If there's one universal truth in becoming a parent -- and there may be only one universal truth in becoming a parent -- it's that life instantly becomes more complex. And stays that way.
The constancy of this battle against chaos struck me recently on the drive to school. From my first moments awake I had been struggling: urging the kids to eat and get dressed, making breakfasts and lunches, packing backpacks. I had decided to save time by not dressing myself, but we were late anyway. We missed the car-pool dropoff and I had to conduct the Walk of Shame: taking my kids to their classrooms in my jammies.
Driving home, I could sense the clock ticking down to the time when I would be late to pick them up. It was time for drastic measures. What if I, for once, followed all that "simplify your life" advice we hear? I decided to do a little experiment and try five techniques that are supposed to make life saner:
This is the simplification tip we seem to hear most often. The premise is easy enough: You're in control of what you allow into your life, so don't allow anything that promises complications.
It makes sense until your 5-year-old tells you she really wants you to volunteer in her classroom, and while you're there, the teacher tells you how much they need items for the bake sale, and while you're baking, the sitter you love tastes the brownies and you love her so much that you let her take a bunch home and decide to whip up another batch, and the next thing you know you're late again and the kitchen is a mess.
That's how it happens.
My problem, really, with saying no is that I don't want to disengage from life, just simplify it a little. So I wondered whether instead of saying no to big things, I could try saying no to littler ones and see if they added up to a real change.
- I said no to making an alternate breakfast when Mare decided she didn't want cereal.
- I offered Ren a choice of only two shirts, and didn't let her dig in her drawer for alternatives.
- I even said no to fixing myself a coffee to go.
Sure enough, we were in the car ten minutes sooner.
The "no" thing backfired when Renny insisted on bringing her doll-baby into preschool. "No!" I said with smug confidence. She started shrieking. I handed her the doll.
Sometimes "yes" can be simpler. The key, I realize, is figuring out when to say what.
Ask for help
This is what you're supposed to do when you have kids, because you can't do it alone, it takes a village, all that. When it comes to the big things -- someone's in the hospital, or your pipes burst, and you need someone to watch the kids -- it's easy to ask for help because you don't have a choice.
But when it comes to the everyday simplify-your-life things, it's harder to ask someone to share the burden. I decided to try asking for help on the smaller things, starting with this project: asking three mom friends each to try one of the tips in their own lives. Karin and Tania agreed. Ellie said no.
"Oh, does your life feel simpler now?" I asked her.
"Simpler than Tania's and Karin's," she replied.
The exchange showed me how closely related asking for help and saying no can be. Were my other friends only saying yes to be polite? Would I owe them something later and feel like I couldn't say no because they had helped me?
At the same time, it was fun to be doing the simplicity project together, and it certainly made my life easier just to ask them how it went instead of doing it myself. So in some ways, asking for help makes life more complicated, but it also makes it more enjoyable. I do think if you are going to ask for help you have to be ready to give it. But what's so bad about that? My friends got to do a fun experiment with me, and owing them one isn't so bad.
"The part of the day I am struggling with most right now is mornings," Karin said. (Tell me about it.) "So I decided to apply 'planning ahead' to that. And you know, I was really surprised. I understood on a basic level that if I made lunches the night before, then the mornings would be easier. But I didn't realize what a positive impact that would have on the rest of the day. Instead of starting off with a big buildup of stress, we just got out the door and then enjoyed a walk to the bus stop."
I didn't ask whether she went in her jammies.
Listening to Karin, it was clear that the goal isn't really more order; it's less stress. The issue isn't getting something done right, but avoiding the anxiety that comes from chaos that's not managed. So I'm inspired, and a little jealous, that her part of the experiment went so well.
Let yourself off the hook
Of all my friends, Tania's house is the neatest. She has, like, fruit bowls on the counter and stuff. I thought that this translated into a sense of peace and simplicity, so I was surprised to hear that Tania decided to let herself off the hook on her housekeeping.
"We decided to get a housecleaner once a week," she confessed. (Oh, please don't tell your husband it was because I made you help me.)
"Did it make life simpler?" I asked.
"I clean obsessively before she comes, and I clean after," she admitted. Okay, work in progress. But I did realize one thing: She's a lot harder on herself than any of her friends are on her. When it comes to my house, she always tells me how great it looks, and it's never as clean as hers. Maybe letting yourself off the hook means being as nice to yourself as you are to your friends. I'll keep trying that one. After all, I remind them they're great moms when their kids pull belly-screamer meltdowns in public, and I should remind myself, too. The next time I drag a screaming child out of the market, I'll try to be as encouraging to myself as my friends would be to me.
Do one thing at once
I don't know any mom who doesn't pride herself on her multitasking skills. We can talk on the phone, wipe a nose, and look up something online, answering questions about eating habits of birds as we go. But as I considered it, I wondered whether this might be an inherent part of our problem. In the first weeks with newborns, we learn to do so many things at once. Maybe we never unlearn it. Maybe sometimes we should.
"Are these withdrawal symptoms?" I thought as I stood in the kitchen chopping vegetables and twitching from a desire to have my laptop in front of me.
"This doesn't feel right," I muttered as I drove the kids to the market without a cell phone crammed against my ear.
"I can't concentrate!!" I thought as I forced myself to pay attention to the girls without picking up all the messes I saw around the toy room.
On the last day of my week of simplifying, I rolled out of the house, late as usual. I drove along with the ticker of self-annoyance going around my head. "Why can't I do this right? I should have planned ahead, or said no, or let myself off the hook, or whatever. But I should not be walking the halls of school in my jammies yet again."
Fergie came on the radio, singing "Girl can't help it." I turned it up and the girls started singing along. Suddenly it was a gorgeous day and I didn't mind everything so much. That was when it hit me: Driving to school, worrying about being late, trying to get there sooner, and berating myself for my mistakes was doing too much all at once. The only thing I really should have been doing in that moment was driving to school, singing a song in my jammies. Because that's where I was.
"Do one thing at once" isn't just about not multitasking; it's also about paying attention. It isn't always possible to get help or say no or let ourselves off the hook -- life wouldn't happen if we did too much of that. But my week of simplicity taught me what it's all really about: learning to be in the moment and trying not to worry about the rest so much.
And life with kids being what it is, that may just be as simple as we can hope for.
Elizabeth Soutter Schwarzer, also known as DaMomma, blogs at http://forums.parenting.com/blogs/parenting-post/posts/.