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Make Over Your Weekends!

Chores. Errands. Work. Too often they seem to conspire to eat up your days off. The more than 1,000 of you who responded to our recent "How Are Your Weekends?" survey say that your kids are doing just fine. In fact, 80 percent of you say they have better weekends than you did at their age! But you wish you could carve out more time for yourselves. Here, what you told us, plus reality-tested ways  -- from moms, dads, and other experts  -- to make your Saturdays and Sundays more fun and relaxing:

1. Find Room for Romance
Almost 40 percent of you say you crave more private time with your significant other. But fewer than one in ten couples manage that on a regular basis, according to our survey. The most obvious solution, of course, is to schedule a weekly date. "My husband and I try to go out to dinner every Friday or Saturday night," says Cynthia Eicher, mom of a 5- and a 2-year-old in St. Paul, MN. "It makes our marriage stronger to have fun alone together. We're lucky we have two sitters to choose from whom the kids just love."

But what if you can't afford (or find) reliable babysitting? One strategy is to swap services with another couple who have kids the same age. They look after your child one Saturday, and you watch theirs the next.

An offbeat way to squeeze romance into your weekend: Take to the road for a leisurely afternoon drive. Most young kids are good at sleeping in the car, so while your child snoozes, you can catch up with your partner. If you have an especially sound sleeper, you can even stop for a roadside picnic. "Car trips are particularly conducive to conversation because there are no distractions," says Karen Zager, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City.

It can also help to spend 15 minutes every weeknight  -- no matter how frazzled you feel  -- sitting down and just talking to each other. "Everyone can find this kind of time in their schedule," says Zager. Regular tête-à-têtes help keep a relationship in good shape, since you're able to nip problems in the bud instead of letting resentment fester and then clog up your weekends.

The least time-crunched parents are those who don't feel guilty putting their kids to bed at a reasonable hour so that they can enjoy each other in the evening.

Take the Drudgery out of Errands

Sixty percent of you say chores are your least favorite thing about the weekend. "Mine would be a lot nicer if I could hire a housekeeper and a personal shopper," jokes Terri Hartmann of Havre de Grace, MD, an engineer and mom of two boys, ages 3 and 1. While that's a wish for most families, there are ways to speed through your to-do list.

If you haven't already, start by enlisting your partner's help. Divide chores you'd each like to do rather than assign him ones he can't stand. And offer an incentive: "If we all pitch in, I won't be so stressed and we'll have more time for fun."

Children can help, even those as young as 3. They can match socks, pick up their stuffed animals, dust a table. "It's important for kids to understand early on that being part of a family is a responsibility as well as a privilege," says Kathy Peel, author of The Family Manager's Everyday Survival Guide.

Whenever possible, make cleaning fun: Put on peppy music. Have a race to see who can toss more blocks into the toy chest.

Next up: Rid your house of unnecessary junk and organize what you keep. Clutter's a time waster because:

     a) you have to clean around all of it

     b) you have to sift through it anytime you need to find things

     c) it's tough to put things away if they don't have a designated "home." So start by having a yard sale or throwing out or donating anything you haven't used in the past year. Then corral similar items  -- art supplies, holiday decorations, puzzles  -- in labeled storage bins.

A good habit to develop for weekdays: Whenever you have five free minutes  -- you're waiting for the pasta to boil, you're on hold with the telephone company  -- do something productive. "You may not be able to clean the entire refrigerator, but you can take a few moments to do one shelf," says Peel. You'll be surprised how many of your chores you can work your way through, which saves large amounts of weekend time for your family.

Before running errands on Saturday morning, make a mental map of where you need to go and create a plan so you don't end up crisscrossing town. Bring a list to avoid forgetting something, and call ahead to be sure the store has what you need. There's no sense in driving 20 minutes only to discover that the shoe store doesn't carry soccer cleats.

Leave Your Work at the Office

Of those of you who work outside the home, 52 percent  -- and 68 percent of your husbands  -- crack open your briefcase at least some weekends. To cut back, see whether there are ways to get more done Monday through Friday. Are colleagues constantly interrupting you, slowing you down? Do your meetings run too long? Limit intrusions by closing your door when you have a project you really need to focus on or when you're on a deadline, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. Draw up an agenda before meetings so they don't drag on forever. It also helps to determine exactly how firm your deadlines are, so make sure you truly need to hand in that report first thing Monday morning.

When you have to take work home, put a limit on how much time you're willing to spend on it. Set a timer for, say, one or two hours, then call it quits. "This will encourage you to use your time more efficiently," says Zager.

If you have a particularly time-consuming project that must be done over the weekend, give up something else  -- whether vacuuming the family room or watching football on TV  -- to recoup some family time. Hardly a huge sacrifice, since kicking back with the kids can be the best reward for having worked hard all week.

Mary Garner Ganske's last article for Parenting was "Winning Bedtime Battles," in the September issue.

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