When does the parent-work get done?

We have another reader question! This concerns that category of task known as “mom work” or “dad work.” It is, broadly, household management, but with a specific parental twist: making doctor and dentist appointments; buying new pants for a rapidly-growing kid in the correct size (and getting rid of the old ones in some responsible fashion); signing permission slips; buying and sending in stuff for a school party; getting kid thank you notes out the door, etc.

Our reader wants to know: when does this stuff happen? When should it happen? By way of background, she has a traditional in-the-office job that’s got flexibility, but is generally 9 to 5 (or 6 or…) She recently leaned back in after some time off, so this is a balancing act. She wants to keep family life humming along now that she has somewhat less availability, but she also doesn’t want to undermine her new situation at work, either.

The mental load involved in these organizational aspects of life can feel overwhelming at times. Some of it has to be done during business hours, and some of it is much easier to do without the kids. That means it’s tempting to do it when you have childcare (e.g. stopping by Office Max on the way to work). That can work, except if you have a passel of children, work hours already wind up getting interrupted for more urgent parenting tasks (e.g. covering a nanny sick day or picking up a sick child at daycare). Using them for optional ones means you risk falling behind and having to work at night and on weekends just to keep somewhat caught up.

There are different ways of approaching this question. Before getting to the question of “when,” such work needs to be examined in light of some other questions:

1. Does it have to happen? There are all kinds of parental work that are nice to do but aren’t truly required, or that don’t have to happen while you’re scaling up at work or have kids in the baby stage. Closets can stay messy. Kids can keep outgrown toys around for a long time.

2. Does it have to be done by me? If you have a partner, tasks can be split. Just be prepared for your partner not to care as much about a particular task as you do. The birthday party food may not be Pinterest-worthy, if you get my drift. If you have a nanny or regular babysitters, they can perhaps handle some of this work, like addressing thank you cards or buying school supplies, buying and wrapping friend birthday presents, etc. Kids can bring lunch money or pack their own lunches if they’re old enough.

3. Can it take less time? You can sometimes book doctor and dentist appointments while you’re there for the last one, which is probably quicker than calling and waiting on hold. Many things can be ordered online these days. I love Amazon Prime for the all-you-can-buy 2-day shipping. Buying online means you can do some of this while waiting for a conference call to start. Not billing an hour at a lawyer’s rate because you’re hunting around in stores for a slightly better price on laundry detergent is not necessarily a good deal.

Once you’ve put the parent-work through that 3-question rubric, we come to the question of when it should be done. I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this. My answer for my life likely looks different than it would if I had a traditional job.   

As much as possible, I try not to do time consuming mom-work during work-work time. I send out birthday invites on weekends. I go shopping for kid clothes at night (if I haven’t bought them online). I make lunches when the kids are awake and in my care in the morning, and generally not after they’ve gone to bed. Because I work from home, it is always possible to do home and kid-related tasks, so if I don’t set rules for myself, such stuff could expand to fill all available space. I already feel like I don’t have enough hours to work (a situation we could analyze at length in additional blog posts), so hours that can be work hours generally need to be work hours. I might assign myself one “mom work” task per day, and that keeps it under control.

However, if you’re in an office, you’re likely facing different headwinds. This reader wondered if she should take one day off a month to do household management tasks that needed to be done during business hours or were easier and more pleasant without the kids. Then she would work one weekend day to make it up (her office is nice and quiet on weekends and no one is emailing to interrupt her!). That could work, though the problem is much of the mom-work sort of trickles in. You’d have to be very diligent about planning ahead to see what will need to be done over the next month. My guess is that you’d still wind up doing some of this every few days.

So another approach for tackling stuff that needs to be done during business hours, or is ten times easier without your children, is to find an otherwise low-value slot once a week. Friday afternoon could work. Most people aren’t doing much of consequence after 3:30 p.m. anyway. You could make up the time by coming in a little earlier on Friday, or some other morning (or staying later).

I’m curious what you’d recommend.

27 thoughts on “When does the parent-work get done?

  1. Disclaimer: I have no experience working a 9-5 with kids.

    (I’ve always been self-employed and have worked from home.)

    But I was wondering….if she needs some kid-free time to get some of these mom tasks done, would it be possible to buy an extra hour of childcare one day a week or one day a week every other week? That would allow for small bits of regular time to work on this stuff rather than an entire day.

    1. @The Frugal Girl – certainly that would be a good idea for errands to places that have evening hours and are painful with children. And alternately, she could go in late one day, and have someone else cover an extra hour or two of work in the evening (since the work can be done outside business hours, but some errands/tasks can not – so she could do these from 9-10:30 or what have you, then work until 7 or something).

    2. @The Frugal Girl – also, that post on how to be more obnoxiously frugal than anyone else was the most awesome thing I have read all day 🙂

  2. When i feel it pile on, I take half a day (or even 2-3 hours) to leave work early (or go late) and take care of that stuff. It happens, on average, once every couple of months. I try to schedule it with a dr appt or a day I want to chaperone a half-day field trip at the daycare. I put it off until that scheduled date—there is little that is not put-off-able (we buy everything on-line for example). I’ve used this time to: go to post office for returns on on-line purchases, checkups (not sick visits obviously) for kids, taking outgrown stuff to charity store or posting on mom’s group and being home for someone to come get it (anything I post for free is usually claimed and picked up same day), organizing clothes/toys/books in kids’ room (so can’t be done at night). I took half of last Thursday to do all those things, and even cooked a nice dinner for the family & had an appt for myself.

    1. @Ana- I like the 2-3 hour idea. Having a limited time frame helps keep things focused rather than spreading out and consuming all available time.

    2. I mostly use lunch times for phoning/ checking things online, etc. but I have found that instead of chipping away at one or two things a week, I like to get them all done quickly so once every 3 – 4 months or so, I’ll take a day’s leave (or a half day – depending on how long my list is) and get them all done.

      I wrote about it here http://takechargesolutions.org/blog/2014/03/21/when-did-you-last-have-an-errands-day/

      Laura, to your point 1 above, I’m the type of personality (ESTJ) who would go crazy if things were out of order for too long. I think it’s important that we acknowledge the two different types of people in the world – those who (like you 🙂 I either read that here or in one of your comments on Modern Mrs Darcy) who don’t get bothered by untidy offices and the ones like me that do. I would twitch, seriously!

  3. I’m lucky to work in a job where I can work an evening shift weekly and that morning off is when I do mom things. However before that I used lunch hours to do things and would take 11:30-12:30 if I needed to call places, but I just found our new dentist who let’s me schedule online so I can do it anytime. I also do a lot of household management stuff on the weekends.

    1. @alissa – online scheduling is great if it works. I was trying to set that up with my doctor but it didn’t seem to work right. This really seems like a no-brainer for offices to invest in. It frees up people from spending all day on the phone.

      I saw a hilarious list in a new-mom book once about all the things a woman thought she’d get done in her lunch hour. It was basically every bit of household maintenance for a month. We all have our fantasies! It’s good to preserve something of a break during the day when we can.

  4. I use my lunch hour to get errands done. However, I limit this to 2-3x per week because I cherish that hour for me-time or socialization.

    My husband and I have a fairly even mental / chore load, although I think I handle much more of the planning/research in general. The even split is critical for my sanity. I really don’t know how women do it when they take on the entire mental load and I know many who do (in addition to cooking, cleaning etc..)

    I draw the line at things I consider any adult (male or female) should be able to do such as buying gifts/remembering birthdays for your own side of the family, responding to all social requests, or making your own medical/dental appointments. Every little task adds up when you have young kids!

    1. @oilandgarlic – Yes, one would hope that if you have an additional adult in the household, he/she would not be creating more work. We are each responsible for our own appointments and our own side of the family’s gifts.

  5. I try to do lunches, permission slips, etc. during breakfast time. We’re all in the same room, they are eating and i’m taking care of those thing which don’t really require a lot of brain power so I’m mostly focusing on the kids.

    Everything that can be ordered online, gets ordered online. To your point about laundry detergent deals, it’s just not worth it. I took me a while to truly value my time at what it is worth.

    As for appointments, one thing that has helped is letting my husband take some of them. It’s hard to let go :), but it has helped schedule wise. If that’s not an option, I suggest scheduling for mornings. Friday afternoon is a tough time for appointments.

    1. @H – “Let it go” is a good theme for many aspects of parent-work. Some does have to be done, but often not by us or in the way we’d do it. Agreed on the early AM slot for appointments. You can often pay a sitter to stay late and make up the time that way if necessary.

  6. I enjoyed this post and the recognition that there is quite a bit of organizing to do with kids. The last few days I have bought winter clothes for 3 kids, planned play dates, signed them up for various activities, etc. I am basically a SAHM but work occasional nights in an ER, so I just do these things whenever they pop up.

      1. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about that. I’ve never done much in the way of play dates, and have often though that maybe they are more common in smaller families, particularly those with only children.

        As it stands, there are four kids here, so there’s usually a built-in playmate. Plus there are neighbor kids who can play after school and on weekends. So I’ve never felt like I need to put a lot of effort into scheduling play dates (this is one of those areas where having multiple children seems easier than just one! I personally would find it sort of exhausting to always been drumming up playmates, so I admire moms of one who manage to make this happen all the time.)

      2. I’m finding the play date thing quite challenging, actually. My 5yo is in school 5 days a week 9-3, and bedtime is at 7. Both kids are usually tired after school/daycare so it’s hard to think about scheduling a playdate on weekday afternoons because it leaves them so wiped out afterwards (and then we still need to get through dinner/bedtime etc).

        We could do weekend ones, which most of my full-time working friends prefer, but people are so busy already, and now the birthday parties are coming in fast and furiously. I feel like I have to vigilantly protect my weekends so we have at least a TINY bit of chill out time at home.

        I’ve got 2 that play together well, but I know my 5yo would love to get together more often with her friends from places other than school, and I feel like I’m failing her by not getting these on the calendar 🙁

        1. @ARC – I think aiming for once a month or so might be good. That way it’s special, and not too huge an imposition on the rest of life. Things don’t have to happen every single day. The challenge I’ve been figuring out is the nanny vs. parent coverage of the play date. If I know someone well, then I know what their childcare situation is, and we either choose a time we’re both available so the parents can catch up as well, or agree that our sitters will cover it during work time and then let them work it out. The problem is the hybrid or if I don’t know the parent well. I am trying to protect my work hours for work as much as possible, but since I am home, I feel it wouldn’t work to disappear if a parent came over with the kid. This is all easier with older kids, since they can just be dropped off and there isn’t the same complication.

  7. Interesting question. There’s a hodge-podge of different activities here.

    1. I’m also a recent convert to amazon prime. The combo of free TV/films I like plus financial awareness of the COST of driving across town and taking time out of my schedule made this make sense. Target also (if you have a target card, there’s free shipping.) I do online shopping at night largely.

    2. Permission slips and things are so insignificant I don’t even really think about them as taking time. Kid gives me something when she gives it to me and I do it. 30 seconds here and there.

    3. Bigger things, like well-visits, inevitably take up some of my work time. I try to get them in at the beginning or end of the day so we all “lose” less of our school/work days, and they always have joint appointments. That means booking WELL in advance.

    4. My big kid makes her own lunch. The little one I take care of either when I’m putting away leftovers or in the morning while he plays for a few minutes.

    For me it’s less “parenting” than “household” things (some overlap, sure) that are a time suck. Today, for instance, I need to deal with the recycling that can’t go curbside…it’s getting cold, and I’d like to put the car back in the garage! But like Ana, I do these things in a 2 hr timeblock and generally on a Friday when I’m not needed on campus…

  8. I schedule kid well visits first thing in the morning (the MD’s office is less likely to be running behind then), and schedule the next one when we’re checking out at the end of each appointment. Amazon Mom/Prime is great, but for stuff like poster board for a school project, I end up hitting Target (where I can also get cash, groceries, etc.) after work one day a week. (This is where keeping a shopping list in an app comes in handy, to remind me to buy all the random stuff at once and reduce multiple trips.) When my favorite kids’ clothing place is having a 50% off sale, I buy a size ahead in basics like pants, PJs, etc. and keep these future clothes in a Rubbermaid bin in the basement. Then when my kid moves up to the next size, their clothes shopping is pretty much taken care of already. I bag the too small stuff and stick it in my trunk; when I drive by the local thrift shop on my way to work, I drop items off. Ditto for packages for the post office, etc–I keep them in my car, so whenever I’ve got a few minutes at lunch I can take care of them. My toddler is in daycare with his friends five days a week, so we don’t make a special effort to schedule play dates; weekends and evenings are mostly family time, or we get together with our friends who have kids for brunch or a kid-friendly movie.

  9. This is actually something I’m struggling with mightily now. I have a super-flexible job for which I bill hours to the client, so they don’t pay when I’m doing this household stuff (or reading your blog!)

    This is great, but I’ve slid into the habit of “saving” onerous household tasks for when the kids are at school. However, I only have childcare for 24 hours in a week (the younger one only goes 4 days) so I really need to focus on work-work and not this low-value stuff.

    Hubby takes the burden for certain things (cars, dealing with insurance stuff, banking) but I am better with the planning/project management stuff (birthday parties, appointments, figuring out fun stuff we can do). I’d say it’s a pretty even split.

    I’ve now been forcing myself to deal with dishes and laundry when the kids are around, and trying to get on some kind of schedule with those rather than doing bits and pieces randomly.

    We review T’s school work once a week or so, and deal with paperwork at that time – her job is to pile everything up on the kitchen table every day after school. Fortunately she doesn’t get homework yet 🙂

    otherwise, I’m reading this thread to figure out a Better Way.

  10. I’m super late to this (as always, these days…) but back when we had two people working “regular work day” jobs, almost all of the “parent work” happened in the evenings. I bought almost everything I could online. Play date scheduling was all via emails. The exception was calling for doctors appointments and the like, and this stuff got put off to the point that I landed myself in urgent care with an asthma attack after putting off my own health care phone calls a bit too long. Now that I have the opportunity to optimize my time more globally, I do sometimes run errands during the day, but mostly I keep the chores out of my work days, because I want to be sure I prioritize the things I want to get done. Also, my kids think a trip to Target is the biggest treat EVER and fight over who “gets” to come grocery shopping with me, and are now actually old enough that taking them along on the chores isn’t such a PITA.

    1. @Melanie – errand time can be good one-on-one time. It’s just torture with multiple kids. My husband took all 3 to Costco the other night and wound up pulling our 3-year-old out after she tried to leap in the trash can to go after a sample she wasn’t done with.If all 3 elect to run off you’re really in trouble. We need a better system for combining one-on-one stuff with errands.

      I remember your asthma scare posts on the blog. I hope one outcome of your different work schedule is getting those appointments scheduled!

  11. This is such a great question and is something I’m still struggling with so it’s nice to read the comments. I really like your rubric of questions. Last week I left the office at 11:15 to take my child for her flu shot and feed her lunch before running home to start the crockpot and let our dogs outside before my 1:30 meeting. I don’t think that’s the best strategy…

    1. @Stephanie – I don’t know, that kind of sounds like you got a lot done between 11:15 and 1:30! I have seen logs where that quantity of activities would have taken all morning 🙂

      But in general, there aren’t that many things that absolutely have to be done, and it’s always a good idea to ask why we’re doing things and if we can enlist help, lower our standards, etc.

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