It is 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It feels more like noon. Earlier, at 3:00 a.m., I nursed my two-month-old daughter. At 5:00 a.m., my 2-year-old son woke up early. Again. My husband is at his monthly weekend drill for the U.S. Army Reserves. My coffee machine is broken. At the Starbucks drive through, the baristas get my drink wrong, but I don’t realize it until we’re already well on our way down the highway.

Thankfully, we are going to the gym, where there’s a first-class childcare program that my toddler boy loves. He can run and run and run and play with other kids and throw balls without hearing me tell him “no” or “careful” or “shh” every five minutes. Do I work out at the gym while he plays? Not yet. I’m sitting in the gym café, writing this article while my baby girl coos from her car set. If I write fast, maybe I can finish a few more thoughts before she needs to eat or be rocked to sleep again.

This creative strategy for sanity is one that I learned from one of my many wise friends who’s riding this sleep-deprived, multiple-children train with me. If you have a ticket on this choo-choo, too—or maybe you’re about to board—here are the tips they and I are learning on the job.

Sleep is the most important thing in the universe. You probably hate me for this first one, because sleep is also the most elusive thing in the universe when you have an infant. Especially when you have an infant and older children. But you still need to take whatever opportunities to sleep that you can. Let your spouse take the older kids in the morning so you can get one more hour. Work toward getting the kids and the baby to nap or rest at the same time. Go to bed before it’s dark outside. I’d rather have my son learn how to play by himself when I cook dinner then have him meet a hot meal and a sleep-deprived angry mom when he wakes up.

Play with your older kids while your baby is asleep. Give the other kids attention before they need it. When the baby goes down for her nap in the morning or the early evening, that’s when I need to play with my son and give him the attention that he needs. You will see jealousy of the baby—this week my son climbed into our daughter’s crib and tried to swaddle himself—and that’s okay. The older children are learning to wait and that’s an important life lesson. But they aren’t self-sufficient adults yet, which leads me to my next tip …

Remember that your older kids are still kids. I’m tempted to think that our son is older than he is, now that I have a littler one to compare him to. He’s only 2, though. He’s still working on obeying my rules and he’s about as patient as you could expect a 2-year-old to be. I need to remember not to expect too much of him and to let him be a kid who plays and makes messes.

Buy a ring sling. It’s embarrassing, but I have now have three baby-wearers: the Moby, the Ergo, and now, the Sakura Bloom Linen Sling. Why? Well, the Moby was great when I just had one child, but it only took that one time when I had just done the required elaborate wrapping up of my baby, only to find that she was hungry again—while my toddler decided it was a good idea to eat his strawberries over the cream-colored living room carpet—to realize that I needed a quicker option. The Ergo is great when the baby is older, but it’s hot and takes up a lot of room in the bag that is now full of diapers in two sizes. You want to be able to slide that baby in quick so you can chase down the toddler in the parking lot.

Don’t worry about watching too much television. Our son is now well acquainted with Disney, vintage “Looney Tunes” cartoons, and four seasons of “The Magic School Bus.” That’s because when my husband, who often works late, gets up with him at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., he goes right back to sleep on the couch while our son climbs all over him and watches “tee.” Remember: Sleep is the most important thing in the universe. This is just a season. There will be time later to adhere to the American Pediatric Association’s utopian ideals about screen time.

Put on your own oxygen mask first. Don’t feel bad about emergency texting your friends when you think you can’t stand the crying one more second. Ask for advice from older, wiser moms. Give the colicky baby to someone else while you take a bath. Put down the parenting books and read something for fun. If a friend asks you to let her know if you need help, tell her you need a latte, stat … or a few groceries so you don’t have to do the whole car-seat-plus-toddler-in-the-shopping-cart thing today. It’s also okay to go for a walk so you get those happy endorphins when your kids would rather go to the playground. Though we sacrifice a lot for our kids and we’re happy to do it, the caretakers need to remember to take care of themselves.

Build your support network and use it. Even with the best spouse in the world (and I think mine takes the prize), there’s still nothing like getting together with a group of moms and laughing until we cry about that one time that your baby pooped right through her diaper, dress, and car seat, leaving a puddle on the floor—and no, you didn’t have an extra outfit. I used to hate the idea of play dates, but now I see that they are really for moms who need to know they are not alone in this wonderful, insane business. I also said I’d never join a mom’s group, but I’ve found my Wednesday morning Bible study with other moms (and childcare in a far-away separate room) to be the hinge that holds me together.

Work with the real, not the ideal. Life is not perfect. Believe me, I am a competitive perfectionist: I want it to be perfect more than you do. When I work with reality, though, rather than my glowing idea of what reality should be, everyone is happier. I wish that I could sit down on the pavement with my son for an hour while he watches the caterpillars, but now that I have two, sometimes I need our favorite babysitter to do that with him while I go on a much-needed date with my husband. I’d rather he didn’t watch so much TV. I’d rather his dinners expanded beyond macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and the old favorite, cheese and fruit (let’s call it a ploughman’s lunch, shall we?). I wish I didn’t take out my frustrations on my husband. Life is life, though, and we’re all learning and growing every day.

Ultimately, remember, and I write this for myself as much as I write it for you: Right now, surviving is thriving. And when I have an arm around each child for story time, I know that parenting is a privilege. Even if I haven’t showered and my clothes smell like breast milk.

Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at www.lindseymroberts.com.

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