By Jennifer Amato
Web Exclusive, October 16, 2006
We all have faced dire challenges when it comes to our children. Birth itself can be a defining moment in which everything you know, you learned, and you practiced goes flying out a window in an instant. Anything from a coffee spill on your shirt on the way to a job interview, to a dead stop traffic jam on a summer afternoon with three hungry children, can make you understand (envy, even!) the woman pushing the empty shopping cart down Broadway wearing unmatched shoes: "What a free life she must lead..."
One of these moments recently presented itself before me. I had been offered a career at a major company, an offer that would provide a nice lifestyle upgrade for my children and I. This position, however, was a ninety minute commute each way, and my shift would begin at 6:30 A.M. In mommy terms, this meant my three daughters (ages two, four, and six) and I would have to be in the car, ready for action by at least 5 A.M. every weekday.
Upon receiving the call that I had indeed been chosen for the job, my joyful impromptu ballet in the kitchen morphed all too quickly, as I leaned against the counter and contemplated horrifying visions of hairbrushes stuck in the bird's nest of hair at the top of a crying kindergartener, the unwitting discovery of my toddler "painting herself" with the creation in her diaper, and the prospect of regularly waking my three children before the sun had even risen.
As a single parent, I had no choice but to accept the job. My first four mornings were a frantic scamper from the moment the alarm clock ripped me from sleep at 3:30, to the hurried kisses goodbye as I dropped my girls off at daycare. My lips even missed their little foreheads, but there was no time to go back. They sadly watched mommy run out the door waving my hands and running as if taken over by the "Holy Spirit" in a Foursquare Baptist church.
On my first Friday night, after my girls were tucked away in bed, and as I stared around my house at the piles of clean and dirty clothes no longer segregated to their own domains, school papers scattered about, and kid's meal toys peppered down the stairs, I realized that this was not what I wanted our lives to be like every week as my girls grew up.
I firmly pledged to adopt certain aspects of order, organization, and respect for deadlines, to fortify helpful habits. I realized I needed to spend some of my cherished "free time" anticipating and planning for the upcoming week. While it would be unrealistic to expect life with three small children to run like a well-oiled machine, applying this basic disciplined philosophy, which at first required me to adopt a bit of an "event planner" mentality, would prove to be one of the best things I ever did for my family.
I spent the weekend organizing clothes, rooms, and the foyer of my home. I bought hanging dividers for our closets and picked out our outfits including fresh socks, panties, and diapers for the entire week. I hung hooks by the front door for coats and backpacks. I even put a list of "nightly duties" on the fridge. On Sunday evening, as I programmed my coffee maker for 3:30 A.M. (a frightening prospect in and of itself!), I said a little prayer that my fervent efforts would bring success.
The next morning was a smooth dance through the traditional morning routine. At exactly 4:42 A.M., three tiny ponytails danced out to the car with clean shoes on the right feet, backpacks on little backs, and cute dimpled smiles on faces. As I kissed them each goodbye, (taking my time now!) I glanced at my watch. I was running twenty minutes AHEAD of schedule!
I arrived to my desk fifteen minutes early, with a cup of coffee in my hand and a sense of accomplishment. I had managed to get myself and three children under age seven dressed, combed, brushed, and out the door (without even one battle of wills!) in one hour. My thoughts of chucking it all and becoming a shopping-cart lady were finally laid to rest.
Of course, as months have passed, I've had my fair share of snags, mishaps, and complete flops. There are always the unpreventable things our children do to remind us that ultimately, it is really they who are in charge. My third week of the mapped-out mornings, while searching for the ever- evasive ponytail holder, I placed my two year old on the bathroom counter, figuring I could foil her efforts to remind me where the term "terrible twos" originated from. As I dug through drawers and visually scanned cabinets, the clock ticking away—my other two girls debating why pigtails are better than ponytails—my toddler strategically massaged bright pink bubble gum toothpaste into her arms and legs without making a sound. Much to my horror, I turned to realize that my tight-running ship had just sprung a leak.
Upon seeing the despair wash over my face, my children stared silently, as if thinking "This is it. She's gonna blow..."
Swallowing the huge lump in my throat as I fought off the urge to crawl back in bed and burst into tears, I wiped down tiny arms and kicking legs and grabbed another outfit I'd set out for later in the week, and we pressed on.
Certainly, there are still days where no one wants to listen, somebody doesn't want toaster pastries, and I speed-walk to my desk only to learn my skirt is artfully jammed into my pantyhose.
But most of the time, I am happy to say, as I drive in to start the second phase of my day, I feel settled and am downright pleased by the positive impact these simple enhancements to the daily routine truly have made.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
Preplanning the week's clothing can be a time saver (as well as providing ready backups in the case of an early morning emergency!). Hanging organizers can be found in any major chain store for under $15, and can separate out the clothing by weekday.
Scheduling out approximate times for each activity (brushing hair, teeth, etc.) and "mapping" your morning will give you guidelines to stay on track. Also, it will let you know when to cut your losses and move on to the next task—sometimes pigtails will just be uneven, and you have to find a way to be settled with that: Mrs. Brady may have pulled it off, but she had Alice! Most importantly, BE REALISTIC about how much time each task takes so your "deadlines" are not out of reach.
Making bath time just before bed every night means never having to learn about the gum stuck in your child's hair (which they forgot to mention) when you are t-minus thirty minutes to heading out the door.
Spending a half hour pre-assembling the basic parts of the week's lunches (bags with the juice box, the string cheese, etc.) on Sunday evening is a great way to save time during the week. Trust me, you will thank me on Wednesday when you make a 30 second sandwich and have time to shave your legs in the shower.
Making daily maintenance a not-to-be-skipped priority has restored a lot of my time during the week. Each evening, I take just 15-30 minutes to gather up the scatterings of my kids, put away dishes, sweep the kitchen floor, and prepare for the morning. Try it for a few nights! You will be surprised at how much of an impact this will make.
Having a few small bags within your purse or tote is another great way to get organized: one for any daily makeup staples, hair elastics and bobby pins; another with a mending kit, emery board, and a few safety pins; Rescue Remedy, a vial of aromatherapy oil, common remedies and band-aids in yet another. With routinely dug-for items stashed in their own groupings, you're not watching the sand run out of the hourglass as you hunt for your ever-evasive lip balm.
Tying in with your child/children every night (like looking in their backpacks or binders) means never dropping them off at school or daycare, only to learn that "Picture Day" and "Laundry Day" have somehow found fellowship on the first Tuesday you are running late.
Never underestimate the benefits of talking to your children in the mornings! Make it a fun time together. Put on music or a family friendly comedy CD to get the groove or giggles flowing. People have made lifelong friends in the face of war and natural disasters: you can certainly try to make a traditionally hectic or unpleasant part of the day the springboard for a great day.
Getting your children involved is a crucial part of making mornings a success. Whatever it takes to get them active in that part of the day, discover it and do it! Whether it's rotating chores (clearing the table, putting lunches into backpacks) or having your child help decide what's for dinner that night, including them in age-appropriate parts of the process can instill habits they will thank you for when they're all grown up.
Most importantly, watch that clock! I recommend having a clock in every major room you use in the morning, and having them all set accurately and synchronized. If you're always aware of the time, it can never become your enemy.
Now, let's get out there and seize the day!
Jennifer Amato independently raises her three daughters Raquel (6), Angelina (5), and Gianna Sophia (2) in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. Jennifer, a full time employee of the Boeing Company, writes a weekly column on the web based MommiesMagazine.com, and is currently pursuing a degree in Journalism.