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The Organized Mom

I was pregnant with my first child when I saw the movie One Fine Day, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a hard-charging supermom. Time and again, her character pulled miracles out of her purse as if it were a bottomless magic hat: a fresh shirt to replace her milk-shake-covered one, makeshift costumes for dress-up day at the daycare center.

That film prepared me for parenthood more than any Lamaze flick ever could have. Since then, I've learned a lot about being an Organized Mom. My ability to stay a few steps ahead of Jack, 4, and Ben, 2 (at least some of the time), keeps me sane. To help you get your life together, here's what I, and other moms, have found:

Diane Benson Harrington is managing editor of Freelance Success, a website and newsletter for freelance writers. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

On The Go

If you can handle only a little organizing at a time, start with your bag and your car  -- having both of them in order may save you more trouble than you can imagine.

All-in-one
I ditched my traditional diaper bag long ago, since I'd invariably leave either it or my purse behind. Now I carry all my stuff in one convenient, attractive tote that's bigger than a pocketbook but smaller than a traditional backpack. It has a water-resistant interior and convertible straps that I can use sling- or knapsack-style, which keeps my hands free.

X-ray vision
In my tote, I separate items into zip-lock bags (small toys in one, my makeup in another, etc.) so they're easier to find than if I just dump everything in haphazardly.

Diaper duty
In my bag, I also keep:
* two diapers
* a travel-size container of wipes
* a 12- by 12-inch, flannelized water-resistant lap pad (in lieu of a bulky changing pad)
* sample-size packets of diaper cream
* two small, scented trash bags for tossing smelly diapers (or for storing them as a last resort when there's no garbage can around).
In the car, I also stash an extra package of diapers and a travel-size box of wipes. (City dwellers may want to consider keeping four diapers in their tote bag.)

That's entertainment!
Karen, a Washington, DC, mom of three boys, ages 15, 12, and 6, says she learned long ago to carry a bag of tricks with her. Whether at a restaurant or a religious service, she could reach in and pull out stickers, games, and small puppets. "It's the only way to ward off whines and fidgets," she says.

Munchie supply
In a small container in my bag, I keep a juice box for Jack and a filled sippy cup for Ben, zip-locks with snacks, and two lollipops for absolute emergencies.

Spare clothes
Crammed at the bottom of the bag is an extra pair of underwear (Jack is potty training), a T-shirt, and lightweight pants, both in Jack's size. If Ben needs them, he'll be swimming in oversize clothes, but at least he won't be wet. There's an extra shirt in the car for me.

911 kit
You may already have a jack, a spare tire, flares, and tools for car trouble. But for kid emergencies, I've learned, it's smart to have on hand a roll of paper towels and two to four plastic grocery bags. The bags are great for wet clothes, and they're the right size to put between your child's bottom and a car seat that's soaked from spilled milk or a diaper accident.

Location, location
I store a cell phone and a map in the car, plus a phone book (stowed under the passenger seat). When I have a mental meltdown and space out on the address of a playdate after I've already left the house, I can look it up. Or if one store doesn't have what I need, I can call another from the car without traipsing across town. Program most-used numbers into your cell so you can order a pizza on the way home or tell the pediatrician you've been stuck in traffic.

Cash stash
Paula, a mom of three, ages 8, 5, and 3, in Valparaiso, Indiana, keeps a change purse in her car with coins for parking meters and tolls. She also has a $20 bill handy  -- tucked into her SUV's console  -- for those moments when she's just finished ordering Happy Meals at the drive-through and suddenly realizes her wallet's empty.

At Home

One family, one calendar
Trying to schedule a playdate but can't remember if you have a doctor appointment that afternoon? Too many datebooks add up to too much chaos. Train your spouse and caregivers to use one family calendar. Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 of Mom Central's Tips  -- For Moms From Moms and a mother of two, ages 8 and 6, uses a different-color marker for each family member so she'll know at a glance whose activity is posted.

Cheat sheet
Tacked inside one of my kitchen cabinets, along with the usual fire/police emergency numbers, is the following info:
* phone numbers for my husband at work, the pediatrician, my husband's and my doctors, my neighbors, and babysitters
* over-the-counter medication dosages for each of my little ones
* their allergies
* the whole family's social security numbers, which I always end up needing for some form or another.

On a separate note in the cabinet, which I point out to sitters, I've written our names and address, our phone number, and the kids' ages, weights, and birth dates (which doctors and emergency personnel often need to know).

Lightening the load
I teach my kids to sort laundry as they put their dirty clothes into their two-sided hamper: one slot for darks, the other for lights. DeBroff assigns a zippered mesh bag to each family member just for his or her socks and underwear. She also uses laundry markers to put different-color dots on the tags of her kids' clothes so as they come out of the dryer, she'll know instantly what belongs to whom. To help save time in the morning, I also place my kids' clothes in their dressers already sorted into matching outfits.

Tackling toys
See-through bins and boxes with lids will save you from toy chaos. Put cars in one box, blocks in another, dolls in a third.

Catchall
In our playroom and the kids' room, I also keep a large, empty plastic tub with a lid. If we don't have the time to sort toys one day, we can sweep them all into the larger container, and at least they're out of sight.

The launch pad
That's what DeBroff calls the space by your door where you should have a closet or coatrack  -- plus a basket for shoes, cubbies or kid-height hooks for backpacks, and file folders or boxes for mail and your child's school papers. When you get home, everything should be in its own place, and you won't forget anything on your way out.

Basket of sanity
Amy Knapp, creator of the datebook-style Amy Knapp's Family Organizer 2004 and a mom of two, ages 7 and 5, places a wicker shopping basket by her door. Everything she needs for routine errands and chores  -- from library books to small mending projects  -- goes inside. She brings the basket with her whenever she leaves the house. This way, she never forgets a task and also has a project to tackle if she gets stuck waiting in line.

The School Shuffle

When your toddler spills juice all over her clothes just before you have to leave, is it a crisis or merely a pesky setback? To keep it the latter:

Versatility is key
Monette, of Silver Springs, Maryland, is careful about the clothing she buys for her 2-year-old son: "I make sure a shirt will go with at least three bottoms before I get it."

The morning rush
End wardrobe hassles by pulling together your kids' outfits the night before. Rachel's 7- and 6-year-olds would rather watch TV than get dressed in their bedrooms, so the Freeville, New York, mom moved a bureau into the living room and dedicated one drawer of clothes per kid. "Now everyone wins. They can watch cartoons while they're putting on their clothes, and they're always wearing what I want them to wear because that's what they find in their drawers," she says.

Ten-minute warning
If you need to leave the house at 7:50 a.m., set a timer for 7:40, suggests Kathy Peel, author of The Family Manager Takes Charge and a mom of three. When it goes off, it's the signal for your kids to kick into a higher gear to finish their morning activities: brushing their teeth, feeding the dog, getting their shoes on. You can list everything they need to accomplish on a "Go" chart, just like a chore chart.

The art museum
Even though he's still only in childcare, Ben creates an average of two masterpieces per day. To handle the influx of art:
* Tack a colorful ribbon to the wall with clips (clothesline-style) for changing art displays.
* Help your child edit his own work by asking him to pick his favorites and toss the rest.
* Get rid of some quietly after he's gone to bed  -- he'll be none the wiser.

Special delivery
Every few months, whittle the collection down even further by having your child choose a few "keepers," then tell her how excited Grandma will be to see the rest of her wonderful work. Together, you can put the art in a mailing tube, color and label it, and take it to the post office.

After-school specials
Whether it's gymnastics or swimming lessons, designate a bag for each child's activity. "We use a big duffel that holds my son's helmet, pads, shoes  -- everything he needs for peewee football, plus an extra pair of socks," says Amy Knapp. "After I wash his jersey and pants, I stick them straight into the bag instead of putting them away in his drawer."

On The Job

To ease workdays  -- and the witching hour before dinner:

Hiding place
Have a home office? Keep yourself invisible by having a small cooler of drinks and snacks at your work space so you don't get distracted by your kids every time you head for the fridge.

Traveling solo
Get errands done during lunch  -- everything's faster and easier when the kids aren't with you. Does your workplace have a fridge? When Pam's kids, now 18 and 12, were younger, the Littleton, Colorado, mom shopped for a handful of dinner items midday, leaving the few perishables she bought clearly marked in the office refrigerator. "This wasn't the big weekly shopping trip," she says, "but it sure beat picking up the kids at daycare and then heading to the store."

Now that you've gotten yourself in order, if only you could get your husband and your kids to be as organized as you are!

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