My new normal: reducing decision fatigue with four kids and fulltime work

When I had my first baby, I was struck by how all my assumptions about shared care with my husband were based on an understanding that completely ignored her own thoughts on the matter. We couldn’t do 50/50 like we planned — because (surprise!) babies are grown and nurtured physically in the body of their mother and that actually shapes the initial relationships. Seems obvious now.

What has struck me having my fourth child, however, is actually how much better at shared care we have got – partly through economic necessity (I had only 9 weeks maternity leave at full pay, my husband doesn’t have paid employment, and we have a mortgage). But also, we actually just have more realistic expectations about what a baby needs.

When my youngest was born in December last year, I expected that he would only want to be in bodily contact with me for at least the duration of my short maternity leave. I fully expected to spend those weeks with short breaks from holding the baby in the form of showers, light exercise, and meal times. After that period of maternity leave, we quickly found the value of routine. That is a sentence I never really thought I would write. With my eldest, 13 years ago, the suggestion to have a routine seemed stupid. Why have a routine when you could just respond to your baby’s signals and adapt to what they need? Why force a routine, when you could have a baby that went anywhere with you, slept anywhere, fed anywhere? And indeed, I took her on PhD fieldwork and that worked out OK. But by the time we had four children, with school, work and other activities thrown into the mix, routine is my best friend.

We don’t have to force a routine either. It emerges from what we do. But the bits I deliberately add in are there to actually reduce the amount of decisions and negotiation I have to do each day, to give a start point that can actually be thrown out the window if we want to, but also gave us the next step in our busy day without having to actually think. I read somewhere that Barack Obama wore a ‘uniform’ so he didn’t have to make decisions about what he wore, saving his mental energy for decisions of state importance. I don’t have to make decisions of state importance, but the idea of ‘decision fatigue’ really resonated for me.

After maternity leave finished, I had sabbatical and the kids returned to school after summer break. While finishing off the Handbook of Diverse Economies, I had a loose routine, including a print out of what exercises I would do each day (only 15 minutes) and a work-focus period (9.30am to 2.30pm), where, when baby didn’t need to feed, my husband looked after him while I worked. Our baby got quite used to having Dad for some parts of the day and Mum for others (also at night!). Eventually, the baby could do the school run with my husband and kids and I got 9.30am to 3.30pm to focus and do what deep work I could (I used the extra time in the morning for cleaning and exercising). On Mondays, I sat with my bullet journal and planned out the tasks for the week, and tried to assign them a day so I didn’t have to make decisions in a hazy fog of not enough sleep. After 3.30pm, my husband took the older kids to any activities they might have and I spent time with the baby, then we folded the washing and prepared dinner then into the evening routine. Amazingly, the baby has pretty much just gone along with it all. There is always something interesting to look at, with three older siblings and two cats.

Getting stuff done with four children
Getting stuff done with four children requires routine — and a sling!

Now our routine is pretty tight. We do a load or two of washing a day. I start work when the kids start school so I can walk them there from a nearby carpark where my husband drops us, and then on to work. I’m back in the office and teaching three classes. I block out teaching prep time for 2 hours before each class and that is all I have.  Baby comes in at 11am for a feed, then I meet everyone at school at 3pm and I am almost always home for the afternoons. Kids have things that have to do each day — music practice, putting away school gear, setting or clearing the table. And a set time for screen time so we don’t have to argue — I mean negotiate — about it.

In our effort to reduce decisions and ‘negotiations’ (which I find stressful, especially if I have been making them all day), we also have a meal plan. On Saturdays, we clean the house (kids have chores) and then I make a meal plan based on our expected vege box from Ooooby. From that we make a shopping list and one of us will take ALL FOUR kids to do the shopping, while the other finishes up cleaning (me) or does renovation related task (hubby). The attraction for the kids is that get to pick their own lunch from the supermarket deli, as well as do their best to convince whichever parent to buy them different cereals or snacks (yeah, nah). The kids also complain less because they know in advance what meals are coming and it’s not a surprise when they get to the table and its “disgusting”.

Even the meal planning got a bit much in terms of decision-making, so now we have a kind of routine for that!

Saturday — Kids choice
Sunday — roast OR soup (cooks while I’m at yoga)
Monday — using up stuff from vege box
Tuesday — pasta (easy after swimming lessons)
Wednesday — salad (vege box arrives with fresh stuff)
Thursday — using up stuff from vege box
Friday — Soup and homemade bread, scones or muffins

This is a big shift from our previous practice, which, because my husband is an excellent cook, was a bit on the gourmet (time-consuming) side. At any time, we might throw in the plan and do something different, and we probably do this at least once a week. But the reality is, no decisions are necessary. In our fatigue, we can just look at the plan on the fridge, and start working on it. If we need to swap half way to deal with baby needs, no problem, anyone can continue with the plan.  My teen daughter has been inspired to meal prep her own lunches and freeze them as well as prepare chia seed puddings the night before to eat for breakfast, reducing her own decision-fatigue.

So while it is completely crazy and exhausting, through a routine we do manage to get everyone fed, kids to school and a few activities for everyone, me to work, the washing done, and keep baby happy. I only wish we could get a bit more intense exercise and some gardening into the routine. I am also wondering what other words of wisdom people gave me with my eldest which were actually words of wisdom for larger families. Any other tips, anyone?

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