Adulting: Notes from a career-minded mother

A few years ago I, together with two other women, grew a community from nothing to 10K+ career-minded mothers who shared moral and practical support. We also formed a non-profit organization that created educational material, networking opportunities, and was politically active, advocating for working parents and promoting gender equality in the home and in the workplace, e.g., paid paternity leave after the birth of a child (where I live, this is a government benefit, not funded by employers).

Close friends and women I met through that community have asked me countless times, how I keep it together, balancing three kids (ages 2, 3 and 6) and a successful career in hi tech while living in a foreign country with no family around to help and where the local language is not my mother tongue. This is what I told them:

Credit: Eli Christman, Flickr

Take care of yourself

If mamma’s happy, everyone’s happy. Eat well, even if it’s only 80% of the time. Exercise, even if it’s only once a week. Treat yourself regularly. Do things that make you happy. And be kind to yourself — don’t beat yourself up for things you could have done better, or decisions you wish you hadn’t made in retrospect. Guilt will get you nowhere; forgiving yourself lets you start over and do better next time.

Prioritize

You cannot do everything and also maintain your sanity. Your time and energy is valuable; don’t part with it willy nilly. Make deliberate, conscious decisions about what you do with them. That means on the macro level, deciding what is important to you in to maintain in your life — family. Work? Friends? Which friends? Hobbies? etc. and what’s not — volunteer work? Other hobbies? Other friends? etc. Narrow down the list as much as possible because the more you say no to, the better job you’ll do saying yes to the rest.

On the micro level that means doing the most urgent thing first, not necessarily the most important. Once you’ve put out all the fires, move on to the most important thing left on the list. Assume you will not get through your entire list and order things accordingly, with the things you can live without getting done at the bottom. And once in a while, cross something off your list without having done it. Just let it go, the world will go on.

Delegate

My housekeeper cleans my house. Babysitters help watch my kids. Sometimes they come over even when I’m around, just for the extra hands. We order takeout on long days. Daughter 1 sorts socks and tidies the living room (sometimes). When friends come for dinner, they bring food. Hand out tasks like candy.

My 6-year old vacuuming under the bed

Passive multitasking

This is a big one. To get more done in a day, multiple things should be happening at the same time — but that doesn’t mean you need to be doing multiple things at once! For example, kids can play in the bath while I answer some emails (ok let’s be real… while I open a bottle of wine…)(Don’t worry, they are not left unattended). Sometimes I set up their dinner and they eat while I do something else. This also works for making food — get it in the oven and then do something else while it cooks.

Not exactly multitasking, but a similar idea, is setting things up and letting them run without your active involvement as much as possible. Like setting out the girls’ clothes but then telling them to get dressed on their own — have you seen a 3 year old get dressed lately??? It takes like an hour. That’s an hour she’s busy/not in my way while also getting something done without me doing it. Or asking Daughter 1 to draw me pictures. I don’t have to sit there drawing with her. Set her up and let her run with it while I go do something else.

Organization. Structure. Routine.

Organization

This is my biggest open secret. Staying super organized works wonders. This means, among other things, keeping a calendar. I use the Google calendar app and everything goes in there. Even errands and other to do list items must have a scheduled slot or they will never happen.

Structure

Regardless of the ad hoc/variables scheduled on the calendar, the days have structure. They start at the same time (5:15–5:45), I get home at the same time (17:15), dinner is at the same time (18:00), bed times are at the same time, etc. Grocery shopping is always on Friday. Going for a run is always Saturday night. Yes, there are exceptions of course. But the default is not spontaneous. Knowing what’s next, having structure to the day, helps you get perspective, doesn’t let the time escape you as easily, helps you prioritize, is stabilizing, and also elicits cooperation from the kids because they feel secure in knowing what to expect.

Routine

Routines are the little things woven throughout the structure. For example, every Friday* we bring the stroller in the house from my car — even if we aren’t going for a walk that weekend, we bring the stroller in the house. We don’t think about it. We just do it. It’s part of the routine and that way we’ll never be stuck wanting to go for a walk and not having it. Having it when we don’t need it outweighs not having it when we do need it, so we just make bringing it in a habit.

Similarly, every Saturday night we put the stroller back in the trunk. Even if the next day I pick the kids up in the car and go straight home and never use the stroller at all. We do it. We don’t think about it. That way I’m never spontaneously stuck without it. I don’t have to go through the mental exercise every single day and consider whether I need it that day. Do we have a playdate? Will I need the stroller? Will I have time in the morning to load it into the car? No. It’s there. I don’t think about it. I have enough to think about. Think of the routines that can lessen your mental load.

*Saturday I don’t touch the car — or other electric stuff — for religious reasons (Jewish sabbath) so if the stroller isn’t out of the car beforehand, I can’t walk to friends’ or anywhere else with my chubby baby.

Remember it’s a phase

If for now you use disposables and later — like in 5 years — you take care of Mother Earth, that’s OK. If for now you chuck out stained clothes and in the future you’re better about taking the time to use stain remover, that’s OK. If for now you order pizza… a lot… and in the future you make home-cooked meals, that’s OK. Right now you’re in a challenging phase in life. The ways you cope can be exactly that — coping mechanisms for now; they are not necessarily long-term lifestyle decisions. Don’t feel guilty about these hacks and don’t feel you’ve made a heavy, irreversible decision. It’s all just for now, and that’s OK!

Money can’t buy everything… but it can buy a lot

Pay for cleaning help. Pay for childcare help. Pay for prepared food. If a bigger car is more comfortable, buy it. If manicures make you feel good and give you the energy to keep going, pay for them. Take cabs if you’re going somewhere parking will be stressful. Order groceries online. Invest in your sanity now, it’s worth it.

Credit: Flickr

Take care of you, even on the go

Personally I always keep a pouch in my bag with deodorant, lotion, lipstick, a nail file and a few other staples. I keep minty gum in the car. I used to keep aspirin in my diaper bag when I was schlepping one of those around. Whatever makes you feel fresh or will give you even a bit more energy midday, keep with you at all times. Feeling good is not something you should have to think about or plan ahead for, it should always be with you.

Figure out what keeps you going and build it into your day

For me it’s coffee at 6:00, 9:00, and 15:00. And wine at 20:00. Figure out what will keep you going and structure your day around these checkpoints. It doesn’t have to be coffee — it can be three dates every three hours or whatever else does it for you.

My life in a photograph

Screen time can be your best friend

This goes together with “it’s only a phase”. If for the next year or two or three your kids watch a lot of shows on the iPad or television or on your phone it’s only temporary and completely worth it. Never feel like a bad mom — you’re doing your best you’re giving your kids everything. You enrich their lives with after-school activities, vacations, and a million other experiences — it’s OK to use a little screen time as a crutch.

Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Use technology

I use the voice recorder on my phone to write things down while on the go (It’s how I wrote this!). Use Waze to find the fastest route. Use a grocery app to add things as you run out of them instead of carving out a 20-minute slot in your week to inventory your entire kitchen at once. There are so many tools out there that increase efficiency so you can put in less energy and get more out of your day.

Celebrate small wins

The kids didn’t fight for a full half-hour? Win! You made it on time to drop off and pick up in the same day? Win! You washed your hair today? Win! Winning is fun and you’re doing it all the time. Recognize those wins, and feel like a winner all day long :)

Don’t do work twice that you can do once

Making dinner? Make enough for at least three nights! Filling a Rx for antibiotics? Get two (don’t reconstitute and you’ll extend shelf life)! Your energy is valuable — if you’re already investing it, milk it for all it’s worth.

That’s my 2 (ok, 13) cents.

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