I recently published my thoughts on the role of a stay-at-home mother and my lament that it’s often depicted (and sometimes lived out) as a life exclusively spent in wiping noses and bottoms.
In any given day, much of what I do is directly taking care of my children – cleaning, cooking, hugging, reading to, listening to, and yes, wiping. (The hugging, reading, and listening are admittedly more fulfilling to me, but like so many things in life, parenting is a package deal.) Outside of my direct care of my children, however, I want to model for them what a beautiful life looks like. I hope they grow up wanting families of their own, not dreading the inevitable laundry and messes that accompany such a family. I hope they persist in being curious, interested, and interesting people. If I want that for them, I know I need to live that for myself while I’m raising them.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the work of a stay-at-home mom can lead to mush for brains.
I’ve found that it takes deliberate effort to keep the neurons firing when you’re running on little sleep and reading the same picture book for the 12th time in a week. The further challenge is: I do not need extra items on my to-do list nor do I need extra pressure to measure up to what the super mom down the street is doing.
Instead, I’ve focused on ways to tweak what I’m already doing to better prevent brain mush. Also, I seek out ways to enrich my life that make sense to me and my interests and strengths, even though they won’t ever make it to Pinterest.
Here are 15 tips I’ve personally used to stay sharper as a stay-at-home mother. Each fits into my regular day without requiring time outside my home. (There are plenty of great opportunities there as well, but that’s not what I focused on here.) A few are just mindset shifts.
I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments because we’re all different!
Mega Disclaimer: I’m putting myself out there in hopes of sparking ideas. Don’t let this list discourage or overwhelm you. If something doesn’t fit you or your life, skip it! I don’t do any of these things perfectly, nor do I do them all the time. Got it? Ok…
1) I don’t read inane books to my kids.
Reading “Dippy the Dim-Witted Dinosaur” would be enough to make anyone’s neurons run up the white flag, but stay at home parents are particularly prone to having brain drain from dumb books because we often log so many hours reading to our kids.
The majority of children’s books at the library are mind-numbingly bad. But because there are still a thousand fabulous, beautiful, clever, thought-provoking books out there, we can skip all the dumb ones and still have plenty to read. I let my kids read whatever they like (within reason) when we visit the library but I only check out good books to bring home.
A perfect book selection for a ride in her boat.
How can I tell if book is good? I find reliable booklists and excellent authors and use them as a starting point, but as a general rule, I agree with C.S. Lewis: ”
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
That means if I flip through the book and it looks dumb, it goes back on the shelf. I have no qualms about teaching my kids that some things are more worthy of our time than others. *See the end of this post for a comparison of a good book to a lame version of the same story.*
Every single book in our home library (and we currently have several hundred) is a winner and I typically don’t mind reading it repeatedly, though I will draw lines to save my sanity as needed. I also rotate our books so old favorites surface and some books and I can take a break from each other.
2) I memorize things worth memorizing.
There’s lots of data around sharpening your mind by memorizing things (any things), but in particular I memorize things I find compelling, beautiful, or funny. It comes in handy when I’m pacing a fussy baby in the middle of the night, waiting in a long line, or scrubbing pots and pans. I have poetry, Shakespeare, scripture, quotes, and hymns stored up in my mind so I’m rarely bored even while doing the mundane without a podcast (#6) or the brain power to think my own thoughts (#7).
I’ve also found that when I’m doing something difficult, whether that’s persisting in a workout, waiting out a tantrum, breathing through a labor contraction, or washing a particularly tedious mess, if I have something in my mind I can turn to, I am better able to patiently endure.
I use a really simple system for memorizing things, just 5-10 minutes in the morning over breakfast and it’s paid 10 years of dividends and counting. I choose what I memorize so it’s always enjoyable and worth my time. As a bonus, my kids just naturally joined me in this as they became old enough to see what I was doing. I love sharing all this great language with them and seeing them bring it to mind to form connections with what they’re seeing in a regular day. “It’s not the critic who counts…” “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” “Behold the duck.”
3) Nap time = Book time.
At our house, all ages take a nap time or book time for an hour or two in the afternoon. The youngest naps, the next one up listens to an audiobook and plays quietly alone, and the oldest kids read. It’s tempting to cross things off my to do list during this time, but I love the days I follow my own advice and curl up with a book by myself.
I was inspired by what I heard the author Jonathan Auxier say in a podcast , referring to his childhood: “I constantly saw [my father] reading. I constantly saw my mother reading and so I was taught that those were adult activities. When I was projecting into my future and what it would be like when I was grown up and had my own home and my own life and could make my own choices, I just assumed that one of those choices I would make is what I’d be reading next… I think the number one thing we can do to help our kids [love reading] is to show our kids that reading is not only worth their time but worth our time.”
Side note: I tend to read books in paper form or on my kindle rather than on my phone because I want my kids to know exactly what I’m doing, and because I don’t want to get sucked into anything else on my phone.
4) I seek out opportunities to create.
I realized early on that my kids would enjoy drawing, painting, and sculpting more and for longer if I sat down alongside them and gave it a go as well. What I didn’t anticipate was how hard and good it would be for me to consistently do that. I am not an artist. I drew like an 8 year old when I re-started creating art. I heard a wise artist tell a group of adults once that if you draw like an 8 year old, it’s probably because you stopped drawing when you were 8. Somewhere along the way you decided you weren’t an artist so you stopped trying. Had you persisted, you would have improved.
I was embarrassed by my early attempts, even when I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with my preschoolers who of course were in awe of my creations. But I heard myself say to my kids that their effort was wonderful and that trying was enjoyable and would lead to improvement. I had to hear that message myself, right? Persisting has been enormously fun. And, what do you know? I’ve improved! I’ve acquired a couple helpful books on drawing over the years. I’ve only practiced in pockets of time (when my kids are drawing, when I’m writing someone a note anyway, when we’re listening to an audiobook as a family, etc.) but I’ve been doing it for years now. Because I look for opportunities to draw, I find them.
I will never be an artist, but that was never the point.
I also write. Ahem. This fulfills #7 for me as well, in a big way.
Other ways to create include photography or playing or composing music. All of those can be done alongside children. I adore the illustrations by Marla Frazee in the book, The Seven Silly Eaters. Many of them include a cello that belongs to the mother of the seven children in the story. In some scenes the cello is gathering dust. In others she’s playing it in the eye of the storm, as her children swirl around her. I’m sure there are times where she plays it alone, but I am moved most by the image of this mother making beautiful music in the thick of everyday life with kids at home. Why not?
5) I seek out mastery in some arts of homemaking, and embrace “good enough” in other areas.
I do not do this with everything, but I’ve really enjoyed tackling some select homemaking tasks with extra fervor. There are plenty that I only do a bare minimum on. I’m not crafty and I don’t excel at home decor… I’m pretty sure I’ve never properly mopped a floor… the list could go on.
But laundry? I do pretty darn well at laundry. Rather than continuing to do a middling job, I decided to optimize it. I studied out the chemistry of stains. I refined our systems to streamline things so I was doing fewer unnecessary loads. I designed our laundry room in our new home with great care. As a result, our hand-me-downs hold up for at least three kids, I rarely encounter a stain I can’t get out, and I’m hardly ever behind on laundry. (Incidentally, this skill allowed me to really help out another family by taking on their laundry for several months while they were in crisis. Good thing they didn’t need me to mop their floors…:)
I also have an interest in healthy eating and have learned a fair bit about nutrition and the human body as a result. My family benefits and I have had lots of opportunities to help others as well.
My own mom deep-ended on gardening and has a backyard like the Garden of Eden. I know women who love gourmet cooking, sewing, interior design, or cleaning. Those interests absolutely “count!” They also happen to have a fortuitous overlap with our regular duties around the house.
I’m going to hit you with another salient thought from C.S. Lewis here,
“I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? “
I hope as homemakers we feel how valuable our work is and take pride in the doing of it.
At the same time though, I have found that letting go of perfectionism in some areas leaves me more time to pursue other interests. Nobody can do it all and the truth is *we* (with our families) decide what “warmed” looks like for our house or what being “fed” means. Here are just a few of the time-savers I employ as a homemaker. Prepare to be shocked:
- I wash windows… never?
- I don’t dust blinds more than approximately once a year.
- I don’t wash sheets more than once a month or two (unless needed).
- We are vegetarian so vegetables usually are the main dish. I rarely make side dishes, preferring one dish wonders to feed my crew more efficiently.
- I cook extra at nearly every meal so leftovers are almost as common around here as new meals.
- My decorations for holidays are underwhelming and my day-to-day decor is pretty much limited to beautiful pictures on the wall. What’s an accent pillow? I’m sure I don’t know.
- Ditto for statement necklaces. I try to make sure my kids’ clothes match and are clean when we walk out the door, but if they win any fashion points it’s due to their own efforts. As it currently stands, my odds of personally winning a fashion point are one in a million. I’m pretty sure I once wore the same outfit to church every Sunday for a month simply because I didn’t pay attention.
- The bottom line is, my floors are “clean enough” to satisfy me even though I’ll never wax them. I’d rather sit down with a book instead! Many people of course, do both. They wax their floors and read books… but they leave something else undone instead. Because no one does it all.
6) I always have an interesting podcast ready to roll.
There is a balance here because if I’m trying to listen to a podcast and my kids need me, that can be a frustrating situation for all of us. But often I’ll kick the kids out of the kitchen to pick up the house while I finish making dinner and I’ll turn on a podcast. Or, I’ll listen to a podcast while on a run or in the car when the kids have their noses in their own books.
The key for me is having a podcast I’m interested in already loaded up so it’s easy to make use of the little pockets of time I have. I enjoy podcasts for topics that interest me such as homeschooling, but I have purposefully include a few in my docket that have a wider range of topics to keep me on my toes and broaden my horizons. Freakonomics is one that fits this category for me. What are your favorites?
7.1) I take time to think my own thoughts.
Our house is often noisy. Interruptions can seem near constant. In the pockets of time between, I’m inclined to take more information in (see #6) but I’ve found I think more clearly and articulately when I have time that is not full of interruptions or full of input. In addition to using these ideas for fighting infobesity , it’s just important for me to pause and fully think over what I’ve just learned before moving on. It helps me evaluate the information I’ve just received and if an idea resonates with me, it’s more likely to stick if I give it some time to mull and settle.
So I’ll often listen to 5 minutes of a podcast and pause it for a few minutes, just to ponder or review in my mind what I’ve just heard. In homeschooling circles this practice is referred to as ‘narrating’ and it’s incredibly useful to ensure attentive listening. It’s also helpful with reading something meaty. I don’t recall doing this often before having kids but it sure seems essential now when my brain threatens to turn into a sieve.
I try to be transparent with my kids about my desire for uninterrupted thought so they better understand when I ask them to wait a minute even though I don’t look busy. I have one child who is often lost in her own thoughts and I try to protect that space for her to think as well, rather than barge in with my own agenda.
I also consciously try to consult myself before I ask the internet. It gives my brain a reason to live.
7.2) I don’t allow toys that make their own noise.
See 7.1. How does anyone think with repetitive kid toy sounds around? I can’t do it.
Perfect time for an intermission, I think. Coming soon… the second part of the list!
* From the original “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson:
FAR out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects. We must not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea but bare yellow sand. No, indeed; the most singular flowers and plants grow there; the leaves and stems of which are so pliant, that the slightest agitation of the water causes them to stir as if they had life. Fishes, both large and small, glide between the branches, as birds fly among the trees here upon land. In the deepest spot of all, stands the castle of the Sea King. Its walls are built of coral, and the long, gothic windows are of the clearest amber. The roof is formed of shells, that open and close as the water flows over them. Their appearance is very beautiful, for in each lies a glittering pearl, which would be fit for the diadem of a queen.
From Disney’s book, “The Little Mermaid”:
Deep beneath the sea lived a little mermaid named Ariel. She loved exploring her underwater home with her friend flounder but dreamed of living on land as a human. Ariel was always searching for human treasures. When she and Flounder found a strange forked object, they swam to the surface to find Scuttle the seagull.
“It’s a dinglehopper!” he proclaimed. Ariel’s father was King Triton, ruler of the sea. He thought humans were dangerous.