Strategies for not maxing out

Recently Laura Vanderkam had a post discussing yet another book written about the meme that mothers who work full-time are all stress-cases over-doing everything all the time.  You know the one that’s part of the patriarchy’s plan to keep women out of the labor force?

Rather than quitting your day-job and becoming a free-lance writer who writes articles for the NYTimes on how hard it is to be a neurotic working mother, or a book-writer or life-coach telling other people how they can quit their jobs to work part-time telling people to quit their jobs to work part-time… there are less draconian (and less MLM) ways that people can control their stress levels and time use.  This is especially true for the upper-middle-class folks that LV’s blog seems to be mostly aimed at.

We make a lot of money, but my parents did not (and my mom’s dual working parents did not). Still, they were able to spend on things that were important, and one of those things that was important was hiring people to drive my sister and me to places we needed to be during regular working hours when my parents had to work. A college student can take kids to the dentist. Like my grandma always said, “Hire good help.”

Many schools now offer after school care and even before school care.  Most of my colleagues partake of this offering in the local publics, and the after school care at DC1’s private school is so popular that the SAHM complain that their kids want to go to after school care instead of going home with mom.  That extra two hours that you don’t have to worry and you can just pick your kid up when the work-day is done are well worth the $50-$200 we pay every month (depending on the month).

Meal planning can take more mental power than it should, especially when you’re tired and hungry and exhausted from a day at work and need to recharge with food before you can think about food.  Having quick healthy cheap food routines is important. I have a bunch of these standard meals memorized, and the microwave has made things even faster.

The reason I have these standard meals memorized is because from an early age I was taught to do chores, and I started cooking the occasional meal by myself at age 7. Kids can chip in and take off some of the burden. My six year old is in charge of things pertaining to hir. Sometimes ze forgets to bring hir homework or a jacket (or to wear dress clothes on full-dress day), but that just reminds hir next time.

I don’t have to be everything all the time. I can even delegate the mental load for things as my children get older. And they can handle that. Kids are more capable than many of us think.

What are your strategies for not “maxing out”?

32 Responses to “Strategies for not maxing out”

  1. Miser Mom Says:

    My favorite strategy is to make sure your child is the kind who loves to sit quietly and read a book while you’re working on important paperwork, and then cheerfully jump up to help you with things around the house when it comes time for that. Worked GREAT for me, at least for child #1. As for the rest of the kiddoes . . . not exactly the sit-and-read variety. Sigh.

    Yeah, you hit my favorite strategies above. Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) says, “Nannies first, children second is the natural order of things”, and I do think that having a rich network of friends and childcare options is a crucial part of not only avoiding stress, but actually enjoying the whole carnival whirlwind.

  2. L Says:

    You hit the overworked nail on it’s trite head when you said “Kids are more capable than many of us think”. If more parents would allow their children to take responsibility for themselves, those same children would be a lot less likely to be unemployed and living in the parents’ basement at 30+. Kids may not always do it the way WE would do it, but then neither do my spouse/best friend do it the way I would. It gets done, though.
    You’re raising people to be proud of; good work.

    • Liz Says:

      My (single mother by choice) friend has an 8-year old and they just adopted a <1 year old. She has lots of great stories of her son doing lots of chores like putting dishes away, sweeping, tidying up, laundry, feeding the chickens, and entertaining the baby while she sleeps in… til 7:30. Sounds like she's made the most of needing to compromise on the sleep schedule!

      She also takes the time to enjoy little moments. Something she said that's stuck with me: "In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter if he's late on occasion to the second grade."

  3. Liz Says:

    The only good lesson I learned from a brief teaching stint at a Terrible Private School was: eat a really nice lunch. Or, if you have the opportunity, make the most out of your really nice lunch by eating it someplace that makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. My best days are the ones where I can spend lunch with my dog at home, playing fetch at some point and sitting down to a nice, hot meal in my Fortress of Solitude.

  4. Maria O'Brien Hylton Says:

    I have seven children ages 23 to 11 and have been a full time academic since 1988. For me, the keys to a manageable life are: engaged/helpful/involved husband, good routines (lunches made and clothes selected the night before), well paid, mature babysitters, and flexible standards (mostly healthy nutritious meals with the occasional breakfast food for dinner night). I agree that kids are more capable than we think, but not in the very early years before formal schooling starts. A two year old needs to be watched almost constantly and a sensible, reliable sitter is worth her/his weight in gold. That said, the question that most interests me is how do women and men who cannot afford the extra help manage? After school and before school care is expensive where I live (the Boston area) and so are nannies. Middle class women who are stressing should probably take a deep breath and chill out; poor women are a whole other story and I am completely sympathetic when they are stressed beyond belief.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oddly, low income women are not the folks these books and articles are aimed at. For them, we should really be fighting for government childcare subsidies because children are all our futures. (Not to mention subsidized birth control, bodily autonomy and easy access to medical care for women who don’t want another mouth to feed.)

      As to how they actually do it, my husband’s extended family leans on family for free childcare. The kids do work more at younger ages, particularly helping with the younger kids. And they’re always stressed about money.

    • Liz Says:

      My parents were working class parents with colicky twin girls. One of the things they prioritized was having work schedules between them such that one parent could generally always be home. E.g., dad worked the night shift and watched us during the day, mom worked the day shift and watched us at night. When we were a little older, we went to friends’ homes for daycare, and sometimes to a daycare center. I don’t know what financial decisions were made about in-home versus institutional daycare.

      Some friends of mine have a young girl, and they use their friend/family network extensively and exclusively for childcare when both parents are out at work.

    • Rosa Says:

      I live in a working-class neighborhood and those women are managing by having male partners who work opposite shifts from them, teen and elderly relatives who at least minimally supervise the little ones, and – this is the most unfortunate part – kids who don’t get a lot of the out of school educational experiences middle-class kids get, and who fall on the wrong side of the education gap partly because of that.

      I’m really proud of my state for subsidizing early childhood care and education (though we should be doing more) because most of the compromises families make fall hardest on adults, but the gaps in childcare and education fall on the kids.

  5. OMDG Says:

    1. Pay housekeepers to clean our house
    2. Pay for high quality childcare (daycare + au pair)
    3. I’ve recently started contemplating ordering my groceries online and having them delivered
    4. I’ve also started contemplating paying someone to do my laundry

    I just wanted to add that it in my experience it really pays to treat your support staff well. This means putting yourself in their shoes and imagining their perspective when you ask something extra of them. It means paying them as well as you can afford to, respecting their time off and vacations, tipping well, being generous over the holidays. These are people who are making your lives easier, and it could easily go the other way if they are not happy with you. In the case of childcare, these are people who care for your children when you are not there — i.e. you want them to be happy with you.

    • sarah (SHU) Says:

      OMDG, can you have your housekeeper shop and/or do laundry? our nanny does laundry (and our weekly cleaner pitches in to help too) and being able to write a list and have our nanny shop for it (AND MAKE DINNER and CLEAN UP OMG) is the best. thing. ever.

  6. Leigh Says:

    I have a feeling that if I had kids and both me and my then-partner chose to continue working, I would pay someone to clean and possibly pay for a nanny or for good daycare. We would also probably order all of our groceries online and buy even more stuff online than we already do. You have to outsource the things you don’t like doing / can’t do all the time in order to get through everything and use your money effectively. One of my friends from high school, their parents had the kids cook dinner one night a week from an early age, which probably helps too. They had three kids, so each kid got a night and then the parents each got two nights. That makes it not as much cooking. My mom stayed at home, but my sibling and I were also responsible for making our beds, keeping our rooms tidy so they could be vacuumed, keeping our bathrooms tidy so they could be cleaned, emptying the dishwasher, drying and putting away the dishes, and other small chores. Most of my friends did their own laundry too.

    I would also be a terrible stay at home parent, so either my partner would need to stay home or the above. My boyfriend and I have agreed that we would prefer to both work rather than one person stay home.

    While I was injured, I took cabs to/from work because that was cheaper than paying for parking out of pocket all day.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We think we like this boyfriend. Hope he turns out to be a keeper!

      • Leigh Says:

        Hahaha he is pretty awesome :) My silly mother seems to think he looks better without the beard though…ah well, his mother thinks the same thing. He hates doing dishes or cooking, so instead he does laundry, takes out the garbage and recycling (like 5 bags in one trip!!), empties and loads the dishwasher, and makes the bed. He also apparently likes vacuuming and offered to do that while I was injured! He did all the dishes and laundry while I was injured too :) So I think that sharing chores will work out fine. He’s also tall, which helps for things like fixing the shower! I think he’s a keeper :)

  7. GMP Says:

    I have a lot of energy on general and doing well at work recharges me. When I feel I am on top of things at work I am much happier and more productive at home. So, last semester we had 1 day a week where I would stay at work late, other four work days we had kid activities after school/work. Those 3-4 extra hours per day work wonders to re-energize me. This semester we have consolidated one of the weekday activities to Saturday, so we are trying for me staying late 2 days per week (should also get us out of pajamas and out of the house on Saturdays). We’ll see how that works.

    I also often cook for 2 days at a time. Meal planning is such a drag, but what can you do? We do eat takeout maybe once per week. I am thinking of getting my eldest to cook one of the weekday meals for us, since he’s at home after school.

  8. oil_garlic Says:

    When I read that type of post or article, I get mad that no one mentions the husband. Husbands can share the mental load and do chores. Yes, I tend to be “better” at organization and planning but eventually my husband got pretty good. Things he can do:
    1) Schedule his own doctor appointments
    I do nag sometimes and he has forgotten but it’s all up to him.
    2) Schedule kids’ doctor appointments
    We both try to remember.
    3) Laundry
    4) Vacuuming
    5) Cooking
    6) Grocery Shopping
    We both have the cozi app on our phones so we can access a joint shopping list.
    7) Take care of babies/kids ALONE
    8) and much much more…
    Also note, he’s Italian, from Italy, which is supposedly less liberated than U.S. so U.S. men have no excuse.

  9. Cloud Says:

    I think the only strategy I use that you didn’t already cover is relying heavily on online shopping, and not worrying if I could get something cheaper somewhere else.

    I also think it is useful to make sure you are comparing your current life to the actual reality of what it would be if you quit your job (or whatever). We tend to romanticize that which we do not have.

    The optimization puzzle I am currently trying to solve in my own life is my suddenly longer commute (thanks to a work move). I have not been able to find an equivalent job in a better location- I am too specialized. So I am debating whether to make a career change (and if so, what kind) or to come up with something that makes the longer commute less of a complete waste of time (listening to learn a language CDs?)

    Maybe I should hire a car service to ferry me back and forth between home and office. That would be awesome! I could score 1 hour of time to focus on one of my projects everyday! Except I get carsick if I try to read in the car, so I suspect I wouldn’t be able to work on a computer, either. Bummer.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Excellent point about online shopping. And, if you make enough money, satisficing when it comes to price. Though with online shopping sometimes you can find a coupon code in just a few seconds after you’ve filled up your cart (yay retailmenot).

      DH got an audible subscription… first he got hooked on podcasts and then he switched straight to audio books. Maybe you could do some Tungsten Hippo listening research during your commute.

  10. Debbie M Says:

    All you parents are awesome. My main strategy lately is to minimize obligations. I’m sure I will get bored of having virtually no obligations one day, but for now I’m enjoying it.

    Meanwhile, I say yes to delegation. I learned at one job that delegating is worse than not delegating at first (the first three days out of a 5- to 14-day summer camp session in my example) because it’s more work to supervise and fix, but much better after that.

    And I try to make lists of important things I keep forgetting to do so that when I have some spare time and energy and am forgetting, I can see if there’s something I want to do on that list.

    Plus getting more efficient at things (keys have only a very few homes now, things get added to the shopping list on the fridge when they start running low, etc.)

  11. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Paul Krugman–at least I think it was him, but maybe was Thoma or Delong–recently analyzed the fact that people with levels of wealth who used to have full-time live-in servants to do stuff like cook, clean, raise children, laundry, chauffeur, etc, now outsource all of that work on a piece basic to external service providers (either who come to your home or run their own establishments). The basic gist was that servants were guaranteed full-time pay, room, and board, while the employees of the external service providers who have replaced them are working poor, many of whom rely heavily on government subsidies to survive on the shitty salaries and benefits they are paid.

    So on this theory, there has been a wealth transfer from the workers doing this work to both the people consuming the services and the owners of the service providers. And to make it even worse, the entire federal tax base also kicks in to support these cheaper prices for consumers and greater profits for the owners of the service providers.

    Anecdotally, friends of mine employ a married couple who live in their house and do all cooking, cleaning, laundry, pet care, car care, supervision of repair people, airport pickups of guests, etc. These people work long hours, but mostly unsupervised, and they get paid a lot more than people work in restaurants, laundries, or dog walkers, and they have good health insurance and the free use of a car when they are off duty. Seems like a much better deal than being forced to work just under the “full-time” threshold for benefits at some vicious corporation like Walmart or McDonalds.

    Anyway, the point is that outsourcing effort to not max out can be done in different ways, with different micro- and macroeconomic consequences.

    • Cloud Says:

      I see your point, and would like better pay and working conditions for people at the lower end of the wage scale. However, I see a couple of things that would keep me from setting up an arrangement like your friends have.

      1. We live in a 1300 square foot house, and there are already four of us living here.

      2. I work in a volatile industry. I could not guarantee stable employment for anyone working for me, since I cannot guarantee that for myself. When I am laid off, we drop the cleaning service.

      I did do quite a bit of research before hiring our cleaning service. At the time I hired them, they offered benefits and paid time off to their employees. Of course, there is nothing to guarantee that this is still the case.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My professional opinion is 1 meh and 2 anyone who thinks the life of a servant back in the “good old days” was better than that of even a minimum wage worker today is neither female nor black and certainly knows very little history. Also if npr is to be believed those highly paid live-in servants today are also highly educated and have lucrative outside options. The comparison is not the same at all.

    • Rosa Says:

      I’ve done live-in and not-live-in childcare for a living, and live-in is way worse for stability – when it goes south, you lose not just your income but your housing and often your transportation. It’s like living in your own miniature company town.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, it is eerily reminiscent of something Paula Deen would say. Someone stuck in the imaginary GreatWhiteHope era. I’m surprised that CPP would have bought such patriarchal BS. If Krugman said that blacks were better off on plantations than living in Southside Chicago, would you call for rich Southerners to re enslave them?

  12. bogart Says:

    I agree with your basic point, but this, “A college student can take kids to the dentist,” befuddles me. At (e.g.) the dentist I am always having to make decisions — sealants now, or in the next year (when I will again have flex money available), or never? X-rays, yes or no? I mean, sure, I could delegate this stuff (I did — gasp — send my mom (DH was out of town) with DS to get his flu vaccine, but I also called ahead to confirm that this would not create problems with consent at the ped’s practice), but if there is any decision to be made, or a risk of same, I actually want to talk with the person providing the service and have their input on the pros and cons and be the one who makes the decision. I won’t even let DH take the kid to the dentist, as he is of the “whatever you recommend” school. And, related but discrete, are you confident that the people driving your kids around aren’t talking on the phone while driving (and if so, how have you achieved this level of confidence?)? I am mystified.

    That said, as I agree with the basic point. My current model for simplifying is straightforward: DH out of the workforce, one kid, minimalist approach to housekeeping, and a grandma in town for backup. Very effective, but probably not easily replicable (the DH-out-of-workforce bit has “only” been true for the past ~3 years, but even before that, the other parts were in place, and 2 of those earlier 3 years I was working fewer than 40 hours/week. Before we had a little one, it was a non-issue).

    We don’t hire much help (mostly just for things we can’t easily do on our own, or need special tools, or are concerned about the safety. So e.g. roof repair is outsourced, but I was down in the crawlspace today to tape a heating duct tube back to the vent from which I realized it had fallen off), but I am not kidding about minimalist housekeeping, both by attitude and design (I thought about this when we remodeled our house), and I have recently started taking Cloud’s approach to ordering things and not worrying overmuch about price (i.e. I won’t go into a store to save $.50), because, OMG, the tedium and hassle of shopping (however grocery shopping is easy for me — DH does it and I put what I want on the OurGroceries app, which is one we’ve found that works for us. Presto.).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, at these ages the kids aren’t being chauffeured much of anywhere, and only one of them sees a dentist at all (the other will at some point). That’s been DH’s job so far, and I don’t think he’s made any decisions.

      Some of the mother’s helpers we’ve had in the past have had that job for older kids of other professors (we’ve been called as reference and have called such folks as references).

      My sister and I were often driven by college students, especially when my mom had a morning class that started before school. As to how you know they’re not driving while talking on the phone– that’s something your kids can tell you once your kids are old enough.

      • bogart Says:

        Well, sure. But as that’s pretty much a lose-your-job-if-you-do-it activity, that puts my kid in a rather awkward position. He has actually told me about that behavior, both from family members and (once) a non-family member hired to look after him (a day camp, arrangement, basically), and I’ve always followed up. To date it hasn’t been a huge deal — I certainly don’t make it a big deal in front of him though I have made it very clear that I do not think it is safe to drive while talking on the phone and that for that reason I do not want anyone doing it — but I would think if we had a “regular” sitter with whom he had a relationship, that could be tough. We have not used the day camp since the incident I learned of, though DS has expressed a desire to go back — that’s something rare enough it’s not a huge deal (from his perspective) that it hasn’t happened again, it’s just something that hasn’t fit into the schedule (as far as he knows). But I don’t think I will ever use their services again, which is (otherwise) unfortunate.

        I don’t remember sitters driving me and my brother around (I did, however, take the public bus to things like piano lessons from an early-ish age, maybe 8, to the horror of my mother’s friends), indeed, typically my parents used sitters who had to be picked up/dropped off themselves. But my mother was very diligent about being sure that whoever was driving us (e.g. another parent) knew that it was a requirement that we had access to, and wore, seatbelts, back in an era when even having seatbelts available (at all) in the back seat was not a sure thing, and I know I “told” at least once when that didn’t happen, because apparently I was in tears (about the circumstance of not having a seatbelt, not the telling). So at least we’re to a point where (I think) pretty much everyone gets the basic point that kids should be belted in.

  13. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Thanks for the link! I think I mentioned my strategies in that post, but I just wanted to agree that, yes, it gets a little tiring to have the meme repeated over and over that having an actual career and children is a recipe for a breakdown. Though sometimes it is fun to get incredible credit from people just for, like, having my hair brushed!

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