Home » Library » Parenting » How to Put Parenting First and Tame the To-Do List

How to Put Parenting First and Tame the To-Do List

How to Put Parenting First and Tame the To-Do ListThe mom I was talking with the other day (let’s call her Lillian) was very, very frustrated. With two children ages 5 and 3, a full-time job, and a husband who travels for work, her life is very full.

“Why can’t I get anything done?” she asked. “Other moms seem to have a clean house, serve good meals every night, and still find time to be on the preschool’s board of directors. It’s all I can do to throw stuff in baskets, make mac and cheese or hotdogs for dinner and get through the day. What’s their magic? I want to know.”

So do I. I certainly have felt that way. I imagine most moms, regardless of whether they work outside the home, have felt that way as well. To read the various ladies’ magazines you find at the grocery checkout counter, most women spend their time rearranging closets, crafting up a storm, and trying out four new recipes using the fruit of the month. The result? Many of us are in danger of developing a major inferiority complex.

Here’s what’s real. Once there are kids in the equation, it’s really hard to get anything on our internal to-do list done and still be the kind of parent we’d all like to be. Often it comes down to a choice of spending time being a parent or spending the time on chores or our own interests. My vote is for the parenting. Kids are kids for only a short time. Our job is to give them the time and loving attention they need to become independent, thoughtful, and competent. That often means hitting the “reset” button on what were pre-kid priorities.

4 Ways to Put Parenting First

  1. Let go of “House Beautiful.”It’s wonderful to have a home that looks like an interior decorator has been there recently, but not at the expense of making your home uncomfortable to live in.Plastic on the sofa and insistence that everything personal should be stowed away may make things pleasing to strangers’ eyes, but it makes a home uncomfortably formal for those who live there. Home needs to be a place where people can feel like they’re at home. Kids need places where they can build a fort with the sofa cushions, use all the blocks for an elaborate roadway, or roll on the floor without fearing they’ll break something.
  2. Reset your cleanliness standards. Decide what it means to have a clean-enough house. My mother would proudly say her floors were clean enough to eat off. They were. But I never saw anyone empty their plate onto the floor and dine down there. Rather than obsess about whether dust kittens have taken up residence behind the couch, take that time after dinner to coach a kid through homework, read a story to a toddler, or get into the kids’ world of imagination with the dollhouse or trucks. It’s better for everyone’s mental health to have a C+ in housekeeping and an A+ in family togetherness than the other way around.
  3. Shorten that to-do list.Pare it down to what you think you absolutely have to do, then cross off at least half. Raising happy, emotionally healthy kids requires us to be flexible. Kids, being kids, will need you for things that are far more important to them than whatever is on your agenda.

    Having mom or dad attend to a bruised finger, having a parent available to listen to a complaint or help solve a problem, or getting to a playdate when everyone else does matters more to them (and to you) than getting to the cleaners, shopping a sale, checking your email or having a long talk on the phone with your best friend. Save those things for times when the kids are busy doing something else like playing at a friend’s house or sleeping.When kids are awake and active, it’s guaranteed that something will come up that will require adults to reshuffle whatever it was they thought would get done that day. Instead of resenting it, get into it.

  4. Involve the kids in the must-do’s. There’s no getting around it. The laundry does have to get done. The yard does have to be raked. The car needs to be inspected. The bills need to be paid. Sometimes adults just have to do adult things. But more often than not, there are ways to use these chores as teaching opportunities that can even be fun (or at least not terrible). Kids want to copy us. Little ones will pretend a banana is a phone, will make a stick into a pretend mop or will walk around in their parents’ shoes in their efforts to be big like us.

    Whenever possible, include them in the chores or give them a way to imitate what you’re doing that is engaging for them and gives you a minute to get something accomplished.Kids need parental time. Think about how many times a day young kids say, “Look at me!” “Mom, watch this.” “Dad, come here!” They look to us for approval, for guidance, for affirmation that they, and their actions, are important. Our job is to fill them up with love and lessons for life. We can’t do that if we’re too busy cleaning the house, running errands, doing chores or spending time on the computer.

    If the choice is to manicure the lawn or to get everyone to sort of clean up the yard so you can go for a family hike, hand out some rakes and be satisfied with making the effort. The lawn may not be as perfect as when you do it yourself, but the kids will have the pride that comes with working alongside Mom and Dad and you’ll all reap the reward of a family outing. If the choice is to reorganize the closets or go to your kids’ soccer game, go to the game. 20 years from now, they won’t remember the state-of-the-art closets, but they will remember that you were on the sidelines cheering them on.

How to Put Parenting First and Tame the To-Do List

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). How to Put Parenting First and Tame the To-Do List. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.