How I Transformed My Mornings
“I Prepare in Advance and Try to Anticipate Snafus”
Christine Bolzan, 40
Married to Tony, 39; mother of Caitlin, 7; Fiona, 5 (on bed); AnnaSophia, 2 (standing)
None of Christine Bolzan’s three daughters are morning people. “I rouse them by 7:15 a.m., but they’re rarely out of bed before 7:30,” says Christine. Since the girls have about an hour to get ready for school, Christine needs to keep the morning streamlined. (She’s the founder of a career-coaching firm, and her husband, Tony, is an attorney who works out of town during the week.) By doing as much as possible to get the girls ready the night before, “I try to troubleshoot even the tiniest delays,” she says.
Every Sunday, after checking an online weekly weather forecast and a list of school activities she has posted in the older girls’ closets, Christine helps Caitlin and Fiona choose an outfit for each weekday; Christine makes the selection for AnnaSophia. The girls place each ensemble, plus anything else they might need, such as gym pants or a Girl Scout uniform, on a shelf of a hanging sweater organizer, which is labeled with the days of the week. Christine says the organizers have prevented arguments―no more “If she’s wearing a dress, I want to wear one, too!”―and let the girls “get ready without my being right there.”
Most of the prep work, however, happens at night, after bedtime. “Somewhere between 10:30 p.m. and Jon Stewart’s opening remarks,” Christine empties the dishwasher, sets the table for breakfast, lines up the lunch boxes, packs napkins and drinks, and writes a “joke of the day” for the girls on sticky notes, something Christine’s mother did for her when she was a girl.
Christine checks the girls’ backpacks to make sure homework folders are there. Then she lines up jackets and shoes, leaving nothing to chance. She even unties and loosens the shoelaces on their sneakers: “One stubborn double knot can throw a wrench into the works.”
Before heading to bed, she tends to her own next-day needs, such as choosing a suit, filling her briefcase, printing addresses to plug into her GPS, and packing her gym bag. Tiring? Absolutely. But Christine contends that doing so much the evening before ensures a drama-free morning. “I would hate for my parting words to my girls each day to be ‘Go, go! Hurry!’”
“My Husband and I Run Our Routine With Military Precision”
Patricia Lenkov, 47
New York City
Married to Robert Hetu, 46; mother of Gabriella, 9; Brandon, 7 (in front); Ethan, 7 (seated)
Patricia Lenkov, chief executive officer of her own executive-search firm, and her husband, Robert Hetu, a banker, are in lines of work in which being late just isn’t an option. But with three kids who need to be dropped off at two schools on opposite sides of Manhattan―easily a 40-minute trek during rush hour―“our weekday mornings have the potential to become very chaotic,” she says. Her solution: “My husband and I oversee our morning with a firm hand. We liken it to a military mission.” Not because they don’t like to have any fun, she says, “but because every minute counts.”
Robert gets up at 6 a.m. with the children. (Patricia rises by seven.) While the kids play with Legos or read books, Patricia gets dressed and Robert makes coffee, cares for the family’s two pet finches, and takes orders for breakfast, which consists of two courses: a no-cook option (say, Cheerios), followed by a protein (like turkey meatballs). The kids can choose from a variety of foods “as long as there’s something in their stomachs,” Patricia says.
At exactly 7:25, the morning routine kicks into high gear. The kids must have their teeth brushed by 7:33. Shoes and jackets are on by 7:35, when Patricia makes one last run through the apartment, checking for any forgotten homework or wayward playdate notes. Everyone is ready to walk out the door at 7:40.
To keep the kids motivated, Patricia and Robert came up with a point system. Accomplishing each of the morning’s last three steps―brushing teeth; shoes and jackets on; waiting at the front door―in the allotted time earns one point, so three points are up for grabs every day. When one of the kids accumulates 50 points, he or she can choose an item at the toy store ($15 max). A tally sheet is taped to the front door, and initialing their points is the last thing the kids do before going to school. “Signing off on the points is almost as fun to them as ultimately getting the toy they want,” she says.
Eventually Patricia hopes to ease up on the strictness of the routine: “As the kids get older, our goal is to give them more responsibility, so they can micromanage themselves―and Robert and I can relax a little bit.”
“Our Morning Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect, Just Good Enough”
Elizabeth Lombardo, 39
Married to Jeff, 47; mother of Kelly, 5; Grace, 3 (shown)
As a psychologist in private practice whose specialty is stress reduction, Elizabeth Lombardo has counseled lots of mothers about their hectic schedules. So when it came time to figure out her own family’s morning routine, she “was careful to set realistic expectations,” says Elizabeth. She wakes up around 5 a.m. on weekdays to ensure she has uninterrupted time to get work done on her laptop, shower, dress, and exercise. “That time helps me feel like I have a handle on my life,” she says. “Then, by the time Kelly and Grace wake up at 7 a.m., I can put my focus on them.”
Since her husband, Jeff, a sales executive, leaves for the office early, Elizabeth gets the girls out the door and to school on her own. She takes a breezy approach to dressing them: “If their shoes don’t match their clothes, fine with me. Toothpaste on their clothes? Well, at least they brushed their teeth.”
Breakfast options are quick, simple, and virtually no-cook. Translation: cereal, yogurt, or toast. “I don’t want to have to make anything extravagant in the morning. And if they have only a few choices, there’s no arguing about it,” she says. (Because the girls aren’t big eaters in the morning, Elizabeth reads to them during breakfast, promising to turn another page of Pinkalicious each time they take a bite.)
Afterward, Kelly and Grace are responsible for getting their lunch boxes out of the refrigerator (Elizabeth packs them the night before), putting last night’s pajamas in the laundry room, and taking their dishes to the sink. If they’re ready to leave the house on time, they can choose a reward for that afternoon: an episode of PBS Kids’ SuperWhy! or 20 minutes to play computer games.
Elizabeth deals with occasional meltdowns, which can set the routine back, “but I’m not striving for perfection,” she says, “so I don’t worry too much when things go wrong.” It’s part of her larger philosophy: “When there’s so much glass-half-empty stuff going on in the world, I remind myself to notice glass-half-full things. Oh, so the house is a mess? Hey, we have a house. I’m focused on maintaining a relaxed tone, since the girls will carry that feeling with them the rest of the day.”
“My Family and I Work Together as a Team”
Suzy Martyn, 42
Married to Dave, 44; mother/guardian of Julia and Vanessa, 13 (seated); Natalie, 11 (standing); Rebecca, 7
A mother of three and legal guardian of one who runs an in-home day-care business, Suzy Martyn has weekday mornings that resemble, in her words, “a well-organized three-ring circus.” What keeps things running smoothly is everyone pitching in to get things done. Every night, the girls lay out their outfits for the next day, including hair accessories, socks, and shoes. With Suzy’s help, they put homework, library books, and signed permission slips in their backpacks, which are lined up unzipped in the dining room so they can add their lunches in the morning. “If they forget something―say, lunch―they have to deal with the consequences, like having to suffer through the school’s less-than-appealing cafeteria food,” says Suzy.
Before bedtime, Rebecca sets the table for breakfast and places vitamins by everyone’s plate. Later, after the girls go to sleep, Dave, an elementary-school music teacher, fixes the girls’ lunches, fills their water bottles, and puts them in the refrigerator. Suzy handles breakfast preparation, cutting fruit and buttering the whole-grain bread she grills on the stove. “I’ll scramble eggs and put them in the fridge slightly undercooked,” she says. “It’s one less thing to think about in the morning. Plus, it saves me at least 15 minutes―that’s a huge amount when you’re rushing around.”
In the morning, Suzy gets up 45 minutes before anyone else. “It’s a quiet time to reflect and plan my day,” she says. The girls, whom Suzy taught to use alarm clocks at kindergarten age, get themselves up and have 15 minutes to make their beds, put clothes on, and wash up. “If they’re not downstairs promptly, no hot breakfast. They have to settle for a protein bar or a banana as they’re going out the door, which they really don’t like,” says Suzy. “Believe me, it only has to happen once.”
Vanessa and Julia empty the dishwasher and clear the table. Then Natalie and Rebecca help Suzy get breakfast for the five infants and toddlers arriving for day care. “I believe that kids love to feel useful,” says Suzy. “Since we all started pitching in in the mornings, my girls don’t just take care of their own chores; they help each other out as well. That makes them―and me―proud.”
“Timers Keep All of Us on Schedule”
Kelly Wilson, 44
Married to Ken, 46; mother of K.J., 14; Kyler, 12 (shown); Koah, 3
Kelly Wilson always relied on a kitchen timer to tell her when a batch of cookies was ready to come out of the oven. Then, several years ago, the personal coach and mother of three had an epiphany: She would use the same device to keep her kids moving in the morning. Her husband, Ken, a sales executive turned entrepreneur, had to leave so early for the office that he wasn’t able to help out, and Kelly says, “my nagging wasn’t helping the kids get ready any faster. I realized that a timer would take me out of the role of the bad guy. It’s a straightforward, unemotional reminder that it’s time to do the next thing.”
Nine timers strategically placed throughout the house help Kelly’s family keep to their schedules. As soon as her eldest son, K.J., wakes up at 6 a.m., Kelly sets a timer in the bathroom that gives him 12 minutes to brush his teeth and wash his face. She uses the same amount of time to say a prayer and sip her first cup of coffee.
Kelly also sets a timer so that once K.J. is downstairs to eat his usual bowl of cereal, he knows how much time he has before the bus arrives. “Instead of yelling, ‘Get moving!’ and saying something negative,” says Kelly, “now, if necessary, I calmly say, ‘Hey, the timer went off.’”
Kelly repeats the same routine when Kyler wakes up around 7 a.m. “He likes the system so much that he sets his own timers now,” says Kelly. (Three-year-old Koah often sleeps right through all of this morning action.) Recently Kelly started using a timer in other parts of her life. For example, she might set her cell-phone timer so she doesn’t spend more than 20 minutes in the grocery store (“Otherwise I’d probably be looking at kitchen gadgets or something else I don’t need”). This strategy also keeps presentations for her women’s Bible-study group from running too long. “I try to be gracious, but I think everyone is happy to have a tool to manage the ‘long talkers’ in our group.”
Mornings in Kelly’s household are now enjoyable, she says. “My husband thinks relying on timers for everything is funny, but even he admits it works for us.”
“My Motto Is, Make Mornings Fun”
Suzie Kane, 45
Married to Paul, 47; mother of Elliot, 14 (far right); Avery, 11 (in front); Owen, 9 (near right)
Three years ago, mornings in Suzie Kane’s house were so hectic, at times she literally could not stand to face them. “Having to continually go to the boys’ rooms to tell them, ‘Please get up. Please get dressed. Come and eat. Put your shoes on,’ was making me so angry. In the past, I had been a morning person who jumped out of bed happy. But I would lay in bed
20 minutes after my alarm went off, already feeling tense,” she says.
Suzie, a stay-at-home mom, realized that she needed to come up with strategies to make the family’s morning more pleasant―for her and the kids. First she devised a clever contest that played on the boys’ love of competition. She bought two giant wheels of raffle tickets from a local office-supply store and set out the rules of the game: The first boy to get out of bed, get dressed, and brush his teeth won a “premium” white ticket, as did the first to report to the kitchen. Then, every Sunday, the boys were permitted to comb through a prize box Suzie had put together, trading in their accrued tickets for small toys she had picked up at a dollar store. Instantly their mornings went from a drag to downright suspenseful.
Last year, Suzie started employing other lighthearted approaches to keeping the boys moving. If somebody sleeps through his alarm, Suzie plops the family’s miniature dachshund onto his bed to bark and lick the sleeper awake. As an incentive to come downstairs, she fixes tantalizing breakfasts, like chocolate croissants or smoothies, while blasting a classic-rock radio station the kids like.
Her sons still occasionally wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and when that’s the case, Paul, a marketing executive, is called in. “He’ll torture them with a performance of his ‘awesome’ 80s dance moves or challenge them to a ‘grump-off,’ ” says Suzie. “That usually dissolves into silliness, and all sour moods are forgotten.”
If there’s any extra time, Paul and the boys toss around a football or skateboard down the driveway. Suzie, in the meantime, will sit on the front steps for a few minutes. “I take that time to just watch and appreciate my growing boys. It’s also a moment for me to exhale and get into a peaceful mind-set for the day.”
“I Run My Kitchen Like a Restaurant”
Susan Wilson, 55
Mother of Mark Robinson, 13 (shown); Riley Robinson, 11
Breakfast used to be a battleground in Susan Wilson’s house, which guaranteed a challenging morning for this divorced mother of two. Her sons, Mark and Riley, would ask for two totally different dishes or want something she couldn’t prepare in a reasonable amount of time. Or Susan would spend about 20 minutes urging them to eat something substantial. “Both of them exert a lot of energy playing football, so it’s important to me that they start their day with something in their stomachs besides a dry bagel on the way to the bus stop,” says Susan, a public-relations executive.
Last year, Bill Lynch, Susan’s boyfriend, made an observation about Susan’s self-described “morning calamity.” Gently pointing out that she was acting like a short-order cook, taking arbitrary breakfast orders as they came in from the boys, Bill made a suggestion. “He said that if I ran my kitchen like a restaurant with one daily special, it would take all the indecision out of our morning,” says Susan.
Shortly thereafter, “the Chicken Coop Café,” named after Susan’s beloved collection of chicken figurines, opened from 6:15 to 6:45 each weekday morning. Before every school quarter, the boys help Susan create a menu of daily specials, which she displays on the wall of the kitchen. She cooks one hot dish each day (such as waffles, scrambled eggs, or a turkey, bacon, and cheese sandwich), but miso soup “for international palates” is also available on request.
Like diners at any eating establishment, the boys must follow the house rules to get service. “No pajamas. They need to be dressed and have shoes on. And they can’t be grouchy,” says Susan. Once they’re finished eating, the boys bus the table, which includes pouring leftover water into the houseplants and scattering bread crusts for the quail in the yard.
Susan doesn’t mind waking up a little early to do kitchen prep before the restaurant opens, but she insists that it close promptly at 6:45. “Having a set time for the end of breakfast is key,” says Susan. “No last-minute rush for gathering schoolwork and permission slips. That makes the morning less stressful for them and makes it a breeze for me.”
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