The end of the summer always gives me a mild case of the blues. I enjoy the more relaxed schedule when school is on hiatus, even though I work year-round. But this year, more than ever before, September landed on my doorstep with a miserable thud. As my two kids have gotten older, they have gotten busier — scouting, marching band, multiple sports, homework, social activities. Welcome to parenting a Gen Z tween.
We have a color-coded command center on the wall in the kitchen. We have a homework station. We have all of the apps and alerts to let us know when there are changes in the soccer schedule or band practice. Yet we were spending too much time each week trying to figure out how to get Kid 1 to Point A and Kid 2 to Points B and C, while still getting dinner on the table and keeping the house running and holding down two full-time jobs.
In the midst of this chaos, Julie Morgenstern’s new book, “Time to Parent,” showed up in my mailbox at work. I hungrily dived in, looking for something — anything — that could help me rein in our over-scheduled existence (and yes, this is self-inflicted and avoidable — a topic for another day). The book’s aim, according to the blurb on the jacket, is to help people find “a healthy balance between raising a human and being a human.”
Morgenstern, who has been a professional organizer for about 28 years, including working a project for the Oprah Winfrey show staff, divides each of those tasks into four components (Provide, Arrange, Relate and Teach for raising a human, and Sleep, Exercise, Love and Fun for being a human). I homed in on the “Arrange” part, which covers the scheduling and organizational tasks involved in running a home and a family. If I could just get that under control, I thought, maybe we would reclaim some semblance of order.
I recently spoke with Morgenstern, who also launched a podcast on this subject this week, about arranging and more. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
There was a lot of talk about a year ago about the unequal distribution of emotional/mental work in families. This ties into your section on arranging. Why do you think it ends up being so unequal?
People gravitate toward the things they notice or are good at, or the things that are important to them, and the work silently gets divvied up without discussion. And even when there is discussion, it’s never complete. . . . But it’s a huge deal because the infrastructure of a family or household either enables or obstructs each family member from being able to achieve their goals. When we’re organizing a closet for one, we’re the only ones who are affected, but when multiple people are using a system, whether it’s the front entry, the kitchen, the living room, it can’t be based on how one person organizes.
All of the arranging required for a household of people to operate successfully, to be able to come home at night and relax and spend quality time together, is not any one person’s job. It’s the tasks of the family. . . . You need to put everything on the table and divide it based on skill, ability, interest. . . . I think with that mind-set, people respond very well: These are the tasks required for the family, and sharing the work is a way of taking care of each other. Everyone gets that, and it’s liberating for most people. If you don’t honor a system, don’t put things back where they belong, or leave dishes in the sink, that not doing it is the theft of time. Every time you don’t honor a system, you’re putting it on someone else’s to-do list. Mindset shifts really help.
The suggestion in the book, of using index cards to represent family chores, then dividing them up to show the workload distribution, seems like it would help a lot of people. Can you talk a bit about that?
It is a visual aid. . . . The family I featured in the book, I think it was a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. The boy was so reluctant, like, you’re kidding me. He really felt very put-upon with chores. But when we divvied everything up on the cards, he was transformed. His mom had 80 percent of the cards in front of her, he had a few, his sister had none. She wanted to do stuff but had to be taught, and it never occurred to the mom to teach her. . . . It helps you put it out there and make it objective. It can also clarify the things you don’t need to do, and that’s very powerful.
How can parents have the arranging portion more under control?
Automate the key areas and create systems to deal with things. . . . I had a client, she and her husband work and have three kids, but they never figured out systems for their house, like where things belong. They never figured out the food thing, so every day they had to figure out what are we going to have for dinner. . . . If you sit down for an hour and design a system in the most simple, predictable way, come up with 10 dinners that everyone likes and are easy to throw together, and that’s what you make. You can have a shopping list made up ahead with a list of the ingredients, and you just circle what you need. Put the ingredients together in a bin, with a card on how to make it. Whoever gets home first can prepare that meal.
Don’t overcomplicate it. You need to keep the routines simple and self-instructing, so anyone can do it, a child or a friend or neighbor or family member who is helping out. . . . If you don’t have patience for it, get someone else to do it, or do it as a family. Someone is bound to have the skills, so sit down as a family and figure it out.
Any guidelines on how to set limits on kid activities to give us all a breather?
Lots of families who handle this really well, who want their kids to have rich lives but also value downtime, literally limit it every semester to one or two extracurriculars for each kid, not five. . . . If you have more than one kid . . . try to choose ones that synchronize really well. And also for the parent, if the kids are doing these things on weekends, try to align your self time for when the kids are doing their things so you can also have downtime together. . . . There’s something really lovely and healthy for kids to have some together-apart time in the house, where they’re each doing their own thing under the same roof. If kids are out constantly doing things, you’re eclipsing any of that together-but-apart time, and that’s cheating them of something.
How can parents, particularly those with flexible schedules, keep from letting work and home bleed into each other?
The key is to always put up the edges and look before you leap. There’s no better practice for parents to contain each thing than to end every day by looking ahead, tomorrow plus two days beyond. Set it in your head: Tomorrow the kids are at school, and I’m working from 8 to 2, then I’m picking up the kids, being with them for three hours, then when they do their activities, I’ll go back online for more work. Find the [natural divisions] in the day … just like when an athlete sees their run before they go. Create intentions for each block, set your benchmarks for what success looks like. . . . Make each block of time pure. If you’re going to be with the kids for an hour, be with them. If you’re online working, be online working. . . . Even though we can work anywhere and anytime, I don’t think it’s good to do that. The more it all bleeds together, the less satisfying it all is.