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Gimme A Break!

When the days get crazy at my house  -- my daughters are sick, the weather's bad, my husband's somehow conveniently out of town  -- what I most desire isn't a night off, or even my own out-of-town vacation. Such notions are so far out of my current reality as to be almost beyond my comprehension. Why not wish to win the lottery while I'm at it?

No, what I long for is simply a breather: A few minutes when no one asks me a single question and there's no crying or screaming in the background. Sometimes, even this small, insignificant piece of space and time can seem out of reach. But it's easier to grab some "me" time than you might think. Here, ways to artfully do it:

Timer tricks
Getting the five or ten minutes you need often requires your child's cooperation, as well as his understanding of the time you're "discussing." So, a kitchen timer or an hourglass is a valuable tool. (The latter works great with a young child because he sees the time pass). Use it to:

Offer a 10-for-10 deal. Trade ten minutes of uninterrupted time for you (measured on the timer) for ten minutes in which you'll play a game with or read a book to your child.

Focus your child's play. Set the timer to "limit" how long he can color or play with a toy. The implication of a limit usually makes my girls stay put and enjoy what they're doing (witness how long it takes to pull your child away from activities when you have to leave the house), so they'll often play steadily for the full ten minutes, and then beg for more.

Stop yourself from checking in constantly. If your baby's fed, changed, and tired but fussy in his crib, set the timer for five minutes. No peeking in on him until it goes off. Often, he'll have settled down to sleep by the time the five minutes have passed, and you'll have more time to relax.

Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor to Parenting.

Let's make a deal

Sometimes it takes a little more negotiation to get your child to agree to occupy herself. But you don't want to make a deal that ends up costing you more (in time, money, or mess) than you actually get. (Example: letting your preschooler have fun with play dough while you take a shower, only to find colorful little balls of dough decorating your dining-room chandelier that take a half hour to clean up.) Instead, strive for a deal that not only gives you a little time, but also helps take care of some chores.

I've been known to pay my kids in individual chocolate chips for every block, crayon, or dandelion in the yard (or whatever else might need tidying) that they pick up. Their sweet payoff never amounts to much in terms of calories and sugar, and I get extra time while they work, plus a clean area. If candy bribes feel morally (or dentally) wrong, here are other easy incentives to buy help and time:

* Beautiful buttons or beads (for kids over 4)
* Shiny polished rocks or shells (for kids over 4)
* An individual marker, pencil, or crayon from a set
* Virtually anything you can hand a toddler. Even a small stack of envelopes or business cards feels like a prize.

Household shortcuts
Look for chore time-savers so your child's naptime can be time off for you. Along with obvious desperation moves (meals on paper plates, sandwiches for supper), you can:

Lessen the laundry load. Have everyone put their dirty socks in their own large mesh bags, and throw those in the washer/dryer so you needn't sort through a pile of socks for matching pairs.

Have dinner and a bath. I've been heartened to learn I'm not the only mom who skips the double steps and instead serves dinner with the bath. When I really need downtime, I hurry the bedtime process along by giving my girls supper while they're in the tub. They love it, and the time saved is substantial.

Always cook for two. Meals, that is. Boil enough eggs and peel enough carrots for today's chef salad and tomorrow's lunch. When you prep dry ingredients for one batch of pancakes, measure out a second batch and store in a plastic bag marked with directions about what wet ingredients to add later.

Keep 'em busy

One reason your child clamors for your attention (besides the fact that he adores you) is that his pile of toys and stacks of books can quickly become boring. When you need him to entertain himself for several minutes, try one of these odd and quirky activities:

Give your child a bucket of markers to "test" on paper so he can determine which ones still work and which can be tossed.

Have him sort out the crayons from the markers and the pencils, and place them all in different bags.

On your walk, pick up rocks. Your child can wash and scrub them all clean with a toothbrush and a bowl of water on a towel while you read the paper. No rocks? Have your child wash, scrub, and dry his action figures, plastic dishware, shells, or actual spoons from your utensil drawer.

Have your child sort and line up all of his favorite toys on the floor or on a single step: Stuffed animals, trucks, and so forth can be ordered by color, size, or affection. This task is consuming and will, of course, require your awe and admiration at the end.

Hand him some washcloths and other pieces of fabric such as bandannas or handkerchiefs, which can be exciting additions to play. Show him how to wrap up toys in them, wash and dry them, and turn them into doll capes or hideouts.

Go through your office trash and give your toddler a box to cover with stickers or Post-its, an envelope to fill with scraps, and so forth.

Slack off
Simply give in and be a slacker mom. It's okay. We all do it.

Tune in. Plug your child into headphones and have her listen to story tapes in the backseat while you take a short time-out drive and listen to your own music (or just the news).

Tune out. Put the baby within your view in a swing or a bouncy chair and put on your own headphones  -- you can listen to music or the news while keeping an eye on your child.

Fake unconsciousness. Pretending to be asleep is a desperation tactic that, when safely deployed, can actually work, forcing your spouse to step in and take over. Or if your child's old enough to notice, she'll play on her own while you monitor her from beneath mostly closed lids.