When I returned to work after my second maternity leave, I'd sometimes cry on the bus ride home, knowing what awaited me: two children competing for my attention, dinner preparations, a husband who deserved my ear (at least), and hey, what about...me? Eventually, I got the hang of managing two kids plus a work life, but with chaos always looming -- especially now that the children have science projects, sports practices, and a much keener sense of sibling rivalry -- I often think, How can I make the after-work crunch easier on me, on them, on us as a family? After talking to parenting experts and other moms and dads who've discovered the secrets to enjoying weeknights instead of merely surviving them, I've found that the answers lie in a combination of flexibility, structure, organization, and a laid-back attitude. A tall order, you say? Not if you try the following stay-calm tips.
1. Adjust your mind-set.If you're still fretting over a volunteer project or office deadline when you get ready to greet your kids, you're setting yourself up for a major role-change shock. Instead, try to relax en route, so the shift to mommy mode isn't so abrupt. "Just as you'd prepare yourself to go into a tough meeting at work or to head out to dinner with your husband, you need a ritual to ease the transition home," says Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D., author of Stress and Your Child. One good trick: Visualize yourself shifting gears -- say, turning off your desk lamp at work or closing your office door, then imagine yourself reading your kids a story on the couch. Also, don't try to squeeze in just a bit more work on your trip home; it will keep you too wrapped up in the office. Better (much better) to dip into a novel or magazine or work on a crossword puzzle.
2. Create a meet-and-greet ritual.Guilt drives many parents to try to make up for lost time by giving in to children's demands for attention the second they get home, with the predictable result that Mommy or Daddy quickly feels overwhelmed. Rather than leap straight into a game of Monopoly or some math homework, try practicing a hello ritual and taking a brief break -- say, five minutes to change clothes or make a phone call -- before you join the rest of the family. That little bit of breathing room can go a long way to helping you relax. As for the hello ritual, hugs are wonderful, as is a secret family handshake. One clan even tells the "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke nightly, the challenge being to come up with a wackier answer than yesterday's. "Children like this sort of repetition; it helps calm them down," notes Youngs.
3. Allocate Your Attention.Do your kids start vying for you the second your family reunites at day's end? You're not alone. "My two boys would be very competitive about who'd be the first to kiss me and tell about his day. It would often end in tears," says Barbara Lennon, an Albuquerque, NM, mom. So she devised a turn-taking system: One kid gets her first for five minutes of one-on-one on Monday, the other gets her first on Tuesday, and so on. "The schedule helps them manage their expectations about my homecoming, and they know there will be consequences if they don't follow it," explains Lennon. "It gets our nights off on a much better footing."
4. Snag a treat.As you turn your attention to your family, don't forget that you -- the person who had a frantic day but still remembered to pick up milk on the way home, mail a check to the guy who repaired the porch, and get a birthday card for your kid's teacher -- deserve some applause. Indulge yourself when you're home. For Karen Harper of Downers Grove, IL, that means putting on one of her favorite Aretha Franklin CDs as background music while she makes dinner and plays with her son. For Emily Berman of Pittsfield, MA, it's taking two seconds to mix black currant syrup, club soda, and a slice of lime in a tall glass -- "it feels so much more indulgent than a diet soda," she says. And for Laura Hoberman of Harrisburg, PA, all it takes is changing into her favorite slippers with massage insoles, purchased at a swanky spa she visited last year. "Yes, it's a small gesture, but it's a nice, quick little way that I nurture myself, something that most parents let fall by the wayside," Hoberman notes.
5. Take the heat off homework.Minimize stress by establishing a consistent routine: Is schoolwork done before or after dinner? Is it tackled together in a communal room or in a quiet corner alone? "Once children know what the program is, they're more likely to go along with it," notes Youngs, so don't allow excuses or whining to deter you from sticking with the schedule. Younger kids need hands-on help; with older children, typically third-graders and up, "let them know that when they're finished, you'll check it over, but don't get sucked into doing the homework or sitting with them, offering lots of guidance," says Wendy Masi, Ph.D., dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University. "It's tough, but you have to give the message, 'You can do it.'" If possible, rotate homework duty with your spouse.
6. Scale back.Since most meltdowns (yours included) are triggered by exhaustion, consider curbing your family's extracurricular life. Last year, Pat Haaksma, a nurse in Frankfort, IL, with three kids, cut back their multiple activities to one apiece. "I realized we were never home; we were always in the car and eating dinner at McDonald's," she says. "The children weren't able to relax, because we were doing too many things."
7. Remember you're not on Iron Chef.I love cooking as much as the next person, but getting overly ambitious in the kitchen on a weeknight can throw a wrench in your homestead's happiness. Can you relate to this scenario: The clock is ticking, the sauce isn't thickening, the kids are whining, and you're starting to freak. To avoid such trauma, I often focus on the culinary question, "What would make life easiest for us right now?" Fish sticks may be only semihealthy, but the greater good has been served in that we've shared more nonrushed time together. Other moms I know rely on ready-made food, like bags of cut-up salad and precooked chicken, or grab healthy takeout a few nights a week.
8. Avoid escalating anger.When you're stretched thin -- having raced out of work or dashed around on appointments, gone grocery shopping, and cooked dinner -- it's easy to lose it when something minor goes wrong, screeching, for instance, "Aggghh! Didn't I tell you a gazillion times not to dump the whole bucket of Legos!" Now your children are looking at you as if you've grown another head, and you're feeling like a monster. A simple "I'm sorry, Mommy is very tired" can work wonders toward restoring the peace, says Youngs. "Then tell them what you need, whether it's help putting away toys or laundry, or ten minutes of absolute quiet. When you do that, you teach kids a valuable lesson about how, when someone reaches her stress limit, she needs to reach out for help."
9. Push Bedtime Up.C'mon, it always takes longer than you think it will. Start early -- say, 7:45 for an 8:30 lights-out -- so you can be more relaxed with your children as they wash up, ask for just one more chapter of their bedtime book, and so on. This is much better than checking the clock and seeing that it's -- ack! -- 9:45 and your kids are still up, aren't in their pj's yet, and haven't brushed their teeth. The wigging out that usually ensues doesn't do much to get children off to sleep swiftly and calmly.
10. Learn to let go.Accept that, despite your best efforts, there will be evenings when nothing goes quite right. On those nights, throw in the towel and understand that the bare minimum is good enough: cereal for dinner, no baths, a two-minute bedtime story. Don't torture yourself by imagining that every other mother in America has fed her kids spinach, finished a jigsaw puzzle with them, and sailed through bedtime without even a second of grumpiness. Weeknights are a challenge for just about all of us, but with these strategies and the remarkable reserve of patience all parents have, they are bound to get easier.
New Jersey-based Pamela Lister, a mom of two, writes often on parenting topics.