Leaning in, doing it all, and packing lunches the night before

I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.  I know her work is controversial (though I’m not totally sure why, to be honest, after reading her book), and my goal is not to review the book.  But I will say I loved Lean In.  I found it supportive and inspiring, and while I agree there are big problems with the “system,” I was personally motivated by Sandberg’s focus on what we can do within the constraints of today’s reality.

Accepting the reality of right now, and embracing what is, is, of course, a big theme of my writing – and of my life.  Where that begins to bleed into capitulating to things that are unacceptable is a topic for another day.

People ask me a lot how I “do it all.”  The truth is, of course, that I don’t.  None of us does.  I’m not the only person who has written extensively on this topic, nor am I the only one to conclude that the definition of “it all” is both an intensely personal and a vitally important thing.

Lean In triggered a cascade of thoughts and reflections for me.  One was that discussion of “work-life balance” (a term I personally dislike) tends to fall into two categories: big picture theorizing and granular advice.  The former is complicated, and all I can say for sure is that any discussion of the topic of working and mothering touches some deep ocean of feeling buried deep inside me, as enormous as it inchoate.  Within a page or two of any book or article on the subject, I am in tears.  I need to spend more time thinking about what those feelings are.

It is the latter category that I want to talk about today.  No matter what it is that each of us juggles – and while I know that that assortment looks different for each of us, I also know that almost everyone’s plate feels hugely full – we all have tricks for minimizing dropped balls.

My appetite for talk about these particular, specific strategies is almost endless.  I love to hear about the ways that others make it all happen, and always learn something when the conversation turns to this topic.  I wanted to share some of the tactics that make life work for me right now.  None of these are rocket science.  But they help me.  I’d love to hear your tricks and strategies:

  • Living close to both my kids’ school and my office.  Limiting my commute has made being engaged in Grace and Whit’s school lives (drop off every day, occasional pick up, conferences) feasible.  It has had costs, of course: we live in a small house and do not have a yard.  But every time we talk about it, Matt and I conclude that this is the right choice for now.
  • Pack lunches the night before.  Always, without exception.
  • Early bedtimes.  For the children and for me.
  • Pick your battles.  Grace goes to school every single day in black leggings.  She loves them and has 5 pairs.  Do I love the look?  No.  Is it easy, and – more importantly – does it make her happy to have control over this choice?  Yes.  It also simplifies and smoothes the morning routine.
  • If you have a spare 5 minutes (early to an appointment, finished with grocery shopping faster than planned) fill up the car even if it doesn’t need it or get cash at the ATM even if you don’t need it.  You will be glad you did.
  • Treat your babysitters extremely well.  I don’t ever cancel within a few days without offering to pay, and I usually round up when settling.  I’m never late.  I over-communicate.  And as a result: I have hugely loyal babysitters who go out of their way to help.  It makes a big, big difference.

What are some of your particular pieces of advice for managing a very full life?


39 thoughts on “Leaning in, doing it all, and packing lunches the night before”

  1. These are helpful. I think I will adopt the lunch one. Tomorrow – no, I mean tonight! Sometimes it’s exactly the ‘granular advice’ as you so aptly put it that makes such a difference. I love the babysitter one – I couldn’t agree more. I guess it goes along with my tendency to be a big tipper in restaurants, especially if it’s chaotic and we’ve created that chaos! My juggling it all luxury/tip/thing I really rely on is ordering our groceries online. The delivery cost more than makes up for the time, effort, gas, and spur of the moment purchases. Although you explicitly weren’t reviewing _Lean In_, your comments on it make me more interested in reading it now. Thanks for this post (and all the others I read and enjoy and don’t comment on)!

  2. I love these little pieces of advice because you are right. It is the little things that add up to a making a life. And I’m laughing, I always make lunches the night before! I have had friends flat out tell me they think that’s sort of yucky but it is my least favorite parenting task and if I had to do it in the morning, I might not get out of bed!

  3. Plan your meals at the beginning of the week and grocery shop once a week. We used to go out ALL the time to eat, but now just for lunch once a week. Cooking at home saves time, money and (I think) overall calories. But I always build in one “free” night a week, because something fun invariably comes up that I can’t plan for. And if it doesn’t — something frozen from the freezer.

    I am with you and me and my child going to bed early! Abra goes to bed about 7, and I hope this lasts for many, many years (please tell me it does).

  4. It’s so true! Such a thoughtful examination of Sandberg’s themes. It is the little things that are the ones that bug us in our daily life. I love your advice about living close too to where you work and your family’s school. I’m a big believer in making your world “smaller”: my son’s preschool is a mile away and we can walk pretty much anywhere we want to go, and that was my major criterion for buying a house.

  5. Yes! We almost always eat a home, too … and yes, on the bedtimes. Both of my kids have lights out before 8pm, and Grace is 10.5. It was 7 for a very, very long time (until she was 7 probably, and it’s been inching later since then). But many of her friends go to bed at 10 which just shocks and appalls me!

  6. Thank you so much for saying that. I’m interested in your thoughts on Lean In. I haven’t ordered groceries online yet, but perhaps I will check it out!

  7. I get a lot of flak for the night-before lunches too!! Mostly because I realized that I’d been filling the thermos and putting it in the fridge the night before … it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that meant I was sending her to school with freezing cold soup. So, I have figured that out, at least!!

  8. I’ve yet to read the book, but what I can say that I *am* doing for my sanity as a working mom is not biting on the bait for discord with moms who follow a different path. It takes a lot to dust my hands and say that it doesn’t matter, but in trying to fill the minutes of my day in a productive and soul-satisfying way, I absolutely have to let it go.

    Also, when I make lunches and prep the coffee pot the night before, five minutes after waking I feel a triumphant euphoria 🙂

  9. Yes, the babysitter rule was one I lived by. My daughter is 14 now and I don’t have to budget for babysitters. I always paid well. I said I am paying for what they did today and for the next time. I had very loyal babysitters. My friends gave me a hard time. It was well worth it.

  10. Agreed on the not taking the bait. That just sucks too much energy that I don’t have. The coffee. Oh, the morning coffee. It’s a daily delight.

  11. We recently moved clear across town creating a commute to and from school for my 9 and 10 year old. We thought this was great because we would then have talk time. Then one day the I-pod was invited to come along. I was not happy, but not willing to fight a “NO I-POD” policy – so, I asked them if they would take a couple of photos with the IPOD on the way to school of anything. To my surprise we have had such a good time looking at these photos that it has become the topic of our Dinner Talks :)….. I am a firm believer that you can have everything you need if you just adjust the lighting every once and a while.

  12. I am going to take the extra 5 minutes tip: that’s where I fall short- empty gas tank, no cash. I am always late so I usually don’t have an extra 5 minutes but I bet I can find it. Choosing where to live or where to work is such an important factor if you have that choice- my friends who decided to live near the ocean (jealous) have long commutes or husbands who have long commutes and can’t help with childcare (not jealous). My latest addition: not feeling guilty when I use babysitting time for yoga or exercise class. Health is so important (that’s where sleep comes in, too).

  13. Lindsey, Even though I’m so far beyond these days, I love every glimpse of your life NOW with your children. Simple and practical IS the way to go. We tend to make our lives so much more complicated than they need to be, when the truth is: an early bedtime for everyone could be the greatest gift you give your family. You are a wise mom!

  14. Following the discussions on Lean In as I know I will read it sometime soon but almost afraid of what I will glean from it … Where past choices may have bit me. In any case, I wholeheartedly support the granular idea. And as my kids ( now 18 and soon to be 21) grew and our lives morphed every year or so, those granular pieces shifted to fit the new needs. One way I dealt with the creeping bedtime rule was to set a “to bed” rule but didn’t enforce ” to sleep” rule. They were allowed to read in bed as late as they wished. Not only did it make them drowsy eventually but helped strengthen their reading abilities and love for reading. They still talk about how “cool” that was and love to read.

  15. The biggest thing for me has been to remember that I’m raising a person – now age 15. I’m not in a contest to have the best lawn, the cleanest house, the nicest car. I have been charged with my son and am working to ensure that he becomes a healthy, productive member of our community. I also involve him in lots of the processes – like helping to make meals, alternating his music with my music as we clean house together, or washing the car together. Lastly, I firmly believe that it takes a village to raise a child – teachers, scout leaders, neighbors, friends, family, church members. Without their wisdom and assistance, I’m not sure what on earth I’d do!

  16. Yes, the sleep is a huge part of staying healthy for me. Totally hear you on the jealous/not jealous by the way … my husband’s commute (to NYC) may be the longest of all!! 🙂 xo

  17. I agree with you on the early bedtimes … fortunately for me, at least now, they still believe that it’s a gift. We’ll see when that changes!

  18. That is a great way to handle it, and I can definitely see that path yawning ahead of us! Glad to hear it has inspired a passion for reading in your kids. xo

  19. I love your tip of overpaying the babysitters. I always did that – paid well, rounded up, treated them well and like professionals…my children are college and high school age now – two of them drive. The need for a “babysitter” is rate, but even now, all these years later when I need someone in a pinch my old regulars still say yes…!

  20. Yes – in my experience it’s as much about not cancelling (or paying if I do) vs. overpaying – I don’t think I’m the highest payer in town but I treat their time with great respect and that is worth a lot!!

  21. I sit down and plan out a menu for the week. If I don’t, I usually end up stressed out and eating take-out – not healthy nor cheap! The other thing I do is have the entire family schedule on a big desk calendar in the kitchen. Since the kids could write, they’ve been trained that if it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist. I do think it’s all about routine and finding what works.

  22. Lindsey – I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I hope to! Was it Anne Marie Slaughter who mentioned the full-time working, high powered mom (can’t remember her name!) who always punched “1-1-1” into the microwave because it was faster? I feel like I am constantly looking for little tricks like that – and that often the rest of the world moves so SLOWLY now (which I’m sure I did, as well, before having a toddler!) Other things we do: I shop pretty much only online for clothes, etc. We order from Soap.com/Amazon fairly exclusively. If my husband mentions that our kid “has no shorts” (yes, he mentioned this recently!) I went straight to gap.com and ordered a pair so that they’d arrive by the time he felt like mentioning that again 🙂 Early bedtimes are KEY. So is keeping our kid sleep trained (obviously, that’s more for a younger kiddo). xox

  23. I read Lean In over spring break, and I agree, I don’t get what the fuss is all about. I thought it was a very interesting read.

    Love the filling up tip! I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve found myself scrambling, looking for a gas station.

    Also, I’ve learned to tell the PTA “no.” I pick one event per year to be involved in, that’s it. To ease my guilt, I write them a check every year:).

  24. Work out (if you do) in the morning. Even though it means I wake up at an un-Godly hour (4:30), it’s worth it because I don’t disrupt anyone else, and I’m done.

  25. Oh, absolutely, totally, YES. I run at 5:30am because otherwise it does not happen. I never, EVER want to get out of bed into the dark morning, but I am ALWAYS happy I went. xo

  26. Excellent point. I order ALL of my clothes and ALL of the kids’ clothes online. 100%. That is a big timesaver. xo

  27. As with someone’s comment above, I also let Mia (kindergarten) read books in bed some nights. I guess this goes along with picking your battles, but she has trouble getting to sleep sometimes and I’ve found that this works the best (and quickest) with getting her to relax and into a sleepy mode.

    I need to adopt your tip on filling up my gas tank with an extra 5 minutes. It’s always when I’m running a few minutes late that I realize I need to fill up. Haven’t read Lean In yet but I’m curious.

  28. Boundaries. I’m a teacher, and it could easily consume my free time. When I’m home, I’m mom. Period.

    I love the tip about the gas and the cash-now that I have a teenage driver both of those are in short supply, always!

  29. Okay, okay, I’ll read it! I’ve been scared that it was going to make me cry, too. I’m not quite sure why.

    But you’re right — the big idea and the little practicalities are different parts of the same issue. Why not focus on the latter as you are trying to figure out (or not) the former.

    Going to sleep early is and always will be my albatross!

  30. It DID make me cry. A lot. Won’t lie to you about that. Somehow this whole topic touches a deep well of emotion that I can’t totally explain. But I still liked it.

  31. I guess it’s all about deciding what for you are the non-negotiables. For me, they include reading for pleasure and a weekly nap on Friday afternoons. Other things I do: set up breakfast the night before, take good care of babysitters and the woman who cleans our house, abandon any impulse to “keep up” with anyone or anything…

  32. I have enjoyed reading the comments above. I too don’t understand why “Leaning In” has become a controversial book.
    I am all about organization and schedules. I do live on 5 hours of sleep a night, but scheduling has improved my quality of life. One book that has really helped me professionally and personally is the book, “Stop Playing Safe: Rethink Risk. Unlock the Power of Courage. Achieve Outstanding Success” by author Margie Warrell. It is full of helpful ideas from someone who has been there and done that. LOVE IT! http://margiewarrell.com/

  33. I agree with the menu planning. That is huge for me … that and waking up 30 minutes BEFORE the kids do. That sets me right for the rest of the day.

    Using a time management app like 30/30 is another way to VERY handedly work effectively and “do more” in the same time frame that many of those women I know watch a tv show.

    Great piece. (I haven’t read the book and am not sure I will?)

  34. What a great conversation! I’m going to make a list of tips for reference and I’m putting “Lean In” at the top of my reading list. Since my son is not quite 2 1/2, I still feel like I’m new to all of this. We order our toiletries on diapers.com/soap.com. Living in NYC, all of our errands are within a few blocks of home, so this saves a lot of time. I also try to select outfits for me and my son the night before. Perhaps most importantly, I keep a running To Do List on my iPhone so I can jot down important things at any moment.

  35. What a great set of tips from you and the others who have commented! I make all the lunches the night before too (tip: lots of lemon juice will keep the apple slices fresh!). Haven’t read Lean In, but I just might now. My tips: (1) I overpay my cleaning lady but she is an indispensable part of the family; (2) Books on tape – I live fairly close to work and school but I’m amazed by how many books I’ve been able to “read” between pickups/sports practices/etc.; (3) Working out at lunch – lucky enough to have a gym at work!

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