If Al Gore and Hillary Clinton had produced a love child, it would be the following: “it takes a global village.”
I received an email from a friend who recently began a year of stay-at-home motherhood with two kids three thousand miles away and is “[j]ust trying to figure out if [her] feelings are normal and tips/advice . . . friends are using to get them through those hard days.” In the hope that her questions and my responses may help others – and on the heels of my ReadyMommy reviews criticizing Jessica Valenti and Linda Hirshman for failing to offer practical suggestions for improving, rather than discarding, stay-at-home motherhood – I reproduce them both here. (I’m conscious of the fact that many of my solutions depend upon a high-five-or-low-six-figure income and an urban setting; these are my realities, and I don’t mean to assert that my strategies will work for SAHMs with less financial flexibility and proximity to kid-oriented activities. Also, if you read my posts because we’re friends and you want to know what’s up with the Cornwall family, stop now; I wrote this one months ago and it will bore most of you beyond tears – like, to that dry-heaving body shake that follows tears in the ugly-cry protocol.)
1. How do you do it all day every day?
I don’t. I have lots of help. I’d love to say I have tons of extended family and lifelong friends nearby and lending a hand, but that’s only true in my dreams. Here in Seattle, I force my budget, ego, and nuclear family members to be flexible. I pay $65 a month for membership to 24 Hour Fitness plus unlimited “Kids’ Club” daycare for two kids. I exercise every morning, but not so vigorously that I can’t read at the same time. I also force my three year-old to entertain herself quietly for one hour each day while her brother naps (more on that below), which buys me time to pay the bills, stay on top of correspondence, post pictures on Facebook, etc. I hire a babysitter twice a week – Tuesday afternoons for two to three hours for me to work on creative projects (like my writing) and Saturday evenings for date night (well, date afternoon, really; we’re tipsy by five, drunk by six, home by seven, asleep by nine, and bright-eyed before dawn). I also make sure my husband helps when he’s home (more on that below as well). I pay someone to come do the deep cleaning (toilets, refrigerator shelves, etc.) twice a month. When I’m having a particularly tough week, I hire a second babysitter for a few hours (under Washington law, if one babysitter were to work for us more than an average of six hours a week at $14 an hour, I’d have to pay nanny tax).
For the parts of the day when I am doing it all, my basic coping mechanisms fall under four headings: babyproofing, routine, getting out, and multitasking. First, I highly recommend putting in all the effort required (even moving) to ensure that there is a bounded space in your home where both kids can be safely self-sufficient (for a newborn this means a bouncer, swing, etc.). Then make them do it. Most kids are like attention and energy sponges; they will soak up as much as you’re willing to give them. Mine know that I will not engage with them all the time. I’m not talking neglect, just the firm expectation that the kids will entertain themselves for pockets of time throughout the day. My rule for making these periods work is not to read or write during it; the time goes much more smoothly if I can throw them a few seconds of attention upon request without getting my panties in a twist about an interrupted thought process.
Second, routine has often been our savior. The trick is to have a schedule that saves me from that feeling of “what the hell am I going to do with these kids for the next six hours,” but isn’t so inflexible that it becomes a burden on me. I schedule lots of playdates in the afternoons with the understanding that we may have to cancel – even if just because the three of us find ourselves in the mood to curl up together on the couch and read books (or for Stuey, tear pages out of books). When I end up with empty chunks of time in the afternoons, my favorite activities are parks and grocery shopping (the latter with toddlers strapped into a stroller or baby carrier – never never ever on foot) because the time required is totally flexible (whereas, if I schlep all the way to the Aquarium, I expect to hangout for a bit). As for mornings, I got into the whole “class” thing for a bit, but now have largely forsaken it due to budget cuts. If you can afford private gymnastics, soccer, dance, music, etc., do it, especially if you have a two-or-three-nap baby who might sleep during the older child’s class giving you some alone time. If you can’t, do what we do and create a schedule of activities that are free or close. We go to Spanish storytelling at the Seattle Public Library on Monday mornings, a free music class at the Seattle Children’s Museum (membership is less than $100 a year) on Tuesday mornings, a free play space at Seattle First Presbyterian Church on Wednesday mornings, and a community center open play area on Thursday mornings. Fridays we wing it.
The third pillar of my sanity, getting out, is probably evident from my routine, but there’s more to it than that. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, near my breaking point, or bored, I strap the kids into my double stroller and just go outside. Sometimes the fresh air makes all the difference. Maybe it’s just having them contained. Possibly more of life’s options appear to me when I walk by them. Definitely just being around other people makes me feel less alone, even if we don’t interact. Regardless of why, getting out is my first and last resort.
Finally, multitasking is key. Everyone who writes about housework being pure drudgery is correct, if it’s performed in isolation or without creativity. I often save laundry folding for a playdate so that I can fold while chatting with the other parent. I also try to come up with creative ideas for making housework interactive and educational. My three year-old gets a huge pile of socks and works on matching them. When she loses steam, I pick up two obviously mismatched socks and ask in a baby voice, “is this right, Mama?” (she loves role reversal and the opportunity to correct me – yeah, yeah, I know, apple doesn’t fall far). Stuey started his chores before he could walk, crawling with a clean bib clutched in his little fist over to the bib box. When I fold sheets I do the whole parachute thing. They can’t wait for the next load of laundry to come out of the dryer. Better yet, I actually enjoy the whole process! (Same thing goes for taking out the trash: they each get a little bag to drag out, and they get a kick out of my theatrical unfurling of the fresh garbage bags.) Making housework a communal experience is just one example of how multitasking can help me “do it all,” if you define “all” as making it through the day with happy kids, a tidy home, and my sanity. (Another important way I multitask is by finding or creating opportunities to serve the community with my kids in tow.)
2. Do you ever get frustrated or resentful with/of your husband? If so, how do you manage these feelings?
I definitely did get both frustrated and resentful until we set up two systems that I’ve talked about on my blog. The first one requires thinking of housework and child care as work of equal importance and difficulty to his work, and therefore splitting all work that remains to be done once he arrives home. That means if he gets home just after dinner then either he has to put the kids to bed while I clean the kitchen or vice versa (we both usually choose the first option because he misses the kids and I need the space from them). Once Ian bought into this notion and scheme (here’s the post: https://joiedekids.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/sharing-labor/), the resentment largely disappeared.
Even with that understanding and practice, we ended up clashing on the weekends. I described the second solution online as well (https://joiedekids.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/working-it-out/).
I still tend to get frustrated from time to time by the little things (the apparent foot and hand disorder, as yet undiagnosed, that prevents him from placing his shoes on the shoe rack and socks in the hamper) and the big ones (working longer than expected hours and traveling, discussed at length below). The best solution is communication. For the little things, this largely means humor and introspection (I have a similar condition that constrains my ability to plunge a toilet). For the big ones, it means venting and discussing against the backdrop understanding that my complaints and emotions are not accusations. I can be frustrated without him needing to change something. I can feel resentful without him being in the wrong. I can say “this sucks,” without needing him to tell me the answer. What is, just is, and we need to talk about it first, throw me a pity party, and then come up with solutions (like our systems) together that address the reality, not apportion blame or internalize failures as failings.
3. How do you manage your stress?
The primary stress reducer is sleep. Sleep, sleep, and more sleep. We’ve taken to alternating getting up with the baby before dawn. I also had to learn to put my foot down about my bedtime. He may be able to function on six hours (interrupted) of sleep. I can, but I will be functioning and sobbing at the same time. Also, popping a Benadryl helps me nod off insanely early to catch up on sleep even when neither my brain nor my body wants to slow down. One day I’ll feel like I really should see someone about antidepressants; a good night of sleep later, and I’m on top of the world.
Me-time is also absolutely essential. I’m very careful not to let myself turn into just a wife and mother. I make time to be a woman as well. A lot of the advice I’ve read talks about making time to put on makeup. That’s never been me. I’m more of a reading, exercising, and gabbing over drinks kind of girl. Try to put your finger on whatever being a woman meant to you before you had kids and demand the time to reclaim it.
My third stress-reducer is a little surprising: the golden rule. All of these fancy things I try to teach my toddlers – which largely fall under the heading of “emotion-coaching” – I make myself do as well. Getting frustrated? Take a deep breath and try again. Too deep in a particular task or goal to see the daylight? Try to distract yourself; drop it and circle back later. Feeling angry? Say, “I’m feeling angry.” Each time I feel overwhelmed, I try to think what I’d counsel a three year-old to do, and then I do that.
Music is key. I find that throwing on a CD, playing with musical instruments, or just singing little ditties about the day helps all of us relax.
I also often turn to gimmicks. Like my “weekend solution” for my marriage, I use structure to surmount stressors in my life with the kids. At one point, I realized that I couldn’t take the kids to an unbounded area without the two of them jetting off in separate directions like Matt Lauer and Ann Curry at a cocktail party. I continually admonished one or the other of the kids to “come back here” or “stay where I can see you!” As soon as I started thinking of the situation as one big problem rather than a series of little ones, I came up with a solution: “Code Stu.” When we’re out in public, Vivi knows it is her responsibility, as the big kid, to play “Code Stu.” If we’re in one room, and he runs out, I holler “Code Stu! Code Stu!” Vivi drops what she’s doing and runs after him, giggling and yelling “Code Stu! Code Stu!” It’s silly, fun, and systematically eliminates that stress. Another example: it pisses me the fuck off when I’m trying to read a children’s book aloud and Vivi grabs at the pages. It’s one thing when Stuey does it, because it’s natural for little ones to want to jump around in the story and repeat certain parts again and again. But Vivi expects me to be able to read the story in a linear manner with the page undulating. Mostly I figure she just really loves turning pages and jumps the gun a bit. I created a “secret code” wherein I kiss her on the top of her head when it’s time to turn the page. When she gets a little grabby, I remind her of the code in appropriately hushed and conspiratorial tones. Stressor removed. I’ve got a bunch of others, but the bottom line involves finding creative solutions and obtaining buy-in from the kids (usually through silliness) rather than banging my head against the wall.
I adore my dustbuster and carpet stain remover. Mess is no stress with these on hand.
Finally, practice makes perfect (or more comfort with imperfect, as the case sometimes is). Counterintuitively, I find that the more kids a fellow SAHM has, the more relaxed she is. One of my friends told me this great story. Here’s her description: “I really am loving every minute of my life as a mom, it’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had and I giggle when I think of the tempests in teapots I used to get so worked up about in the professional world. I know if I ever go back to work in a traditional office setting, nothing will faze me. Ever. I remember once when I was an editor on the AP’s international desk, I was all concerned because some story needed an update and there was something wrong in the version that was on the wire and I wasn’t satisfied with how the foreign bureau was handling the mistake and it was time for a shift change and I was telling the person who was taking over my slot what was going on and she (a mom of teenagers, God love her) stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me, is anyone bleeding? Is anyone hurt? No? OK, so don’t worry about it. You did your job, it’s their problem. Relax!’ Her attitude was strangely comforting, but only now do I get where she got that kind of calm. It’s like, just wipe up the poop and move on. So when someone has diarrhea in a public restroom and you suddenly realize you’re out of diapers . . . remember that in the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal, LOL!” The more parenting hours I log, the more I relate. In particular, you learn to let go of things as quickly as the kids do. Yes, she was an absolute nightmare the past three hours, but now she’s beaming up at me full of sunshine and obedience. What will make for a better day for me – holding a grudge or hitting the emotional reset button? A stress-free day is all about reset reset reset (which of course means forgiving myself for my mothering sins as well).
4. How do you enforce having your alone time?
I’m not sure which type of “alone time” to address. When it comes to enforcing my non-napping toddler’s “quiet time,” there are two aspects to it. First, a kiddo clock. The monkey clock we use is perfect for day time (I prefer the kind that lights up for keeping a kid in bed at night and early in the morning). We say “goodnight” to Monkey, I push the button that closes his eyes, and an hour later his eyes open. The second part involves strict and clear expectations. She is not allowed to talk to me when Monkey’s eyes are closed unless it’s an emergency (potty emergencies qualify). It took almost a full year of reminding her both to be quiet and to entertain herself (she usually managed one or the other) before she got good at it, but even in the development stages it’s better than nothing; and once it works, oh God it’s great. I also give her a “quiet time” treat (we do this instead of post-meal desserts) at the beginning of the hour which makes closing Monkey’s eyes not a totally negative thing.
When it comes to babysitters, I’m careful to hire only people I totally trust and then refuse to budge when the kids attempt to get me back (either crying the first time I leave or howling “I want my mommy!” at the babysitter which I can hear because I work in my bedroom). They’re mostly just asking if I’ll come back, and the answer is “I’m flattered, but no.” Once they hear that answer loud and clear (or, infer that answer from my lack of response or appearance), they give up and enjoy themselves.
The hardest part involves my husband. If Ian takes the kids so that I can be alone, my number one rule for myself is to try not to criticize anything that he does during that time, no matter how small (seriously, the outfits he comes up with; good gracious). In order to get girls’ time, we usually end up swapping. I do a night out or get a pedicure one weekend, and he gets fancy free and footloose time the next. It also generally works best to get a babysitter (so that we both go out at the same time) or for me to do my alone time out of the house if Ian has the kids; it’s very hard on everyone to try to just escape to the bedroom when two parents are involved.
With all these things, notice is key. The kids, husband, and babysitter all do better with a planned and expected absence of my focus than a last minute request for alone time.
The most important person to get on board, however, is you. I believe that I need and deserve the alone time. I don’t feel guilty about carving out a space to be a woman as well as a daughter, friend, wife, and mother. It happens because I have my own buy-in.
I also find that it helps to put on a major happy face when you return from alone time, regardless of how depleted you still feel. Positive reinforcement is key for all involved, including you.
5. Do you find yourself waiting until your husband comes home to get a break? Sometimes, I feel like I am counting down the seconds.
Absolutely. Not even a break, but company. Despite my best efforts to get through the whole day (described above in answer to question one), I still sometimes end up feeling this way. If there are only minutes to count down, I suck it up and then try to shower him with excitement that he’s home rather than disappointment that he didn’t make it earlier. If we’re talking hours, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board and get out of the house, get the kids started doing something independent, or invite a friend over. Which brings me to another point: it’s essential that you develop friendships with other stay-at-home parents who can swing by for a last-minute afternoon play date, pick up a few things from the store, or help out in a variety of other ways. I’m not sure where to put this point, but there’s so much more we could all be doing to help each other out: childcare swaps, rotating open play at each other’s houses, communal endeavors, etc. We shouldn’t have to rely upon our husbands to this degree. It’s historically and culturally extremely rare for children to be raised by just two people, and it’s not healthy for any of us. We all need to do more to be one another’s “village.” You reaching out with this email is one step in a marathon that I’m struggling to run as well.
6. How do you handle those times when your husband says he needs to work late or on the weekends? Business trips?
Poorly (see my recent post: https://joiedekids.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/when-the-daddy-cats-away-the-mice-will-play-and-the-mommy-cats-life-will-suck/). But mostly I use a combination of the above, particularly playdates. Isolation is the worst part of his absences. Also, notice in this arena is important too; the more advance warning, the better I handle it. Most importantly, there’s fairness. If he’s gone on business, I charge to his account the nights of solid sleep, the evenings in front of the hotel TV, etc. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a shrew about it, counting out the minutes. I just expect parity and payback. If he’s working the entire time, it makes sense for me to be working the entire time. But if he’s relaxing part or all of the time, I should get some R&R too. I also demand copious amounts of gratitude. He should have thankfulness pouring out of his ears. Ian’s go-to phrase is “Gail did an amazing job!” Even if he’s been working too – but especially if there are charges on his relaxation ledger – I expect oodles and oodles of praise. And if I don’t get it, I don’t sit there hoping for it and filling myself with resentment. I say, “Gosh, I did an amazing job, didn’t I?” Or more cleverly, “I can see in your eyes that you think I’m an incomparable wife and mother. How sweet.” Finally, I try to keep a mental stockpile of perks to his absence. For me it’s reading rather than watching TV, listening to Enya, and going to sleep super early. That’s right, I’m a wild woman. This one also all boils down to my buy-in; if I think I’m working toward a credit or getting some other benefit (like an entry into the “woman of the year” raffle I hold in my head), or even just feel that I’m putting in my fair share of the family labor, I’m much more likely to manage the extra workload and isolation with grace.