My youngest child is now five, but I remember what days were like back when I had more toddlers than hands to hold them with: the way walls got “decorated” on what felt like a daily bases, the way a mess could multiply in seconds, and the way it seemed like I could never, ever sit down long enough to accomplish a single thing. When you have a toddler (or multiple little ones) it’s just plain HARD to get stuff done.
But you know what? Looking back I realize I actually did manage to get stuff done during those years. Even though it’s difficult, there are ways to find the time to clean house, exercise, visit with friends, read a book, etc., even when you have little kids trying to fill your every waking moment. Everyone’s situation is different and I don’t claim to have a magical solution, but I do have some tips to share that will make it a little easier to get stuff done when you have little kids at home.
Tip #1. Teach your kids to sleep. Sure, little kids do generally figure out how to sleep on their own, but what I’m talking about here is teaching them to sleep at regular intervals you can count on so you don’t lose your mind. With most kids, that doesn’t happen without some work. There are lots of different opinions on sleep training and every parent needs to figure out what will work best for them and their child*, but my best advice to any parent is to find a sleep training method you’re comfortable with and DO IT. Believe me, having a naptime and bedtime you can count is worth any sort of hell it takes to get there. Knowing you’ll be able to sleep at night and you might even have 2 hours of uninterrupted time in the middle of the day can bring you back from zombie-land into a world where you can form a coherent sentence, keep the kids alive and fed, and occasionally clean the house or work on a craft.
Have an older toldder who doesn’t nap anymore? Find more tips at the end of the post.
Tip #2. Teach them to play. This is another one that we sometimes just expect our kids to know how to do, but while the idea of play is totally natural to babies and toddlers, they still need your help to develop the skills necessary for self-directed play. Teach your baby or toddler to build with blocks, toss a ball for her to retrieve, or show him how to stack cups. Ask slightly older kids to help you make up a story by taking turns telling the next line, or color and craft with them. I know it doesn’t seem like spending time playing will help you get other things done, but it will! If you regularly spend time playing with your kids, they’ll be much more likely to continue that play on their own. Anytime I really needed to get something done when my kids were little, I’d sit down and play with them for about fifteen minutes. Once I got them going, it was much easier for me to withdraw and work on other tasks.
Also, it’s worth investing in some toys and books that encourage creative play. I have a whole list of the best activity toys and books for kids right here, but kids who have learned to be creative can play with just about anything: sticks, plastic dishes, a ball, blankets to build a fort with, etc. And be willing to let the kids make a mess (within reason). I always figured that if my kids stayed busy for 45 minutes making a mess it would take us 15 minutes to clean up, I was still half an hour ahead!
Tip #3. Involve your kids in all of the tasks you can involve them in, even if it means it takes twice as long. Need to unload the dishwasher? Open that puppy up and call the kids over to help. Figure out what they can actually do (even very little ones can pull plastic bowls out of a dishwasher and stack them) and let them do that while you do the rest. No, they’re not actually going to be a real help, and yes, it will take you at least twice as long as if you did it yourself, but consider this: unloading the dishwasher together means you just spent 20 minutes together and you have one less chore to do once naptime rolls around. In fact, when my boys were little I tried to do all the household chores and as many errands as possible while they were awake so that I could spend their naptime reading or scrapbooking.
Note: if your little one is still too small to safely help with chores, consider investing in a hook-on highchairs for your kitchen counter or island. It’s SO much easier to get things done in the kitchen without having to worry about whether the baby is going to open the oven or pull everything out of the cabinets.
Tip #4. Be realistic in your expectations. It doesn’t matter how long my to-do list is; if I finish it I feel good, and if I don’t, I feel bad. So what’s the key? Don’t try to do more in a day than you know you can reasonably expect to accomplish. Don’t decide you’re going to organize the entire basement or run 7 errands at a time: it won’t happen and you’ll end up angry and resentful. Instead, pick one part of the basement to clean and feel good about yourself once you get it done!
It’s also helpful to split up your tasks into smaller pieces whenever possible. When my oldest three kids were all 3 or younger, dinnertime was the “witching hour” at our house: they were all cranky, which meant I was cranky, and spending 30 or 45 minutes putting together a meal just wasn’t an option. So I started spreading out the dinner prep throughout the day. I’d brown ground beef in the morning and chop some veggies at lunchtime, so all I’d have to do before dinner was mix things up or pop a casserole in the oven. And I got real friendly with my slow cooker. I used the same strategy for house cleaning, doing a bit here and there (and involving the kids as often as possible).
Tip #5. Find a friend and swap child care. Sometimes you just need a few hours without hearing “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!” on repeat, and this is where a friend with similar aged kids comes in really handy. When my three oldest were all still home a friend and I would swap child care once a week or so. It was crazy when it was my turn to have 6 boys under 5 at my house–I say crazy but occasionally it was actually miserable, with all those little boys trying to figure out how to interact with each other and occasionally throwing punches. But it was worth it! Not only because it game me some time on my own when it was my friend’s turn to take all the kids (sucker), but because my children learned how to interact with others. Learning to take turns, share, respond to someone who is angry, etc., are actually extremely valuable life skills that are best learned as young as possible. So while those “play dates” might not be any fun for you when the kids are little, they’re worth it. And don’t worry, as soon as kids are a little older, play dates are totally awesome: two hours when your child is happily engaging in imaginative play with another little one while you watch Netflix…did I say Netflix? I meant scrub all the toilets in the house without interruptions. Yup, it’s great.
Don’t have any friends with kids? Check out local mom’s groups or churches, or even head to the neighborhood park and try to get to know other stay at home parents in your area. Start by inviting the mom and child over to play to get to know each other, and after you’ve built a relationship, suggest a swap.
Tip #6. Teach your kids that while they are the most important thing in your life, that doesn’t mean they are the only important thing in your life. Basically, this means kids can (and should) learn that they are not actually the center of the universe. You as a parent do not exist to entertain and cater to your children. You exist to love, care for, and teach your children how to be happy, productive people. That means teaching them that yes, you will take them to the park, and yes, you will play trucks with them, but those activities will be balanced with the other stuff you need or want to get done (like laundry, or work, or a conversation with another adult). Now, I’m totally not saying that laundry is more important than your children. But I am saying there are other necessary things in your life, and I think it’s a good thing for kids to realize that what they want right now doesn’t always come first. If you are spending time with your kids on a regular basis, it’s perfectly ok to say no when something they want to do doesn’t fit in with the other things that need to be done.
Tip #7. That being said, remember this:
Like I just said, it’s both acceptable and important to balance all the other tasks you have each day with caring for your kids. But if on any given day all those other tasks don’t get done, don’t sweat it! Your children truly are the most important thing, which means if you did nothing but care for them today you spent your day doing the most important things for the most important people. And that’s pretty amazing. Please remember this: You’re doing a better job than you think you are.
*Have older kids that won’t nap? I know your pain. A few weeks after my twins turned two I called my mom (who also had twins) and asked: how do you get them to nap once they’ve figured out how to climb into each other’s cribs? And she said: you don’t, and she laughed. I cried. Seriously, I cried. The thought of giving up that golden quiet hour was depressing. And so we started quiet time. I made sure their bedroom was a safe place for them to be in without me (furniture secured to the wall, nothing they could get into that would be dangerous or cause a mess) and then I explained to them that every day after lunch they were going to spend quiet time in their room. We started with 20 minutes at a time, and gradually increased it to a full hour. If they stayed in their room until the timer went off, they got to come out and have TV time. Between quiet time and TV time I almost felt like I had naptime back! Some tips for successful quiet time:
- limit the amount of mess they can make while you’re not in their with them. That may mean figuring out how to keep them from opening their dresser drawers.
- provide them with things to do, like books to look at, soft blocks to build with, etc.
- don’t cave. If they keep coming out, keep putting them back in. If TV time is a reward for staying in quiet time, don’t let them watch TV if they don’t stay in. Being consistent is tough, and it sucks for a while, but it is SO worth it if you keep it up!