Right off the bat, I need to first voice my unhappiness with the term, "stay-at-home mom." I know lots of people use it both to describe others and self-identify, and that's fine. I know it is mainly a phrase used to communicate that a mother doesn't work outside the home. I get it. But I still really don't like it because to my ears, it is just a wee bit pejorative, as in, here is a woman who doesn't have anything important to do and so just stays at home. It is why I far prefer homemaker because it assumes industry. I'll use homemaker instead of stay-at-home mom for the rest of the post.
Having gotten one of my pet peeves out of the way, let's move on.
I'm going to answer this based on my recollections of having two or three little ones at home. I can assure you, it has been a very long time since anyone has asked me what I do all day. At some point I moved from "What do you do all day?" to "I don't know how you do it all", and I'm not sure where the dividing line was. Clearly people think something must be happening at home.
The short answer is take care of the home and the children who reside there. But what does this really look like? I think the key comes in that a homemaker is completely in charge of herself and her schedule. There are no certain hours to be worked. There is no supervisor or time clock. No billable hours sheet to be completed. There are also no coffee breaks, visits to coworkers' desks, or other directed expectations. It is a double-edged sword.
Me, being me, I made myself a schedule. That way I knew what each day would bring. (I still make myself a schedule, I just have to throw it out the window five minutes after rising every day.) I would also divide my day into different parts, ie what things happened in the morning, the early afternoon, the late afternoon. As much as we like to think when we are busy how nice it would be to have long stretches of days where we had absolutely nothing to do, it wears thin after a while. As humans we do need order and we need meaningful work.
Each day, I had an idea of what I should be doing. As a general rule, I tried to plan into each day taking care of some aspect of the house, playing with the children (going to a park, going outside, reading lots of books), meal prep times, meal times, and some rest time for me. Some days I would have outside obligations, some days I wouldn't. Even with that broad idea, I know that for some new homemakers, time does tend to hang heavy. They are looking for specifics as to how to fill that time... how to occupy the small child who craves their attention every moment... how to find other adults to talk to because if you have to talk about Mickey Mouse one more time, you may lose it.
So, here are some lists of things to put on your daily to-do lists so that you can give your day some structure.
Around the house (I am certainly not a neat freak, but I do like some order):
- Plan one day a week for meal planning and grocery shopping.
- Laundry. With less laundry I could get away with a single laundry day. Now, every day is laundry day and I try to do one load (sometimes two) a day to keep it under control.
- I vacuumed and dusted one day a week. (Now my children vacuum and dust one day a week.)
- You could choose one room of the house per week for a really good cleaning and organizing. If you consistently purge unneeded/unwanted items at this time, you should never be too swamped with stuff.
- Have a consistent day where you tackle paperwork and bills and such.
- If you enjoy cooking and baking, you could plan in a day(s) where you bake, make food ahead, etc.
OK, that's about it for the house. I like a neat house, I enjoy creating a home for my family, but I really don't enjoy cleaning and try to streamline the process as much as possible. Making a home involves other intangible things as well. I prefer to focus on the people in the house.
With the children:
- Consistent daily schedules helps children feel safe, to regulate, and to know what to expect. Of course, things can come up which alter the schedule, but the more you stay on one, the calmer and happier your children will be. Have a plan for breakfast, lunch, naps (or quiet time for an older, non-napping child), snack, and dinner.
- Weekly library trips, even for little ones. It gets them used to the library and gives you somewhere to be. Look for story times and such to meet other mothers and give you some adult conversation.
- Let them "help" you around the house. Small children really do want to help, so make use of that and avoid trying to keep them occupied while you do the housework. Yes, it will take longer. No, you won't be able to do it as well. But you will be teaching life skills, creating memories, and filling the hours of your child's day all at the same time.
- Keep a running list of interesting play activities so you have something up your sleeve for those moments when you do need to occupy them. Use each idea sporadically to keep them fresh. Some ideas to get you started: playing in the sink with water, making salt dough, cutting and pasting pictures from old magazine... you get the idea. I also do this with toys and rotate toys in and out of play to keep them fresh. There is nothing like bringing out a bin of new toys that a child hasn't seen in months to keep them busy for a while.
- Be sure to read stories together every day. Maybe twice or three times. Fussy child? Read a story, It nearly always works around here.
- Take a walk at the child's pace. You can do this in any weather and it gets you out of the house.
- The biggest thing to remember is that if you plan your day for moving at your child's pace it will be more successful. Children do not rush well. They do not transition well. They don't' multi-task. When we ask them to do these things, we create stress and that stress often shows up in less-than-ideal behavior. Screaming children equal a stressed mother. A stressed mother usually means one with a short-temper (at least it does for me) and that just sends you down a spiral from which it is very difficult to recover from. Don't assume you child can handle and adult's over-scheduled schedule. Actually, it would be good for all of us if we didn't expect adults to handle an over-scheduled schedule.
And I know when you have little children, that sometimes you can do all this and there will still be times when the day seems long and you wonder how to fill it. It is OK to do something for you. In fact it is more than OK, it is good for you to do something for you. What could you do?
- Volunteer somewhere doing something. What are you interested in? A cause? Working with children? do that, just be careful of the volunteer creep that can sometimes happen. It's also OK to say no if you're at your limit. Don't let someone guilt you into doing something you don't want to because "you're home, so you have time."
- Cultivate your own interests. I also really don't care for the term hobby, because it also implies something not terribly serious or important. Ask someone with a deep, abiding interest in something and they will not see it as unimportant. Do you love to sew? It's OK to take some time to sew each day. (My children have loved to sit on the floor next to me playing with the fabric scraps which I throw there.) Painting? Music? Solving math problems? Learning a language? Do it. It will keep your mind fresh and make you a more interesting person. It will also fill your heart and make you a better and calmer mother.
- Rest. Yes, just sit down in the middle of the day and put your feet up and do nothing. It's OK. It is a made-up rule that we must be running from sun up to sun down.
- Invite people over. We all know that play dates are really for the parents, right? A chance to share a cup of tea and some conversation while the children play? If not, I don't think you're doing it right. There is a new play place near me that just opened that sells coffee and (for a not small fee) the children play while the mothers visit. I think I'm getting old, but I just don't get it. We used to do this in our homes for free. But if you need something like this to meet other moms, then great. Go and meet people. Then ditch it and invite people over. (I'm getting old and crotchety, evidently.)
- Join a mom's group. I loved being part of the mom's group at my church when my children were young. We did book and Bible studies, had monthly speakers, and had a chance to visit while our children were playing downstairs. It was one of the highlights of my week and I still call many of those mothers I met there friends.
There is so much to life. Think about what is important to you and how you want to fill your days and then do it.