but, like the mom purse, it is overflowing with all sorts of other things, too.

Your life is full of the daily routines that come with having small children. The dressing, feeding, and playing.

Your life is full of their favorite games, stories, and songs.

Your life is full of the funny things you do together, the days that make you want to pull your hair out and the days that make you marvel at this tiny creature you created.

Your life is full of the hugs, the snuggles, and the squeals of laughter when you dance around the house with them. It’s full of the tantrums, and the tiny shoes, and the 478 pictures of your kid’s eye from when you accidentally left your phone unattended while making dinner.

Parenting young children is the best and the worst of the mom purse. Yes, the purse is heavy, but you carry it every day and you get stronger.

You get overwhelmed with the stuff, but you also get overwhelmed by the love. You get pushed to the side in your life, but if you’re lucky, it can give you a whole new perspective into what you really want and need. Most importantly, your life is full of, well, life. Your mom purse is full of stuff because you are living life with your family.

So, to those that ask me what life is like with many small children, the short answer is: it is fuller than my mom purse at the park. The weight might wreck my back at times, but it is mostly worth it.

You may also like:

This is Motherhood When Nobody is Watching

I Am the Keeper

A Mother’s Mind Never Rests Because We Carry the Mental Load

Liz Parker-Cook

Liz is a mother of three children under four and has the dark circles under her eyes to prove it. She is also a high school music teacher, which is much louder than parenting but has much fewer dirty diapers. When she gets any time to herself she writes on her blog: Newbiemomsite.com. She lives in Toronto with her husband, children, and dog.