Reader question: Time management for the new stay-at-home parent

photo-275Over the past few months I’ve been running a series of reader questions (I welcome more! Please email me: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com). Today’s reader question comes via Twitter, and has to do with life transitions. A new mother has decided to stay home with her baby. She asks: what time management tips do I have for a new SAHM (or SAHD)?

With this question, I am reminded that time management is really life management. This question is less about when is the best time to grocery shop or what should I do while baby naps than it is about figuring out new priorities, and making space for them. To that end, here are some important questions to ask that can then help you manage your hours (and life).

Am I staying at home for a few years, or am I retired? If you have the financial means to be done with paid work, more power to you. However, most people who stay home with their kids intend to focus on home for a few years and then transition back into paid work later on. If that describes you, then your 168 hours should contain at least an hour or two devoted to professional maintenance. It doesn’t need to be a lot, but even from the beginning it shouldn’t be nothing, because you want to enable that transition should circumstance (e.g. a spouse’s job loss) or choice (e.g. wanting to send kids to private school) require it.  

Professional maintenance can take lots of forms. You could do whatever continuing education requirements are necessary to keep a license current. You could help plan an annual industry conference. You can keep a running list of people to reach out to every few months. You can maintain a social media presence designed to position you as a thought leader. You can take on the occasional consulting project. You can volunteer with an eye toward demonstrating your professional skills, though handle this with care. There’s some evidence that kid-related volunteering is perceived less positively for women than not-obviously-kid-related volunteering.

Whatever it is, carve out some regular slot of the week (early AM on Tuesdays? Nap time on Wednesdays?) and make a habit of it. Keep a record of what you’ve done so you can refer to it when it’s time to ramp back up.

What would I like to get out of this time with my kids? Presumably, you’re choosing to stay home because you’d like to be intimately involved in your children’s day-to-day lives. The problem is that when you’re always with them, it’s easy to stop being really with them, in the sense of interacting, playing, reading, planning adventures together and the like. There’s always something else one could be doing, but you’re probably not choosing to stay home with your kids to spend all your time on laundry and Facebook. So be mindful, ask what kind of memories you’d like to make with your kids, and then create circumstances where such memories are more likely to happen than not.

How much social interaction do I (and my kids) need? Some people are perfectly happy actually being “at home” much of the time, but isolation drives others nuts. Figure out where you are on this spectrum. Then structure your life accordingly with like-minded playgroups, classes, standing play-dates and the like. Going to the office gives days a structure whose absence can make life disorienting. I know I experienced this when I first started freelancing full time. Maybe you don’t need a daily rhythm. But if you do, design one. Pro tip: The post-nap slot is often harder to deal with than the morning. When I’ve got the kids, I love to schedule 4 p.m. playdates.  Sometimes these involve wine.

How much me time do I need? An unsung benefit of work: you can go to the bathroom by yourself! If you need space, you can find a quiet corner of the cafeteria and eat alone! Many new parents don’t appreciate these things until they disappear. If you’re more on the introverted side, being constantly surrounded by small children who want something can be tough. Even if you’re more out-going, you’ll likely want some grown-up time. So acknowledge this and figure out when you can still do your own thing sometimes apart from the kids. Your spouse can take the kids for a few hours on the weekend, or one evening a week. If he/she has unpredictable hours, you could hire a sitter, ask for help from extended family, or work out swaps with other parents. Then use this time for something fun, rather than picking up the playroom.

If you’ve made the transition from work to at-home parenting, or gone the other way, what would you add to this list? 

Photo: Almost a smile…

17 thoughts on “Reader question: Time management for the new stay-at-home parent

  1. I am mainly a SAHM to 3 kids, a baby and 2 schoolkids. I have a lot of days where i feel all I do is shovel food from the floor. I find my best days are when I get up early enough to shower etc before the school run and when i take the time for a midday walk. But really I feel very inefficient and distracted many days. I am glad i work part-time where I can actually function like a normal human.

    1. @Sarah – agreed on days going better when there’s a shower and exercise. I have tried to be diligent about showering and going for a walk since delivering #4. Sometimes that’s all I get done…

  2. I like maintaining a regular schedule. I have a two-year-old and an infant and we do the same things each day of the week, which gives rhythm to my days and is nice because I’m able to form relationships with the other caregivers I see at those same events week after week. I’m also better to engage with the kids when we have planned, structured activities than when we’re just hanging out around the house. That can be hard when you just have a tiny baby because there aren’t many activities for tiny babies and they aren’t much for conversation. On the other hand, it’s a good time to maintain some professional connections because babies sleep a lot and you’ll probably be looking for some connection to your “old life”.

  3. Laura did a post about my family sometime back in early 2013. Basically neither my husband and I were working while I was on mat leave and we’d sort of float through our days, anchored only by my older kid’s preschool drop-off and pick up a few days a week. We’re generally homebodies and did a lot of stuff together at home, but we did make more of an effort to get out and do fun things around town in the short time we all had together, and I’m glad we did.

    I was a SAHM for about a year (and worked part time for a couple of years before that) and what worked best was having a rough idea of a morning and an afternoon activity.

    It didn’t have to be a class or an outing, but just something like “put out fingerpaints” or “reading marathon in our bed”, etc.

    I didn’t like being overscheduled with stuff every day of the week, so a lot of days we didn’t leave the house, but having an idea of what we were going to do was super helpful. (Still is, actually.)

    1. Ooh, and I think it was a tip from Laura when my second kid was brand new – just put ONE thing on my to-do list, and consider it a win if I accomplish that. In a week, that’s 7 items, even if they are tiny.

      1. @ARC – that’s the attitude I’m trying to cultivate for myself right now. I’m not going to get a lot done, but I can get a few things. A few well-chosen things are quite a bit better than either doing nothing, or aiming to be at 100% productivity, and then being frustrated because the baby wants to eat or be held constantly.

        1. I am also on the “one thing” bandwagon in the beginning. Big time. Then I usually start to notice myself getting itchy for a little bit more, and I’ll jump up to three things to do in a day. That’s about where it stays, though. If I accomplish more than that it is just a bonus.

          I would add in that you have to know your kid(s) and their needs for socializing versus staying in. I can homebody with the best of them, but my second born needs a change of scenery (even if it is just the grocery store) at least once a day or we all suffer. Know yourself, and get a feel for what works for your kids, and try and strike the balance that suits the whole family.

          1. @Katherine – do you take all 4 to the grocery store to get #2 out of the house? Just curious how that winds up playing out logistically.

  4. I know schedules aren’t for everyone, but I adore our schedule. The baby’s morning nap makes–which is on the way out–makes big outings harder at the moment. Mentally, it is easier for me having the day sorted in chunks of a few hours instead of giant stretches of unknown. And if we follow the schedule, both kids nap at the same time in the afternoon. That has been a needed source of “me time.” I admit I have not been as good at scheduling me time, and I’m trying to get better at that.

    1. @Melissa – the morning nap really does complicate matters, especially if there are older kids around. While I know some kids absolutely do have to nap in their cribs at certain times or else all of life goes haywire, others don’t. We’ve sort of forced our kids into the latter category (and they may have more naturally tended that way too). I guess I’ve never thought it’s fair to force a 2-year-old not to take classes or do play dates because baby has to sleep a certain way. Hopefully baby will learn to sleep in the car seat, or the baby bjorn or…

      But yes, schedules vs. not schedules is an important thing to figure out in terms of making the SAH parenting life work.

  5. I stayed at home with my son for 2 years, then went back to work full-time this fall. I would say the emotional impact was bigger for me than the practical. If you’re a planner and a scheduler, the transition will work itself out eventually, but don’t forget to check in with how you feel about it. Everything went more smoothly than expected when I went back to work, but I started experiencing anxiety and stress symptoms a few weeks into the change. I later realized that I was actually grieving for my time with my son. Grief is an emotion that accompanies most transitions, but it’s not something Americans talk about outside of a death. Once I identified it, it was easier to deal with.

  6. 1) Figure out what professional goals are achievable for a SAHM and set aside time/money to achieve them. As an engineer who might use a professional license, I studied for and took the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. I had to register a few months in advance, found an evening study course and arranged for my husband to watch the kids and invested ~$200 for the course and exam fee. I haven’t ended up using it, but it shows evidence of commitment.
    2) I was able to edit engineering research papers on my schedule for 4-5 hours/week, money I put in a 401(k).
    3) Consistent with my editing/writing work, I chair the Society of Women Engineers essay contest, for which the rest of the judging panel is often employed engineering managers. I’ve done this for 5 years, so people know my face and remember me at various companies. Not sure if this will pay off either, but it’s a ~20 hour/year commitment.
    4) As the mother of a fourth, I think about what schedule will work with the rest of the family and try to implement that. For example, I’ll try to feed baby at 11, 2 5 and 8 during the day, because 11 is just before I have to meet the kindergarten bus, 5 is just before supper needs to be on the table, and 8 is just before the other kids need to be put to bed. My theory may not work, but at least I try. I already know 11 PM-1 AM is this baby’s most active time in utero, so I expect to be up with her for awhile after my other kids are in bed.

    1. @Twin Mom – #3 in particular is really smart. It gives you exposure to people who can form a core professional network. That’s what I was getting at with the idea of volunteering to help organize a professional conference. Conferences always need volunteers, and it’s also a way to meet people in a non-kid capacity (given the issues with this sort of volunteering often being undervalued, professionally, even though I’m not sure why raising $25k for a school would be less valuable than raising $25k for a library or food bank).

  7. I find days much better when I get out of the house A LOT. Two reasons. First, I am much better at interacting with my children when not distracted by everything I could be doing around the house. Second, the mess gets created and left out of the house. Nice.
    Good luck!

  8. I stayed home with out little guy for only 3 months but definitely having something on the calendar was important; otherwise, it felt like I did nothing. I got some home projects done, some side business projects done and some walks accomplished. For some reason having a clean home and dinner ready didn’t make me feel better about the day, which I guess it should have :).

    Being back to work definitely makes my life a little crazy with all the to dos, but the structure and schedule is nice to have.

  9. I have been home for 11 months, am now working part time and will return to full time work in a few months.

    I am someone who likes structure, predictability and routine so the early months even with an easy baby were tough. We had a good “routine” but we definitely didn’t have a set schedule. Particularly with naps which could last 45 min or 2 hours.

    Eventually I figured out to use naptime just for work rather than cleaning up which is my first inclination (followed by social media). For me that was mostly applying for jobs, but also networking and keeping up some professional commitments. I followed ARC’s advice of having one thing to do each day and working on that as soon as little one is asleep.

    Highly recommend getting childcare during the workday occasionally so you can get some face time with professional contacts.

    1. Yes! I forgot that I tried to get out for lunch or Happy Hour with a former coworker at least once a month (different ones each time) just to keep up with my contacts. Either my husband would cover for me, or eventually I found a babysitter for occasional Fridays, which were a godsend to have 3 hours to myself at the end of the week 🙂

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