"Caring For My Mother-In-Law Sometimes Feels Like We Have A Third Child"

Much of the parenting conversation has centered on the notion of having it all, but anyone who has even some of it knows that it’s less about “having” and more about “doing.” Going to work, caring for your kids, fitting in friends and fitness — it’s a lot to do. In our series, Mother's Day, we ask some of the most highly functioning parents we know exactly what they fit into a typical day, and how the hell they do it.

Lea, an elementary literacy coach in Chattanooga, TN, is experiencing the tug of being in “the sandwich generation” at only 32. Her mother-in-law suffers from bipolar disorder and requires a lot of attention and care from Lea’s husband — which places more of the child-rearing burden on Lea. Because of this, and being somewhat taken aback at how hard having a second child was, she cut back from full-time to working three days a week. She also took on a brave new hobby in her spare time (like that’s a thing). You will not believe what she manages in a day — on how little sleep — and that she still considers herself a “low-energy” person. Ahead, Lea takes us to school.
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Parenting with: My husband of eight years, Jordan. I think it's important to note that we also take care of many of his mother’s affairs; she suffers from bipolar disorder and it's severe enough now that she can not live on her own or manage her own finances, doctors’ appointments, etc. My husband handles most of that, so a lot of childcare that we would share falls on me. He can't always go to the kids’ appointments, e.g., because he has to take off work to go to hers. Right now, we are in a pretty good routine with it, but when she is manic, it gets hard, because she requires more of Jordan's attention. We are definitely in “the sandwich generation,” raising our children while taking care of an aging parent. Sometimes, it feels like we have a third child — it’s definitely a piece of the "having it all" challenge.

My job:
I worked full-time when Avery was a baby and felt that we spent every day working and then just getting ready for the next day. I hated missing the best part of his day (the morning, when he is the most playful and pleasant) and knew that I wanted more time with him. Then, Jordan's mom had an episode and had to live with us for a while. It was a crazy time! After that, I decided to try working part-time. However, these early years with my kids will be gone in a blink. It's almost every mom's struggle. This balance works for me: I work three days a week, doing what I love, and then spend the weekend and two weekdays with my kids; we get to do fun things together, get housework done, etc., without it getting too chaotic. It also helps me not to feel like doing stuff for Jordan's mom is a burden or taking away from rare family time. It's not perfect; having two kids is still challenging, but this is what works for us right now.

Before kids, we both slept as long as possible and got up at the last possible second.

This is an example of a workday:
Our toddler gets up between 6 and 6:30 a.m. My husband gets up with him. He gets him his breakfast and turns on the TV for him. (I actually don't love this, but since Jordan does it every morning without complaint, I try not to say anything.) I typically sleep until 6:45 a.m. or so on workdays, then my husband gets the baby dressed while I get ready. Lunches, bags, etc. have been packed the night before. I shower the night before, too, so all I have to do is get dressed. I'm pretty minimalist, so it doesn't take long. (I have gone to the capsule wardrobe concept, because it saves me time shopping and time thinking about what to wear.) Before kids, we both slept as long as possible and got up at the last possible second. We didn't have coffee every morning, because we didn't need it. We are not morning people. That was our biggest adjustment to parenting!
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My husband has my coffee poured, so I can quickly grab breakfast to eat at work and get everything else ready to go. I give my toddler a kiss goodbye, grab the baby, and leave. My kids' day care is actually in the basement of the school where I work, so I don't have to take an extra stop. We are sacrificing a lot for it, though. Part-time care for infants is pretty much non-existent. So, we pay full-time for Alex (even though they’re basically just babysitting in there) and a three-day rate for Avery (his class has been great). We pay about $1,300 a month, which makes it really expensive babysitting. It's pretty much what I make working part-time. But next year, Alex can be part-time, so I'll be making money again.

Once we get to school, I take the baby to his class and usually nurse him before going upstairs to begin my day. My husband gets ready, gets our toddler ready, and then brings him to school around 8:45. It may seem silly that we bring our kids separately to the same school, but it's hard for me to get everyone settled before the school day starts. (I'm a pretty low-energy, introverted person, so I can get easily overwhelmed.) I have done it on occasion when my husband has a meeting or something in the morning.
I spend my day working with teachers and students at an elementary school. I plan lessons and teach alongside the teacher, demonstrate things for the students, and so forth. My coworkers are over my daycare drama. Ha! But they seem to like hearing the funny things my toddler says.

My only breaks during the day are usually to go downstairs to the daycare and feed the baby every two-and-a-half hours. It can be a little tricky, because sometimes lessons need to be done at set times, so I have to figure out my work schedule the night before and try to set the feedings around those. It's not too hard to juggle. However, if I was a regular classroom teacher, nursing would be so hard! You don't get breaks at nice two-and-a-half hour increments. My baby doesn't take a bottle, so pumping is not an option. Avery's lunch is provided by the school. I don't love what they serve, but it's simplified my life a little bit, which was needed.

Since I work every other day, a lot of times during work I am getting group texts from other stay at home mom friends as they plan activities for the next day. We try to do at least one activity a week (museum, zoo, play date), so that's when it gets planned.

Everyone needs something from me at the same time.

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I love having them close, because as soon as school is out, I can go down and pick them up! I pick up the kids around 3:30 p.m. Once we get home (around 4), we play outside if it's a nice day or Avery will play with a puzzle or something independently (I think he likes to have some quieter time after daycare). Alex is mobile now, so he likes to play with toys and crawl around the house.

The baby usually needs to be fed around 4:30 p.m. or so. Then, I start making dinner. I try to stick to meals that can be made in 30 minutes or less. We are also on a tighter budget, because of the expensive daycare and my working part-time, so eating out is limited to just a couple of times a week. (Usually, Sunday after church; Jordan’s mom pays for that, because she comes with us, and one dinner.) I love to cook, so that helps.

From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. is the most stressful part of the day. The baby is usually fussy and Avery is getting hungry. I'm trying to cook, but everyone needs something. The dog even decides it's a good time to want to go in and out of the house and get into things.
Jordan usually gets home around 5:30 and then we eat. Before kids, we could be flexible with meal time and not eat until later. Now, if Avery isn't being fed by 5:45...it's a meltdown! We try to eat as a family and do, for the most part. While Jordan and Avery are eating, I feed Alex. Then, when Jordan's done, he takes over the baby feeding and I eat. After dinner, Jordan cleans up and does the dishes while I play with the boys, start a load of laundry, unpack from the day, start a load of cloth diapers, get the bath started, etc.

Our kids only take baths every other night or so. The goal is to have Avery ready for bed by 7:30 p.m. After a bath (on those nights), Avery gets his pajamas on, brushes and flosses (with our help), watches a short video, and then, each of us read him a book. After book reading, either Jordan or I put him to bed. If Jordan does it, he does some shadows puppets with him, sings him a song, and then leaves. If I put him to bed, I just sing three songs (currently, "When You Come Back Down" by Nickel Creek, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and “You Are My Sunshine”).
Once Avery is down, Alex usually is hungry, so I nurse him and then he goes to bed. Ideally, he goes to sleep around 8:30. After the kids are in bed, we usually have from 8:30 to 11 p.m. to ourselves. We pack lunches, change loads of laundry, shower, plan the next day, watch TV, or mindlessly look at our phones. I wish we used the time in a little more meaningful way (deeper conversations, working on projects, etc.), but I am just too exhausted from all of the waking up in the middle of the night. Before kids, we were night owls and stayed up even later. We watched a lot of TV shows together and I did a good amount of sewing and working on craft projects. I got back to that stuff once Avery turned a year or so. I'm hoping I have more energy once Alex gets older and starts sleeping for longer stretches. I just have no mental or physical energy to do anything creative or mentally challenging these days. Even reading a book seems too hard sometimes.
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I just feel like I need to justify this and prove that I'm not a bad parent, because my kid doesn't sleep through the night.

Avery wakes up again at 11:30 p.m. to nurse, again at 2 a.m.-ish, and again at 5 a.m., after which he usually joins us in our bed, because I am just exhausted. I get up with him every time. He nurses every time. It's pretty bad, considering he's 7 months, but this is actually better than it was before he turned 6 months; we would feed almost every hour sometimes. We haven't pushed to end night feedings, because we have weight-gain concerns. (I just feel like I need to justify this and prove that I'm not a bad parent, because my kid doesn't sleep all night.) On a bad night, it takes us a couple of hours to get Alex to fall asleep and he's up a lot. I do most of the night waking stuff, because of the nursing and because I'm a much more pleasant person in the middle of the night than Jordan. (Also, he does the morning routine with Avery.) It's the tough nights when I'm so thankful I don’t work full-time.

"This is just the season of life we are in."

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How did you and your husband divide duties in this way? Have gender stereotypes played a role?
We divided the duties like this mostly based on the baby. I am still up with him several times a night, so that is why my husband gets up with our 3 year old. Then, I have a very set time that I have to be at work by, so that's why I have to leave earlier and my husband can wait to get ready until I leave. I bring the baby with me, mostly because of nursing. He started refusing a bottle, so we're pretty much attached! Before we had our second baby, we would rotate mornings to get up with Avery.

I'm sure gender stereotypes have played a part. I do all of the cooking, Jordan does the yard work, etc. We split the inside cleaning most of the time. I have more time to do it, but Jordan is a neater person than me...so, he does some of it for his sanity, I'm sure! I do the laundry right now, but at other times he's done more of it. He also does the dishes 80% of the time.

How do you feel about your body now and how is that different from your self-image pre-baby?
After baby number two, I feel pretty good about my body. I was always fairly self-conscious of my figure before having kids. After my first, I felt self-conscious about my stretch marks and different shape. I finally got to a place where I liked how I looked after about a year-and-a-half. This time, I lost the weight sooner (thanks to eliminating dairy and soy, because of the baby’s allergy) and was already used to my post-baby shape, so I felt more confident. My stretch marks don't bother me anymore, but I think it's because I'm too busy/tired to notice them!

What have you felt the least prepared for so far?
I was not prepared for my second child to be so different from my first. I mentally prepared for how going from one to two would be more work, because there would be two, but I did not prepare for having to do all of the problem solving and worrying all over again. I also was not prepared for the challenges of mothering as an introvert. I really love having quiet alone time, and with two kids, it doesn't happen — especially with a very verbal 3 year old. Honestly, that's one of the things I look forward to coming to work for, the quiet I sometimes get during the day!

What do you do truly for yourself?

Not much. I haven't had a haircut in 10 months (I'm embracing the long-hair look)! My husband and I do a three-month workout rotation (he gets to focus on working out for three months and then I get to), but we are currently not in my rotation. Some friends convinced me to join a 30-plus women's soccer league. (I had never played before.) Jordan handles the boys while I play a game. It’s tricky to work in Alex's feedings around the games, but I am loving getting to do something for me and having a built-in workout for the week.

What is your sex life like now and how has it changed since before you had kids?
Before kids, we just tried to have sex pretty regularly. We went to bed at the same time and would talk before going to bed. It was a nice way to stay connected and would sometimes lead to more than talking. Now, it's not as regular and when it happens, we feel rushed, in case a kid is going to wake up. I think it's okay. Neither of us is thrilled about it, but we know it's just the season of life that we are in.

Ed. note: Names have been changed.
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