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I’ll be completely honest and say that cleaning is my least favourite aspect of daily life. People often think that as I’m slightly planning obsessed I must have the ‘perfect’ house, but I’m always happy to dispel this myth! My house is generally well organised, but with five children it meets that ‘perfect’ status only on very rare occasions, and even then only after a tremendous amount of work.

Rather than aspire to perfection, therefore, I’ve instead found a base level of cleanliness and tidiness that I need to operate from. This was an important discovery for me, not just because it mattered to me what the house looked like, but also for controlling my stress levels! Over the years I’ve worked out that when the piles of papers start to build up, the toilets need cleaning (very regularly with lots of boys in the house) and the floors need a vacuum and mop, my underlying stress levels increase. From this elevated baseline of stress, I found my patience was shorter, I would find more faults in what my very patient husband was doing and all I could see was mess everywhere I looked.

Every morsel that passes my children’s lips MUST be consumed at the table. Otherwise I spend my day sweeping or cursing the amount of crumbs and food rubbish littered throughout the house. We always have a face washer sitting on the kitchen sink to wipe the children’s hands and mouth.

Katie McIntosh, mum of eight

This scenario would inevitably end with my having a massive rant about the filthiness of the house and how I was tired of cleaning all the time (and so on and so on) — a scenario that’s probably very familiar to most mothers. I realised there are key household chores that, when under control, I can turn a blind eye to (such as bookshelves that need dusting or a dirty oven).

A key task guide

One of my biggest discoveries as a stay-at-home mum was that not only do kids function better with routines, but so do parents. Daily life can be so busy it can be overwhelming at times. A common reaction to feeling overwhelmed is paralysis: doing nothing because you don’t know where to start.

Whenever I was overwhelmed by the amount of cleaning needing to be done, it showed in a couple of very obvious ways. I would walk from room to room, picking up stuff here and there with no real purpose; or I would start a job only to be distracted midway by something as simple as the books on the bookshelf needing to be straightened. To remedy this situation I created a basic cleaning routine. The routine outlines the first tasks I should work on each morning after the school drop-off. Once I get going, I quickly find my rhythm and make my way through the house, but having a starter task has proved invaluable. Table 1 shows exactly what I mean.

Table 1: key task guide

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This routine lets me switch to autopilot. I can come in from the school run each weekday morning and know which task to tackle straight away. For example, if we have swimming lessons after school on Mondays, I know my key task on Monday morning is to prepare the evening meal. Having it prepared early helps make the after-school rush much more manageable. If our preschooler and toddler are not able to amuse themselves and need my attention I put the other key tasks for the day on hold and play with the kids. I then try to find other blocks of time during the day to complete them. Just after lunch when the kids have been refuelled is often a good time for catching up on unfinished tasks.

The key tasks are my priority prompts — they keep me on track. However, they’re not all of my day’s tasks. There are days when I don’t follow this routine at all as we may have appointments, play dates or other higher priority tasks. However, the guide is imprinted in my head and if there aren’t any other commitments, I can move straight on to purposeful work without having to think about it.

The 15-minute block

Prior to having children, I used to love the feeling of sitting on the couch and looking around the house knowing that everything had just been cleaned. I still remember that lovely feeling, but after my second child was born I finally gave up the idea of trying to clean the entire house in one day. With feeding, playing and napping to juggle the cleaning around, it simply wasn’t a realistic objective.

When I had only two children I worked on a system where I’d break down the house cleaning into rooms. I’d complete one room at a time and make my way through all of the rooms in the house over one week. Then along came baby number three, baby number four and baby number five! It was after our last child was born that I had another realisation — my objective of cleaning whole rooms at a time might work occasionally (depending on the sleeping pattern of the baby and the mood of the preschooler), but it wasn’t a routine I could depend upon to successfully clean the house.

Thankfully, at this time I also came across the very practical concept of working in 15-minute blocks. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that this revolutionised my approach to cleaning and, more importantly, gave me the feeling I was staying on top of things. I highlighted my key tasks in table 1.3 and you can see that — with the exception of cooking the family meal — all of these tasks can be completed in 15-minute blocks. This works because:

• the children can easily occupy themselves for this length of time

• starting a task you know you can complete without having to stop halfway through can give you a feeling of achievement even when you feel there’s just too much to cope with

• this amount of cleaning makes an instant difference to the tidiness and/or cleanliness of the house

• if you don’t love cleaning (and not many of us do), it’s easier to stick to a single task knowing that it will only take 15 minutes.

Once I arrive home from the school drop-off, I start my first 15-minute block for the day (apart from the days when cooking is my first key task, in which case I begin with that even if it takes longer than 15 minutes). I set my toddler and preschooler up with an activity and then hop straight into it. If I’ve completed one 15-minute block and the children are still happily playing, I move swiftly on to another one.

Look at your daily routine and find places where you can slot in 15-minute cleaning blocks. The more house cleaning becomes part of your daily routine, the more likely you are to get it done. Fifteen-minute blocks work best when you can fit them around constant events in your day such as:

• before leaving to take the kids to school

• after school drop-off in the morning

• before putting your toddler to bed

• before school pick-up in the afternoon

• while the kids are having afternoon tea.

There are numerous cleaning activities that can be completed in 15 minutes. Here’s a list to get you started:

• picking up and packing away anything that’s not in its place

• cleaning toilets

• wiping bathroom benches, basins and mirrors

• wiping down kitchen cupboards

• dusting one room

• vacuuming the main living areas

• putting on, hanging out, folding a load of washing

• emptying and cleaning bins

• changing bed linen

• cleaning the windows in one room.

Involving the family

Although I’m the primary cleaner in our house, this doesn’t mean I should be responsible for everything! As part of our family’s weekly routines I’ve made sure there are plenty of opportunities for my kids and husband to contribute to the upkeep of our family home.

Getting the kids to help

It’s important that children don’t think a ‘clean-up fairy’ lives in their house. If you continually remove the rubbish from their bedrooms or take the dirty clothes to the laundry for them, kids won’t learn how much work these jobs involve. By delegating some responsibility to each child, not only will you make them aware of the work involved in keeping the household running smoothly, but they will also learn valuable independence and life skills.

For me, this means that sometimes I have to live with some mess and untidiness until the kids get home from school and clean up after themselves. This can be hard to do when you have to walk past their bedrooms a number of times a day and see the mess scattered all over the floor, so now I close the doors until the kids are home.

Starting kids off early with age-appropriate jobs is the best way to get them involved with the cleaning and daily household chores. Table 2 (overleaf) is an example of age-appropriate tasks. Note that it assumes an add-on approach where, for example, 11 year olds would be doing some of the tasks from each age group below them as well as the tasks appropriate for their age.

Getting your partner to help

I’m fortunate to have a husband who helps keep the house clean and tidy. This, however, wasn’t always the case, and it’s been a transitional change. I found the way to reach an agreement with my husband where he would contribute more to the household upkeep was to:

• discuss my expectations and needs with him

• allocate him set tasks (anyone can work well with a routine!)

• realise that he doesn’t see what I see. So, if a job needs doing, I have to ask him to do it rather than martyr myself by doing it in a huff!

• give him space to complete a task and accept that he may not do it the way I do (I still find this a bit hard, but I’m working on it!)

• teach him about 15-minute blocks.

Table 2: children’s age-appropriate tasks

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It’s important that the job of cleaning the family home isn’t left to any one individual. Take time to divide up the workload and include house cleaning as part of your family’s daily routines. Giving every family member some responsibilities appropriate for their age will contribute towards keeping the house at a level of cleanliness and tidiness you can cope with.

Taming the laundry beast

There’s no bigger part of daily life for a growing family than doing the laundry. As you can probably imagine, with five children we generate a significant amount of washing. Naturally, this results in a large amount of folding and ironing, and I admit to not always having it under control. After a particularly busy week, you’ll see a mountain of clean washing needing attention in our front room. I still manage to get the washing done (out of necessity), but if time is tight, the folding in particular tends to be neglected. The flow-on effect of not having the washing up to date is never very pretty — ‘Mum, where are my footy shorts?’; ‘Mum, where are my school socks?’) — so the incentive to keep it in check is considerable.

After number eight I gave up ironing. I have a fantastic washing machine and dryer. I now hang very little on the clothes line. I realise this is environmentally irresponsible but it’s great for my sanity and the washing turnover.

Katie McIntosh, mum of eight

In table 1.3, you’ll see I’ve included laundry on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Like most mums with a large family, I usually do the washing every day, but these are the two days when I have to make sure I do a load of washing. The school children have two sets of school uniforms and one sports uniform each. They all have sport on Thursdays, so from their school schedule I know that for them to have clean uniforms I must wash on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s been helpful to note this, so when we have super busy days and are out and about a lot, I know on which days I need to do a load of washing.

I like to determine my minimum requirements so I can adequately plan my week to fit them in. This can be just a mental note allowing me to operate on autopilot. Being able to function on autopilot can be incredibly important when you have young children, particularly when you’re overly sleep-deprived or coping with several sick kids. It means you can still meet your minimum requirements (in this case having clean clothes) to keep daily life humming along without having to spend time working out what it is you have to get done.

Tip: Keeping the laundry tasks under control

Here is a collection of my tips and also tips from other mothers who kindly shared them with me on my blog. Not all of them will suit your family, but there are fantastic strategies listed here that will allow you to tame the beast that is the family laundry pile.

⇒ Avoid letting it build up. Aim for daily loads as it’s always worse when you are knee-deep in dirty clothes.

⇒ If you have a timer function on your washing machine, load the machine up the night before and set the timer so the washing is ready when you come home from the school run.

⇒ Hang more delicate clothes such as business shirts on hangers and fold the rest of the clothes as neatly as possible in a basket to reduce the amount of ironing.

⇒ When hanging the washing on the line, do it with types of clothes grouped together and socks in pairs, as this makes the folding task much easier.

Aim to fold clothes that don’t need ironing as soon as you take them off the clothes horse or clothes line rather than putting them back in a basket.

⇒ When buying socks for the kids, think about buying mostly the same type and colour of socks — it makes pairing them up so much easier.

Fleur Morgan-Payler, mum of two

Involve the kids and your partner in sharing the workload.

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