Going back to work? Here's advice from a busy mom of 3 on how their family made it work. Get her tips and tricks now.
The school year is upon us and there are probably LOTS of moms going back to work. My wonderful friend, Crystal Freeman, is going to give us all of her secrets on what their family did to be successful (and what's still working now!).
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She's beautiful and amazing, fun and caring (and VERY funny!). She's just one of the best people on the planet! And she's my friend. Crystal and her husband Sean are juggling two full-time jobs and three kids under 10. I got to chat with her about her transition back to a full time job and what they learned about making it work on a daily basis.
What was your family situation when you went back to work? And what were the hours of your job going to be?
CF: It was 2 years ago and I went back to full time work as Membership Coordinator at the YMCA of Hannibal. Our two boys were 7 and 5 and our daughter had just turned 3. My husband had a busy job that wasn't always flexible.
Both boys were in school and the YMCA has a preschool that my 3 yo could attend at a reasonable rate. This was also great, because it was nice knowing we were in the same building together.
What are your hours like?
CF: A flexible 8-4 Monday - Friday.
And would you consider yourself a planner or someone who likes to wing it?
CF: I am a wing it kind of person. But I'm married to a planner, so that helps, too!
I think dinner every night is a chore for every family, especially when everyone is busy and time is tight. What do you do to make this work for yours?
CF: I agree. Dinner is a chore. At first it was rough and we did a lot of convenience meals like chicken nuggets. At that time, my husband's job wasn't very flexible. It was really hard to figure that out. We were trying to get into a routine and a groove. It taught me to have a lot of grace with myself. Just like not comparing myself with what others were doing. We couldn't really do what we wanted, we just needed to get by to make it work. It was a sacrifice.
There was a season where we started making our dinners for the whole week on Sundays. Doing the chopping and prep work--getting everything ready to just pop into the oven. It was really helpful, but so time-consuming and the dishes were crazy. But we got away from it because things come up on Sundays and I don't want to give up weekend time. And you have to enjoy leftovers. If you don't enjoy leftovers, cooking once for the week isn't going to be for you. Also, Sundays have become laundry time. We use Sundays to propel us into the week in other ways.
But now dinner time -- we try to make it an enjoyable time with each other by playing music and spending time together while cooking. We're eating pretty clean. A meat and a side. Planning ahead by buying all the meat and the vegetables. An air fryer is very helpful. And grilling. We do brinner a lot, too, because it's quick and makes everyone happy.
What about kids lunches? Did you do them in the morning, the night before, or at the beginning of the week?
CF: My husband made all the lunches. We did end up deferring to convenience items, like ziptop bags. We would try to get as much done the night before so we weren't filling bottles and making sandwiches in the morning. Saving time and making it easy on ourselves was really helpful. We have the kids pick 2-3 school lunches per week.
We have a Snack Basket and Breakfast Basket. Every breakfast is like Go grab something from the Breakfast Basket. There are protein bars and bananas. Breakfast biscuits. Things like that. The Snack Basket has snacks that if it's an appropriate snack time, I can just say, Yes, you can go get a snack from the basket. And I know I'm fine with them eating whatever's in there. Trail mix and things like that for after school.
Laundry and Clothes
Laundry piles up fast. How do manage it? Does everyone pick out their clothes the night before or do the personalities in your family require more spontaneity?
CF: We kind of all do a little bit together. We have the kids sort out their stuff. One child has eczema, so his clothes have to be washed with free and clear detergent. We have a basket for the boys stuff, one for our youngest's, and my husband's and mine. We try to get a start on it on Saturday, so that we have time to do it all and aren't hustling. Sean and I handle it together and fold it together and the kids put their own stuff away. The team work makes a Big difference. I don't want to spend all of my weekend picking up after everyone. It's also teaching them to do that for themselves.
We waver in and out on picking out clothes the night before. It goes a lot smoother when we do it, but it doesn't always happen. Sometimes, our youngest will ask to just go to bed in her clothes for the next day and we love that. She's a bit of a dawdler, so it's a Big time savings. Haha!
Let's talk about cleaning. What do you do? How do you keep things manageable?
CF: Clutter builds up so fast! We call it Getting Thursdayed. All of it ends up everywhere. School bags. Work bags. Lunch bags. School papers. Toys. Thursday is a night we don't often have anything going on, so we use Thursday nights to clean together as a family. Once the living room is clean, I'll pay my kids a jelly bean for their hard work. Sean and I talk about how we get paid at our jobs to do things we don't like, so we're willing to do the same thing for them. Sometimes. They still have to do other stuff without payment, just because they're part of the family and they live here.
When we do these things as a family, it's really good for my mind and heart. It just makes it so much better than when I'm cleaning up after them on my own. Things like mopping never happens, but I have a really good floor wax so our floors stay pretty clean. The bathrooms get clean on the weekends when the kids clean their bathrooms and bedrooms as part of their allowance of $1 per room. That has helped a lot, them taking that on. And to be honest, they make the most messes.
We have a basket we call the Lost and Found. When they leave their toys out, I put them in there and then make them clean it out and put everything away.
Your families don't live here. What did you do when you had sick kids or snow days?
CF: Snow days my husband and I would share. When I first started working, we both had paid time off so we would take turns. The Y is also so family friendly, I would just take the kids to work with me and they would hang out in my office, playing quietly (I would prepare a few hours' worth of activities and keep them on a schedule), until Sean could come and get them.
The other thing that made it work was just having community. If we didn't have community, it wouldn't have worked during COVID. Having people here who were in a place that they could help us was invaluable.
When I interviewed, I made it clear to the YMCA that my family would still come first and they were totally fine with that. They're so flexible. If I need to, I can bring some work home. Now Sean's job is different, but when we've had a sick kid who couldn't go to summer camp, he can just take the kid on the route with him.
So it's important to know your priorities and to work somewhere that aligns with your values. Making sure that if you have the option, you choose a company and a job that is supportive of your family.
How did you navigate your kiddos getting their homework done in the midst of everything else? Did you use rewards?
CF: We tried to start out the way we wanted to go. Our school does the 7 Habits and so we use those at home a lot. Put First Things First. Do your home work right away after school. We don't really use a lot of rewards as much as just natural consequences. If you didn't do your homework (or are taking forever doing it), you're going to have to finish it while we're watching a show. Them knowing to Put First Things First and that if they don't, they're going to miss out on fun family time.
There was a period where for one child this past year, where reading was really taxing and I'd give him a jelly bean for each page he read. That helped a lot. I want homework and learning to be a good experience. I don't want it to be a fight. I want to reward hard work. Helping that process is important.
I know that your oldest kid does swim. Were your kids doing a lot of activities? How did you decide on what to do?
CF: During the school year, we limited them to one thing. Pick your sport and let's do that. My oldest picked swim and we had the option of going every day. He didn't want to. So we do three days each week. Another kid does piano and our youngest, dance. There was a perfect storm this past year of Thursdays having events from all of their activities. A lot of that was when my husband was working so it was mad chaos with me carting kids everywhere and trying to get them where they needed to be on time within a very short window.
But we let them choose and this is what they wanted. And we want them to get to do fun things and participate. And we want to encourage healthy habits like exercise. That's easier when you let your kid play sports. Not all activities are year round. Most sports at these younger ages are only 6 weeks or so through the YMCA, which is really great.
We have conversations with our kids about which activities they want to participate in and are really honest about our family's limitations. We can't do everything and we're not going to exhaust ourselves with kid activities. I think it's important and healthy for our kids to learn that from an early age.
It's been really helpful to have a Swim Bag for my oldest. And a Piano Bag for my middle child. Keep everything for that activity where it needs to be and stay organized. Then you can say things like Grab your Swim Bag and let's go.
Balancing it all/Managing the stress
What advice do you have for a mom going back to work to balance it all?
CF: Having grace with yourself. Knowing that not everything is going to be perfect. One of the Biggest things is being a team. If Sean and I weren't together on all of that, there's no way I could do it. It's just grace from God. We REALLY drive a team mentality with the kids. We're on the same page.
Before I was working, a friend gave me this advice: some things have to go to make things work. You have to decide on your priorities. Don't compare yourself to other people. Don't compare yourself to what you see on social media. There will be different seasons. Seasons that are stressful and hectic where you're just barely making it work and you just have to be gracious and patient with yourself and your family. And then more enjoyable seasons.
Setting routines are SO important and helpful. I think being upfront with the kids is valuable. When you get up, get dressed immediately, then get breakfast. If they do those things quickly, they can just hang out. But don't come out of your room until you're dressed and don't do anything else until you've eaten breakfast. And self-serve breakfast from the Breakfast Basket means that I don't have to micromanage them.
Did you and your husband talk about specific expectations--what you would do together or individually accomplish? Did you sit down and hash it all out?
Yes. We talked about the hours he HAD to work and where there was flexibility for him to be home. We had to be flexible and adapt a lot. He started taking his lunch break from 3-5 every day because that was the most stressful time at home with homework and dinner. We had to work together to find something that would work. Now his job is different. But being clear and direct in expectations, but also really flexible and understanding and willing to adjust. There have been periods, too, where since one of us has to the morning stuff on our own that the other does bedtime so that we both feel supported.
What was hard about you going back to work? And what was easy?
At the time when I went back to work, most of my friends were SAHMs, there were a lot of seasons and days that were lonely. Knowing that my friends were hanging out together with their littler kids without me because I was at work was hard. I felt a lot of loneliness and felt left out. But I could voice that with them. They loved me and supported me. Another thing that made it hard was self-guilt. I stayed home with my boys, but now I'm not staying home with my daughter. So I struggled with self-guilt about that. So now our evenings have to look different. We want to be intentional about getting really good quality time with our kids. Our time together is quality over quantity.
What was easy was that when I would think about what job I wanted, it was this job. That made it an easy choice. At my job, I get to help people a lot in the community. And it lines up with my faith and my beliefs and the gospel. I work at a place that is openly supportive of Christian values and beliefs. And our family spends a lot of time at the YMCA. My daughters preschool is there. So I get such good communication with her teacher and know what's going on. I feel really involved with her day even though I'm in my office. My kids do swimming and soccer and other sports there. My boys are able to ride the Y's bus from school to the YMCA every day after school.
Are there any products or services you recommend to help people through this transition? You talked about an air fryer. Anything else that has made your world work?
Some of the Biggest things that has helped is having a shared family calendar and my husband is the Biggest proponent because I like to wing it. The calendar is fantastic because things come up sporadically at my work and then he sees it on the calendar and isn't blindsided. Also, it's so helpful when we sit down on a weekly basis to look at everything and make plans as necessary. It makes such a Big difference. Set aside the time. It's worth it.
Grocery pickup is miraculous. Being able to shop on my phone quickly and then just go pick it up has made a huge difference.
If you're not a planner, paying for a meal service like eMeals is helpful. But there are good, free options like Disheroo that will just plan it for you or provide a great system for you to plan it yourself quickly and conveniently.
Anything that we can do the night before helps so much. A programmable coffee maker. The kids' school bags with homework and everything they need, completely ready to walk out the door.
Related: 10 Apps to Organize Your Life
What would you do differently today?
CF: There aren't really any things I'd do differently today. Maybe just be more open and honest with people around you. Like at work. I wish I would have done more of that.
There were a lot of things we'd already done like getting routines in place. That was invaluable.
Know that everything is a give and take. Be flexible and compromise. You have to constantly assess and adapt as situations change. This isn't working so we have to do easy dinners for now. Or this other thing isn't working so I have to not get everything folded this week. Or relying on other people's help more than we usually would. Knowing the different areas you're ok with being flexible in is just important. We had to cut back on what we could do on the weekends. I don't have Monday anymore to recover from the weekend, so we can't do as much socially. And we have to have a night every week just at home or things get rough.
Have you gone back to work? What tips and tricks do you have to share? Tell me in the comments!