Ah September. Welcome back.
I love the slower, easier pace that comes with summer. The days are longer, the clock seems to slow down and everyone just seems to be able to relax. Once my kids got to the point where they could be on their own during the day, or even better, get a part time job, summer became truly delightful. No homework, no lunches coming home squished and uneaten, no pronouncements of being out of clean pants/shirts/socks twenty minutes before we have to leave, no agendas. Oh my gosh, no agendas. Agendas are the bane of my existence, or more appropriately, lost agendas. It is no wonder in our house that agenda and angst both start wit the letter A. Regardless, summer means none of that, so it is embraced with deep affection every single year. It means breathing room for the entire family.
By the time September rolls around though, I am ready to have structure back. To have my house, my kitchen, and my schedule all return to some semblance of normal. September means new beginnings, fresh starts, and a whole new year filled with promise. And don’t we all embrace it? Shopping from long lists for supplies, new shoes, a second pair of new shoes for gym class that are going to be forgotten and worn outside anyway, backpacks, clothes, new hair cuts. Signing up for activities to fill in our evenings: scouts, music lessons swimming lessons, dance lessons, youth group, volunteering. The works. It’s like we are revving up an invisible engine that is going to fill our days and evenings with busyness and keep us all from having to worry about what to do with free time, because there isn’t any.
Back to school heralds the start of fall, which has us running until we hit December and close out the year, exhausted, schedules crammed to the max, and desperate for just a quiet evening at home and a well cooked dinner that doesn’t come from a pizza box. It’s the marathon that we all run.
Over time, our family has managed to create some guidelines and discover a few tricks that help us navigate not only September, but the rest of the year. There is no end to the ways we can run ourselves ragged, but there are a few things we can do to hold our own and create some margin in our busy lives.
- Schedule your downtime first. Seriously do not underestimate the power of this. If you only take away one thing from this list, this is the keeper. Before you book swimming lessons, Scouts, music lessons, volunteer commitments or anything else, sit down with your calendar and literally block off your downtime/vacation for at least three months at a time. It can be a weekend away, a series of evenings at home in your pj’s, time to visit family, or free time where you will decide what you do when you get there. It can be your work vacation, a regular weekend, or a day here and there that you steal for yourselves. Whatever it is, claim it in your calendars first and make a firm commitment to yourself and your family that you are going to keep those spaces clear. Once your downtime is booked, schedule everything else around it. You will be amazed at how easy it is to meet all of the expectations on your life and schedule if you know that in two weeks time you will have that free weekend. You are giving yourself a light at the end of the tunnel. In our home we book one weekend a month off from all other commitments. Sometimes we visit family out of town, sometime we stay in our pj’s until noon and do only what we want to do. And it doesn’t have to be weekends and full days, we have also been known to book off movie premiers, parent-child outings, personal growth courses, and just about anything else that fills our tanks. Guilt free.
- Say no to some of your activities. We had a guideline in our family that was always the baseline for planning activities: Each person chooses one activity that takes them out one night per week. That sounds limiting, but if you have four people in your house and everyone has an activity they want to do, you are running around for up to four nights of the week. That’s busy enough. We didn’t always follow this, but we tried and often used it to at least help us triage the activities that mattered most to us. It didn’t mean that we didn’t get to do things, it just meant that we didn’t do them all at once. This one helped us keep breathing room in our schedule. To be fair, we didn’t play organized sports which I know is a much bigger time commitment. If we had, we would have had to find another way to create margin in our schedule. You don’t have to use our exact guideline, but have a conversation about creating one that works for you.
- Don’t neglect your spouse. Who has time for date night? Do yourself a favor and make time because you two are in this crazy thing together. Some day your kids will grow up, move out, and leave the two of you alone. It’s to your benefit, and theirs, to take care of your marriage and keep it healthy. It doesn’t have to be fancy or elaborate, it just needs to happen. Time alone, outside of your house, without your children. A short walk in the evenings, taking an hour to grab a coffee, dessert at your favorite restaurant, just going for a drive. It doesn’t have to kill your budget, just make some time for each other and have fun, like before you had a family complete with children, a dog, and pet fish. And don’t talk about your kids, date night is all about you.
- Make friends with your slow cooker. I wish I had discovered this a decade ago, it would have had a huge impact. School, work, meetings, activities. When are you supposed to find time to cook real food? Too often and easily I ended up grabbing something on the way home that was fast and easy but full of sodium and fat, low on any good nutrition, and coincidentally killed our budget. If you don’t have the organizational skill or the time to set the slow cooker up in the morning, you can throw it together the night before and stick it in your fridge until the next day turning it on before leaving the house. Alternatively, you can prepare the ingredients and freeze them in a large Ziploc for later use, dump the contents into the slow cooker and away you go. Finally, you can also do what I now do quite often. About once a month I set up two crock-pots for two days of heavy cooking. Chicken, beef, pasta sauce, vegetarian dishes, you name it, there are tons of good recipes out there for just about anything you can imagine. My favorite source of recipes can be found here. I buy the ingredients for 4 to 6 different recipes and run the slow cookers for two days solid and then I portion everything and freeze it for later use. After that dinner can then be as simple as making rice while my Thai curry chicken heats up, cooking pasta for the spaghetti sauce I’ve already made, or making a salad to go with the pulled pork. One weekend of hard core cooking can get us through up to six weeks of weeknight meals. That’s a good trade.
- When you do cook, double it up. A wise woman once told me that ten extra minutes in the kitchen can free up an hour or two later. Whatever it is you are preparing, double the recipe and save it for another meal. A little extra chopping, a little more prep time and you’ve given yourself a free night off later on. Quite often I will portion the extra into lunch containers for work and stick them in the freezer. As long as you have some variety you’ll be happy you don’t have to make sandwiches nor will you cave in and buy lunch. Word to the wise though, don’t overdo it. I went through a chana masala phase about a year and a half ago. I have an awesome recipe that tastes great and is super easy so I often doubled it. One time I quadrupled the batch and portioned it for lunches. We were eating it for months and the family consensus was that I was banned from ever making it again. Too much of a good thing…is still too much.
There you have it, 5 things that can help you survive back to school and fall chaos. And really the rest of the year as well. Sometimes I really couldn’t make them all work at once but I tried, sometimes life isn’t about all in or all out, it’s about moving forward and enjoying your family. If you don’t believe me, wait until it’s the Friday night in early December that you booked off in September and you are at home with the kids eating the General Tso’s Chicken that you actually made and froze two weeks beforehand and have nothing more pressing than to laugh hysterically while watching Will Ferrell take down the department store Santa in Elf.