I recently had an email from a younger woman who has four young children. She was asking me for advice on how to survive the summer. In a flash I was back to those days...by those days, I mean those days I barely survived. I am reaping the rewards now of having four adult children who are relatively close in age, and although I was absolutely certain at the time that they were going to kill each other before they reached maturity...shock of shock...they actually all get along now.
I wish I could offer all sorts of sage advice, but I would run the risk of sounding like those years were easy, but trust me, they were not. At one time, I had three children under the age of four. I do remember that I cried a lot, and I prayed a lot, and I regularly engaged in my favorite form of escape: reading, even if it meant losing a night or two of sleep!
For what it's worth, here are some of the things that worked for me:
1) Supermom has to die. She, multiple young children, and sanity are simply not compatible. This was a process for me, of course, but one that did eventually occur. However, my advice is to crucify her early. Have a burial and a period of mourning and then get on with your very messy and very busy life. Because if you have multiple children, that's what you have...a very messy and very busy life.
2) Close the bedroom doors. Do this every day. I mean it. This was something my husband forced me to do. At the time, I resisted with everything I had (sneaking upstairs to moan and clean, moan and clean and moan some more about my slovenly children), but now I am so thankful. One of my adult children has moved home again (he will be attending a local graduate school) and I have not been upstairs since he moved back in. Seriously. I found I was a whole lot happier then and now looking at closed doors rather than unmade beds and chaotic bedrooms.
3) Make them clean their rooms when one or more of the children has company coming over. This was a requirement for having a friend over. The room must be clean. And no, it did not have to be clean when the friend left, but it was good if it was clean when the friend arrived. I encouraged company. Can you guess why?
4) Ten-year-olds can safely operate a washing machine. They will quickly learn how not to make everything come out pink. Especially when they are the one wearing it. Every one of my kids learned to do their own wash at some point, but the youngest was flying solo between nine and ten. It was actually a source of pride with him. I can honestly say I don't think I ever washed one of his sports' uniforms (he played four varsity sports in high school so there were a lot of uniforms); he did them all. Now his beat-up jalopy car smelled to high heaven because he never took his dirty uniforms out to wash them until the very last minute before they were needed, but he totally handled this task. He would even have discussions with other mothers about how to get dirt out of baseball socks. It was hilarious. It made me proud.
5) Only buy white socks. I used to go to the flea market and buy socks in bulk. I had three sons and one daughter so this worked relatively well. When they were younger, I would wash the socks and put them all in the basket LOOSE; that's right, they were never paired up. I kept the basket in the hall closet upstairs. I called it "Sock Heaven," but my children, when they thought I could not hear them, called it "Sock Hell." Long story short: no one in my family ever grew up thinking that white socks had to match. They just went and pulled two white socks out of the basket and wore them. I never spent time trying to match socks that the dryer ate. End of story.
6) Laundry baskets. Everybody had their own which were clearly labeled. They came downstairs with dirty clothes in them and went upstairs with clean, nicely folded clothes in them. Remember that the doors to their bedrooms were closed, so most of the time I am relatively sure that they took their clean clothes out and put them on the floor...not in the dresser...on the floor. If their basket was empty when I was doing the wash, nothing of theirs got washed. I mean nothing. Everybody learned pretty quickly to gather up their dirty clothes and get them downstairs when Momma was washing. If they did this, they got a free wash and a free fold. Otherwise, they were on their own. And by the time that they were in middle school, they were pretty much on their own anyway. Don't worry, I still had plenty of wash. And I still offered free wash to them when I was being nice.
7) Bathrooms were an exception to the close the door rule. No towels or dirty clothes were allowed on the floor. With all four kids sharing one bathroom this was simply a survival rule. We rotated cleaning the bathroom, but The Daughter always felt that the boys did a less than a stellar job with this, and I would agree. There was also a lot of drama (accompanied by loud voices and the banging of doors) associated with the bathroom and a lot of arguing about the length of showers or a lack of hot water. I tried to ignore most of it, but you can betcha I got up before everyone else just so that there was enough hot water for Momma.
8) Kitchen and trash chores were about the only chores we ever rigorously enforced. The youngest would go around and empty all the smaller trash cans in the house the night before the garbage man came (he has rotated back into this job again, fancy that!) Older children had to alternate setting the table, clearing the table, and washing up with The Husband from dinner. Oh, and did I mention that my children would hide food? This is something that they have apparently not outgrown. Not too long ago I found one lonely IBC root beer hidden underneath the lettuce in the veggie bin. One of the boys. Ummm, make that grown men.
9) We even had a schedule for rotating the seats in the car (everybody wanted to ride shotgun) that was posted on the refrigerator. Otherwise, there was even more drama and sometimes all-out fights, over a front seat, for heaven's sake!
10) I lived and died by the calendar and by the word of God. Seriously. I had a big dry erase calendar that I bought at Office Depot and each week I filled it with the week's activities. This was my one huge obsession. It was color coded with each child's activities. (I warned you this was my huge obsession.) And boy, oh boy, you better not brush your arm up against my dry erase board and mess up my calendar. I also memorized scripture that I wrote out on index cards and taped up in my car. I tried to make my kids memorize scripture but they were never as excited about it as I was. I had my little stash of index cards, and I cannot tell you how many times I marveled that the perfect scripture was there on my dashboard just when I needed it.
11) A friend and I started a Bible Study for "Mothers of Four or More." We met weekly in the evenings with a group of women for the better part of ten years. It was a lifesaver. We cried together, laughed together, and commiserated together. The best part was that we took a retreat together every year without children. It was usually to a cabin that belonged to somebody's friend who knew a friend who said we could use it. It didn't matter whether the accommodations were spartan or more comfortable, the big thing is that we were simply AWAY.
12) That's my final piece of advice. Get AWAY when you can. Getting away with your husband is wonderful, but going with women can be glorious, too. Twice a year was about what we could manage. Yet those experiences were enough to get me through some hard times.
And here's the living proof that I made it through to the other side!