“I can barely handle my [one/two/three] kids, how do you handle five?”
I hear this all the time. I always wish I had a good answer. Setting aside the kids’ ages, personalities, the fact that my in-laws live in town and are usually willing to lend a hand, and things like that, I’ll do my best to explain my strategy.
This is all coming from my introverted, goal-oriented, used-to-be-perfectionist, anxiety prone, perpetually overtired, stay-at-home parent perspective. I’m a little nervous about answering this here and opening myself up to the judgement of the internet, but here goes:
*note: there is an important aside at the end, which might actually be the real answer.
In short, it’s a matter of priorities and letting go.
Every day you have a list of tasks you want to accomplish. Those tasks can be broken down into
- Things you NEED to do
- Things you WANT to do
- Things you are SHOULD to do
I suppose there are also things you shouldn’t do, don’t want to do, or can’t do, but that’s a totally different topic.
Things you NEED to do: These are the absolutely non-optional tasks. For me, the main one is get the kids through the day intact. For my husband, it’s going to work.
Things you WANT to do: Tea/chocolate/yarn. Play with the kids. Nap. Get out of the house.
Things you SHOULD do: For me, pretty much everything social falls into this category. It also includes a lot of household/parenting tasks like washing the dishes promptly, putting away laundry, cleaning toys off the floor, etc. And things which really aren’t necessary, but social pressure makes you feel like you should do, like bathing the kids daily, preparing a nice dinner, etc.
Some days are survival mode days: The kids are sick, or I didn’t sleep much the previous night, or my husband is working very long hours and I can’t expect help with the kids anytime soon. On those days I strive to just do the things I really NEED to do. The SHOULD list just has to wait for another day and doing anything I WANT has to wait until the NEEDs are done. If I get to bedtime and the kids are intact and their basic needs were met, the day was a success.
Some days are catch-up days: The kids are behaving well, they are playing together nicely, they are at school, they nap, I have help with them, etc. On those days I try to get through the backlog of tasks. I put away some laundry, deal with the messes which have piled up, get all the kids through the tub, clean the garage, etc. The day end with a bunch of things checked off the to-do list and the day is unequivocally a success.
Most days fall somewhere in between. I make sure the NEED category is taken care of. I do a few of the WANT things to keep me and the kids happy. And I try to get through some of the SHOULD tasks. Some days I do better than others. This is where the “letting go” part comes in. If it wasn’t really a NEED, and it didn’t get done, I can’t let myself sweat it.
I have also had to learn to let go of all of the social parenting pressure “you should”s. I don’t bathe the kids daily. Unless they stink, once or twice a week is fine at their ages. I am always willing to answer the kids’ questions, especially the tough ones, but I don’t provide constant enrichment. They play by themselves, they play together, they get some screen time. A life-long artist, I have given up on paint, glue, and play-doh in the house and we are currently taking a break from crayons and markers (after they drew on the walls for probably the 100th time.) As far as rules go, we don’t have many, but they are consistently enforced. The kids are expected to be respectful, polite, kind, and helpful, especially in public. We don’t really do play-dates. I can’t easily take on watching another kid, especially inside the house. The neighbors will come over and play outside sometimes, or we might see a friend at the playground, but that’s really it. I don’t make a fancy, balanced dinner every night. Sometimes we just do cereal, milk, and fruit, or PB&J, or yogurt. They’ll survive.
And, yes, some tasks kind of fall between categories. Doctor’s appointments are absolutely something which needs to get done, except in the case of an emergency like a blizzard. Eventually, the dishes do need to get washed, the laundry does need to get put away, and I need to go grocery shopping. But, it might not need to happen today.
There are always choices: I might be just starting to wash the dishes which have been piling up for days, when Little A asks me to play a board game with him. I usually put down the dishes to play the game. The dishes can wait (although my husband strongly disagrees with me about how long they can wait. I am not an enthusiastic housekeeper.)
*And, yes, I have times when the kids are all fighting, all crying, when they refuse to go to sleep, when they all need me at once, when I don’t have an extra set of hands to help me and I just want to lock myself into the bathroom and cry. But, I don’t. I take a deep breath and deal with each problem, one at a time. And I get through it. And then I might cry. But not until afterwards.
But, and this is very important, the stranger, or friend who asks “how do you handle five?” doesn’t usually see those times. They see the pack of kids which I have worked, hard, behind the scenes, to make presentable. And they see that those kids are loved. So very, very loved.