As I drove to work one morning, heading toward the Eisenhower Expressway and the office, I heard a little voice in the back. "Aren't you going to take me to school?" asked my youngest daughter.
A slam-on-the-brakes, eye-opening moment.
Mornings as a single parent of three kids had gotten so out of control, I didn't realize I'd never made it to the elementary school to drop off Grace.
I need some order in the chaos of my family's daily life. That's why I'm planning to take this list of ideas from our readers and writers and untangle my crazy days. I know you'll find something in here to help you start making your family life run just a little bit smoother.
1. Fill `er up
Admit it, some days your tank is running on fumes. "Just like we can't run our car without filling it with gas unfortunately, in addition to our basic needs as parents, we need to replenish our immune system in some way," says Dr. Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A recharge, such as prayer, yoga, meditation or simple stretching, done deliberately for even 5-10 minutes several times a week can do wonders, she says. "We have pretty good evidence now, even when you do it in very small amounts and you do it regularly, you can actually change your brain chemistry," she says.
Better yet: Involve the family. Kids love yoga and things like that, especially in five-minute chunks. It could be the start of a great habit that helps them focus, learn better and manage their stress, too.
2. Make the most of Sundays
Sunday nights find mom Cindy Loiterman and her family getting all of their clothes ready for work and school for the upcoming week. "We put them in the designated spots for each day, then get our lunches ready into separate baggies and containers so that, throughout the week, we just mix and match our fruits, veggies and protein and we are set to go."
3. Stop chore wars
Laura Amann and her husband came up with the Job Jar to win the battle in the chore wars. "I wrote down all of the chores that my kids were perfectly capable of tackling, folded those notes in half and placed them in the jar. On Saturday mornings, each child reaches in and pulls out two or three jobs. They like the variety of never knowing what their job will be (with the added bonus of sometimes getting all the easy ones) while I like the fact that within an hour my entire house is clean!"
4. Stop the wonders, start talking
When you want to talk to your kids about big things, don't just sit them down and tell them-that's way too uncomfortable for children, says Parent Coach Cathy Adams, mom of three girls. Sit down and start coloring together or doing a project and then start talking. They can listen while staying focused on their art and it feels safer, less daunting. They are more likely to ask questions if they don't have to make eye contact. That's why you can get them to talk to you in the car-less eye contact, not so emotionally heavy.
5. Stagger bedtimes
As a mom of five (all under age 6!), Joy Slates really knows how hectic bedtimes can get, not to mention how exhausting it can be on mom and dad. "We discovered that staggering their bedtimes works much better than putting them all to bed at the same time. Our youngest goes first, then 15 minutes later his next two sisters, followed by our oldest, a set of twins, last. That way each set has a chance to wind down before the next set comes into their room."
6. Skip the Blackberry
No high-tech stuff for on-the-go mom and contributing writer Alena Murguia. She lives by her old-fashioned, hand-written master family calendar in the kitchen. "It's where we track parties, field trips, sports schedules, work deadlines and date nights. I always get the kind with attached folders or pouches so invitations can be kept organized and accessible. Every member of my family, even the kids, understands that the calendar is the final word on our schedule," she says.
7. But if you must, get techie
Diana Baron uses her iPhone to keep her on track for her kids' activities and appointments.
"I stay informed when it comes to the weather (how to dress). It also helps give me directions when I need to go to an unfamiliar place."
9. Take 10
Spend 10 minutes a day decluttering so you don't get overwhelmed. It's really true there should be a place for everything and everything in its place. But there comes a time when you need to get rid of things. Throw out what's unusable or unused and donate the rest, says mom Karen Ross.
Another do-it-now tip: Open mail over the recycling bin as soon as you bring it in from the mailbox. Immediately file bills and other items that you'll need later, and recycle the rest. You'll never have a mail pile or be late paying a bill.
Same advice goes for the paper in the kids' backpacks and, dare we say, the receipts and old gum wrappers in your purse.
10. Pack up the car
In the rush out the door in the morning, ever get somewhere, only to find you are missing something you needed for that errand or appointment? Won't happen again if you follow mom Jenny Liebhart's advice.
"I put everything in my car the night before so if we have a doctor's appointment and I need paperwork or a library book due back at the library, I have it and don't forget them at home."
11. Combine workouts with laundry
Mom Krista Spaletto has juggling her workouts down to a science. She puts the wash in the washing machine when she starts her workout and by the time she is done, the washer is done and she can put the clothes in the dryer.
"It helps me keep on top of the wash," she says.
13. Skip pajamas
Just don't tell your mom. "PJs are a big waste of time in my opinion," says mom of two Kelly James-Enger. "If Haley's wearing a onesie that's reasonably clean from that day, she sleeps in it, too. (My mom was shocked!) Of course I often sleep in the shirt I wore during the day and PJ bottoms, so I'm embracing this same idea."
12. Get the kids involved
Yes, you're overwhelmed and stressed out some days trying to get everything done. Look no further than the pint-size characters helping to contribute to the work. "If we do everything for them-as many parents do-it adds to our stress and really doesn't serve the children who are going to have to take this stuff on eventually," says certified professional organizer Jane Carroo of Clutter Coach, www.cluttercoach.com.
So what can a parent do? "Well, we can get a different perspective; we can step back and we can take a look at what is possible," she says.
Since we all like FREE, here's Carroo's take:
14. Forget date night
We all know how much effort date night takes. Coordinating busy schedules and hiring and paying a babysitter can drain out all the fun from a night on the town. Plan a "date day" instead, suggests UIC's Raja. If your kids are old enough for day care or school, pick a day and make 9 a.m.-3 p.m. all about you and your significant other. Raja says there's something to do in Chicago for every budget, from a simple walk in Millennium Park or along the lakefront to visiting a free museum or taking in movie. "It just feels really indulgent," she says. We can feel the relaxation already.
15. 'Watch' the kids without watching
Even if you no longer need to keep tabs on a sleeping infant, don't give away your baby monitor. Instead, you can create your own personal kiddie surveillance system while you multitask. Here's how mom Caitlin Murray Giles does it: "I leave the receiver on in the upstairs hallway so I can hear what's going on with my older kids while I am downstairs in the kitchen making dinner. I've also placed a monitor outside in my backyard so I can better supervise what is going on out there. This way, my kids can have the freedom to play outside or in another room while I get housework done-and I can hear what they're up to."
16. It's OK to say no
Yes, we know. Junior "needs" to keep busy so he's in two clubs after school, is a Cub Scout and is destined to be the next soccer great while your little princess takes ballet and hip-hop and dreams of playing ice hockey. But there has to be a limit.
"Really know from a psychological standpoint and an academic standpoint, you are not a bad parent if your child only does one or two extracurricular activities that they are really interested in," says UIC's Raja. Thank you!
Unless your kid is desperate to be part of the LEGO club, they might be just as happy if you sat down and created something together. Or a family swim during the park district's open swim might be all they want instead of joining the swim team. "When we get in as parents and say we have to do this, I think that ends up being really stressful for kids."
Strike a balance: Encourage kids to explore a few key interests and just relax as a family, she says.
18. Share the load
Set up a casual babysitting exchange with the parents in your kids' playgroup or your mommy friends. Mom Lisa Applegate says it was the best thing she and her husband ever did for their marriage. "When our kids were babies, I would put my son to bed; then the other parent would come over while my husband and I went out. The other parent got to relax in a house that was not hers (and therefore didn't have dirty dishes or other chores to worry about), and could just read or watch TV. My husband and I got much-needed time to connect without having to add the cost of a sitter to our evening. The trade got more complicated as kids aged and siblings came along, but a few close friends and I still take turns."
19. Don't want or waste
Dad Joe Menard has a creative solution for the week's leftovers crowding the fridge.
"We tend to cook breakfast on the weekends, and use the opportunity to clean out the "must-go" leftovers. We'll grab any leftover meat (chicken, beef, hot dogs, etc.) as well as any leftover veggies, dice it all up, throw it in a skillet. Let the veggies and meat cook up a little and pour in scrambled eggs. Once cooked, serve alone or on bread or tortillas."
20. Make great nails last longer
We know, it's hard to make time for that mani/pedi. So make the little indulgence last right through the busiest of days. Braff suggests you can make your manicure or pedicure last twice as long by applying a clear top coat every other day for the week following.
21. Be a sock (and glove) wrangler
Seriously, what happens to all those missing socks and gloves? "We used to have a big sock problem in our house, especially when my boys became teenagers, because all of their socks looked the same. Now I buy each male in the house a single brand and color, so I know immediately whose sock belongs to whom, says Ross. (Another clothes-related tip: only buy one color of those little gloves that expand when you put them on. I buy black because black hides most dirt. If you lose one, you'll still be able to use the remaining glove if you have others in the same color.)
22. Let the toilets clean themselves
No one likes to clean the potty or the sink drains, are we right?
Mom of two, Maria Pilar Clark, shares her trick: Drop two Alka-Seltzers into your kitchen sink and two more in each toilet of the house (all with water, of course). Then go about cleaning as usual.
"By the time you circle back to the sink and toilets, the bubbles will have loosened the grime, making it much easier to clean them, without needing harsh chemicals, too."
23. Use that time in the carpool line
As a mother of three, Giles spends a ton of time driving all over the city.
"When I find myself sitting in my car waiting to pick someone up, I hate to waste those precious few minutes. I keep a package of note cards and stamps in my glove compartment so I can quickly pen a letter to a friend or family member (something I always want to do, but never seem to get to). I look up the mailing address from the contact information on my iPhone, put a postage stamp on the envelope and put the letter in the nearest mailbox. Done."
24. Eat quick and clean
On the weekend or a weekday off, cook up a bunch of homemade "easy" kid-friendly foods-pancakes, animal crackers, pizza muffins, breakfast cookies-and freeze them. If you are like Clark, all week you'll be able to pull from the freezer and significantly cut down on cooking/prep times while not relying on overly processed foods to feed the family.
25. Make someone else feel needed
"Don't be afraid to ask other people for help," says Raja, who runs the website balancedlivingsolutions.com. Ask a neighbor to watch your kids for 10 minutes while you take a quick walk to pump up your energy or to pick up the kids one afternoon to give you a break. Offer to return that favor.
"People actually enjoy being needed. You might be surprised at how it makes people feel valued when you ask them for help. A lot of times we don't want to ask people because we think we're going to put them out."
Think about it this way, she says: "It's always nice to be needed."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.