12 Survival Hacks That Saved Me as a Working Parent
After 20 years of raising children while working full-time, here’s what I’ve got
Parenting young children while entrepreneuring took everything I had, and then some. All my energy, love, creativity, intelligence, forgiveness, and friendship. Through trial and error and error, I managed to figure out a few things along the way, usually with the benefit of both sweat and tears. So here are some of my favorite hacks that have helped me to create some space to catch a breath or two along the way.
Return to work after maternity/paternity leave on a Wednesday.
I didn’t make this one up, but I loved returning to work after both my maternity leaves midweek. It gave me one day to get reacquainted, then just one day of work, then suddenly it was Friday! First week down, just a lifetime to go…
Up through kindergarten, skip the PJs and put your child in their next day’s clothes the night before.
I figured this one out “all my my self” (as my daughter Yumi used to say) when I was dressing my toddlers in soft pants and a comfortable shirt for a red eye flight. That’s when it hit me: Why am I changing them into PJs at night and back into ANOTHER set of “daytime PJs” in the morning, risking time, tantrums, and sanity? I started dressing them for daycare the night before, and the mornings became much easier. When my three-year old asked me what pajamas were because they were going to have a pajama party at preschool, I told him the truth: Pajamas are for children whose parents have too much time on their hands and love laundry so much that they want to double their load.
When your kids share a bed in a hotel room, get them each their own comforter.
Call down to reception and ask for another of the SAME comforter that is on the bed right now (they will want to send an additional different blanket, which will just cause more fighting, so make sure you make your request clear at the get go). It’s easier to share a bed when you don’t have to share a blanket. (Can work well for adults too…).
Parent by personality type.
My favorite parenting book is Nurture by Nature. Have an introvert? Make sure they have time to decompress when you have a houseful of family staying with you over the holidays. Have an extravert? Singing instructions can change everything. For months I fought with my toddler to get her into my car so that I could drop my kids off at day care and get to work on time. She clawed, screamed, pushed, flopped, basically did everything in her pig-tailed power to make buckling up in her car seat the ultimate contact sport. I explained. I coaxed. I cajoled. I gave points. I took away privileges. I used time out. Nothing, nothing, nothing worked. Then I read Nurture by Nature, which has some great specific tips for each child type. I felt like an idiot, but one morning, I sang, “Come with Mommy to the car! Let’s get in the car! We’re getting in the car!” to no tune in particular. She laughed, delighted, and Got. In. The. Car. Day after day, with no more fits. No more guilt, being late, starting my day feeling like a failing mess. Run, don’t walk to this book if you don’t have it yet.
If you are planning for a pet, work backwards from junior year of college.
Our dog was a godsend during the surly teenage years, helping to remind us that our son maintained some degree of empathy for other mammals in our house. Eli just left for his second year of college telling our black lab, “Sonic, I love you so, so, so, so, so, so much!” And to me, “Bye Mom!” In my head, I have my own verison of the famous Far Side cartoon where the dog hears “Blah blah blah blah SONIC blah blah blah.” Instead, I substitute “Mom” for my dog’s name, and it makes me all teary with emotion.
Flash photography can get you out of a rainy game day.
If it’s a downpour and the coaches still won’t call off the toddler fake soccer game, no problem — I got you! Just make your flash camera go off without calling attention to yourself. Do NOT hold your phone up — point your phone with flash outwards at some nearby structure like a garbage can or car, then nonchalantly press the shutter. Then ask the nearest parent, “Hey, did you see that flash of light? Do you think it was lightening?” Rain = keep playing, Lightening = cancel. Works like a charm.
Set the foundation early for the behavior you want to see later.
It was hard for me to put away my phone while cooking dinner, or when our kids were having a casual juice box lunch. But my husband convinced me that it wasn’t about the harm that checking email was doing in that moment, it was about the harm it would do later if we couldn’t enforce a “no phones at dinner” rule because we hadn’t been role modeling that all along. Honestly I hate leaving my phone plugged in downstairs instead of taking it with me so I can search VRBOs in sunny places until my eyeballs fall out. But it’s the family rule.
Finding balance is about defining the right unit of time.
On any given hour, or on any given day, I don’t achieve work-life balance. Some days are swallowed by work, and some days (fewer) are swallowed by home. I was finally able to give myself some grace by looking at my life in three month chunks. Yesterday was a mess and last month sucked, but in both Q1 and Q2, I am proud of the balance I was able to strike.
Enjoy the sick days.
I wish I could go back to relish in the snuggles of a lethargic, feverish child. At the time, the calls from daycare expelling our toddler (for the day, but still…) felt like the sky was falling. In heavy, brick pieces, on my head. I remember feeling like I had NO ROOM FOR ERROR, everything had to go like clockwork for me to survive. But I was wrong. If you are a privileged salaried employee, and can actually take a sick day for your child, enjoy it without apology. And while we’re at it, let’s work to make sure every parent can take a paid sick day to care for a sick child.
For toddlers: magnetized toys + cookie sheets = hours of fun.
Do it. Adding a cookie sheet changes everything.
To minimize a negative behavior, notice and praise the opposite behavior.
This one is tricky, but it’s clinically proven by Yale child psychologist Adam Kazdin. As I’ve practiced his work, as a parent it’s not about giving a blanket “you’re awesome!” kind of praise. It’s about finding moments when your child is winning the battle against the negative behavior, and “seeing” them in that moment. For example, if you are trying to work on minimizing tantrums, you might praise your child for having a shorter tantrum than they did the day before. For someone who is as sarcastic as I am, it can sometimes be tricky to be earnest, “I’m so proud of you for throwing only ONE book this time when you were upset.” But it works — and it also has the huge benefit of helping you see all the times your child IS trying. This is a strategy for helping us as parents recognize the trying, which is really what we want, isn’t it?
Find a shame buddy.
This can be your spouse if you have one, but it doesn’t have to be. Parenting is hard, and when we inevitably screw up, it’s nice to find someone who can serve as a break to your shame spiral. One time when I forgot to pick up my children at school (because Seattle public schools used to close early the first Wednesday of every month — super convenient and easy to remember!), I called my husband drowning in shame. “I’m the worst mother in the world. The kids were so upset. I suck suck suck suck suck SUCK. I should be shot, or drawn and quartered, if they still do that anymore. I’m never going to do this again!” Without missing a beat, he replied: “Well, I’ve seen worse parents — remember the mom who mixed her baby’s formula with Coke? And by the way, you’re TOTALLY going to do this again. They were safe. They won’t remember.” He was right on all counts. And now I’m advice-ing his energy forward to you.
Got more hacks? Drop them into the comments below. YOU GOT THIS.