We’re already late arriving at the childminder, which means I am dropping two bickering kids off with my phone wedged under my chin, listening to a conference call on mute as I kiss them goodbye. I’m not completely convinced my daughter brushed her hair when she was instructed to, and my son appears to have had an eighties moment when selecting his clothes - choosing to accessorise his outfit with neon sweatbands and a waistcoat. I smile apologetically and focus on the bigger stuff. Neon is still cool, right - and they are definitely both wearing shoes, even if their socks don’t match.
Every working parent has mornings like this one, give or take a bit of eccentric dressing, and there are some threads we cling on to, in an attempt to preserve our sanity and dignity. If you are new to this gig, or just looking wistfully into the future towards a time when you, too, might get to hustle your children out the door every morning, here are some of our secrets.
Routine and structure
Routine and structure should be the mantra of every parent. Even if - pre kids - you were a go-with-the-flow, organic type, who felt constricted by knowing what was for dinner tonight; routine may just save your sanity as a parent.
It can be hard if you’re working shifts or changing your hours regularly, but trying to have a relaxing bedtime routine for the evenings, a ’morning’ routine including dressing, washing, breakfast and collecting all you need for the day, and a ’goodbye’ routine for the point of drop off, can help you and your kids get into an efficient groove. Picking set times for bed, setting an alarm at the same time every morning, and starting to get organised towards the door at a regular time are simple mechanisms to make things go smoothly. Help your kids to read the clock and manage their own time once they are old enough to do so.
Having routines which are agreed and understood can help speed the morning routine - such as a ’usual’ breakfast (not necessarily literally the same very morning, but limiting the selection makes choices quicker!). This has the added bonus of making the weekends and holidays seem extra special, as routine can go out of the window. Also have agreed ’usual’ limits on screen time so you don’t get into a position of needing to renegotiate this every morning with your offspring. This way mornings are far less likely to start with a row about who has played on their ipad for longer!
Each family organises differently. You might have family meetings on a regular basis to carve out chores and talk about the plans for the week. There might be a regular ’pick up night’, when everyone is required to spend a certain amount of time on chores such as tidying their bedroom. You might go to bed every night safe in the knowledge that the kids’ lunches and clothes for tomorrow are laid out, or have a chores rota or star charts to encourage everyone to help with the jobs.
For older kids especially, having planned homework time can help everything get done without complaint - for younger kids use a kitchen timer to set ten minutes for reading, or to complete homework tasks in short bursts.
One of the most powerful ways to organise is to menu plan. Having a plan of what you will cook each night is a discipline which means you shop more efficiently, waste less, make healthier choices and avoid the temptation to call for a pizza. There are great planning tools available on the internet, such as apps to help you plan and shop efficiently, saving time and stress for yourself and your family.
Ask for help
One of the biggest stressors as a working parent is the feeling that you’re the only one pulling your weight. Not only is this destructive to you, it’s also unhealthy for the family as a whole - call in help from the kids and your partner or family, work with other parents to carpool or share babysitters, use some of the tools and ideas available on the internet to lighten the load - just don’t suffer in silence.
Protect family time
Setting aside the practical challenges of organising the household as a working parent, the next biggest cause of stress is the feeling that your quality time as a family is limited. Counter this by having family routines and rituals - have a Wednesday night pancake night or a movie night on a Saturday - these are the quality, fun things the kids will recall when they’re old enough to have their own families.
When you can, set aside time which is special for the kids, make sure you switch off properly in holidays and on weekends, and help the children understand when you are ’theirs’ and when you have other things to do.
Through all this, remember why you work, and if things are stretched at home, keep some focus on the good things about working for you personally - whether that’s the money, the longer term career prospects, or the interaction you get with other people through your job.
Be kind to yourself
The final - and possibly most important - learning of most working parents is to be kind to yourself. Have down time, don’t over schedule for yourself or your children. Don’t set your expectations unrealistically high - trying to be a super-parent is counterproductive, and nobody really cares if you have dusty skirting boards. Don’t imagine you’re alone. Talk to other working parents, and they will most likely have their own days when the homework is forgotten, or the alarm doesn’t ring, or the children choose to attend school in a Disney princess dress and wellies. Remember parenting is supposed to be fun and suddenly enough it will be over!
There will be days when whatever you do will seem like you’ve got the balance wrong, and days when you finally feel you’ve cracked it. Remember what’s important, develop your own routine, roll with the punches, and smile at the children’s charmingly inappropriate dress sense, and you should be able to keep the most common working parents’ stresses at bay.