How She Strategizes
Art by Caitlin Connolly (caitlinconnolly.com)
Motherhood is a logistics-heavy job. And there’s no gradual ramp-up. That first baby is the shotgun that kicks off a logistical sprint. Suddenly we have to manage the details of diapers, feedings, sleep schedules, tummy time, laundry—oh, the laundry—and all the other things that come along with the bundle. Then that bundle grows up a bit and there’s more micromanagement. You have to baby-proof your house from anything too sharp or two chokable, man the stairs, teach them to walk and feed themselves, clean up the resulting messes, and do more laundry. Then they grow up even more and you have to manage an ever expanding family schedule, plus you’re still cleaning, teaching, feeding, etc. And that’s one big etc.
Truly, we moms are up to our necks in details. But in this post, we’re going to ignore the neck down and focus on that beautiful head you have on your shoulders that rises above the details and thinks about the big picture: the strategic level of motherhood. This is what makes motherhood not just a job, but a career.
I had my epiphany about being a “career mom” when I was pregnant with my third baby. I had two little boys, ages three and one. Caring for them was my full-time gig. My house was a mess and so was I. At that moment, I realized, “I chose motherhood as my career, but I am treating this like a job, not like a career—and I’m floundering!” Before kids, when I was working as a magazine editor, I was always thinking about strategy—the direction the magazine was going, our purpose, what we wanted to cover in future issues. As a mom, I was living day-to-day, in survival mode.
Now, with the perspective of having been a mom for 13 years, I recognize that a large part of this crisis I was having was because of the stage I was in. When you have teeny kids, and especially when you’re pregnant or have a new baby, survival is the strategy. In fact, it’s why we get that nesting instinct right before we have a baby. We get the nursery ready and clean and organize the rest of our house like mad. We’re prepping for a long period of sustained survival mode, like the grasshopper who gathers food for the winter.
But two-and-a-quarter kids in, I was craving a plan and a purpose to give the logistical drudgery some meaning. So I came up with a plan. I started a file called “Archibald Inc.” on my computer and I divided my “company” into departments: culinary arts, education, recreation, housekeeping, finance, etc. I chose one department a month and created strategic objectives for that department, a tactical system to support those objectives, and one achievable goal for that month. I started with the housekeeping department, with the objective to “Put housekeeping on autopilot so I could spend my time on more important things,” and I set the goal of just getting my dishes done every night before I go to bed.
Each month I chose a different department and went to the library and found books I could read to learn how to run that department better. I talked to friends and mentors about how they ran their household. Ten years later, I’m still following this general career-development program, and it’s totally changed my outlook on motherhood. It has become a true career for me.
Every mom is a career mom. Some moms have another career on top of their mom gig, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that this is a long-term, strategic career. It’s a challenging career, but the perks put health plans and 401Ks to shame—the first smiles and giggles, that indescribable feeling of having your baby fall asleep in your arms. And that newborn smell…. Then there’s the first joke they tell that is actually funny, that adorable dance recital, the late-night heart-to-hearts. It’s the most rewarding career.
In this post, we’re going to talk about several different moms, and how they strategize in their own motherhood careers. Specifically, we’ll talk about how they create deliberate family cultures, often complete with a family mission statement, how they set goals, and how they include their families in their big-picture planning.
Every family has its own culture, intentional or not. One way to evaluate just how intentional your culture is, is to decide what’s really important to you as a family, and then evaluate whether you’re living according to those priorities and values.
Once a year we have a family culture meeting, usually around the time that school starts for the year. We usually start by talking about other families we know and what sets them apart. We know families who are service oriented and are always helping others. We know sporty families and book-loving families, kind families and sarcastic families, minimalist families and always-have-the-latest-new-toys families, cautious families and adventurous families, outdoorsy families and indoorsy families. We list characteristics of these other families and talk about how none of these are right or wrong ways to be—just different. Then we talk about how we would describe our family, what our core values are, and what we want our family to become in the future.
Sometimes these annual checkins are a wakeup call, when we realize our culture has slipped into something we didn’t intend become. It helps us to get back on track and evaluate what we want to be knows for as a family.
Jen and her family had one of these cultural wakeup calls one year on Christmas. She and her husband looked at the mountain of wrapping paper and cast-off toys, and thought, “We can’t do this. We can’t feed into this commercialism and just have everything we do be about stuff.” They realized they needed to change their parenting paradigm, and that they wanted two overarching goals for their kids: being global citizens and being humanitarians.
So Jen and her husband, Jerry, decided to start giving her kids experiences instead of presents for Christmas, usually including a family trip. Then then started looking for humanitarian opportunities. The first time Jen had seen real poverty was on her mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Guatemala. She wanted her children to experience this earlier in their lives, and to realize that some kids are more worried about finding clean water than getting a phone.
As she was looking for a perfect opportunity that would allow kids to participate, a former mission companion called with the answer: a nutrition program in a tiny city where she and Jen had lived in Guatemala. At the time, Jen was getting her masters degree, studying about home and community gardens. It was the perfect fit. Now the family goes to Guatemala together every year-and-a-half or so and Jen goes by herself once a year. (Read more about How Jen Connects with her Kids.)
Josie’s family takes the culture of being global citizens up a notch. Her family of five lives on a 40-foot sailboat together. Over the past four years, they’ve made their way from California to New Zealand, exploring as they go.
Their decision sail full time was based on more than adventure, although that certainly was a factor. They had met other families that went sailing with their kids and were really impressed with their ability to communicate with adults and really all age ranges. They wanted their own kids to have that same comfort level communicating with people of all different ages, cultures, and beliefs. They also wanted to avoid getting caught up in the pop culture and FOMO (fear of missing out) that’s so prevalent in our culture today.
They loved the idea of defining our family culture on their own terms, based on their own core values—togetherness, outdoor activity, global citizenship, hands-on education, minimalism, and environmental responsibility. Of course, another big part of their culture is togetherness, which you can hardly avoid when you’re living together in such a small space, especially on their long passages:
Those two families are pretty dramatic examples, but you don’t have to travel the world to create a strong family culture. The Frei family is one of the first families I think of when I think of family culture. They foster a culture of togetherness by attending all of each other’s sporting events and other activities, and by creating fun traditions like their annual winter hike—in Minnesota, no less—an annual camping trip, and the event they hold each year—the Frei-for-all, in which they invite anyone and everyone to their home each summer for outdoor games, a picnic, and a giant slip ‘n slide. You can read more about Jana’s family here.
A big part of Kelli’s family culture is cultivating curiosity. She encourages her kids to ask questions, and then goes to the library with them to research. They explore together, especially outdoors, and plan educational outings as a family. Kelli tries to identify her children’s strengths and encourage them to do activities to develop those strengths. Click here to read more about How Kelli Cultivates Curiosity. You can follow Kelli on Instagram @raisingcuriousminds.
My great-grandmother, Laura McClure made hospitality the hallmark of their family culture—the more the merrier. Which is saying a lot since she already had 11 children of her own. They almost always had missionaries living with them—the kids and missionaries mostly slept on cots in the living room, and she was famous for her fried chicken. She always encouraged her kids to invite their friends to Sunday dinner.
My friend Tamsin’s family has one of the most fun and unique family cultures of anyone I know. From an early age she encouraged her kids to follow their passions, well, passionately. When someone showed an interest in Medieval life, they bought costumes and hosted a Medieval feast—turkey legs, dancing, and all. One daughter went on to get her PhD in medieval studies. When they got into the Lord of the Rings, they really got into it—they read all the books and watched all the movies, of course—in full costume. But then they went the next step and watched all the other movies starring the actors in the Lord of the Rings movies. They dedicated a whole wall in their basement to pictures from the movies, and then they took a trip to New Zealand to hike where it was filmed.
A Family Mission Statement, Motto, Creed, Value Statement
Many families take defining their values one step further, and they actually write out a family mission statement, motto, creed, or value statement—whatever they want to call it. These range from simple one-sentence mottos or creeds, to page-long family mission statements.
As always, the personality of your family can determine what works for you. For example, Andrea’s family has one of the simplest mottos I’ve seen, and it happened by accident. Her daughter loves to draw. One day she lettered the words, “I am a Davis,” decorated it with flowers and showed it to her mom. (clip)
At the beginning of each school year, Elizabeth throws a Back to School Feast to celebrate both the new school year and their family. At the feast, Elizabeth and her husband reveal their family theme for the year. This year's theme is "there is sunshine in my soul." They also have a family motto, “Work Hard, Finish Strong,” which they repeat often. It applies to so many situations!
Sidney is in a much different stage of her life. After decades of raising six children full-time, they all moved out and she wasn’t crazy busy anymore. In fact, she realized no one would even know whether she got out of bed in the morning. It was time to redefine her strategy. She adopted “Peace, Passion, Purpose” as her personal motto, and decided that humanitarian work would best fulfill this new strategy. She set about finding just the right charitable organization she could volunteer with. She settled on Gathering Humanity, where she helps relocate refugees and gives them a fresh start. She especially loves involving her grandchildren with this work.
My family created a collection of family mottos based on a format we learned from Merrilee Boyack, author of Parenting Breakthrough, one of my favorite parenting books. Hers included “Boyacks are early” and “Boyacks don’t bail” We revisit ours once a year, so they change a little bit, but our current list includes:
Archibalds try new things.
Archibalds have faith, not fear.
Archibalds are kind.
Archibalds are adventurous.
Archibalds have each other’s backs.
Clearly, many of these are more aspirational than descriptive, but we’re working on it!
Last year, Kristie sat down with her family to create their family mission statement. They talked about what mission statements are, and then had a big brainstorming session, where they wrote down everyone’s ideas, even when the three-year-old was being silly. They worked together to fine-tune it into something they were all excited about. She made treats so they’d all be motivated to put in the work. They ended up with a beautiful statement that gives them purpose and unity: “The Kerr family desires to be active, and willing to act, & make our home a safe haven where the spirit can dwell. Eternal life is our goal.”
Kristie created a beautiful print of it that they hang on their wall. You can see more of her great ideas at @ourkerrazyadventure and ourkerrazyadventures.com.
Jodi wanted a more visual representation of her family values and goals, so they worked together to create a vision board. They clipped pictures that represented their family and what they wanted their future to look like from magazines, and hung the vision board near the kids’ bathroom as a daily visual reminder.
So far we’ve been talking a lot about ideas and values—kind of the philosophical side of family strategy. We’re going to bring it to a more practical level. Once you know what you want your family culture and mission to be, it’s time to make sure your goals, priorities, and actions align with your values.
To make sure her family strategy is on track, Andrea asks an important question: “Does our calendar and budget reflect what is important to us?” She and her husband talk about this frequently, and make adjustments accordingly. They also involve their kids in this discussion, when applicable. For example, their daughter wanted to quit taking piano lessons. She had gotten to the point where she could read music and was fairly proficient, but they just noticed that she didn’t enjoy it and never sat down to play for fun like some of their other kids. They decided to let her quit piano to focus on art and dance, interests she is more passionate about.
On a bigger scale, the family decided to relocate from the midwest to Oregon a few years ago, even though that meant downsizing to a significantly smaller house and tighter budget, because they wanted to move closer to mountains and get outside more.
Another thing they do to prioritize their time is something I’ve never really heard of another family doing. They use their TV like an appliance. It lives in a cupboard until they decide they want to watch something. Then they take it out, watch it, and put it back away. Andrea talks about other screen-time strategies at betterscreentime.com.
At the beginning of each year, Jillian and her family evaluate all their activities, the ones they’re already doing and the ones they’d like to do that year. Then they make their annual “quit list” the things they’re willing to give up so they can fit in the new things they want to do, or the things that are just not paying off anymore. They evaluate the motivation behind things like dance lessons or soccer, so they can decide if it makes sense to add them to their schedule.
For example, their son wanted to join Boy Scouts, to go camping and hiking and other outdoorsy stuff. But the family already does that on a regular basis and had a huge camping trip to 10 different national parks already planned for that year. So Boy Scouts was relegated to the quit list. You can hear more of Jillian’s wisdom on episode 47: “Doing Less to Have More” on The Family Looking Up Podcast, I’ve listened to it three times! Jillian’s own website is montanamoneyadventures.com.
Prioritizing always involves sacrifice of one thing or another. Sometimes (gasp!) that means cleaning the house takes a backseat to building relationships.
Jodi Chaffee, host of the podcast, “Our Modern Heritage,” stands firmly behind this idea. She says, “Because I’m trying to work on my personal development and my children and the time I spend with them, sometimes I let tasks go undone, just because they’re not the priority. That’s become part of our culture—prioritizing relationships.”
Because those mundane tasks still have to get done, they designate an hour in the morning for taking care of things like dishes and laundry and then an hour right before dinner where they “restore balance,” tidying up the messes they’ve made that day.
Goal-setting is another big part of a family strategy. I first heard about the Chung family’s Plan with a capital P at their company’s annual Christmas party over dinner. Every year, Leisle and her husband Vinh dedicate a weekend to life planning. They go away to a scenic place, put the kids into fun activities for the day like ski school, and they spend their day planning.
Their plan has several sections, broken down both by time and by category. They always start by looking at their 30-year-goals in each category: Personal, Marriage, Family, Extended Family and Friends, Community/Charity, and Professional. For example, in the category of Marriage, they talk about what they want their relationship to look like in 30 years. The end goal is to remain best friends, deeply in love, and still enjoy spending time together.
They’ve found that although short-term plans might change year-over-year, their 30-year goals remain the same. That big picture doesn’t change, even though the path does. They know where they want to be in 30 years, so we just do what we can to move in that direction.
They reflect on the prior year and what they'’re proud of and then evaluate they future ten-year, three-year, and one-year goals. This is a great time to talk about what is going well, what the next steps are, and what they want to change. Their one-year goals obviously change every year, and they always evaluate whether our ten-year and three-year goals need some revision as well. You can read more about Leisle’s plan here.
Andrea would have been all over the Chung family goal-setting sessions, but that would be a little too intense for her husband. That’s a balance she’s had to learn to negotiate. When they first got married, she sat down with him and suggested they write out life goals for their marriage. He said, “Wait, what?”
She realized she needed to approach it differently. Andrea backed off a lot and decided that the way to approach goal-setting with him was to bring it up in more casual conversations, instead of a formal sit-down. As time has passed, she’s toned down and he’s stepped up. Read more about their family strategy here.
Another seemingly simple approach to goal-setting which is becoming more and more popular is to come up with a one-word theme for the year. I say seemingly simple because I tried it this year, and it was surprisingly hard to come up with one word that I wanted to focus on—surprisingly hard but also surprisingly rewarding.
Sarah has been doing this for about eight years. She realized that her lists of goals ended up being the same each year, so obviously something wasn’t working. She picked a theme for the year instead—something to help her focus and really change. These themes are usually just one or two words, such as “Nurture,” “Look Up,” “Uplift,” or “Pray.” She says, “Usually, by the end of the year I have internalized my theme and it’s a part of me. I really have changed. I really have made progress. And that feels awesome.“ She is also an artist and paints a lovely piece of art around her word. She sells these “resolution reminders” at sarahnielsenart.com.
This year, one of Jessica’s goals was to be more intentional with family time—time she spends with her children and husband to reconnect, teach, and learn from one another. As a family, they sat down and came up with a list of 12 things they would like to do together in 2019. They had to agree on each item, but also remember that there should be a certain balance of “service” and “self” on our list. She also reminded the kids that not everything we do has to be extravagant and/or cost a lot of money. Having an outdoor play day and BBQ in the backyard can be just as important and valuable as going on an exotic vacation.
They got out their calendar and penciled in an activity a month, such as a snowy play day, a day at a museum, and a neighborhood cleanup. You can see their entire list on her profile.
One of the best goal-setting activities my family has ever done was an idea we got from Tracey Eister, in episode 60 of the Family Looking Up podcast. She suggested getting a long roll of butcher paper and making a grid with your family members down the side and the next 15 years along the top. Then fill in significant events in everyone’s lives, such as moving to middle school, getting a driver’s license, and graduating from high school.
Talk about a wakeup call! It was so interesting to see how our lives lined up, and how quickly some of these activities will be coming up. The next step was to put some of our bucket list items tentatively on the timeline, such as vacations we want to take together and accomplishments we hope to achieve. Really the whole activity was mind-blowing.
I could talk about family strategy all day. But because none of us have that kind of time, I want to talk about one last thing. When we’re thinking about strategy, we can’t forget to enlist the help of others, especially mothers who have already passed through the stage we’re in and even mothers in earlier stages who can help us rekindle that first-time-mom enthusiasm and adoration for our children.
When I was working as an editor, I always looked forward to our meetings with our editorial advisory board. They were so passionate about their respective careers, and had such good advice for one another. So when I became a mom, I was quick to assemble an unofficial advisory board—moms that were deliberate and passionate, mentors from all different stages of motherhood. When I make plans for playgroups or lunch with other moms, I often tell my husband that I’m going to a board meeting. I usually even go with a plan about what topics I want to bring up, and what questions I want to ask. Getting support and advice from other moms is one of my best motherhood strategies, and really the reason I started How She Moms.
If any of the moms featured on this episode intrigued you, you’re in luck. I’ve profiled of many of them on howshemoms.com. I’ve included links to each of them, as well as any other podcasts and blogs I’ve mentioned in this episode in the show notes. I hope they inspire you—as they have me—to try some new strategies and rethink your own strategies, family culture, and values.