You are here

Living With The Chaos


It was the big day -- the day of the birthday party, an event my twins had been waiting for since their last birthday party. I wondered whether they'd be permanently scarred if I canceled the event because my life was a pit of chaos and I had no time to be festive. The answer was yes, the scar tissue would be massive, and I didn't want to have to spend their college fund on a therapist who specializes in disappointed twins, so I sped over to the park. By noon I was cutting the cake for my newly minted 3-year-olds, Drew and Claire.

As I distributed the slices, one of the other moms looked around for a fork. Forks! How could I have forgotten them? When she asked another mom where the forks were, I got busy arranging the juice boxes. But I couldn't duck the deeper question, the issue that lurks as the subtext for life with children: Was I a pathetic mom because I couldn't manage even the most basic details of my life -- and theirs?

Mercifully, Drew and Claire interrupted my self-recrimination by extending their sweaty little hands for cake. First I had to publicly admit my lapse in utensil provision, of course, and concede that yes, everyone present would have to eat with their fingers. But the twins and I quickly settled on a bench to give our dark slabs our full, happy concentration. For a moment, I let myself off the hook. Fork or no fork, this was good. And let's be honest: 3-year-olds aren't such big fork fans anyway.

One of the surprising things about being a parent isn't that it's such a mix of joy and frustration but that there's a lurking belief that somehow we can raise kids without chaos. We live in an increasingly demanding world, yet we haven't adjusted our expectations. Instead, the parental job description just keeps getting more and more complex. Keep reading to learn how to stop fighting the chaos and thrive in it.

Accept Reality

The time crunch is real: According to the Americans' Use of Time Project, moms today actually spend as much time with their children as mothers did in 1965. And dads now spend 4 hours a day with them, not 2.7 hours, as they did in 1965.

Something has to give, so working mothers gain kid time by doing less sleeping, housework, and exercising, according to the University of Cincinnati's Kunz Center for the Study of Work & Family.

Great. The house is messy; you're tired and in need of a workout; and on top of it all, motherhood's more demanding than ever, since we're expected to take a much more active role in shaping our child's social, academic, and psychological experiences. This all serves to ramp up the pressure. With books and advertisements trumpeting the importance of early learning, it's easy to feel you're not doing a good job if your toddler isn't fluent in Spanish and pounding out a Chopin ¿¿tude on the piano by the time he's 2½.

And beyond providing an enriching home life, parents are supposed to help financially strapped childcare centers and schools by organizing auctions, bake sales, and book fairs. The days can be long.

"When I was growing up, I don't think I ever talked to my parents about my homework," says Julie O'Connor, a mother of three in Concord, Massachusetts. "Now there's this intense involvement expected. It seems like every day I've got to drive them all over the place, cook dinner, help with the math homework, and then make a puppet."

Guilt, an eternal undercurrent in parenting, appears to rise in relation to the number of extracurricular options available to your children. Then again, you've also read about the importance of giving your child enough time to hang out and relax.

Give yourself a break. You're trying to make the best decisions you can, and often you're operating in a context of feeling rushed and worried. Most of us are in no position to quit our job or hire a full-time maid or undergo a personality overhaul that would leave us as calm as a Buddhist monk. At some point, we have to accept the reality of who we are and what our lives are like, and then try to make life as rewarding as possible.

Redefine Success

You'll find reality is easier to accept if you rethink what it means to be a good parent. Instead of feeling like a domestic dud because the wash is piled up, revel in the fact that your kids ended the day feeling happy.

For Lauren Lieberman of Bethesda, Maryland, the simultaneous meltdown of her two kids was a signal to abandon cleaning the kitchen. "It was a disaster -- there was chocolate syrup all over the table," she recalls, "but I wasn't going to let the baby cry and my four-year-old moan just so I could clean it. We all sat down, cuddled, and watched Teletubbies."

Shrieking children are a vivid reminder to stay in the present, but often we're dragged into the past by messages we've internalized from our own parents: Why can't you make that kid stop crying? What do you mean he won't eat brussels sprouts? You're really going to let her wear that to playgroup? Even though her own mother was no Julia Child, Lisa Belkin, author of Life's Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom, finds it difficult to set her own standards for cuisine.

"My mother didn't cook, but for some reason, if I don't have a real dinner on the table, I feel like I've failed as a parent," she says. After years of feeling inadequate, she's fighting back. "As I'm falling asleep, I tune in to the list of what I did, instead of looking at what didn't get done," she says.

And, she adds, she's learned to view these accomplishments in the context of the rhythm of home and family life: Some days are great for playing with the kids; some days are productive ones at work; some days the house looks terrific. Only rarely is everything wonderful at once.

See Good In Chaos

Not only are day-to-day difficulties -- whining, fighting, and messes -- part of raising children, they're also developmentally important for kids. "The work of childhood is experimentation," says Peter Sheras, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. "If you think you can control everything they do, you're going to feel bad." Instead, he says, accept the inevitable and remember that your children are learning by making messes and trying out defiant behavior.

So give up any idea that parenting is a breeze. "I had the ridiculous notion that mornings should be a pleasant time together," says Lisa Schiff of San Francisco, a mom of 4-year-old twins who've been known to indulge in a little whining and fighting as they get ready for preschool. "A friend's half-joking/ half-serious comment was that the only goal I should have in the morning is to get everyone to school alive; that put things into perspective."

Kids won't learn how to be civilized unless they toy with being uncivilized -- it's your constant limit setting that's going to teach them what's appropriate. And that means some conflict, which probably means you're doing your job right instead of doing it wrong.

Simplify Routines

Since kids aren't going to stop acting like kids, minimizing the chaos does have to start with you. Begin by taking stock of the kind of person you are: Do you hate to cook? Do you need to have the living room picked up before you can feel good about going to bed? Are you overwhelmed by bathtime logistics? Then make a plan. Decide you'll order in twice a week and have soup and sandwiches on a third night; have your partner take on the bedtime routine so you can tidy the living room; start bathtime earlier. Overall, lower your standards. "I'm a very bad cook," concedes Sarah Alexander, mother of Sasha, 3, and Graham, 1, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. "So we do a lot of simple stuff -- pasta, frozen pizza, mac and cheese. This allows me to do other things, like spend time outside with the kids after dinner."

Eliminating nonessentials is the mantra for Susan Williams McElroy of Dallas. "If I don't absolutely have to do something, I cut it," she says. Travel, community meetings, and work-related dinners filled McElroy's weeks before Opal, 2, arrived. Now McElroy says no to anything that's not crucial. "I'm home in the evenings now," she says. "Things that seemed important before I had Opal just seem less important now. It's probably good for my mental health too."

If there's one thing we know, it's that raising children -- especially young children -- takes time and energy. Conserve when you can.

Make The Most Of It

While you can't squeeze more hours into the day, you can squeeze more meaning into the hours. Giving your child your full attention -- even if only for a few minutes -- creates a pause in the onslaught of the day's action.

And it's likely that the day's most significant moments come when you're interacting with your child -- reading a book or playing catch. Best of all, it's easy to savor time. Don't worry about creating lots of special outings to the circus or the museum. Just be sure to make the little stuff, everyday activities, fun.

"Mason's favorite thing is to drive around with me in the car," says Chicago mom Meredith Ade of her 18-month-old. "He mimics me and says everything he sees: 'bus, stroller, car.'" Other entertainment highlights of Mason's day might include looking at pictures in a magazine on his mother's lap or dancing around the kitchen in her arms.

It may seem obvious, but if an activity with your kids isn't enjoyable, stop doing it. If music classes or swimming lessons end in tears every week, there's probably no reason to continue the torment, especially with small children. For Gwen Glesmann of Takoma Park, Maryland, watching videos with her son, Maxim, 5, started out as a fun together-time activity -- she got a bit of a break, and Maxim, whom she adopted from Russia, got to learn some English. But soon the activity soured; TV watching seemed to be both overstimulating and numbing for Maxim. "He'd whine and beg for TV all day," says Glesmann. "Afterward, we'd notice he was really wound up."

So when the family moved to a new house, Glesmann told him the television broke. She misses being able to take a breather, and some of her own favorite shows, but eliminating the whining marathon has been worth it.

Train Your Kids

Since some level of chaos is inevitable, start showing your kids how to manage their mess. Babies are off the hook, but even toddlers can help around the house. Label baskets for balls and puzzles and teach your toddler to put things back when he's done playing. Young helpers love praise, and if you make a game out of picking up (by playing music or setting a timer), it'll be more entertaining for everyone.

"I'm one of those people who find it soothing to have everything in its place," says Glesmann. "I'm trying to teach Maxim to have an internal standard of neatness."

He's been a fast learner. "Some nights he says, 'Surprise, Mama, come look.' And he's cleaned it all up," says Glesmann.

Teaching kids to control their own mess is good for everyone: Parents get help around the house, and kids learn how to create a less chaotic environment for themselves. But no matter how neat the house is, you'll still have to roll with the punches. Even an immaculate playroom can't prevent milk from spilling on the dog, traffic from making you late to work, or the occasional chocolate cake from being eaten with fingers.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams, a former staff writer at the Boston Globe, also writes for Health.