"How do you manage with 4 very young kids without a helper and yet the house remains neat and tidy?"
I've been asked this question way too often so it's probably high time to write a post about it. It's not so easy to give an answer because it truly is the result of a rather complex combination of systems and strategies.
Of course, I have had my fair share of disastrous days and moments of stress so great that I broke down in tears. I have my own unique struggles such as not being able to eat a proper meal while the kids are awake. However, it is a definitely not a given to live in a messy and chaotic place or not being on time for appointments just because we have children.
There are a few things I had done since day one which are harder to implement for those whose kids are beyond the baby years. These are topics which deserve their own blog posts.
1) Sleep train the children from birth. [Mine all sleep by themselves from 8.30pm to 8am thereabout] (Click HERE for a post about this topic)
2) Teach the children to be responsible for keeping their own belongings and toys after use.
3) Help the kids learn to play by themselves. (Click HERE for a post about this topic)
4) Encourage independence in each child and nurture a spirit of helping one another do things. (My older two are fabulous at taking care of the younger two.)
However, there are some things which can be implemented right away.
Depend on God
God always answers our cries for help. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I will mutter breath prayers on the go. I even ask my children to pray with or for me. I recite verses to encourage myself. There are even times when I lock myself up in the bedroom/toilet to re-centre my mind and emotions on God and His empowering grace before coming out again to face the challenges anew. I also ask my CG sisters to pray for me when I feel myself going under.
Work out a schedule
Children thrive on routines. They feel confident when they know what is supposed to happen all the time. Of course, we need to keep in mind that unforeseen circumstances will always crop up. What works for me is to focus on the sequence of events rather than the timing of the events themselves. For example, the children know that right after breakfast, the older brother has to do his homework while the younger three have to go to their room to play by themselves while I finish up the chores and cooking. When I'm done, I'll go to the room to end playtime and start the preparations for school. Depending on how long breakfast took and the number of tantrums I needed to handle, the playtime can range from 1 to 2.5 hours. No matter what, they know that the moment I enter the room to pick the little brother up to feed him milk, it's time to keep their toys and change into their uniforms.
Streamline the chores
It makes sense to ensure frequently repeated chores take up as little time as possible or else they will become really tedious.
I plan meals which are nutritious and easy to cook. I come up with my own recipes and create shortcuts in the cooking process so that I can finish meal preparation in 30 to 45 mins. The food may not be the most delicious, but they still taste decent enough. I don't have to be a gourmet chef in order to feel good about myself even though given enough time, I definitely can cook better meals. I decide that 60% is a good enough standard.
Doing laundry (and hanging them up indoors to dry) everyday no matter rain or shine helps to keep the load manageable. I have a laundry schedule:
Mon & Fri - adult load
Tue, Thur & Sat - children load
Wed - special load (bedsheets/towels/floor mats depending on which week of the month it is)
Sun - Sabbath (no chores)
It also helps to hang up the clothes according to where they'll be kept. I will place all the clothes belonging to the same person in the same section and bring them down together for folding.
Declutter the house
Only keep things that are absolutely necessary. For example, everybody in my family only needs 5 sets of home clothes according to my laundry schedule. Other than a few spares, whatever not needed immediately are given away. Resist the urge to horde because God will provide when the need arises. It is also not important to have duplicate toys as the children can be taught to share and take turns. I just make sure that there is one representative of each type of wholesome toy e.g. a bag of building blocks, a box of train tracks, one set of plastic fruits/vegetables, one beach ball etc. In fact, the children's imagination is the best "toy" they ever truly need.
Next, make sure everything has its own place. Put things back where they belong after use. It reduces a lot of time wastage in looking for missing items. Keep as few things out in the open as possible. This is to reduce the need for dusting and cleaning surfaces will become so much easier. Try not to have things lying around, taking up floor space. Hang things up or keep them out of sight so that sweeping or mopping the floor everyday will be a breeze.
Contain the mess
Only allow eating or drinking (other than plain water) at the dining table during mealtimes. At playtime, the toys are to be kept within the playroom. All seat work are to be done at the study area. Reading should be mostly done in the living room area where the book shelves are. This way, there is less mess to clean up.
Another way to keep mess within control is to store potentially messy items out of the reach of the younger children. Items such as markers, paint, play dough, glue, scissors, small lego pieces, card games and puzzles should be placed in hard-to-reach places. When the older ones want to access them, they have to ask me for permission and I will usually tell them to use them at the dining table where I can supervise while I work and the baby can't get his hands on the stuff.
Keep short accounts
Procrastination is the greatest enemy to staying on top of things. Make sure all the chores for the day are done within the day. Try not to put anything off to the next day. Once you start accumulating chores, it becomes increasingly harder to get out of the rut.
Dedicate personal time with each child
The children will be less needy once they know that they can have Mummy all to themselves at a certain time of the day. If one-to-one attention is not possible, make sure that there is an activity which speaks the love language of the child. For example, tummy tickling, drawing together, napping together (till the kid falls asleep), reading, etc.
Decide what you can let go of when you are in a pinch
When I fall very ill or when the kids need emergency attention, the thing I give up readily is cooking especially since I live near coffee shops and food courts. I can always pack food back. I also buy disposable eating utensils to eliminate washing dishes on such occasions. For some, this may not be possible due to dietary restrictions of the kids or health issues. If money is not a problem, employing part-time cleaners, getting babysitters, catering home-delivered meals or making use of laundry services during the stressful periods can bring much relief for the short term. Try as much as possible to establish a network of relatives, friends, neighbours or church-mates where you can find someone to help out on short notice for emergencies.
Factor in buffer time
The more kids you have, the longer it takes to get everyone ready. We have to take into account tantrums/meltdowns over unexpected issues. We will know our kids well enough to remove as many tantrum triggers as possible and we should more or less know how long it takes for them to do certain tasks. I make sure I give my kids half an hour lead time to get ready before we need to catch the school bus. All their bags are packed beforehand so there won't be a last minute scramble for things. Each child has their own checklist before stepping out of the house. I may give reminders but ultimately, they are responsible for their own things. If they forget anything, too bad for them. They'll just have to do without the items and/or face the music themselves.
Telling jokes or making something into a competition/playacting can make things easier during crunch time. I like to pretend to be a military officer shouting out orders in an accent when we are running late so as to create a sense of urgency in a fun way. Sometimes, I pretend that there is an impending national disaster that will happen if we don't make it on time. This works way better than pure nagging or scolding the children for being slow.
At the end of the day, I find that I'm able to enjoy the children a lot more when the home operations are running smoothly, like well-oiled machinery. The time I devote to simply hang out with them during the lazy afternoons becomes relaxing and guilt-free, knowing that all the chores and cooking for the day have been done.