As a young stay-at-home mom, overwhelmed by my inability to keep up with kids and chores and managing the home, something embarrassing happened to me: I had to go away on a trip. We hired a lovely, sweet-spirited college student to stay with the kids during the day while my husband was at work. Every evening he’d come home and the kids would be cleaned up, the house was tidy, the children had had a wonderful day, dinner was just out of the oven, and the babysitter was as cheerful and composed as ever.

How was it, I wanted to know, that this kid could do my job so much better than I could?

The answer, of course, is that she wasn’t doing my job. She was doing a very small fraction of my job – no bills and paperwork, no appointments, no grocery shopping, and those dinners were frozen meals, nothing from scratch – and then at 6 p.m. she’d go home for a relaxing evening of tending to her personal business and getting a full night’s sleep.

I’ve written in the past about Kinds of Time:

When rearing children, the kind of time called ‘Nobody Needs Me’ is at a premium. If they didn’t need parents, they’d get a job and an apartment and pay for their own dance lessons.

. . . Common sense tells us modern parents that we neither wish to be arrested nor wish to spend all our grocery money hiring nannies, so we spend most of our ‘free’ time on call, either watching the kids or at least pottering around in the vicinity until it’s time to break up a fight.

One of the challenges of parenting is that twenty-four hours a day, we have two sets of responsibilities: Caring for our children and everything else humans do. It requires some strategizing to get those two tracks in sync with each other.

I know a lot of moms who are doing exactly this juggle, and we struggle with the sense that somehow we can never accomplish what we think we need to be doing. Erin Arlinghaus recently shared an article on time management that I think busy parents, especially stay-at-home, work-at-home, and I-can’t-afford-a-nanny parents, need to read: “Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You.”

The Maker vs. Manager paradigm is about the type of scheduling that works better for different types of tasks. Managerial work is oversight. You yourself are not doing the project, you are making sure other people get their projects done. Making your kids clean the house is a “manager” job. A “maker” is someone who is focused on a accomplishing a specific project. Personally taking on a deep cleaning job is a “maker” role.

Manager time is well-suited to short, frequently rotating, people-intensive activities. Check on this kid, check on that kid, answer the phone, move the laundry, let the dog out, let the cat in, go pull the toddler down off the top of the refrigerator and then pull the plug on the TV show the other kids started watching instead of vacuuming the living room.

Maker time requires long, uninterrupted periods of work. This is why “working from home” can devolve into lots of yelling at your family members to please leave you alone for TEN MINUTES!!!!

This way of looking at time, combined with an appreciation of how much childrearing is an act of nonstop, round-the-clock management, can shed light on many mysteries of why it’s so hard to get anything done when you’re parenting. (In case the toddler is on top of the fridge again didn’t already explain a few things.)  For parents though, there’s another layer of nuance.

Some time ago in a conversation on a private evangelization forum, Catholic blogger and homeschooling mom Melanie Bettinelli said something that struck me as not-quite-right. She described herself as being “low energy.” It was a comment made to contrast herself with other mothers of young families who are intensely involved in parish activities.

Now I’ve been reading Melanie’s blog for a lot of years, and “low energy” is not a word I’d use to describe someone whose daily cooking and baking, literature studies, family prayer time, creative endeavors, and intellectually-intense field trips rival the Bettinellis’. The woman is no slouch.

What struck me as we were discussing the Maker vs. Manager paradigm is that Melanie is a family maker. I questioned her about this, and she agreed. The reason she limits outside activities is that it lets her family do more making.

“So there’s an element of needing to limit the number of things I’m managing in order to protect the things I do value, including uninterrupted time to be creative,” she explained. “In terms of structured activities outside the home, I evaluate very carefully to maximize value. I’m more likely to do a science or art related activity because those aren’t my strengths as a teacher and I seek experts to outsource teaching to.”

In contrast with Melanie, a parent who thrives on coordinating lots of sports and hobbies and kid activities might be more of a family manager personality. We can think of activity-heavy lifestyles in a negative light, but we could also note that it takes skillful planning, persistence, and creativity to put together a complex family schedule. It’s possible that the parents who gravitate toward family-on-the-go living are drawn to the variety and liveliness of manager-time.


Makers and Managers in Marriage and Family Life

Family life is complex and demanding. Under the pressure to make a living, spend time together, grow in holiness, educate our children, and maybe even relax a little, parents often struggle with a sense of not quite keeping up. Two useful ideas for parents to think about are:

  • How does the type of time I have line up with the goals I have for my family?
  • What kinds of activities do I find most refreshing and rewarding?

By becoming aware of how our scheduling does or doesn’t support our goals and our need for sanity, we can grow a little more sane. Maybe there are changes I can make to better meet my family’s needs. Maybe, also, I can take an honest look at the unavoidable demands on my time and recognize that I’m actually doing a half decent job under the circumstances.