Spinning plates: ten top tips for surviving the school summer holidays

spinning plates 1.jpg

With the school summer holidays fast approaching, working motherhood is, for many, about to go from busy to bedlam. But with a bit of planning, it is possible to juggle without dropping (too many) balls. Read on for ten top tips, crowd-sourced from busy working women, on how best to make your routine tenable this summer…

1. Plan, plan and plan some more

Sure, it sounds boring, but there’s no question that planning ahead can reap rewards. Get your annual leave request in as soon as possible (as in, have you thought about 2020 yet?), coordinate leave with your partner to ensure everyone’s needs are as close to being met as can feasibly be achieved, and then work out where your childcare gaps are and start filling them.

Is there a particular activity that your child loves? Start searching for summer camp options that will enable them to develop that hobby, and get a place confirmed as soon as possible as the best camps get booked up well in advance. “My teenager is fashion obsessed,” says Edinburgh-based mum-of-one, Laura, “so I searched around for a camp that could help encourage that love during the summer holidays last year, and found an art course that was covering some design teaching. She absolutely loved it and spent all day dreaming up designs with the help of her teachers. She got to be creative, I got to work, and I could relax knowing that she was happy while I got on with what I had to do,” she says. Which is not only a win-win but leads us to number two…

2. Drop the guilt

If there is a feeling worse than mum-guilt, we’re yet to find it. The idea that working mothers spend their time at the office worrying about their kids, and their time with the kids worrying about their inbox, is a cliché precisely because it so often rings true. But have you noticed that how your kids remember your parenting fails and how you remember them is often at odds? Sure, you parked them in front of the TV to take a conference call with shame, but they simply took great joy in an unexpected cartoon session. Cutting yourself some slack is key.

“When I was on deadline launching last summer, I sent my then four-year-old son to football camp and I felt dreadful about prioritising my work over spending time with him,” admits single mum Jen. “But he loved every minute of it. It gave him confidence, he met new friends and he got to run off far more energy than he would have at home. I’ve since sent him back to the same camp twice and I don’t feel a jot of guilt about it anymore. He has an amazing time, and it means the hours I actually do spend with him during the holidays are quality ones where I can shut down from working and just focus on us.”

3. Ask for flexibility

Flexible working is the holy grail and, in these increasingly digitised days, it’s becoming more feasible for many. After all, when so much of our work can be completed remotely, what’s to say we need to be in the office every day? “I was a bit concerned that my boss would think I was slacking off when I asked to work from home a couple of days a week last summer,” admits Sarah, a mum-of-two from Fife.

“But he was open to giving it a shot and the fact he trusted me meant that I ensured I was extra productive, both during my days in the office and when I was at home. A couple of times, I did find that I was getting less work done during the day than I’d hoped, but I made up for it in the evening after my girls had gone to bed and my husband was home. So, in the end, my productivity didn’t suffer, I kept my childcare costs down and I felt really quite proud of myself that I had asked for what I needed – something I haven’t always had the courage to do professionally. That was a real lesson for me, that sometimes it pays to have the confidence to just ask for what you need.”

4. Manage expectations

Lucky enough to have secured flexible hours during the holidays? It’s worth remembering that while you might not be following a 9-to-5 routine, many of your colleagues and work contacts will be continuing to do so – which means the relentless email correspondence will continue apace too. “When I started working flexibly last year, I initially struggled with guilt about leaving emails unanswered for hours at a time,” Sarah admits, “and I also felt bad emailing colleagues at 10pm at night in case they felt they had to respond.”

Her solution? A simple disclaimer. “You know where it says ‘sent from iPhone’ automatically at the bottom of your smartphone emails? I put a little not there saying that I was working flexibly and that I did not expect a reply to my emails until the recipient was within their working hours,” Sarah explains. “It just headed off that issue at the pass and meant everyone knew where they stood. A lot of people commented on it, which shows that while it was a very simple fix, it was effective too.”

spinning plates 2.jpg

5. Make use of your network

Asking for help is something many of us struggle with, but it is worth remembering that if you’re struggling with the juggling, the likelihood is that many of your friends, family members and neighbours are too. Grandparents are often all too keen to get some quality grandparent/child time booked in, while our friends may well be happy to help too. To take it a step further, why not sit down over coffee and see if there is a way you and your network can help each other by creating a babysitting exchange or summer childcare rota?

“I have four friends that I schedule play days with during the holidays,” says Emma, a mum-of-three from Bearsden who works part-time. “I work three days, and on my two days off I’ll take some of the other kids so that their mums can work, then they do the same for me on some of my working days. It means all of us can keep our childcare costs to a minimum and the kids all love spending time together. To be honest, it’s often easier to have more kids around, as they’ll entertain each other and I just have to supervise. It saves me having to provide all of the entertainment myself, or spend a fortune on expensive activities to avoid another day being roped into playing football in the garden when I just want a cup of tea!”

6. Get your house organised

Even with camps and childcare sorted, the chances are your children will be at home more often during summer, and that means more snacks, more meals and more food prep. While there’s no getting around the ‘children need fed’ fact, you can lighten the load with a bit of preparation and this is where the web comes into its own. Save yourself dragging the kids around the supermarket and order your groceries online, plan meals in advance, make sure you always have more snacks in than you think you’ll need, to allow for unexpected visitors/impromptu playdates/growth spurts, and try and go easy on yourself on fruit roll-up guilt too. “I try to look at my kids’ diet over the course of a week, rather than a day,” says GP and mum-of-two Ashley, from Aberdeen. “It balances out better that way, and I feel less shame when they have a day out and seem to eat endless snacks in lieu of proper meals, because I know I can make up for it the next day.”

It’s worth giving a shout out to recipe kit services here too. Companies such as Gousto, Hello Fresh and Mindful Chef will deliver exactly the ingredients you need for a set number of family meals, taking the labour out of grocery shopping and helping you cut back on food waste – which can prove invaluable during busy weeks.

7. Balance the load

With all this talk over the juggle working mothers face, it’s all too easy to forget that our kids (mostly) have a second parent too. Has your partner considered condensing his or her hours during the holidays? Have you sat down together and discussed whether you can share the load more effectively during the summer months, by changing working hours or creating a new pick-up and drop-off schedule? “I always took the lion’s share of childcare on as my duty, but when I sat down to discuss it with my husband after a particularly trying day during the Easter holidays, he admitted that he would like to spend more time with our boys during the holidays and just hadn’t really considered following through with that,” says Nicola, a mum-of-two from Paisley.

“He spoke to his bosses and managed to negotiate a couple of working from home days for the second week of the holidays, where he did all of the drop-offs and pick-ups and handled the after-camp hours, so that I could put in a couple of long days at the office. His employers were totally amenable to it, he and the boys loved having a bit of extra time together and, frankly, in the end we both felt a bit daft that we hadn’t thought to ask before.”

8. Find your survival mode

There’s little question that at some point this summer, you’re going to drop the ball. But what if you could actually reduce the number of balls in the air in the first place? Or, to put it another way, is there one area of your life where you’re willing to reach for merely acceptable rather than perfect for the duration of the holidays? While basic cleanliness isn’t negotiable, trying to keep your house like a show home might be heaping on additional pressure that simply isn’t necessary.

“I have an emergency basket,” laughs Inverness-based mum-of-three Linda. “On days where the house is in chaos and I’m exhausted, I do a quick sweep and throw anything that’s on the floor into the basket and I stash it away in the hall cupboard. Then, when I’ve got time and energy later in the week, I tidy all the contents away. It’s a temporary sticking plaster, but I can go to bed knowing I’m not going to get up to mess, and sometimes that’s good enough.”

9. Start planning for the start of term NOW

We know, we know – thinking about the next term before this one is even over gives us palpitations too. But when it comes to the new school year, a bit of preparation can go a long way to keeping us sane. Start taking stock as the end of term approaches – how many school sweatshirts are only fit for the bin, and how many will still work after summer? Are school bags and lunch boxes still in one piece, or holding on by a thread? What new supplies are going to be needed? “We have to order our school uniforms for next year by the start of June, which always forces me to start thinking ahead,” says Jane, a mum-of-three from North Berwick.

“I try, when I’m sorting uniforms, to make a bigger list of what else the kids will need when they go back, and then I keep it in my wallet and check it whenever I’m shopping during the summer. It means I can tick things off in dribs and drabs as I see them, rather than having to do a big panic shop trying to find stuff at the end of the holidays when everyone is doing the same thing, and it spreads the cost a bit too. It feels boring as hell, as I’m not naturally organised, but I always feel a little proud when it gets to the end of the holidays and I’m not in full panic mode.”

10. When all else fails, know when to laugh

Disasters will happen. It’s how we deal with them that makes the real difference to how much we enjoy the summer. So, when your routine is falling apart around your ears, try to remember that no child’s life has ever been ruined by an extra hour’s screen time, a tantrum-saving bag of Haribo or an unscheduled late night. Strive for balance but know when to throw caution to the wind too. Your kids, and your sanity, will appreciate it…