"I just can't seem to get a handle on things," says Donna, a full-time mother of three and full-time assistant manager at a popular restaurant. "It seems as though every day is harder than the next. My day goes out in all directions, nothing pieces together and every day is a crazy mess. I need help getting it together."
Donna is not alone. All across the country, millions of people are trying to juggle parenthood, career and homemaking at the same time. As a personal organizer and full-time mom of three, I am constantly requested for help by busy parents who just can't seem to make everything "click" into place.
"My day does not run smoothly," Donna sighs as she runs after her four-year-old. "Maybe if just some key times were more smooth, bedtimes or bathtimes, something, I wouldn't be so uptight and feel so hectic. I need help!"
Below are some tips for busy parents who want to make their days better, to feel less crazy by bedtime - and to make time with their children count (instead of counting the time until they go to bed).
1. Structure everything with routines. Believe it or not, kids need the stability of good routines. It makes life predictable and without surprises. For example, develop the same morning routines. Write down all the steps that need to be taken -- from waking up the kids to getting out the door. Put them in order and post it on the fridge. Then, start doing the same thing, in the same order, each morning.
"Every morning at seven I gently wake up Karri with a kiss and a rub on the back," says Elaine, mother and full-time college student. "Her breakfast is waiting and after eating, I help her get dressed, brush her teeth, and fix her hair. As she watches cartoons, I finish getting ready and pack her school bucket. Karri knows that as soon as the cartoon ends, it's time to go. Mornings are very easy now. This routine stuff works so well, we've incorporated routines into everything from dinnertime and bathtime to trips into town and doctor visits. Karri always knows what to expect and has a ritual for everything."
2. Make bedtime more relaxing by starting earlier. "Bedtimes used to be real hard," says Peggy, who works 10-hour days in a local factory. "The kids would fight me and even though bedtime was 9pm, it was a struggle until 10pm. I often lost my temper and I put them to bed with threats and harsh words. So we decided to try something different. We developed a plan and started getting them ready for bed a half-hour earlier. We had a list of all of the tasks of bedtime and made a checklist. The kids loved going down the list, always in the same order, and at 10 minutes till 9, they had their teeth brushed and were actually in bed. The extra 10 minutes were allowed to be spent reading and writing letters, then lights out at 9pm. The kids were calm and ready for bed. It worked great and I gave them hugs and kisses rather than nasty looks and threats."
3. Post a family calendar - and make everyone use it. This is an excellent idea for any busy family. Hang up a calendar and write down everybody's chores, activities, TV schedule, errands, and appointments on the calendar. When the kids ask, "Can we go to the movies Friday?", you can reply "I don't know. Look on the calendar and see what we're doing." It teaches children that there are commitments, and sometimes spur-of-the moment ideas are not realistic. They can see for themselves that the family is committed to doctor's appointments, chores, grocery shopping and a trip to Grandma's on Friday and the movies are not a possibility. It also saves you from having to say no all of the time.
4. Have many, many important rules. Does the amount of time your teenage daughter spends on the phone drive you crazy? Do you become upset when, at the last minute, your 10-year-old suddenly remembers that he has a birthday party to go to and he has to purchase a gift and be there in 30 minutes? "In our home, if it's not on the calendar for 24 hours, then it won't happen," says Karin, mother of two teenage daughters and an elementary school teacher. "The girls always have someplace to go, but so do I. So I teach them to respect my time by setting limits on theirs. At first, they hated the 24-hour rule. They said it would force them to miss out on parties and sleep-overs. But now, they appreciate the predictability of always knowing ahead of time what is going on and where they will be spending their weekends. I think all those last minutes invitations put as much unwanted pressure on them as it did on me."
In our home, we have established the following rules: no phone calls after 8pm, 8pm-9pm is "family time," video games can only be played for an hour, friends who do not respect the other children in our home can not sleep over, dinner is to be eaten as a family and one day a week is spent doing an outside family activity (such as hiking or bowling).
5. Organize the kids' rooms. Does your child's room look like a tornado went through a toy store? Is there stuff everywhere, making it so that even when you clean, it never really looks clean? Well, there is an easy solution. Put everything in plastic organizers and store them out of sight. It will be an all-day job, perhaps longer, but it will pay off in the end.
First, purchase as many plastic organizers as can fit underneath the bed and in the closet. Start emptying outs the toybox, putting little Lego pieces in one box, matchbook cars in another. Keep breaking everything down, at the same time getting rid of the broken or old toys. Afterwards, write "Legos" on the Lego box and slide it under the bed. Continue to do this, organizing clothes, books, shoes, etc. Keep the toybox for the big toys. By the end of the day, everything will be out of sight, and off your mind.
6. Make chores rewarding. Chore lists are helpful for kids of all ages. For small kids, make it a game. Create a kids calendar and list the child's chores (from bathing to feeding the dog) on the calendar with a star or dollar sign on Saturday or Sunday. Upon completion of each task, allow the child to color in the day or use stickers to mark it. If all the days are colored in, your child gets a reward. It could be a "kids day" or a favorite candy bar, but the objective is to reward them with a treat for a job well done. For older kids, have them create a to-do list for each day of the week. Reward them also, by giving them extra privileges or a lot of praise.
7. Make "no" stick! When you must tell your child "no," it can be a touchy situation and sometimes it falls on deaf ears. So you need to get the message through to them - and you can not change your mind. First, explain why you said "no" (because then you're more likely to get compliance). Stick with it, even if there are tantrums or begging. If you give in once, they will know that there are no limits in their life.
8. Plan your meals. Don't you hate going to the fridge after a long day at work and trying to put together a meal that your family will actually want to eat? Sometimes it can be a difficult task but there is a way to make it better. Create a meal plan for the week. Look at your weeklong calendar and decide which days will be difficult and which will be lighter. Create meals to go with the days. For stressful days you can plan to have soups, frozen pizzas or sandwiches and a salad. Create a larger meal on the easier days. But the point is to have a plan - knowing ahead of time what is planned for dinner eliminates the last minute rush to get everything planned out. The kids will stop asking you what's for dinner and you'll save on your grocery bill by only buying what you need. And this is a wonderful opportunity to get your spouse and children involved with meal preparation: Along with the meal plan post recipes and to do's for them to follow.
9. Clean as you go. I know people who spend an entire weekend catching up on laundry or dishes. They wait all week and then go gung-ho all at one time. Then, on Sunday, they feel exhausted. In our house (of five people) that's just not practical. We do laundry all day long - while cooking, picking up, getting ready in the morning. If we're home, the washing machine is running. It's easier to do one load at a time, taking perhaps five to eight minutes to fold a load into each person's piles. Then I tell each child that their pile is ready. It gets put away and another load is set to go. The same is true for dishes and picking up. It's much easier to do several small loads of dishes than to let them pile up and do everything at one time.
10. Make outside a fun place for your child to be. Our school-aged children always wanted to play inside, watch TV or play Sega. They didn't want to go outside and play. When we asked why they would prefer to be inside on a nice sunny day, they said they had more inside things to do. And they were right. So we decided to stop investing in inside toys and purchase outside toys like trucks, a sandbox, a slip-&-slide, a trampoline and a puppy. Now the kids never want to come in, and I'm free to pick up and have a quiet house.
11. Limit the number of activities your child can participate in. My daughter is 13. She has friends who, every night, have someplace to go and an activity to attend. With homework, chores, and a full day at school, when do they have time to relax? Most of them have no such time. Our house has a rule - one activity at a time. With three kids, that's still a lot of activities, but it's much less stress on kids when their time is limited to one project, home commitments and homework. They need time to lie around the house, coloring, reading or watching a favorite program. When a child is stressed, the parent becomes stressed also.
12. Schedule time with your kids - and never stand them up or cancel without good reason. Kids should be your most important clients. You should schedule family appointments with them, post them on the calendar, and see to it that nothing will stand in your way of being with them.
13. Schedule only one day a week for errands and appointments. At our house, Friday is running around town day. We hit the bank, post office, get hair cuts, see the doctors, return library books, buy groceries and pay bills all on the same day. From morning till afternoon, all errands are done. That saves my other days off to relax and to stay at home.
14. Always have a to-do list and clump tasks together. This is one of the most important ways to get anything accomplished - put together to-do task lists. You should make up a general one for the month so you know what bills need to be paid, which appointments must be attended, and what things around the home and office MUST be completed by a certain time. Incorporate your larger tasks into the daily one, so every day you accomplish at least one more goal. "Lump your tasks together," advises Betty, mother of six and home-business operator. " I usually make all my phone calls for the week at one time. It's easier that way. I just list the places I need to call, their number and why - then I go down the list."
15. Pick your battles. Sometimes you just need to let things go. Your nine-year-old son is happily helping you to fold clothes and your 12-year old son is in the kitchen fixing you dinner - hot dogs and potato chips. You may want to correct the way the towels are being folded or to lecture on why potato chips are not a vegetable - but remember, they are helping. If you discourage them today, they will be fearful of helping tomorrow. "My daughter wanted to sleep on the floor rather than in her bed, and wear blue jeans and sweat shirts as night clothes. At first her father and I said "no", but we later realized that it really wouldn't hurt anything if we said yes. So from now on, we limit our no's to only the important stuff. The day is a lot easier and the kids feel more independent about their choices."
16. Exercise and spend quality time together with your children. Do you wish you could get into shape, but you can't find them time because you need to free yourself up for your kids? Well, why don't you mix the two? While your daughter is practicing shooting hoops in the back yard, join her and burn off some calories. Go for a hike with the family or spend the day at the park throwing the Frisbee or playing tag. Inside, encourage your children to stretch with you each night before bed or see who can do the most sit ups. Make it fun, do it together and you'll lose weight but gain quality time.
17. Ask for and expect help. Many women try to be superheroes - cooking, cleaning, working and running errands. But it doesn't have to be that way. Sometimes, and it is unfortunate, men can be like children. They need routines, direction, and assignments. So assign them chores also. If you are not a single parent, sit down with your spouse and tell him how you feel overwhelmed and if he cooked a dinner on Thursday night, ran Tommy to basketball games every Monday and Wednesday, and gave the youngest a bath every Tuesday - you would feel much less stress. Or ask him what he would like to take over. He may be more than happy to take the kids to their sporting events and practices, standing around with other dads bragging about their child's performance. All you have to do is to talk about it and be willing to admit that you can't do everything.
18. Have a place for everything and get rid of stuff that doesn't belong. Every four months, you should do a mini spring-cleaning. Wash curtains and rugs, pack away seasonal clothes, clean out closets and go through the junk drawer. Don't let the piles become giant mountains of work. Throw out all the junk and organize the rest in stackable, labeled, plastic containers.
19. Limit your time on the phone. Don't you hate it when your teenage daughter is on the phone with her friends, not listening to a word you say and having more fun with someone on the other end of the line than with you? Now how do you think your child feels when it's you on the phone? They can't interrupt you and you're ignoring them. It would hurt. Try to limit your lengthy phone conversations until AFTER they go to bed.
20. Take a moment to pull yourself together. Everyone has bad days. Your kids included. So make it a rule that for the first half hour you are at home, whether work or from school, you can relax and take a break from chores and your to-do list. Allow everyone the opportunity to talk about the day and even allow your kids to complain. Don't hush them, saying what they are rambling on about isn't important, because to them it is. Give each child your undivided attention. Have them sit next to you and talk face-to-face. Connect with them while relaxing. Let them know how important they are and how you understand their problems. Offer solutions or just listen. By allowing everyone time to speak and to relax, and by allowing yourself time to relax and disconnect yourself from your day at work, you'll find that the rest of the evening will go more smoothly.
Does this reorganizing, setting limits and establishing routines really work for today's families? Two months after Donna started to implement rules, menus, routines and scheduled times with the children into their daily plans, her days were smoother and she felt less frustrated at the end of the day. "My favorite part is the relaxing, sharing and quality time that I spend with my kids." Donna added. "And bedtime stories and rituals are now the family's favorite time of the whole day. And when I turn off their light at their established bedtime, I feel better about myself-- and the time that I spent with them really mattered."