I was always a hands-on sort of parent. That’s not a point of arrogance, in fact I say it more to diminish the amount of astonishment I seem to get from many people when they hear that I’m raising four children alone. The one thing that doesn’t seem to cross any of their minds; the one singular detail that they neglect to imagine is what they would do if put in the same position as me.
I like to believe that I am doing the best I can, not unlike many other parents before me. To spend time with, cook and care for my children isn’t strange to me; it’s been something I’ve done since the beginning. Thanks to the larger gap in age between myself and my little brother, I changed diapers, warmed up bottles, washed sheets, all of it. This, by the way, was the era of the cloth diaper so all you parents who cringe and shudder at dirty diapers have nothing to complain about. Not really.
So having to care for the children wasn’t as big an adjustment as, say, the high school jock who spends his evenings late at the office, his Wednesdays with his poker buddies, and his weekends on the NFL Network. I went to the pumpkin patch, changed diapers and took care of all of them.
But there are many things I hadn’t faced alone or perhaps neglected to face when I wasn’t caring for my children alone. It’s amazing that I bought so much prepackaged and preservative-laden foods when I actually had half or more of the work being done by my wife. It’s amazing to me how limited our palette of meals was before my wife passed away (and she called ME picky!).
There are a number of things I’ve come to realize that you may or may not benefit from. For me, they were self-preservation; for you, they might help out a little.
Meals are the biggest. I cook nearly all the food; I’ve even avoided takeout for the most part. Policies at home are essential, and I have reasons for all of it:
*BEEF AND CHICKEN BULLION ARE A MUST: I know, the organics and the “vegans” of you will shudder at this, but I’m on a limited budget. The bullion is quick, cheap, and it’s always there. If you’re short on things, at worst, you can make a quick batch of chicken or beef and noodles and you’ve only got to have the bullion, ingredients for noodles and the meat. Cheap and easy. And not store-bought noodles, by the way.. flour, salt, butter (a little, not a Paula Dean amount) and egg together. Roll it out, cut with a pizza cutter . . . instant noodles!
*FLOUR, EGGS AND SUGAR: Again, get to the end of the month and you are desperate. Staples in your pantry eliminate that desperation. Hell, with just the staples, you can make pancakes or what have you.
*GROCERY AND MEAL PLANNING: Now, I say this, but I have horrifically bad planning skills. Still, the best weeks I have the meals planned, the food in the freezer, and I put things together the night before. I brown stew meat and use the crock pot, adding the veggies and the other ingredients (with a little red wine) and use the slow cooker for a 10-hour, amazing meal. I buy a small, brown-sugar ham and put the materials together in the fridge for my oldest to get the ham and corn cooking until I get home and put on a pot of rice. I make breakfasts the night before. The more I can make for them here at home the more it seems like when I grew up and less like I’m pawning them off on bad-tasting, chemically-induced, ready-made foods. Which leads me to:
*HOMEMADE, HOMEMADE, HOMEMADE: I know, you say it’s too much work. You are an on-the-go, single or dual-income household. Maybe you’re the only parent, like me. So what. I do it, you should too. My sons – Sam in particular – are horrifically affected by something in those ready-made desserts. Be it Oreos, Rice Crispy bars, candies, whatever. It might be the preservatives and I am not that kind of anti-chemical, you’re-killing-my-children kind of guy. Store-bought brownies and Sam is dancing on the ceiling and driving us bonkers. Make the brownies homemade – which is just a few more steps, really – and he’s fine. Plus it’s better for them, tastes better, and a lot fewer fats or calories. When I had a wife to help me with the kids it didn’t seem as crazy. Without her, Sam on treats is just too much to bear.
*THE WONDERS OF BOROX: My Mom got me using the Borax as a laundry booster. The whites are better, the colors don’t bleed as much, it just gets things cleaner. I tried the brand name little packets and gel pack and what have you. They don’t work as well. It’s harder to find, but a 1/2 cup of Borax with the laundry and I don’t look as inept as I am.
*CHORES ARE KEY! My kids have to help, but so do I. As a boy I always thought it just so unfair that my mom had us doing the dishes and cleaning the bathrooms, like we were slaves. I didn’t do the laundry. I didn’t vacuum it all or polish silver or buy the groceries, none of it. So now that I look around me, it’s vital that they do them. I give up a lot – not a complaint, by the way – so they can contribute. They’re old enough and we’ll fail miserably if they don’t. The chores fall on my shoulders, too, and the enforcement, the cleaning, laundry, all of it need to get done or I’m just as guilty of creating the mayhem as the four kids.
*STICK TO YOUR GUNS: I’ve said this before, but will say it again. My middle daughter was supposed to go to a concert in Oakland and spend the night on Fisherman’s Wharf in the San Francisco Bay area with us. She only had to turn in her homework. She didn’t. So she didn’t go. I took my oldest, stayed at a very nice hotel, had ice cream on the beach and texted her pictures of all of it. It was harder on me. I had an empty seat for an expensive concert ticket. I had to ask her aunt to watch her. Most of all, I missed her. She would have loved it, but she had to learn. I hope she did.
*THE ROUTINE RULES: It sounds silly, but the routine is the most important thing in our lives. Sure, I have missteps with some of the above rules. I don’t get meals done on-time. I don’t make things in advance all the time. The laundry piles up. But the routine: up every morning, breakfast made, it’s important. I put up a coat rack that’s at the kids’ height so that the moment they get home the backpacks get hung up and their shoes put right under it so that we never look for them any more. It’s always there. We get the bedtime routine started at 8pm and the kids head to bed and we read a chapter in a book and they’re lights out by 9pm.
The needs of the many in our house truly outweigh the few. We have so much to do and so little time to do it in that we have to plan and work accordingly. When my wife passed away, I had a basic understanding of how to raise my kids. What I didn’t have was an understanding of how to do it all. I had to look to my Mom, my Dad – an amazing and strong man – and the families around me to survive. I do like my mother and talk all through cooking and cleaning so that, even if they’re not listening, it might sink in through osmosis the way it did with me.
The routine rules. It really does. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten through until now. It’s the most vital part of our existence and keeps us on track.
A routine I repeat when I give my kids the biggest, most basic mantra of our existence: “We’re stronger together than we are apart!”
What about you, what routines do you haven place that save you time, money and sanity?
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Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.