Backpack? Check. Textbooks? Check. Day old Egg McMuffin? Check. What?! Nope, not this time around. I’m no longer a 20-something-year-old student heading off for a typical day at college and dreading every moment of it. Now I’m a single parent and returning student who not only needs to be here, but wants to be as well.
These days, it seems to look more like a half-eaten piece of seven-grain toast, layered with a thick spread of natural peanut butter, clenched between the white-knuckled fingers of a hand that also strategically holds a set of keys, a coffee and a little person’s wrist—all without dropping or crushing a single thing. Impressive, hey? But wait, there’s more. Strapped to my shoulders is a backpack full of my books, and behind me trail three kids who are clean, dressed, fed with all their homework done and happily ready to go to school themselves.
Before you congratulate me though, you should probably know that mornings didn’t always run this smooth. In my first year of college, it looked a bit more like running half an hour late, wearing track pants and a stained sweatshirt that I may or may not have slept in. I couldn’t really remember because I was so sleep-deprived in my quest to be superwoman. I struggled to recollect the last time I had laughed, but I did know for a fact that I cried often while flossing, because I was just that overwhelmed.
Behind me were three kids with untied shoes, uncombed hair and possibly unbrushed teeth, ranging in age from seven to 11. They were usually still swallowing their breakfasts and complaining that I didn’t make sure they finished their homework last night and now they’re going to have to stay in at lunch. Oh yeah, and it’s all my fault! My voice would bellow, “Just get in the car!” which was followed by a quiet ride to three different destinations by four very unhappy people starting their day off completely wrong.
Once I started my second year at college, I had learned a thing or two about how to manage being a single parent and a full-time student. Now, almost every day is seamless, and we function like a well-oiled machine. Taking the stress out of our everyday activities helped to strengthen our relationships with each other and allowed us to work together more effectively as a team.
When the negativity and chaos was replaced with organization and structure, we began to wake up every day excited and ready to go. Here are 10 small changes that can make a huge difference.
1. Make all lunches the night before. The key here is to not make anything that will go soggy overnight and put everything in resealable containers for freshness. If there’s room in the fridge, you can even fill the lunch bag and put the whole thing right in there, ready to go.
2. Have all the baths and showers for the kids the night before. Even if you don’t have kids, you may find bathing before bed speeds up your morning.
3. Get up an hour earlier than you actually have to. For example, if you have kids, let them sleep until 7 a.m., while you get up at 6 a.m. This allows a bit of quiet time for a coffee, grooming and maybe reading the paper. This way, you’re completely ready when it’s “go” time.
4. Breakfast needs to be fast and simple. This is the time of day when things like smoothies are great to have. They’re fast and fun — and a full blender can easily fill up three kids, or one busy student, with the proper ingredients. Shaker bottles are great, because if you’re running late, smoothies in shaker bottles can be finished on the road without spilling and be shaken up to keep it from separating. For the after-school snack, do apple slices and pretzels with a favourite nut butter to dip.
5. Make dinner time the talk time. Enjoy a family meal and talk about everyone’s day at school—this includes you as well, because kids are more interested to hear in detail how their parent’s day went than you think. Passion and excitement are contagious, so if you enjoy talking about school, they usually will too. This may also work for roomies.
6. Have the same designated hour every night when everyone does their homework—even you! This will instill a communal feeling while getting a necessary and typically un-fun event out of the way. Plus, instead of lecturing about the importance of doing homework, you’re leading by example, which is always more effective.
7. Keep all appointments, activities and play dates recorded on a master calendar. Post it on the wall of the most used room, like the kitchen.
8. Do a weekly house meeting at some point on Sunday. This is where you break out the calendar, and go over how the week is going to look. Children like schedules, and they work better when they know what to expect. Make it fun by having hot chocolate and licorice sitting in a circle on the living room floor. Have a special item that the speaker holds onto, and give each person a moment to talk about what they liked or didn’t like about the previous week. Have a rule that every complaint must be followed by a possible solution. Kids like to feel like their voice has been heard, and it creates more “buy-in” for them to follow the rules when they help create them. Again, all this can also go for older house-mates.
9. Make sleep a priority for you! This is probably the most important change of all. Studies show that we learn and retain information more effectively if we have proper sleep each night. Nothing is more important than getting in bed on-time and waking up feeling rested. Everything else will be easier and less overwhelming if you’re not exhausted.
10. Lose the superhero mentality and just learn to let go. You can’t do it all, so stop trying. Give yourself permission to accept that the laundry may not always get done. Similarly, avoid over-scheduling the kids or expecting too much of roommates. There will be plenty of time to wax and polish your kitchen floor when they move out. Everyone needs to learn that, although partying and play-time activities may be fun, sometimes it just doesn’t fit in real life. Happy kids and a relaxed and stress free atmosphere at home are the priority.