Last week, Andrew, John, and I took a much-needed beach vacation. We spent a long weekend in Wildwood, NJ, where we spent our days visiting the aquarium and zoo, lounging by the pool, and watching the waves crash on the Jersey shoreline, and our evenings eating in loud, family-friendly restaurants, ordering all sorts of ice cream desserts, and pacing the boardwalk. Thanks to the generosity of my mother, Andrew and I even had a date trip to the water park complete with lunch out before meeting John and my mom for dinner. It was an incredibly relaxing weekend, and just what I needed before the beginning of another school year.
When people ask me what I do for a living, they are often surprised to hear that I am still a full-time Director of Religious Education and Youth Minister after the birth of my son. They are even more surprised to hear that my husband and I do not use any form of regular child care. Instead, I take care of John while I work from home, and when I go into the office, Andrew takes care of him. Despite working a 35-45 hour week, I still find time to play with John in between answering emails and processing registration forms. Despite working a part-time job, teaching two college classes, and writing his dissertation, Andrew still has time to give John his bedtime bottle every night. When people ask us how we can possibly manage everything, we just shrug and tell them that we try our best.
Because I’m going to be honest with you- oftentimes our best just doesn’t seem like enough. There have been countless emails that have fallen through the cracks, as well as text messages and phone calls with friends that were never made. There have been times when we have woken up at 6AM to make sure that we can both be ready for work, bemoaning the fact that we did not go to bed as early as we would have liked because we were too busy working. There have been too many mornings that have begun before we were quite ready to face the world and a new day. I remember distinctly the first time that John rolled over- I nearly missed it because I was too busy answering an email. I nearly missed my son’s first successful attempt at rolling over- even though I was sitting right next to him. We might want it all- the job, the family, the social life- but we have to admit that we just can’t have it all. We will always have to make sacrifices. Sometimes you sacrifice your work for your child- for instance, the countless emails that will never be answered, and other times, you sacrifice your child for your work- like the rolling-over incident. And let’s just face it- you will almost always end up sacrificing your social life for both your job or your family, for better or for worse.
I realize that there are many couples who are not able to do what we do. They cannot manage the delicate balance between work, family, and friends. They cannot do it all as successfully as we can. Even at our worst, we have to admit that we’ve developed a system that really does work for us- most of the time. And most of the time is pretty darn good.
When I am asked what I do to make it all work, there are just a handful of practices that I really do believe have helped me in my attempts to balance work, family, and my social life. I know that they won’t work for everybody, but they have worked for me, and I imagine that they will work for others. So if you’re desperate for some tips to be a somewhat successful working mother, here are some of the practices that have worked for me.
1.) Have a communal calendar in a well-trafficked area.
Andrew and I have two calendars hanging on our kitchen wall, one dry-erase calendar that covers a week and a paper monthly calendar. At the beginning of every month, we consult our individual planners and record those larger events and activities that will require some planning ahead of time. These might be vacations, family visits, and day trips. In addition to this calendar, we also use our weekly calendar for larger tasks that need to be completed throughout the week. This is great for listing cleaning chores that need to be finished before we have company. We also use it as our ongoing food shopping list. Whenever we use the last of something, or notice that an item is about to run out, we write it down. Then, when our weekly food shopping trip comes around, all I need to do is take a picture of the list with my phone before heading to the store. This system saves us both time and money- when I go into a supermarket, I already know exactly what I need. I purchase the items on my list, and then skedaddle. The entire trip takes about half an hour now, and we rarely forget anything.
2.) Buy a planner. And use it constantly.
If I had to choose one tip for parents trying to balance the different aspects of their lives, this would be it: buy a planner, and use it. If I ever lost my planner, I’m pretty sure my entire life would fall apart. I write everything in my planner: upcoming events and trips, day-to-day tasks for work, my weekly chores at home. Whenever I complete a task, I cross it off and move on to the next one. My planner is also color-coded: black for tasks to complete and red for activities and meetings. I work in my office two to three days a week, and the first job that I sit down to every week is to work out my planner for the upcoming week. I write down any tasks left over from the week before, as well as my recurring chores and those that are unique to the week. This always gives me a good starting point, and then I continue to add tasks as they come up. As a mom who works from home, I find that I can complete three days worth of jobs in 35 hours. That means that once three days are completely filled in my planner, most new jobs are relegated to the following week. I don’t think there’s any reason to write down jobs that I can never realistically complete in a single week. That’s just setting yourself up for failure. And trust me, there is nothing more rewarding than crossing an item off a list, even if it’s small and took only five minutes to complete. Any completed task is an accomplishment when you’re a working mother.
3.) Identify just a handful of small tasks to complete in a single day, and then do them.
Every morning while I shower, I plan my day. I take into consideration any mandatory activities: doctor’s appointments, visits from friends or family, office hours. I make a rough estimation of the amount of time that I will have to get work done, and then choose just a few items that I need to finish before the end of the day. Normally, it’s just three or four, depending on the size of each project. If I complete every task for the day, I’ll pick a new one from my planner. Yes, you can laugh, because we all know that doesn’t happen. Most days, I aim to finish every task I had assigned myself, but I rarely have time for additional work. I always consider three completed tasks to be a very successful day.
4.) Split larger projects into smaller tasks to make them more manageable.
Let’s just face it- there are days where you won’t have more than ten minutes at a time to get stuff done. When you have a monumental task ahead, like cleaning the bathroom or putting together a lesson plan, it can be a bit intimidating to even start working when you know that you might be interrupted at any time. There were countless times where I could just stare at my planner for five minutes, thinking about what needed to be accomplished, and then the moment that I began to work, John would wake up from a ten minute nap screaming. I did this for a while before two very important changes were made. First, I began splitting these larger projects into smaller tasks. Second, John was sleep trained. Even though longer naps have made working at home much easier, I still split up my larger projects. It’s a lot less intimidating to tackle a handful of smaller tasks than one big one. It’s a tactic employed by many writers: it’s a lot more intimidating to think about writing a book than writing a couple of chapters. It’s mentally less stressful to write five short papers than one long one. Dividing a project into parts also helps me to focus. It gives me the proper sense of direction to really get stuff done.
5.) Approach every task with open palms.
This is probably the most important piece of advice that you can give a working mother, or any type of parent really. No matter how much planning and preparing you do, you still have to approach every task with open palms. Because in the end, you just don’t know. Even with a kitchen calendar, color-coded planner, and lists and lists and lists, your baby might have a totally different plan in mind. A loud noise might wake him up from a nap. A diaper explosion might cause you to miss that window of napping opportunity. Sore gums might make your normally independent little guy a hot mess. There are countless ways that your infant can make you abandon all of your plans, and if you’re not prepared for that reality, you can be left with a great deal of frustration. Because let’s face it- babies have no respect for organization and planning. They sometimes even laugh in your face at the mere suggestion that they follow any sort of schedule. And it’s at times like those that it’s best to approach life with open palms. You should never hold on to a plan or goal too tightly. If you do, it’ll just hurt more when it’s ripped from your grasp. But if you have open palms, if you are willing to accept whatever comes your way, life will be much more relaxing. I learned this lesson back when I was in the convent. That was our mantra on a day-to-day basis, when our lives and schedules were not ours to determine. We had a superior who told us where we needed to be and what we needed to be doing. Classes were regularly canceled; homework assignments regularly postponed. Motherhood has reminded me of the beauty of this philosophy. Granted, now I have a six month old baby boy telling me where I need to be and what I need to be doing, and he’s not always so nice about it. But I guess I would be cranky too if I had a dirty diaper and couldn’t do anything about it myself. I think more than anything, it’s this open palms mentality that has made me a somewhat successful working mother.
So to all the working mothers out there, best of luck getting organized! And most importantly, keep your palms open!
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!