From raising four boys to raising chickens, from baking buns to beekeeping, Mary-Jo Thiessen is the epitome of a busy parent.
But the above activities barely scratch the surface when it comes to the tasks the mother of four active boys — Tyler, 13; Jesse, 10; Tristan, seven, and Malcolm, five — tackles per day on her 4 and 1/4 acres just outside Elie.
"I think I forget how busy I am because I am too busy doing life," Thiessen says.
A hobby farmer in addition to a mom, Thiessen burns the candle at both ends. After getting her foursome to the school bus before 8 a.m., she takes to her list of chores, which includes tending to her hens and turkeys, picking chokecherries, currants and plums from her bushes, weeding and harvesting her sprawling garden and prepping bread, squares, cakes, pies and jams for local farmers’ markets (the author strongly feels there’s no better loaf of bread or jar of jam anywhere on the prairies.)
After she meets the kids at the bus in the afternoon, she helps with homework, serves supper, does laundry, feeds dogs, cats, fish and geckos…
She does this solo on weekdays — her husband Ed, a Red Seal carpenter, leaves every Monday morning for work in Neepawa and returns late Friday evening.
Yet Thiessen is no homebody. She’s on the board at the Elie Community Club, serves up to 120 kids per day as the hot lunch program co-ordinator for École St. Eustache and co-ordinates a number of early childhood programs at the St. François Xavier Community Club.
When asked if she ever feels like she’s gotten everything done on any given day, she says "that’s a big fat nope."
Perhaps you’re not as busy as Thiessen, but you’re struggling nonetheless in the back-to-school season to balance your work obligations with household chores, the kids’ hectic schedules and trying to find family and alone time. Be assured, you’re not alone: 57 per cent of parents see back-to-school as the most stressful time of year, according to an April survey by the New York Post.
Thiessen — and others — have practical advice on how to manage time effectively, prioritize and get things done without going off the deep end.
One key is prepping everything that you can ahead of time.
Thiessen, for example, cooks in bulk and portions out what she calls "freezer meals," such as meatballs, marinated chicken breasts and lasagna.
"Four growing boys eat a lot," she exclaims. "Unless you have four or more boys, it’s hard to fathom."
"(Freezer meals) really help on days when the homework load is high or — let’s be honest —when I really don’t want to think much in regards to supper," she explains, while admitting sometimes supper still ends up being toast and cereal.
Thiessen also stresses the importance of making a to-do list.
"I love lists," she says, adding the more wearying her day, the more detailed she makes her docket just so she can "give (herself) multiple check marks."
"For example, (on a) good day, I would write ‘laundry,’" she says.
"(On a) tough day, I would write: ‘1) Gather dirty laundry. 2) Carry laundry to washing machine. 3) Start a wash load. 4) Switch washed clothes to the dryer. 5) Fold clothes. 6) The boys can put their own laundry away.’"
Katherine Lee, a mom who writes regularly for verywellfamily.com about school-age parenting and has collaborated with child-development experts, agrees with the virtues of the to-do list.
"Each night, make a list of all the things that must get done the next day… and see what you can cross off that list or move to the next day or the next week. This will help you prioritize, and seeing all your tasks together will help you see what is and is not essential," Lee writes.
Lee also recommends getting kids involved in chores and responsibilities, both to alleviate a little pressure (or as Thiessen puts it, to "help you avoid a nervous breakdown") and to help them build character.
"Kids naturally love to be helpful, and when you give them chores and responsibilities, you boost their self-confidence and make them feel valued," she writes. "Tell them how great a job they’re doing, and how much you appreciate their help. Not only will it bring you closer together, but it’ll help your kids grow into confident and kind people who love helping others."
Thiessen wholeheartedly agrees — there’s never a chore shortage at her place and says "if a two-year-old can turn on and use an iPad", they can learn household skills, too.
Her boys often help her weed the garden and harvest vegetables; "many hands make light work" and doing things together makes task more enjoyable, she says.
Chores help "develop work ethic, responsibility, and actual life skills for when they will have to do life independently," Thiessen explains. "Of course they would rather play, but giving them age-appropriate jobs gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride, (and) also a sense of belonging and being needed and valued.
But holy moly it takes a lot of patience. How does a floor look worse after a child tries to sweep it? Truly a mystery."
Thiessen and wellness coach Elizabeth Scott both tout the power of saying ‘no’ to additional stresses and obligations in hectic times.
"Mothers encounter many different worthy requests for their time and attention, (and) saying no will often disappoint someone," Scott writes. "However, what we don’t always realize is that when we say ‘yes’ too much, people also get disappointed because we can’t do our best when we’re spread too thin."
Thiessen says she is "kind of terrible" at saying the two-letter word, but is working on it.
"I work hard to make sure that my boys’ lives are simple and not over-scheduled, but I can be a poor example of that for myself. I’m not good at seeing or hearing about a need and not feeling strongly compelled to help somehow. It’s ridiculous, I know. I am aware that it’s not always my job to fill every need or volunteer every time."
Thiessen is undoubtedly a super-mom, although far too modest to ever identify as such. She’s she’s quick to point out she’s not perfect.
"Am I efficient? I suppose so, but it’s not always pretty," she says. "I am not a well-oiled machine with a sparkling house, dressed to the nines or working on my last two pounds of baby weight."
She may not have everything figured out, but she has figured out her top priority. It’s not her chickens, bees or vegetables — it’s her family. She says seeing through the obligations and savouring "real life" by spending time together is key to contentedness in chaotic times.
"My perspective is that the dishes and laundry will always be there but my boys will only be little and need me for a short time," she says. "So I will almost always choose to read to my boys, or go on a ‘Peter Pan’ adventure, or help them battle through homework, and ignore the dishes from supper or the laundry that I should have already put away."
Lee writes of the importance of being fully engaged in these times. Kids notice "phubbing" (a portmanteau of "phone snubbing"), when their parents are more focused on social media or emails during family activities than they are on them.
"Make sure you have tech free family time, regularly," Thiessen agrees. "Stay connected with those who are most important to you. And if you have to schedule it in on the calendar to make sure it actually happens, then do it. You won’t regret it."
As for finding quiet time to herself, Thiessen says she doesn’t get a lot, but finds "a cup of tea, a cozy blanket, and a good book" after the kids hit the hay helps recharge her. She also stresses the importance of not isolating yourself, and says something as simple as coffee with friends helps her stay connected.
Lee also recommends exercise (Thiessen says "a walk in nature can bring peace and a wonderful change of pace,") and adult colouring books as ways to reduce stress.
Lastly, it’s important to not beat yourself up if a day goes sideways.
"In this world of social media, it’s so easy to compare, and perceive that other families have it all put together," Thiessen says. "And people — moms especially, I think — wear themselves to a frenzy to keep up to a standard that isn’t real: the immaculate home, high-achieving children enrolled in multiple activities, flashy romantic vacations, the next fad diet, and so on.
The truth is… there really isn’t enough time to get everything right. Perfect is just a facade. There are only 24 hours in a day, so unless you have learned to clone yourself, you have to take this precious commodity of time and sit quietly and figure out what is most important to you."