Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keeping it together

Emily and I can write all we want about organization and trying to run a household, but between the two of us, we still don't have as many children as either of my sisters. At this back-to-school, re-dedication time of year, I asked my sister, Liz, to offer up some practical advice on how to stay organized when you've got a full plate. I have a lot to say on why my sister is so great (see here, for example). These days that I am steeped in stay-at-home-motherhood, the quality I love in her most is her ability to keep it real.

I am a mother of five children and, even in my Salt Lake City neighborhood, mine qualifies as a big family. Each of my children is bright and beautiful, but can we just be honest, here? It is incredibly stressful. And our recent transition into the new school year has been much harder than I anticipated. For example (and by way of introduction):

My oldest son (who will be 12 next month and is super smart) is finding sixth grade challenging to the point of tears (only please don’t tell him I said so), I think because of the different teaching style of his first male teacher, and also because my son tends to be a “dreamer,” which just isn’t going to work for him going forward.

My nine-year old son’s bus was all a dither the first several days of school, resulting in a 45-minute wait to pick him up in the afternoon, as well as several extra trips all the way to school in the morning, when waiting for the bus would have made him late. Also, I totally dropped the ball(oon) the other day, when I forgot about the water balloons I’d agreed to bring for a super fun P.E. activity his teacher had planned. Hope she’ll forgive me.

I’m also winning big points with my 7-year-old son’s teacher, whose all-important homework packet (the first one for the year) is mysteriously missing. Do you think I might have a poltergeist? We’re missing some library books too.

The three-year old, and only girl, is far more tolerable when the other kids are at school, but I am exhausted because for some reason, she has woken up screaming every night lately. If anyone knows what to do about the bad dreams, I’d love a suggestion. This is a new one for us.

And our eight-month-old baby is lovely and practically perfect, but nursing him takes hours out of my schedule and for me, giving it up is not an option. Also, he spits up so much I think we may need new carpet. Ok, I just want new carpet – do you think my husband will buy the spit-up argument?

That thing people like to say about how once you have three kids, you might as well have eight because it’s all the same after that? Bogus. See above.

So what have I learned about keeping it all together? Well it’s stressful (point already made) but people, this ain’t rocket science. In fact some of you will think the following is so pedestrian, you’ll wonder why I’m bothering. Trust me – there’s someone who will find it helpful. Here’s what I have.


A calendar. Maybe you have a PDA or a fancy planner or something. I’m just going to stick with my Mary Engelbreit (she still makes me smile after all these years) wall calendar. I copied the idea from a friend a few years ago to mount mine inside a kitchen cabinet. Super accessible, but I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to. The key to successful calendar use (this is for the beginners; most of you already know this) is that `EVERYTHING has to be on it. That’s how my water balloon debacle happened – it wasn’t on the calendar. Remember Em’s “one touch” post? You put stuff on the calendar the minute it comes up, or you’ll forget. The other critical point for calendar use is that you remember to check it several times a day. This is why a wall calendar works best for me. It’s big and hard to miss.


A to-do notebook. I finally figured this out after years of losing my to-do list. A notebook allows me to make multiple lists at once (“ to clean”, “things to buy”, “what I’d do if I had a million dollars,” etc.), tear them out when I’m finished with them, and is a lot harder to lose than a little tiny post-it or back of an envelope. Also, it’s small enough to carry with me. Incidentally, I don’t keep my grocery list in my notebook. I like one of those magnetic notepads on the fridge where it’s easy to jot things down the moment I realize we’re out (one touch again). My children think it’s funny to add things like Swedish fish and Cookie Crisp to the list. Fat chance, boys.


A “current” file. Mine is a basket with manila file folders, but you could also use a binder with dividers. Start with a folder for each child – this is where I store things like the teacher’s orientation sheet and schedules for various activities (scheduled items are on the calendar, but I keep the schedule too, just in case). Add a file any time papers are starting to pile up and you have no place to put them. I have folders for coupons, the current home improvement project (paint chips, business cards, estimates, etc.), and a few other things, but you’ll figure out what categories you need. Purge constantly so that only items that are important right now are here. Other paperwork should be filed elsewhere. This is where my third child’s missing homework packet should have been.

A way to keep track of kids’ responsibilities. There are 100 ways to do this, and I’m sure many of you have good ideas in this area. We have tried job jars (Pick out a random job each day! Exciting!), a calendar for each child with detailed to-do lists and a sticker reward each day the list is done, a wall chart similar to the calendar, and (big hit this summer) a big whiteboard. What was great about our whiteboard is I could list the day’s schedule in one corner, a list of required jobs in another corner, and have room in the middle for various lists, announcements, important information, etc. My kids really enjoyed checking off the jobs they’d done with a whiteboard marker. What wasn’t great about the whiteboard was how ugly it was. I may invest in a blackboard, which wouldn’t be quite as functional, but would look so much better in my kitchen.

Remember that it’s always ok to try a different method. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the old way failed – sometimes it’s just fun to try something new. I let my three school-aged boys pick their poison for the new year, and two are back to their calendars with individualized daily lists. For the other boy, a mini whiteboard has been working really well – I make him a to-do list on it each morning and afternoon, and he carries it around with him, checking things off as he goes. (He’s the one who gets distracted midway through getting dressed and ends up with one sock on in his underwear reading a comic book when we should be leaving for school.)


A way to keep track of housekeeping? This is where I’m stuck every time. I’ve tried ten different ways to organize the housework (not to mention cooking and shopping) required to run this show (ever heard of flylady?) but ultimately, I don’t have that much self-discipline in this area. I can say that I’m going to vacuum the house each Monday, but if I don’t feel like it, no arbitrary schedule is going to make me do it. I’ll tell you a couple of things. When you have this many kids, if you don’t keep up with laundry and dishes, life gets pretty depressing pretty fast. I always start with those. Then, when I have time and motivation for cleaning, I often use the “what’s bothering me the most right now?” method of deciding what to do. I often feel like I’m right on the verge of having the clutter and cleaning under control, but I’m never quite where I’d like to be, and maybe that’s just normal.

I heard a mother of a huge family (like ten kids or so, which is mind-blowing to me right now) say once that large families had to either be very structured or very unstructured. For me, the unstructured way would come more naturally. I love just deciding on the spur how we’ll spend our day. But, I’ve reached the point with school-aged kids and busy schedules where at least the above-described level of structure is necessary to survival. How much structure you need to cope with your life is your choice, and you should feel good about doing whatever works for you.

There was a day this week when I told my husband, “If this was a job, I would quit.” And I meant it. Not just because of how busy and exhausted I often feel, or because of how hard it is to keep it all organized, but because it is emotionally draining. This post was about order. It didn’t even scratch the surface on the harder, more complicated parts of parenting. But. No job is fun every day. (Heck, even Gwyneth Paltrow has to deal with those pesky paparazzi.) My life is busy and hectic and draining and hard, and on balance, hilarious and a whole lot of fun. And besides, I get to look at these faces every day:

(more of Liz here)

*Vintage Illustrations Giveaway open 'til this evening; scroll down to enter!


Amanda said...

Great, great post!!

I have a giveaway going on over at my blog for a Couponizer that you and readers might be interested in :)

Sarah R. said...

Liz, is cleaning part of the chore list for your children? I've been fantasizing about the day when my little house elves do it all for me! Please don't burst my bubble ... you're really eating bonbons and watching Oprah all day... right?!

Rachael said...

love the idea of the file--I'll have to start that. My three are all still quite young, but I've already realized that we need even more organizational tools to keep our sanity!

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I think I'm still a few years from the house elves and bonbons. I make my kids do a little more cleaning in the summer, but the nagging and supervising takes longer than doing it myself. During the school year, homework, afterschool stuff, and piano practicing take precedence, so they mostly just put away their own laundry, clear the table, etc. They have a couple of real cleaning jobs on Saturday morning (emptying garbages, cleaning toilets) which they'd like you to think is SO HARD!

Joan said...

I totally agree with the "what is bothering me the most" method of cleaning. It is SO how I operate.
Thanks for the honesty, Liz.

jeanine said...

I loved this post... it was so REAL. Most of it I do already but I learned a few things as well! Thanks!

And as for the bad dreams... my two older boys (4 and 2) both go through times with bad dreams. It lasts a week or so and then ends for a while. The easiest thing to do is wake them up so that the bad dream is over... not very good advice but that's all I've been able to come up with myself :)

Bloom said...

I relate to many of the things you mention, Liz (on a smaller scale, though, since I only have 2 :) Thanks for taking the time to share all of this. And thanks for being so genuine and candid about it all.

I am too stubborn (lazy?) to stick to a "vacuum on Monday, dust on Tuesday..." kind of cleaning schedule. I try to stay on top of tidiness from day to day and I'm a little bit of compulsive vacuumer (for some reason having that done just makes me feel better about life), but the rest of it just gets done when I get "the bug."

I like the "one touch" suggestions you gave - I'm going to have to do more of those kinds of things. And I had a good chuckle about your boys adding Swedish Fish and Cookie Crisp to the grocery list - funny.

- Em

Sally said...

I like the idea of having your calander inside a cupboard door. Mine isn't as pretty as yours so I stash it away out of sight but then I always forget to look at it. Great post. Your children are beautiful!

Katrina said...

So real and great tips! We've adopted Google Calendar as our way to keep organized. For us it was necessary since it allows me, my husband, or my step-kids mom to all add to it.

Vicky said...

This was more motivational than any other "tips to get organized" article I've read in a long time. It seems so doable. Thanks for sharing.

Heather said...

Wow thanks for saying the if this were a job you would quit bit. I have been feeling like that a lot lately and feeling like a failure for feeling that way. Its nice to know I am normal!