“Well, I don’t really have a choice. I’m kind of committed at this point.”
I figure that’s not a helpful reply. I usually don’t say it… usually.
I don’t know what people expect me to say. I’m that mom walking backwards through Walmart pulling four kids in a cart and two infants in a stroller. Clearly I adapt.
I have no simple answer, but I do have some tips for overwhelmed and thinly stretched caregivers. Each of these could be a post on its own. They really are that valuable.
1. Draw up lists
Lists, lists, lists! I love lists!
I make lists for everything. To do lists, packing lists, routine lists, and phone number lists, among others.
For example, I posted my morning, nap time, and bed time to do lists in the kitchen next to my monthly dry erase calendar. I printed the list with check boxes and put it in a plastic page protector. I can check off the tasks as I do them and add anything particular to that day. Before I go to bed, I wipe it clean for the next day.
I also have a list for packing the diaper bag and I store babysitters in my phone with the last name “Babysitter” so I can quickly search for all of them.
2. Design routines
I routinize anything I can. The less I have to think about the details, the better, and kids like to know what to expect. If I was up half the night with a sick kid, I can still get through the day. If I’m sick, the kids know what we do everyday and in what order. I can make each of the elements easier if I need to, like serving cold, dry cereal with milk sippies for breakfast. No prep, little cleanup.
Then I document my routines. When I was in the hospital birthing my third set of twins, I had some assurance that my kids’ routine would not change since I’d written out all of it for the group of volunteer and paid caregivers. I even left notes about the colors of sippies and dishes the kids prefer and what they say at bedtime. The kids did great because they knew their caregivers and they knew their routines.
3. Prepare ahead of time
A large part of my routine is preparing for the next meal, next activity, or next day. For example, at night I fill sippies with milk, check my stock of diapers, and plan breakfast. I run a load of cloth diapers through the washer before I go to bed and then put them in the dryer when I get up (ideally) so I have plenty of diaper fluff for the day. I may be using them out of a laundry basket instead of neatly sorted piles, but at least they’re clean and dry.
This tip is still a work in progress for me. Who wants to lay out clothes before going to bed when their exhausted? The biggest preparation task I’d like to improve on is meal planning. My meals are usually planned a day ahead of time or less. At least weekly meal planning would be more ideal so I can shop to fulfill the meal plan instead of kind of haphazardly.
4. Accept that I can’t help everyone all the time
One of the hardest things new parents or caregivers of multiples have to face is having two or more babies crying at the same time. I have two arms. I need both arms to change a baby while the other one wails on the floor. I may need two hands to make a bottle while both babies cry their little hearts out.
When they’re a little older, all of them want me to help with *their* puzzle, but I can’t give everyone the attention they want when they want it because I am only one person with six small kids. That’s just part of having multiples without constant help–especially higher order multiples or multiple multiples. Once I accepted this, I was much less stress and much happier.
5. Don’t stop moving
If I stop moving, I get tired. If I get tired, I get crabby and nothing gets done. Then I get more crabby because I got nothing done. It’s just no good for anyone.
That being said, I try not to run at breakneck pace all day. I have approximately a 12- to 13-hour day from wake up through bedtime. The other half of the 24 hours in a day has to accommodate sleep, clean up, prep for the next day, time with Jeff, and quite often dinner at the very least. I cannot afford to exhaust myself by the time lunch rolls around.
6. Put my hot tea or coffee in a travel mug
Hot liquid is relaxing and I need all the calming influences I can get when the midget army is in full force. And caffeine. I am a much more patient and cheerful person when I get a little caffeine.
I’ve been the mom who makes a hot drink in the morning and forgets it while feeding the kids breakfast. Then I microwave it and can’t find it until 30 minutes later. Microwave it again. I take a few sips and forget it on the counter since I need to keep it out of reach of the 12 tiny hands in my house. By lunch time I might have drank half of a mug. Oh well, add water and microwave it again. Maybe I’ll get to drink the rest during lunch. Nope. I finally dump it and make a fresh mug once the kids are down for their afternoon nap. Its fate is very similar to my morning cup.
Pro tip: I love my Contigo travel mug. It keeps my tea warm until nap time if I keep it closed when I’m not drinking. It also doesn’t leak like most travel mugs do as long as I open the top, screw it on, and then close the top. That is huge since I can keep it with me instead of putting it somewhere out of reach.
7. Treat this as my profession
I left the professional world early in my career to stay home and take care of my kids (definitely not my plan after 10 years of college). Even if you work outside the home, you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about and working with your kids. Treat it as you would any profession.
Read about tips and tricks to make things go more smoothly (like this article–good job!). Take what you find useful for you and your family and leave the rest. I ignore a lot of modern parenting advice because it doesn’t fit my situation.
Tweak your routines to see if you can make them work better. Are the kids crabby at lunch? Move it 30 minutes earlier.
Schedule meetings. These will look more like play dates and outings to the grocery store, but put it on your calendar.
The book “Professionalizing Motherhood” is great if you are struggling with your mindset. It is full of great tips on how to look at motherhood as a vocation and find the value in what can seem like a monotonous struggle to keep your head above water. I highly recommend picking up a copy.
8. Enlist help
Even though I don’t earn money right now, we have regular childcare in our budget. When Jeff is out of town or working late, we often have a mother’s helper or a babysitter in the evening. We also have an off-duty preschool teacher take care of the bigs and middles Friday morning until nap time so they all do a bit of preschool.
In addition to paid help, my mom comes over to play with the kids every week or so. Jeff takes all six kids to the YMCA when he works out three mornings per week. I try to schedule something Monday morning like grocery shopping or a play date to get everyone out of the house.
Help could also mean having someone else clean or mow your yard–any task that takes something off of your to-do list or frees up your time. If you don’t have money for childcare, see if you can trade services or other goods.
I highly recommend checking out a gym that has childcare like a YMCA. Often the childcare is relatively inexpensive. If you use it regularly it is the cheapest break you can get even accounting for the membership fee. You could work out or just sit at a table somewhere. I did a lot of the latter during this last pregnancy and the childcare people were happy to help.
9. Lower my expectations and be flexible
Especially for new parents, fed is best, clean enough is good enough, and your babies need a healthy, happy parent as much as they need everything else.
I wanted to be the exclusively breastfeeding, cloth diapering, baby food making stay-at-home mom because that’s what all the websites say is best for mom, baby, and the environment. I chucked all of that out the window in the first few months with my first set of twins.
By two months old, my babies wore Huggies to daycare and drank store brand formula from Avent naturals bottles that I had bought with the idea that they were more breast like. I went back to work so I could feel even remotely like myself again. At the time I felt like I had somehow failed. I didn’t. I succeeded in finding something that worked for my family.
Three years later I’m much more comfortable finding my own way. Last weekend I fed the kids donuts for breakfast to soften the news that we couldn’t go to church because dad and a baby were sick. Donuts are not exactly nutritious and I care about my kids health more than anyone else, but sometimes I just have to compromise. I may have been solo parenting the entire day on top of having a sick baby and sick husband if Jeff didn’t recover. No reason to make that harder with crabby kids who wanted to go to church.
Donuts can be a valid coping skill. So can Jack Hartmann on YouTube.
10. Engineer time to take care of myself
I still struggle with this. We have a big house, lots of outdoor space, six small kids, two big dogs who like to dig up the landscaping, and four shedding cats. On top of that we run a side business and Jeff works full time. Time for myself isn’t exactly easy to get.
In my experience, kids highlight your worst moments and will reflect them back to you. If mom (or whatever caregiver) is not happy, the kids will act out. It behooves me to shove in self care where I can.
Self care for me is not all manicures and massages while sipping lattes. In fact, I’ve never had a manicure. Maybe that does it for you. My most important self care is exercise, food, and sleep with a side of something comforting like hot tea to drink. Showers are not optional, in my opinion, to feel human.
I’d like to exercise more often, have quiet time to read, cook, and do a bunch of other things I enjoy, but I’m in the wrong season of life to have that much freedom on a regular basis. I still fit them in occasionally and I cherish those bits of luxury.
What do you need most to feel like yourself?
Bonus: 11. Don’t try to “have it all” right now
You have an entire lifetime. Choose what is most important right now and do it to the best of your ability.
I left the professional world only five years after graduating with a doctorate and earning two master’s degrees along the way in very different fields. Maybe I could try to maintain a career while raising children if I hired out household chores, hired more childcare, or had kids spaced further apart. I still thought I might do that after the first set of twins arrived and for a few months after the second set of twins arrived.
Nah, it’s not worth it to me. My most valuable contribution to the world is making sure my kids are raised right. An entire career in my field does not measure up to that. Maybe if I were a medical doctor who helped people stay healthy on a daily basis the balance would be different.
I hope these help new and struggling parents and caregivers. Do these ring true for you? Do you have tips to add? Leave your comments and questions below.