8 tips for surviving (and thriving!) in the midst of chaos

Or, A Few Things I Learned from Having Four Kids in Five Years

A version of this piece was originally published on June 17, 2009

This post is a detailed answer to one of the most common questions I get: “How do you blog and write a book with four little kids underfoot?” As I’ve said before, since my husband and I are bad at NFP open to life, we don’t see the baby/toddler years as a brief phase to grit your teeth and get through; rather, we’ve come to see it as a long-term way of life. This means that we’ve had to learn how to not just survive, but thrive, amidst a whole lot of chaos. (My husband jokes that he’s never gotten more use out of his MBA than he has in our home life.)

Though I originally wrote this as a guide for parents of young children, I hope that these little tips and tricks will be helpful to anyone in a crazy phase of life.

1. It’s all about optimizing

  • Accept that you can’t do it all: My husband has a saying that optimizing isn’t about having it all, it’s about being good at not having it all. In a busy phase of life, there’s no way you’re going to be able to scrapbook and garden and can vegetables and blog and try new recipes and maintain lots of close friendships and reply to all your email and sew and watch TV and so on. Just because some activity is theoretically good and fruitful doesn’t mean you have time for it. You will only be able to do a few of the all those things you’d like to do, so it’s important to make conscious decisions about how you spend each hour of the day.
  • Know the goal: In order to make tough choices about what to fit into your life vs. what to leave out, it’s important to clarify what your primary goals for yourself and your family are. For example, our first goal as individuals is to be close to God, our second goal is to draw each other and our family to God. Below that might be other things like accomplishments I’d like to have with my writing or successes my husband would like to see in his career, but they are all secondary to that primary goal. It’s helpful when tough tradeoffs arise to have that clearly defined.
  • Value flexibility: The only thing that’s predictable in a crazy phase of life is that it’s unpredictable. For those of us who have little ones, kids get sick, babies wake up at night, toddlers have temper tantrums, and so on. I’ve found it critical to make sure that all of the activities I’m involved in allow for flexibility. For example, I’m not involved in any ministries that have regularly-recurring meetings, and I recently turned down some interesting writing work because it involved deadlines. In order to be able to make daily choices that put my highest goal first, I need wiggle room to be able to spend more time with my family as the need arises.

2. Housework: Prioritize and seek inspiration

I’m a naturally messy person, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s hard to have interior peace amidst exterior disorder.

  • Prioritize: Together with your family, decide what level of cleanliness would be the right balance to bring everyone peace without making anyone overworked. Again, I think it’s really important to make this a conscious decision that you make with your spouse, rather than (as I tend to do) just getting things done haphazardly as you get to them. For example, my husband and I have decided together that it’s okay with both of us if it takes a few days to get laundry put away; however, we’ve decided that dirty dishes in the sink really bother us, so we make sure that at least that is taken care of each day. Spelling this out with my husband has resolved a lot of nagging guilt I used to have about what was and wasn’t getting done each day.
  • Seek inspiration: There are a lot of great books out there with ideas about how to stay on top of all the little daily tasks involved with running a house, such as FlyLady, A Mother’s Rule of Life and Sidetracked Home Executives. It’s unlikely that any one system will be a perfect fit for you, but many of these books can offer great food for thought if you’re having trouble getting it all done.

3. Know thyself

  • Introvert or extrovert?: It’s been my experience that one of the most important things to know about yourself, especially in a busy time of life, is whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. The most helpful way I’ve heard these concepts defined is in terms of how you recharge your batteries. Which soothes you more when you’re feeling run down: having quiet time to yourself or being around people? If it’s the former you’re more introverted, if it’s the latter you’re more extroverted. When you’re running at 100% each day, it’s crucial to understand your best way to unwind and recharge.
  • Think about which activities wear you down and which give you energy: This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often I assume that something will be easy for me just because it’s easy for other people. For example, when I was a new mom I went to weekly playdates because it seemed like that’s what all moms enjoyed. I eventually realized that, as an introvert, they’re much more exhausting for me. Whereas something like writing, which might be hard work for someone else, actually gives me energy. This understanding helped me choose which activities to be involved in and how frequently to be involved in them so that I didn’t end up frazzled.
  • Explain it to your spouse: It’s helped my husband and I support one another to realize what the basic things are that each of us need to stay sane. For example, it’s important that my husband understand that, as an introvert, it is a very high priority that I get regular quiet time to recharge my batteries; whereas the spouse of an extrovert would need to understand how important it is for that person to get regular social interaction.

4. Remember that serving others does not mean running yourself ragged

I’ve mentioned before in posts like this one and this one and this one just what an important realization this has been for me. As a Christian I am called to live a life of selflessness…yet I cannot do truly serve others if I’m not meeting my own needs first.

  • Prayer: This subject has been covered better by other people, but the importance of making time for daily prayer can’t be overstated — you can’t show Christ to others if you’re not developing a deep relationship with him yourself. Though I struggle with making prayer a priority in my own life, I’ve found that there are incredible fruits when I do. (All my posts on the topic of making time for daily prayer are here.)
  • Food: I used to get through the newborn period by constantly eating foods that would give me a quick “high” like chips, sodas and snack foods. After I cut those out as part of my “Saint Diet, ” I found that I not only lost weight but had so much more energy to get through my busy days.
  • Exercise: I’ve found that exercise is as powerful as some medicine in terms of helping my energy level and ability to think clearly. As a born couch potato it doesn’t come naturally to me, but when I do carve out time in my schedule for regular exercise, the results are dramatic.
  • Sleep: We have a household saying: Never think about your problems when you’re tired. It’s amazing how much more hopeless and difficult even mild challenges seem when you’re run down. For that reason, getting good sleep is a high priority around here. Obviously that’s not always possible when we have a newborn, but I found the advice in Kim West’s book Good Night, Sleep Tight to be invaluable for helping babies start getting good sleep as soon as they’re ready. And it’s stunning how much regular, quality sleep helps me deal with every aspect of life. (If you have insomnia, as I used to, check out the book Say Goodnight to Insomnia.)
  • Fun: I’ve found having a hobby that challenges and excites me is a great source of inspiration, especially when things are otherwise overwhelming. Back to the “Know Thyself” idea, though, I think it’s important to carefully choose activities that give you energy rather than take it. For example, photography, scrapbooking and sewing are all hobbies I would enjoy…but they would use up a lot of energy. Given my very limited free time I’ve chosen to only have one hobby right now — writing — which is something that is a source of energy for me rather than a drain.

“But how do I know how much time to take for things like rest and prayer and hobbies? How do I know if I’m getting what I legitimately need or just being lazy?” are questions that immediately popped into my mind when I was first introduced to this concept. Which brings us to…

5. Be careful about how you evaluate yourself

  • Schedule “mini New Years” for reflection: It’s surprisingly easy (at least for me) to succumb to unnecessary guilt when you give yourself a needed break in the midst of a challenging time — and, on the other hand, to rationalize away laziness with a bunch of excuses. It’s hard to discern these things accurately when your life is moving at breakneck speed, so I’ve found it incredibly helpful to reserve judgment on my overall success in my vocation to three “mini New Years” dates spread throughout the year. I arrange to have at least a couple of hours alone for quiet time and prayer on these days so that I can do some serious high-level reflection on where I am in my life vs. where I should be. Knowing that I have these dates on the calendar keeps me from falling into neurotic “maybe I’m too hard on myself!” / “maybe I’m not hard enough on myself!” thought patterns on a daily basis.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others: This is another tip that is obvious, and yet I always fail to put into practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt guilty because I don’t do X as well as Mrs. Y does, only to learn later that there are plenty of things that I’m good at that she struggles with. If you catch yourself comparing yourself to others, take a step back and ask yourself honestly if their standards are really right for you.
  • Consider getting a spiritual director: I have found it immensely helpful to have a trained, orthodox spiritual director to help me honestly evaluate where I am in my life. Here’s some info about how to find one for yourself.

6. Be proactive about creating a support network

As we talked about a while back, I’m a big believer that we weren’t meant to live our lives in isolation. I’ve found it to be critically important to seek out a support network.

  • If possible, put down roots: Shortly after we were married, my husband and I made the decision to put down roots in this area. It’s meant that we’ve had to sacrifice significant salary and career advancement opportunities for my husband, but the payoff has been inestimable. Family members have moved to be closer to us, since they know they can count on us to stay put. We’ve developed a deep network of friends and acquaintances which, together with our family, leave us with a great sense of community and a strong support network. It’s one of the best decision we’ve ever made.
  • Take an honest look at mental blocks you might have to getting help: During one period when I was particularly frazzled, my husband kept asking me why I didn’t hire a daytime babysitter so that I could get some help. I threw out excuse after excuse — “we can’t afford it, ” “it’s impossible to find someone good, ” etc. — but he pointed out that none of them were exactly true. It was then that I realized the real issue: I didn’t want help because I’m a total control freak. And it was having a negative impact on our whole family. When I finally dealt with that issue head-on, we found a neighbor lady who came to help out a few hours per week at a surprisingly low hourly rate. Having her assistance brought about a night-and-day difference in my peace and happiness levels, which benefited my family as well.
  • Remember that it blesses others to help you:  I used to categorically turn down all offers of help. A meal after a baby’s birth? No thanks, we have it covered. Taking the kids to the library with friends so I could rest? Nah, but thank you! My reason for all this declined help was that I “didn’t want to trouble” anyone. Then a wise friend pointed out that it was actually uncharitable for me to assume that I like helping people in need, whereas all my friends were secretly resentful of lending me a hand. Now I gratefully say yes when people offer me help that I need, and I remind myself that I’m blessing them by allowing them to bless me.

7. Partner with your spouse

This is another one that’s probably obvious, but one thing that has been very helpful for our marriage and our family is that my husband and I share with one another in everything we do. For example, we see his career as something we’re both involved in, and we see the writing I do as something we do together: he gets my input on dilemmas at work, I tell him about interesting blog comments and get his feedback on what I’m writing about, etc. As busy as we are, it’s especially helpful not to have a lot of boundaries about “his stuff” and “my stuff, ” otherwise it would be hard to do it all and still find time for our marriage.

8. Put God first

All of the above are some practical tips my husband and I have come up with for managing life in a house full of little ones. All of them are ultimately meaningless, though, if the final aim isn’t deeper union with God. We’ve found that it’s so important to remind ourselves that everything we do, down to the smallest action, should somehow, some way, be aimed at bringing us closer to God. Not that we’re living that out perfectly, of course, but knowing that that’s the goal helps us make good choices about what to do with our very limited time, and it helps us support one another to know that we’re both working toward the same thing.

If that makes it sound like we’re ultra-holy people, I assure you we’re not. We have committed to put God first in our lives not only because it’s what we “should” do, but because, after putting everything else first for so many years, we have found it to be true that God is the only source of lasting happiness. Even in our crazy busy lives with four kids under age five, we have found that, compared to our old lives, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great article Jennifer. I am an introvert and it took me a long time to realize that to unwind, I need some time alone. I have a hard time explaining this to my friends most of whom are extrovert but I guess I’ll have to explain it in the terms you’ve explained in this article.

  2. Theresa in Alberta says

    YOU….are so correct 🙂 I missed those wonderful little years with my children because…
    a) I didnot put God first
    b) Tried to live up to UNREAL expectations of myself
    Blessings upon you and yours…

  3. says

    Simple and effective call to action, thanks for the reminders Jen! Although Jamie and I could have really used this article last week when all the kids were home from school!!! I never thought I would be so happy to have school start again 🙂

  4. says

    Hi, Jen!
    A Big HELLO from………. BRASIL!!

    I just loved your Post, cause I too have a Blog (called “A Católica” or “The Catholic”, in English) and I intend to make my family bigger this year!…
    I used to be so aprehensive and anxious about how to organize my time and discipline myself…
    … So you can see how much your Post helped me a bit (I must say a lot)about that!

    Stay in the Peace of God!!
    You, your Family (Husband and Five Kids!) and All Your Admirers and Readers!!

    ~~~

    • says

      Hi (again) Jen!!
      Another Big HELLO from………. BRASIL!!

      Just to confirm to YOU how much your Post helped me.
      I used to feel so much guilt because I just could not be involved in social events, cause they made me tired A LOT!

      Now, I understood that I am a INTROVERT and so I must look for the activities that make me feel good and full of energy! (I just loved this part of your Post!)

      THANK YOU!!

      Hey: I just loved also this quote of yours:

      “Don’t compare yourself to others: This is another tip that is obvious, and yet I always fail to put into practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt guilty because I don’t do X as well as Mrs. Y does, only to learn later that there are plenty of things that I’m good at that she struggles with. If you catch yourself comparing yourself to others, take a step back and ask yourself honestly if their standards are really right for you”.

      And this final one too:

      “Even in our crazy busy lives with four kids under age five, we have found that, compared to our old lives, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light’.

      I hope the Holy Spirit continues to iluminate your mind, soul and heart, so you can always write things that make us feel so greater after reading them!

      Stay in His Peace!!

      ~~~

  5. Christina says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! As a new Mom I struggle with this stuff every day. This is so helpful, thank you!

  6. says

    So much here that is useful and true! Just to single out one thing, I too have had a problem accepting help. Seeing it as allowing others to bless me with their help, and that I am blessing them in doing so, is something I will try to learn in 2011. An excellent post!

  7. Emily (a.k.a. Smoochagator) says

    Thank you for this post, Jennifer. I know I’ve read its predecessor, but reading it again is especially important for me right now, because after six months of being a new mommy while working full-time, I’m STILL not very good at keeping all of my plates spinning. I’m bookmarking this post and will probably come back to it over and over.

  8. says

    I honestly don’t know how a mom finds time to breath much less anything else. You moms never have a moment alone, even when you’re alone – always thinking about your family, worrying for them, feeling their hearts beat no matter where they are, hurting when they do, and laughing when they do. Any mom who moves two inches forward – on any day – is a little s, saint.

    Jennifer, what you wrote is such a gracious gift to your community. Thank you. There’s enough here for a year’s worth of reflection and practice. I’m taking gobs away.

    About firm BUT flexible goals,
    and diet, exercise, rest, and fun – in spiritual AND physical ways.
    Looking in and up – but not around.
    And not fighting the fight alone. St. Ignatius said, “It is dangerous to imagine that one could offer God suitable service on one’s own.”

    And finally you echoed the words of my favorite Saint (though not my generated one) ~ “God first be served.” ~ St. Joan of Arc.

    God bless and keep you and yours

  9. Christy says

    That was great! I’m a mom of 3 under 3 and I can completely agree with you on all your points!
    The comparison to others is so hard to get over as soon as you become a mom! I would make myself feel worse seeing other women going on a family vacation with a two week old when I could barely walk out of the house a month after having my first baby. It still happens as I see other moms taking their 3 year olds to seven different activities while my ventures out of the house with the kids involve hours of preparation and probably only happen once a week!
    The value of knowing God, your family and yourself is priceless and leads to a fully lived life.

  10. Kate says

    All great points for sure! In the midst of all the chaos, however, those 8 things or even any method of trying to establish a healthy balance can be quite overwhelming. For me it seems to eb & flow with periods of thriving & just barely surviving when I’m just too tired to try any more. All I can do sometimes, including now, is keep myself & our children alive each day & utter some prayers to God for His help & mercy!!!!

  11. says

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I forwarded it to my husband. We are somewhat newly married (less than a year and a half) but plan to have a large family. I’m trying to pick up what wisdom I can now to prepare myself. This post was so practical and really resonated with even what I’ve learned so far about balance in marriage. Thanks!

    • says

      One other comment – I just went to your page explaining openness to life. It’s wonderful! I will probably link to it on my blog if that’s OK, as you explain well what I’m always trying to explain. I got fed up with the Couple to Couple League magazine because of seemed to have this tone of “more children is always better” and “you should feel guilty if you’re not pregnant all the time.” Your practical explanations of NFP are refreshing.

  12. Christine says

    Not sure if it was mentioned but having a huge sense of humor and laughing a lot is so key to making family life a good one. My kids spill their milk almost every night. I don’t even blink an eye. They are just kids.

    Last Sunday my older son spilled all the crumbs from 5 plates all staked together on me and down my shirt (accident) …I laughed…this stuff just happens.

  13. Carly says

    I don’t have a lot of time to comment right now, but did want to drop in quickly to say how much I appreciated this post. Very good, sound and thoughtful advice – and even though I have only one child, your words of wisdom are perfectly relevant in my world too. Thank you!

  14. Elizabeth M says

    Jen,
    Thank you! I have two children older than yours, and I STILL found so much I needed to hear in this. I wish I’d had your perspective when mine were little!

    God bless you for all you share. I’m going to need to remind myself of this and share it with others.

    Thank you!

  15. Sara says

    Thank you so much for writing this. I needed this more than you can imagine. My three young children (in four years…we’re open to life, aka not good at NFP) will want to thank you one day too! “Perfection is just an illusion”, right?

  16. says

    Wonderful post, so many on target suggestions. I had five children and never took any time for myself. Also a control freak I didn’t accept help from anyone who offered because, 1. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone and 2. I thought I could do it better myself. Stupid and self deprecating. I still have trouble in a few of the areas you mentioned but at least I’m moving forward. Thanks for the reminder and the affirmation that it’s the right thing to do. My eldest daughter also open to life (bad at NFP) has had 6 kids in 12 years. I can’t wait to tell her you’ve had 4 kids in 5 years, and pass this wise info on to her.

  17. Taylor R. says

    Thank you for this. I have 3 kids 3 and under, and I constantly battle the feeling that I should have things more under control. I love the tips for introverts, accepting help, and for self-evaluation. Practical and wise.

    I’m so thankful for finding your blog. Though not catholic, my husband and I are also “open to life”. I often sense disapproval from others because of our 3 young children (are they ALL yours? like 3 is the new dozen or something)…and out of pride I want to prove that “I can do it”. But, of course, I can’t. Only in our weakness can He show his strength, right? Anyway, it is encouraging to find a blog community that has good tips and support for moms with closely spaced kids.

    “He tends His flock like shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah 40:11

  18. says

    I learned how to let people help me this fall after neck surgery. I had friends who brough meals, drove me to doctor appointments, bought me groceries, washed my laundry, and even washed my hair for me. It was very humbling to accept so much love, but also a very good experience to let other people love me. Thanks for sharing all these tips!

  19. says

    This is a FANTASTIC post!
    As someone who had the last of her 6 (of 10) babies in 7 years…I relate to your state-in-life and the advice, insights, and wisdom you share here is invaluable!
    Thanks Jennifer…I only wish I had read this 10 years ago, ha ha!
    May I copy and paste this, with a link back to you, of course, on my “Inspired by Others” page on my Daily Blessings website?
    I’d be honored to do so and my readers will be greatly blessed.

  20. says

    WOW. When I decided to convert 7 years ago, I also committed to being open to life (yes, bad at NFP) and we had four little girls in five years. It WAS crazy. I’m due with a fifth, BOY, any day now. I wouldn’t change a thing. I can’t believe how much life has taught me!