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.