I like to listen to podcasts while I run. My workout buddy is on the opposite side of the country from me, so the chatter in my earbuds is a welcome distraction from the miles my feet pound out on the pavement beneath them. My latest series of choice is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, where he tackles stories from the past with a new or underrepresented angle.
A few weeks ago, I listened to an episode about Winston Churchill. In it, Gladwell talked about something called transactive memory, which is when you entrust part of your own memories—part of your very self—to another person. You allow someone else to hold onto a set of details or experiences so that your brain doesn’t have to.
Transactive memory happens a lot in offices and work groups where you have varying areas of expertise, but it’s also common in close relationships. Anytime you’ve been talking with a spouse or a best friend and said, “do you remember the time we went to the place with the great dessert and that incredible view?” and they jump in with the name of the restaurant or the year it happened or the reason you were there in the first place, you’ve relied on transactive memory. You didn’t have to remember the details, because you had someone else to remember them for you. The pieces of information they hold are vital to the memory existing at all.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the mental load of motherhood, this idea that the burden moms carry doesn’t just have to do with loads of laundry, feedings, and teaching ABCs. Much of it comes from all we have to remember—and not just for ourselves, but for our families, too. Motherhood, it seems, is consumed with transactive memories.
We keep track of the stuff.
“Mom, have you seen my other shoe?”
“Yes, it’s on the other side of the couch in the bonus room.”
“Mom, do I have art class today?”
“No, it’s the first and third Fridays, so not until next week.”
The special events.
“Do we have anything going on next Tuesday?”
“Yes; Ellie’s preschool program is at 9:30, and Nathan’s awards banquet is at 11. Then we have Ben’s birthday party that night, too.”
On a weekly basis, I mutter to myself about how I don’t know how my family would survive without me. At the very least, they’d frequently be shoeless and need a very detailed, possibly color-coded calendar. Instead, they rely on me to hold the depth and breadth of their daily lives. It requires a state of near-constant vigilance that can be, frankly, exhausting. Before motherhood, I was never a list-maker. I trusted my mind to remember what was important; if I couldn’t hold onto it, it was inconsequential.
And now? Now I wake up at 3 a.m., and tap notes onto my phone about buying end-of-year teacher gifts and new sneakers before soccer starts next week. Whether it’s a by-product of aging or buckling under the sheer weight of responsibility, I no longer trust myself to remember. Memory is imperfect, fallible. I cannot possibly juggle all I’m being asked to hold onto.
“Mom, can you hold this for me?”
My daughter, Ellie, hands me three dandelions, two Paw Patrol pups, and her Elsa necklace. This is a regular occurrence; it seems my children can never leave the house empty-handed, but, being children, they quickly tire of their burden and seek to pass it off to me.
Obligingly, I tuck today’s chosen treasures into my purse (the stereotypical mom purse, of course, sized to be able to hold all that I must carry), amidst yesterday’s princesses and last week’s animal figures. I watch Ellie as she searches for the perfect addition to her rock collection in the ditch next to the tennis courts during her brother’s lesson. Her furrowed brow and intent gaze give way to a delighted grin as she accomplishes her mission. She runs over to me, clutching an ordinary gray rock in her fist.
“Look, Mom!” she exclaims. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Her hazel eyes sparkle and her cheeks are flushed. She reaches up a hand to push her hair out of her face; I lost the fight over putting a barrette in before we left the house. The late afternoon sun filters through the oak leaves above us and golden highlights dance on the crown of her head. I close my eyes briefly, willing my mind to hold onto this moment, to memorize the way she looks right now at three-almost-four-years-old, jubilant over finding a plain, gray rock in a muddy culvert on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.
I open my eyes.
“Yes, Ellie,” I say. “I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful.”
She smiles triumphantly, placing the rock in my hands with the other five identical rocks she’s already collected.
“Don’t drop them, Mom,” she warns as she skips away to look for more, and I promise to keep her treasure safe.
Years from now, when Ellie asks what she was like as a little girl, this memory is one I will recall. I’ll remember the way she looked, squatting in that way only small children can, balanced flat-footed as she searched for rocks. I’ll tell her that the only things she loved as much as her rock collection were her sparkly shoes; an early indication of her ability to hold adventure and beauty in equal measure.
I’ll keep this memory, long after the to-do lists are thrown away and my purse is smaller and lighter and no one’s filling my lap with rocks at the park anymore. It’s one of the greatest privileges of motherhood, that we get to savor moments no one else will have, memories that would not exist at all, if not for us noticing and choosing to keep them safe.
The weight of her body against my chest at the moment she falls asleep.
The expression of nervous anticipation on his face as he walks through the kindergarten class door for the first time.
Her delight the first time she rides a scooter the length of the driveway.
His insistence that he will never want to live anywhere other than our home.
It would be easy to feel burdened by all I’m asked to hold onto. I am the scheduler, the shoe finder, and the portable toy box. But there’s another title that belongs to me, too, and, for once, I don’t mind its weight.
I am their memory keeper.