Arriving home from work one evening last week, I realised that there was a big, weetabixy handprint encrusted on the back of my trousers. Just about toddler-hug height. There since before I left the house at 7am; visible all day at work. Morto, as they say.
Oh well, no time to sit around hand-wringing; there was homework to be done, school-lunches to be made, laundry that still hasn’t learned to fold itself. Perhaps, I thought to myself, if I can get organised enough this evening, I’ll have time to actually check my reflection in the mirror before leaving the house in the morning.
In any family where both parents work outside the home, there are domestic challenges; balancing challenges. Sometimes it feels like a tightrope. One wobble, such as a broken washing machine or a sick child, and it all comes crashing down.
And I don’t think there’s a silver bullet solution – not without the cash for two full-time nannies who double-up us cooks, with lots of laundering on the side.
But there are some tips that can help improve work/ family balance, and decrease stress. If you can get the logistics running well, you’ll have more time for the kids, and feel more relaxed about spending that extra time with them, instead of wondering what you “should” be doing in the house. Here are some of the things I’ve tried over the last six years:
1. Try divide and conquer
The return from work is hard – it should be the best time of day but of course, everyone is tired, parents are rushing, kids want to slow it down and have time with parents. And sometimes, everyone ends up in tears, even the grown-ups. Divide and conquer works best in our house – my husband takes the two younger kids upstairs, while I do final bits of homework with our schoolgirl downstairs. The kids feel they are getting a semblance of one-on-one attention, the grown-ups are somehow more productive when tasked with separate responsibilities, and everything is just that little bit calmer. At least until the I-can’t-find-my-pyjamas drama and the he-took-my-toothbrush-again meltdown.
2. Slow down bedtime
Maybe everyone already knows this, but we didn’t. We used to stay downstairs after work, “playing” with the kids because we felt we had to do an activity with them, having not seen them all day. But they were wrecked, we were clock-watching, and it didn’t really work. Then bedtime was really rushed and stressful. Now we head upstairs much earlier, we don’t bother with any “activities” and instead, let them take their time getting ready for bed. It’s still quality time with them, but also has a practical purpose – the end result is that they’re (mostly) in bed.
3. Choose clothes the night before
Every morning, I used to stand bleary-eyed, staring at my wardrobe. Five minutes would go by, and still, no movement, no outfit chosen. Making decisions at 6.30am was and still is impossible. And the same with the kids’ clothes. But making the same decisions the night before? It takes me seconds. Maybe you’re the same – if so, pick the outfits for everyone the night before. Well, I let my husband choose his own – I’ll leave that one up to you.
4. Set the table the night before
If you have breakfast at home, the day somehow feels more organised if everyone comes down to an already set table. It takes two minutes at night, then in the morning, the kids just slide into their seats and start pouring cereal – or shouting for a nearby adult to pour cereal. Chaos, but organised chaos.
5. Make school-lunches the night before
It’s starting to sound like your whole evening will be spent picking outfits and setting tables and now making lunches, isn’t it. But they are easy tasks to fit in with clearing up after dinner and putting the kids to bed. And nobody wants to discover there’s no bread at 7am.
6. Batch cook
If you need to have dinners in the evening, think about doing some batch cooking at the weekend – not so that it takes up an entire afternoon when you could be out with the kids, but something that can be done in an hour and will last a few days. You can get great batch cooking ideas from food blogger and working mum of three Bumbles of Rice – she knows exactly what it’s like.
7. Meal plan
It sounds like work, and it is, but it’s worth it. Not only is there less stress, because you don’t have to think “argh what will we eat tonight?” when you’re stuck in traffic after a long day at work, but you also don’t waste so much food. Your meal plan becomes your shopping list. For some really good meal planning tips, check out Wholesome.ie
8. Invest in a slowcooker
I confess that I haven’t done so, but many people swear by this option – put ingredients together before leaving for work, and come home to perfectly cooked hot dinner.
9. Eat at lunchtime
If your children eat at crèche, think about having dinner at lunch-time too, so that you don’t have to cook when you get home. I used to cook after the kids went to bed, and it went from an enjoyable hobby to a frustrating chore. On the other hand, if you love cooking, it could be the perfect way to de-stress after a long day.
10. Find a childminder who cooks
If you have a childminder coming to your home, look for someone who is happy to cook a family meal, and you’ll never have to cook a dinner after work again.
11. Think about getting a cleaner
If you’re away from your kids all week, the last thing you want to do is spend your weekend cleaning. Getting a cleaner once a week can be expensive, but if it buys extra family-time, it could be money well spent. And it isn’t just about the cleaning that actually gets done on the day, it’s about lead-up to the cleaner coming – it’s when you look at the shocking state of the house and think “Doesn’t matter, the cleaner will be here in five days”
12. Think about getting cleaner who irons
Unless you love ironing of course.
13. Failure to launder
There’s nothing worse than a laundry mountain you can’t get to, and a Monday morning discovery that one child has no clean socks. So stock up on essentials – underwear, socks, plain tops – don’t run out just because you can’t get to the bottom of the laundry basket (it’s OK, you’re not expected to)
14. Compartmentalize cleaning
If you’re not getting a cleaner and need to get the house cleaned at the weekend, set aside an hour or so for you and your other half to blitz through it, then stop. Or better still, one of you take the kids to the park while the other cleans in peace (and it’s not always obvious which of those options is more desirable) Either way, don’t spend all day Saturday cleaning on and off, getting frustrated with the kids saying they’re bored and feeling that weekends aren’t quite what they used to be when you were out till 4am and spent the day on the couch.
15. Put a pack of disposable cleaning wipes in the bathroom
It means you can wipe around the sink every few days and feel like your bathroom is really sparkling. It’s the little things.
16. Buy your groceries online
If shopping with small kids is not your idea of a family activity, think about buying groceries online. You sign-up, pick your items, build up favourites to make it easier to re-do the shop week-in week-out, and it’s all even easier if you have an iPad – you can just swipe items into your basket. The nice man brings your food for the week on the day you choose and you don’t even have to leave the house.
17. Do your groceries as an activity with one lucky child
An alternative to online grocery shopping: make it an activity with just one child. It’s nice for the chosen one to have some one-on-one time with a parent – the fact that it’s spent in a shopping trolley doesn’t detract from it at all, and actually you can have great chats while whizzing around the supermarket.
18. Do your groceries on your own
Having done both of the above options many times for years, our current solution is that my husband heads out for an hour on a Sunday evening while the kids watch TV and I get everything ready for the week ahead. He can get the weekly shop done in thirty minutes when he’s on his own. And I think he enjoys the break. Oh how did it ever happen that grocery shopping could be classified as a break …
19. Supersize your lunchtime
There are loads of things you can get done at lunchtime, if you’re not meeting someone or stuck working through. You can:
- Do your online grocery shopping
- Do your online banking
- Get those mind-numbing health insurance claims in
- Book your kids’ medical appointments
- Find a school for your children (eight years before they’ll need to go there)
- Get a hair-cut
- Take a Pilates class
- Go for a long walk
- Go for a run
- Read a book on a sunny bench (*requires sun)
20. Form a network at work
Make friends with other parents – people who can help you if your child is sick by explaining your absence to colleagues without making a big deal, who can put your phone on forward if you have to unexpectedly work from home, who can take the notes/ phone the boss/ send the email/ finish the project. Because you’d do the same for them.
20. Broadcast your hours
If you have to leave earlier than others every day to do a crèche pick-up, let them know in advance, just once, and then walk out each day with your head held (reasonably) high, instead of skulking out hoping nobody will notice. They have definitely noticed.
21. Arrange to work from home if you can
It might not suit you to work from home, your employer may not allow it on a regular basis or it may not fit your role. But having the technical set-up in place means that if a child is sick, you can credibly work from home. Even if most of the day is spent looking after the child. If nothing else, it takes the worst of the stress away when that call from crèche comes.
22. Exceed your deadlines
Yes well we’d all love to do that wouldn’t we. So, admittedly, it’s not always possible to get work done before it’s due, but sometimes it is, and we put it off anyway. If you have a report that’s due tomorrow, and it’s ready to send today, just send it today. You never know which child might wake up with chicken pox tomorrow morning, but if it’s yours, then not worrying about a missed deadline gives you one less thing to stress about as you grab the Calamine lotion and phone your boss.
23. Get some me-time
Every time I read an article telling me to carve out a little time for myself, I wanted to grab the writer and throttle her. Just come over to my house, I’d hiss, and tell me exactly where I’m supposed to find this me-time. So, if you’re feeling cross reading this, I get that. When you’re busy at work and busy at home, finding time for yourself can seem impossible. But when you do it, somehow it just works. And the benefit outweighs the effort a thousand times over. I used to do laundry after the kids went to bed at night, now I blog instead. And somehow the laundry still gets done. And if I’m wrong about this, feel free to throttle me.
24. Take the path of least resistance
Sometimes, you have to give yourself a break – especially if someone is sick or the childminder can’t make or the toddler is up all night or work has been unbearable. If you need to leave the TV on a bit longer so that you can have a cup of tea and breathe deeply for a few minutes, do it. If you need to promise chocolate to a roaring pre-schooler so that you’re not late for work, or do pizza for tea two nights in a row, the world won’t end. We’re not in this for the parenting prizes – it’s OK to just muddle through. As described here in greater detail, we all need to give ourselves a break sometimes and take the path of least resistance.
That’s all I have – and you know what, you could follow all twenty-four tips, and still leave for work with Weetabix on your trousers.
Do you have any tips to add? Stick them in the comments below – especially if you know how to get to the bottom of the laundry basket …