Tips for surviving (and thriving!) in the baby/toddler phase
Or, A Few Things I’ve Learned from Having Four Kids in Five Years
I started this post as an answer to the most frequently asked question I get, “How do you find time to write?”, but realized that the answer stems from my overall approach to life with little ones. As I’ve said before, since we’re
open to the possibility of more children, my husband and I don’t see the baby/toddler years as a brief phase, but rather we’ve come to see having little ones around as just part of life for the long-term. This has prompted us to spend a lot of time thinking and praying about how to not only survive but thrive in a house with multiple children in diapers. bad at NFP
I thought I’d share some of the general “life management” tips we’ve come up with. I don’t offer this as expert advice, and I assure you that I do not walk around feeling like I have it all figured out. These are just some ideas that my husband and I have found helpful that I thought I’d post in case they give anyone else food for thought.
1. It’s all about optimizing
- Accept that you can’t do it all: My husband is fond of 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 such as this there’s no way that 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 learn to sew and watch TV and so on. 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 with a house full of little ones is that it’s unpredictable: kids get sick, babies wake up at night, toddlers have temper tantrums, etc. 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
No matter what your goal is for your family, it’s hard to achieve it — or do anything at all — if your house is total chaos.
- Prioritize: Decide with your family what level of order and cleanliness would be the right balance of bringing everyone peace without making you too overworked. Again, I think it’s really important to make this a conscious decision that you make with your husband rather than (as I tend to do) just doing 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 clean 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, Sidetracked Home Executives, etc. It’s unlikely that any one system would be a perfect fit for your family, 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 very important to understand the best way to recharge your batteries…
- Think about which activities wear you down and which give you energy: This sounds obvious, but I’ve found it surprising how often I assume that something will be no big deal for me just because it’s no big deal for most 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 while I also enjoy playdates, as an introvert, they’re much more exhausting for me. Whereas something like writing, which might be hard work for someone else, actually leaves me feeling relaxed and energized. 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 give what you don’t have, and 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 will readily admit that this is an area of my life that could use a lot of improvement, but I’ve found that even trying to be more active with the kids by going to parks or even just running around the house with them helps keep me from getting run down physically.
- Sleep: With my first child I was devoted to the concept of co-sleeping, but after 18 months of trying various ways to make it work I found myself so severely sleep deprived that I was depressed and even becoming a dangerous driver. After I switched to a more scheduled approach with babies sleeping in their cribs, such as the one laid out in Kim West’s book Good Night, Sleep Tight, I saw a 180-degree difference in my happiness, my energy level and my ability to serve my family. However, what works for one person isn’t what will work for everyone. Here’s a great post by a mom of ten talking about how going from strict scheduling to co-sleeping worked wonders for her family. Either way, I think it’s important to make it a priority to get good sleep whenever possible.
- Fun: I’ve found having a hobby that challenges and excites me is a great source of inspiration that helps get me through those tough times when I feel really overwhelmed. 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, formal photography, scrapbooking and sewing are all hobbies I’d really 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 sometimes hard to know where to draw the line between giving yourself a needed break and just being lazy. “Do I let the kids watch too much TV?” “Could I read to them more?” The answers to questions like that aren’t always clear, and it’s surprisingly easy (at least for me) to succumb to unnecessary guilt when you can’t do as much because it’s truly a bad week or, on the other hand, to tell yourself that you’re doing fine when you’re actually slacking. It’s hard to discern these things in the heat of the moment, so I’ve found it incredibly helpful to reserve judgment on my overall success in my vocation to three “mini New Years” spread throughout the year (which I talked about more in #3 here). I set aside these days for serious high-level reflection on where I am in my life vs. where I should be, and knowing that I have that helps ward off mommy guilt on a day-to-day basis.
- Don’t compare yourself to other moms: As Sarah pointed out in this great post, things are totally different for moms with children of different ages, and as Molly Miller pointed out in this inspiring article, we all have a completely unique set of gifts that will make some things harder or easier for us than they are for other women.
- Consider getting a spiritual director: As I said here, I have found it immensely helpful to have a trained, orthodox spiritual director to help me honestly evaluate how well I am doing as a wife, mother and Christian.
6. Be proactive about creating a support network
As I’ve we talked about last year, I’m a big believer that we weren’t meant to raise kids in isolation. I’ve found it to be critically important to seek out a support network so that our family has extra help if we need it, and so that I can get little breaks here and there when other people are around.
- If possible, put down roots: People often remark that my husband and I are so lucky that my mom lives nearby and we seem to be surrounded by people able to babysit or lend and extra hand here and there. A large part of that stems from the decision we made to put down roots in this area. It’s meant sacrificing potential money and career advancement for my husband, but the payoff has been huge in terms of building a community and support network for ourselves.
- Learn to accept imperfect help: I once wrote about the ah-hah moment I had when I realized that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t have any help as much as it was that I didn’t have help that was on my terms. Once I went through the painful process of learning to accept “imperfect” help, even when it meant dishwasher chaos, it opened doors for me to receive so much support that my perfectionism had prevented me from receiving before.
- Remember that getting help isn’t an all-or-nothing thing: This might not be an option for everyone (as it hasn’t been for us for plenty of periods), but during rough patches it’s worth seeing if a small amount of temporary help might be able to be squeezed into the budget. For example, a couple years ago I was lamenting that I had my hands really full yet couldn’t afford help. My husband pointed out that, while it was true that a full-time nanny wasn’t in the budget, we could set aside a certain amount of money to use to hire someone to come in a few hours a week for a couple of months, just to help me get through this rough phase. We ended up finding a nice lady to come over for part of the morning two days a week for a few weeks, and it was a tremendous help.
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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