How do you do it all as a working mom?
Moms have A LOT on their plates.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a high-flying professional or stay-at-home superhero, you’re juggling a heavy load and trying to look good while doing it.
I get it. I’m right there with you.
A little about me: I am a middle school teacher, mom of twin toddlers, runner, and obsessive do-it-yourselfer.
Over the past year, I’ve been hybrid teaching, meaning I teach to a room full of seventh and eighth graders while at the same time teaching students learning from home on Zoom.
I also took eighteen graduate credits, re-did two rooms in our house, lost twenty-five pounds, and launched a freelance writing business.
It has not been an easy year for any of us. In the midst of the pandemic, my husband has had a lot of job upheaval (six different jobs, to be exact).
We’ve had money worries, marriage tension, and a car and fridge die within a month of each other.
We’ve watched our savings dwindle and stress grow.
However, when I look back over the last year, I also feel proud of how we’ve weathered the storms.
A big part of that has come from learning some healthy coping strategies and systems to help me make the most of my time, reduce stress, and communicate with the important people in my life.
How did we manage to take all this on and come out intact on the other side?
Here are my four strategies to help you take on the obstacles in your own life
1. Figure Out Your Priorities
I cannot stress this enough, but one of the best ways for you to tackle that growing to-do list is to clarify what is the most important and what is the least.
This can be on paper, the Notes app on your phone, or just even in your own mind – whatever works for you is what works.
A tool that I’ve used on many occasions is the Covey Time Management Matrix by the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. For me, it’s a visual representation of how to sort through what I need to make time to get done and what can wait.
It works like this: there are four quadrants (think back to high school Algebra) that everything you do can be delegated into.
- Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
- Quadrant 2: Important, but Not Urgent
- Quadrant 3: Urgent, but Not Important
- Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent.
Items that belong in Quadrant 1 are those type of things that have firm, upcoming deadlines and items that need your immediate attention.
For me, lesson plans and assignments for my master’s degree belong here because there are very real consequences if I don’t get them done on time.
Sometimes crises arise that become urgent and important, like when my car broke down. Suddenly, I had to find a ride to work while it was in the shop, then start car shopping with gusto when we found out that the cost to fix it far outstripped what the car was worth.
Quadrant 2 will have items that need to get done, but not immediately. Doctor’s appointments, vet appointments, renewing my teaching license, or planning a vacation are example of quadrant 2 priorities. You still need to make a plan to get them done, but it doesn’t have to be immediately.
One way I handle these items is to always schedule my next appointment when I’m leaving. I also make sure I schedule as much as I can during school breaks such as long weekends and spring or summer breaks because I know that I won’t have to take a day off of work.
Planning in advance is key.
Items that are urgent, but not important, are considered Quadrant 3. These are things like weekly grocery shopping, returning phone calls or emails, or even some meetings.
Try and delegate these items out as much as you can.
In our family, I plan out the meals and put in the grocery pick up order, but my husband picks it up and fills the car with gas at the same time. I’ll cook dinner, but he cleans up while I give the girls a bath (which is much more enjoyable for me than it is for him).
The point is, ask for help here when you can. I’ll talk more in depth about this below.
Lastly, Quadrant 4 are those type of things that aren’t urgent or important. Social media or games, binge watching Food Network baking, returning certain texts and phone calls, you get the idea.
That’s not to say these things don’t have value! But if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time on Quadrant 4 activities, you may want to take a good look at how to use your time in a more productive manner.
Remember that your priorities will shift, depending on what’s going on at any given time.
Something that was Quadrant 2 (“I need to schedule a time to take the car in to get checked out”) may become Quadrant 1 when that check engine light starts flashing. Be flexible and remember that these unexpected shifts happen to us all
2. Learn How to Say “No”
My husband and I recently started attending a new church when the one we had been attending decided to close. We’ve long held that getting involved and engaged in our faith community is the best way to get connected and build new relationships.
For him, that meant he jumped right into volunteering with the Welcome Team. I also wanted to get involved, but I also had to consider my own schedule and that of our daughters.
Assignments and papers for my grad classes are always due Sunday nights. I also like to take Sunday afternoons and evening to meal prep for the week ahead and start to mentally shift back into “school mode.”
For me, volunteering, even if it’s just an hour a week, felt like a burden I couldn’t take on at the time.
So, I had to say “no” to my own desire to serve and volunteer.
This isn’t a definitive, forever “no,” but rather a “no, not right now.”
I’ve also had to say no to re-doing our upstairs bathroom floor over Spring Break this year. I recognized that I didn’t have the mental or physical capacity to take on another project right now (which typically involve a lot of late nights and crawling around on my hands and knees).
A lot of saying “no” is really just establishing healthy boundaries with yourself and others and not being afraid of enforcing them.
Another way I’ve learned to say no was to set up the screen time limit on my phone. Every night at 9pm, my phone, laptop, and iPad automatically go into downtime.
There are ways to override this, which I’ve had to do sometimes when I’m working on a big school assignment or need to get a Quadrant 1 item done, but by and large, this has signaled to me that it’s time to start winding down and turning off my brain so that I can get a good night’s rest.
3. Practice Reasonable, Healthy Habits
Speaking of rest, one of the best new practices I’ve instituted in my life this past year has been some basic, healthy habits that help me feel my best physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Running has been the most obvious. I was a competitive runner in high school, but never really prioritized it as a regular practice until this year.
I was heavily into CrossFit for a few years, but between COVID, the high cost, and the time commitment that would take time away from my family, I just didn’t have the desire to make that a priority.
Instead, I got a good running stroller and started pushing the twins around our neighborhood whenever I could. I started slow, more walking and heavy breathing than running, but eventually have worked up to a regular 5-mile loop that I run a few times a week with the twin and the dog.
This did a lot for me. It got me out of the house during the worse of the shutdown, allowed me to spend some time with my toddlers by talking to them and pointing out what we see, and gave me a lot of mental clarity during times of high stress and worry.
Everything just seems better after a run.
Sometimes I listen to a podcast or audiobook, sometimes I just enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, and relative quiet when I don’t have babies crawling up my legs or chasing the dog.
I also started using a meditation app. Even just a few minutes a day, when I can shut off my brain from going a million miles a minute, makes me feel refreshed, calmer, and more capable of handling what the day throws at me.
4. Ask For What You Need
To be honest, this is probably the most difficult one for me to put into practice. I don’t like admitting I can’t, in fact, do it all. My husband likes to tease me about this, but I have a stubborn, independent streak as deep as the Mariana Trench.
However, I recognize that this is one of the best ways for me to prevent resentment from creeping into my marriage.
Honey-Do lists are a real thing in our marriage and actually, it helps! It allows me to ask for what I need from my husband and helps him understand what I want him to do without expecting that he figure it out telepathically (which never does seem to work).
It has also helped me at work. Teaching both online and in-person simultaneously is utterly exhausting for reasons that are beyond this post.
My team and I were able to go to my principal and lay out some issues and ask for help coming up with some ways to reduce the workload. He not only was able to help us brainstorm some solutions, but he also heard us and offered us some much-needed encouragement.
This process for me was not immediate or overnight. It took me making one change at a time, getting it under control before adding in something else.
Again, these are strategies that worked for me and my personality type.
For you, running may just not be your thing. But how about yoga?
If you hate the idea of making a Time Management Matrix in your dot journal, can you at least sit in a quiet room for a few minutes and think through what you need to get done this week and make a loose plan for when and how you’re going to accomplish everything?
The big picture here is to help you manage the many demands and obligations you have as a busy, stretched-thin mama.
As a friend recently told me, “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re all in our own boats.”
Your boat may be a rickety rowboat that’s full of leaks, but I hope some of these suggestions can be a bucket by which you begin to bail yourself out.
You got this!