When times get tough … simplify

This is an unusual post for me to write because I am not the sort of home-maker and mother that advocates cutting corners. There are plenty of places on the internet where you will find people willing to tell you that life is hard, raising babies is tough, to cut yourself some slack just for getting through the day with everyone alive etc. This is not one of those places. I am a believer that high ideals call us into our potential, that in setting the bar too low we are robbing ourselves of the achievements we are capable of, of our best selves.

With that said however, there will come times when high ideals become impossible ideals, when trying to be everything we wish to be on our best day is entirely unachievable and will lead us into overwhelm, defeat and depression. To continue, in these times, as though we can achieve what we normally would rarely ends in success, more likely it ends with us frazzled, short tempered and beat down, and does not endear us to our loved ones. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough. That is not to say we permanently accept a lower standard, but we accept that we are human, and that life ebbs and flows in its challenges and we must work with the tide rather than against it if we are to achieve the best out of life.

I am writing this now because I am currently in one of those times, where I have had to let go of best and embrace good enough, and I think many of you will be too. As you will know if you follow this blog, we home educate our four children who are still at home (we have 6 in total), however last summer our 6 year old daughter chose to begin attending school, yes in the middle of a pandemic! Also we always send our children to preschool when they are three as it is the last chance they get to experience independence from their family for quite a few years, they just go for 3 hours a day. Therefore during this second round of school closures due to the Coronavirus, we have two daughters aged 8 and 16 following their usual home education programme, one daughter age 6 doing remote schooling and one daughter aged 3 also doing remote schooling for her pre-school curriculum. Remote schooling has come as quite a shock to me, 4-5 hours of daily learning for my 6 year old, that requires my full, undivided attention plus the 1-2 hours of preschool for my 3 year old and then the needs of the children who I am responsible for home educating has meant that I am effectively working an unpaid 12+ hour day educating my children, with very little time for anything else.

Many parents are currently pushed to the limit in similar situations, to say nothing of working from home and the added stress of actually living through this very stressful and isolated time in history. Initially this was such a shock, I pretty much went to pieces, I had totally not expected remote learning to be so demanding! To be perfectly honest I thought it would be kind of great to have someone else doing the hard work of planning and checking on the learning and that very little would be asked of me, unfortunately while the schools have implemented access to the curriculum from home, and please don’t think I am criticising teachers for their immensely hard work on this, they have not factored in that same curriculum’s unfitness for independent learning in a home environment. So yes for the first few days I struggled in a big way, as I’m sure huge numbers of you are also struggling. I was exhausted, I couldn’t manage even the most basic things on my usual to do list and I was stressed out; something had to give. Then I cast my mind back to times when I had felt like this before and I had a hand to face light bulb moment!

You see I have a plan for scenarios like this, I have a plan for ways to cope during sickness, or grief or postpartum, when exclusively breast-feeding or when I’m ‘teaching’ kindergarten with a child. The first year of learning to read is very hands on, but once the basics are learned our curriculum values independent learning for the core subjects which frees me up as more of a learning supervisor or facilitator than a teacher. My main hands on responsibilities thereafter being enrichment or practical activities and an accountability partner with my children to ensure that they attain the goals they have set for themselves within their learning, which allows me much more free time to keep up with my household duties. I knew what I needed to do I just hadn’t realised I was in that place, where it was necessary, immediately. It was a relief to feel I had the means to take back some control and regain my (and our home’s) equilibrium.

So here is what I immediately put in place. What you might need to do will look different depending on what your usual routines and expectations are, so please don’t compare too much, just work with where you are at and what you can handle.

  • I stopped cooking the meals from scratch, I ordered boxed, jarred, and pre-prepared food wherever possible in as healthy a format as was available to me. Yes this is more expensive, less healthy and also means one of my children is required to eat a microwave meal on occasion, from a list of those which don’t contain rapeseed oil as she is allergic, not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but fed with a sane Mamma is better than hungry with a crazy one. Good enough (for a short time only).
  • I hired a cleaner to cover the basics, luckily at present we are still able to have hired help come into the house. I have a friend who regularly cleans for us during times when I feel I need the extra help, at present I would be completely lost without her. When I say this to people often they have the immediate reaction that a cleaner is a luxury beyond their means but I would encourage you to look again. If you take the view that a clean and tidy home is as essential as clean water, and food it is surprising how high the £20 a week it costs can jump up your priority list, if only for a month or two, I do appreciate that it is genuinely beyond the means of many, I have been in that position myself, however not as many as might think, if it is a real priority.
  • I have stopped ironing entirely and all deep cleaning. I can tidy, I can keep on top of the laundry (just about), I can get dinner on the table and clean up after it but I cannot spend the 10 hours a week ironing that I did, and I can’t currently wash skirting boards or clean out cabinets. As I’m sure you will guess, after much hard won improvement in this area in recent years, this goes against the grain, I don’t want to relinquish those standards, but one must accept the reality of the situation, as long as it’s not forever a lowering of standards for a short time is sometimes the healthiest option.
  • I passed on jobs to the others in the house. As women we often feel like we must keep it all together and not put on our family too much, but in dire need it is pointless to be killing ourselves through overwork while our better halves and children continue in their (almost) usual lives. I am firm believer that as a family you are a team and if one player is doing too much of the work, the team actually suffers. I ask a lot of my children, in normal every day life. They have regular chores and are expected to get up and pitch in when asked. I’ve found that while at times it has made me the ‘worst mum in the world’, that they benefit immensely from the sense of community derived from being a much needed component in a working machine than they would from being allowed to sit outside of that responsibility. They are truly part of a family that needs them, and being straight with them even from quite young, that Mum needs help or the wheels are going to fall off, is a challenge that they rise to with great personal satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got kids that will do what’s needed without being asked and kids that have to be reminded and cajoled, a LOT! Having the chore mechanisms in place in advance is certainly a great boon when it comes to times where overstretched and overwhelmed, more is required, but even if you normally don’t ask much from your kids, I truly believe that it’s never too late. I appreciate that single parents with very young children aren’t in a position for this to be much use, but it’s never too early to foster a sense of pride in helping, so remember this for when times get a bit easier and you feel able to introduce some things they can help out with.
  • I cut back on additional subjects and prioritised time outside and the core curriculum. Being a home educator gives me the means to pare down when necessary, just for a short time. The children are stressed too, they hear us talking, they can’t spend time with friends, their exams have been cancelled. Bringing things back to the absolute necessities gives us room to breathe and gives me the chance to ‘walk the walk’ of a slow and simple life. So while the teachers may feel two science experiments a week, daily spellings, and times tables practice are crucial, I am the one who makes the final decisions about what gets done and what doesn’t. We can all do the art classes of one child together, we can watch a video of every other science experiment, we can play multiplication games when we have a spare 5 minutes. As long as we’re fulfilling the basics, getting fresh air every day, and finding time to follow our passions, then learning is happening, and no one is being switched off from education in any irreparable way, a cost far higher than any work that might be ‘missed’.
  • I gave up any extra commitments. I’ve stopped baking, and sewing, and knitting and only read for pleasure and nourishment. Yes these things give me great pleasure, but for a short time I have to prioritise what is necessary. I do things for fun when I need some fun but the time for that is limited and that’s OK. Yes I should not neglect my own needs, and those needs include personal fulfilment, but I pick and choose carefully things that will give me the most up-lift in a small amount of time and prioritise them. I’m trying to spend less time on social media which is real time thief and also not watching too much television which can be a big temptation after a long hard day. Obviously with it being a kind of lock-down it goes without saying that we’re spending most of our time at home but during other times of busyness and stress, letting go of some outside commitments for a while is a good way to keep a handle on everything.
  • I stopped planning too far ahead. I try to wake up each morning just focused on what is possible that day. While future plans can be uplifting, I am the kind of person who tends to overestimate what I’m capable of so keeping to the short term prevents me from storing up stress and trouble for my future self.
  • I ask myself each night ‘what will I most appreciate having already done tomorrow?’ I am going to be exhausted at the end of each day, the temptation is to leave that load of washing unfolded or those dishes in the sink, but my future self will pay the price for that, so I pick one thing and get it done no matter how tired I am, and I’ve never yet regretted it.
  • I take time to de-stress, and be grateful. Whether it’s relaxation exercises and a gratitude journal or just an early night feeling grateful for my warm comfortable bed and good roof, creating space to breathe is essential.
  • I keep a regular rhythm to our day. Mealtimes, and times for work and play keep the wheels turning and gives everyone especially small children the sense of security necessary to their little souls in troubled times.
  • I take weekends off, no matter how far ahead or behind we are, at least one full day preferably two is spent without the least thought of ‘school’. Both children and parents need time to properly decompress.
  • I do small things to make the house more homely. Whether it’s lighting candles, getting a special dessert, or diffusing a relaxing scent; a sense of home and belonging, a safe space in which to relax is as necessary as breathing.
  • Lastly but certainly not least, I take my burdens to God, every day, multiple times. I am not strong enough to get through this alone but with His help I can move great mountains.

I hope that my own plan for handling times of survival mode will help you to come up with your own plan or at least help you to feel more able to take the reigns in your home, within the chaos. It is important to strive for high ideals but we must be realistic in the circumstances presented to us.