Outnumbered and Desperate to Survive
When I became a single parent for the third time in August 2013, I had 4 children 5 and under. They were 3 months, 22 months, 3 yrs and 5 years (plus my oldest at 9!) I was nursing round the clock, had 2 in diapers, plus one new-trained, and my 5 year old was barely able to communicate (special needs). It was a crazy crazy time, and I needed to develop some tricks in order to occupy my kids so that I could manage to get even the most basic things done. Short on sleep, short on time, constantly interrupted and rarely without someone small beside me, I learned quickly how to do things one-handed, how to tell when someone was about to do something they shouldn’t, and how to watch multiple things at the same time.
Ask me how I know
Trying to accomplish anything with small children around, whether it’s just one ball of energy or a crew of mayhem-makers, is challenging. One little munchkin all by himself can pull out every sock from your sock drawer, unroll the toilet paper, take off his diaper and run naked through the house eating the goldfish he mysteriously teleported from the top shelf of the cupboard (while leaving a trail of crumbs).. in 5 minutes flat. Ask me how I know. Multiplied a few times over, and well.. there’s a reason I may or may not be losing my hair.
Tried and True Tips and Tricks
Mothers for generations have been using tried and true sanity savers to manage a home, get things accomplished, and still keep those little active darlings safe, healthy, fed and clean. Here’s a few of my favorites:
1. Busy Bags
AKA activity bags, or quiet boxes, busy bags are the secret weapon of the mother who needs to occupy her small child for at least 5 minutes, quietly and in one spot – and she doesn’t want to use the TV as a babysitter (or the television won’t hold her busy todder’s attention that long!! Ask me how I know.. lol!)
Pinterest and google will give you tons of ideas, for different age levels from barely walking to preschool age (or even kindergarten). You can even purchase prepacked bags or boxes, if you don’t want to get the kits together yourself.
They all have the same purpose — and the same trick to using them. The key is to use them rarely! It’s the novelty of the game or activity that will keep your child’s attention, so I had several I rotated. A busy bag is an activity that doesn’t require your child to move (so you can strap them in a high chair or booster). It keeps them quiet, occupied, and even perhaps will teach them something. It’s simple but entertaining. It’s small enough that it fits into a small box, such as a shoebox, or large ziploc bag, and can be portable. And it usually won’t risk damage to child/clothes/surroundings. The child can then be left unsupervised for a few moments — or at least not have mom’s full attention.
Some ideas for your busy bag
My favorites for the toddler age (12 mo to age 2) were: magnet letters on a cookie sheet (or magnet board), peek-a-boo blocks, and board puzzles.
For the explorer age (2 to 3 yrs): felt pizza/cupcake/pancakes/sandwiches (a la Melissa and Doug, only home made), pipe cleaners and a plastic strainer, tweezers and pom poms and small cups, clothespin-matching games, and flash card puzzles.
For the preschool age (3 to 4 yrs): mosaic puzzles with large plastic shapes (think tanagrams), plastic needle and yarn and laminated or cardboard lacing cards, latchboards or lock boards (a la Melissa and Doug), wooden tool kits and parts, stickers and paper, sponge blocks, and puppets (either hand or finger).
2. Naptime/Quiet time + Morning/evening
This is still a trick I use today, even though my children are now 3, 5, 6, 8 and 12. Early mornings were out of the question when my children were little. I was usually nursing anyway, but I valued my sleep more than my productivity. Evenings were usually my downtime and de-stress time. Though now, I’m much more proactive (I’m writing this post after my children are in bed). But naptime was enforced and golden. Even today, I insist on an hour’s downtime for all of my children. That way I can have a few moments to myself – to work, to clean up, to sit down and concentrate on something. My 5 and under crew are still required to nap for 2 hours.
How do I get my children to sleep? It’s not always easy. My first two girls hated sleeping, and I thought they’d never actually sleep for longer than cat naps. But repetitiously putting them back to bed, even over the full two hours, helped. Every once in a while, I need to reinforce this, but after the first initial training, it doesn’t take long to maintain the boundaries. I don’t advocate cry-it-out (so no nasty emails), but it does take consistent, repeated work to get the message across. Consistency is key.
3. Mobility/reminder apps
Technology is awesome to help you take advantage of every opportunity. If I needed to make a lot of phone calls, I would often use my cell phone while outside in our yard, or at a playground. I shopped online while pulled in a parking lot or my driveway, while the kids were still strapped in their carseats. I would plug in reminders on a memo or list app while nursing. And I could use videos or games on a tablet if I needed to occupy a child for a few moments so I could bathe a baby or change a diaper.
My favorite time management apps include Wunderlist, OneNote (similar to Evernote), and Google Calendar. For my children, I like Starfall.com (free preschool educational games and activities), YouTube (preselected playlist), audiobooks (free audio books), and my Kindle (children’s story e-books). Again, it’s a rarely used privilege for my kids. I use a “kid zone” parental control app so that my girls can use my phone or tablet without accidentally dialing 911 or China.
4. House setup for success
Seriously, this is a huge deal. If you want to get things done while you have small children around, you need to set up the environment for success. For me, this means that I have banned all toys (except stuffies) from my girls’ bedrooms. Instead, they have a separate playroom — with a door. It’s always been that way for me, and it has been an enormous help for my ability to accomplish anything.
The room is set up to be child proof as much as possible, and with room to store their toys while still being able to play with them. I’ve used various forms of storage and display, toy rotation and purging, but the key is that it’s a room with a door. The door is important. Because — when you don’t want to see the mess, deal with the mess, have unexpected company — you can close the door on the mess. You can even shoo the kids in with the mess and close the door, and enjoy your company (or wine?) in peace.
It can extend to other areas. Maybe you have a separate storage area for books in the living room. They can only brought out when you need Junior to be quiet long enough for you to make a phone call. It can mean putting the plastic bowls and spoons on the bottom cupboard, and the baking supplies up higher. When little Mary pulls out the cupboard contents, she won’t break anything. It may mean putting snacks and filled sippy cups on the bottom shelf of the fridge within reach. Then your kids won’t knock over the milk every morning getting food before you’ve managed to get out of bed.
Having a small child around makes everything that much more challenging. It doesn’t matter if you’re a working mom, a stay at home mom, or a WAHM. Even the best trick in the book isn’t a guarantee that your little one isn’t going to cause havoc the minute your eyes aren’t on him — or even if they are! Raising royalty isn’t easy, but it’s oh so worth it.