Andre and I have three daughters aged seven, five and nearly two, three lively Jack Russells, two full-time jobs (both in IT – I work in IT-enabled business transformation, and Andre runs a large public sector IT department), charitable commitments at Withington Baths, the house renovation, and a general desire to eat, sleep, exercise and watch TV like normal folk.
Something I get asked a lot is how we do it. How do we manage to tackle so much DIY while taking care of the kids and ourselves, and holding down our pretty full-on jobs? And I wish I could tell you that there’s a silver bullet. But the simple answer is that if we've managed to sit down for the first time at half ten at night, with enough time to spare to watch 20 minutes of The Sinner, Dynasty or Riverdale before we have to take ourselves off to bed before the baby wakes up at the crack of dawn the next day, then we would consider that to be a good day.
I first wrote a post about this balancing act a few years ago when the girls were small, and I was on maternity leave. And I've also shared a ‘day in the life’ that pretty accurately reflected how we got things done at the weekend at the time. But now we’ve added an extra daughter and an extra dog to the mix, and I’m back at work full-time, we’re no longer able to take advantage of the opportunity to get things done during the week – instead, it’s all about using evenings and weekends as effectively as we can.
So, here are some tips.
If you can, tackle one room at a time. Tackling a whole-house renovation with kids around would be utterly grim. We always only work on one room at a time so we can close the door on the mess at the end of the day. Even when we began work on the ground-floor transformation, which involved knocking down internal walls, and therefore couldn’t be contained to a single room, we made sure that we’d renovated all the bedrooms first, to give us a nice, calm (relatively!) dust-free environment to retreat to. If you want to stick to the one-room principle you will have to resist the urge to start ripping wallpaper off randomly from room to room, as the chances are you’ll end up looking at the hideous exposed plaster for a long time before you get round to fixing it. This leads me to point number two…
Renovating with kids around takes a really long time. A really, really, really long time. We’ve been working on the bathroom for coming up to four months how and still aren’t finished. You can’t make crazy loud banging noises when the kids are napping or asleep (the baby was brought home to a ridiculously loud building site and despite being exposed to this as a young ‘un, still wakes up if a dust kitten rolls across the floor in her bedroom). And of course it’s not ideal for the kids to hardly see one of their parents because they’re constantly in a boiler suit and dust mask doing DIY. On to point number three…
Tag team. One of us looks after the kids (sometimes hanging round the house in case design advice is needed, sometimes heading out for a solo parenting adventure) while the other gets on with the DIY. Do not ever try and both do DIY at the same time as everyone will end up in tears, including the dogs. We do sometimes get the kids involved with the DIY – they love helping Mummy and Daddy hammer things into the wall and measure things, but having a few extra pairs of very small hands most certainly does not make light work!
One day on, one day off. On a normal weekend, one day is DIY day, and the other day is family day. On DIY day, the kids know that one parent will be looking after them while the other works. On family day, we down tools and head out for some fun – to the zoo, the beach, a local National Trust place, a friend’s house, the local swimming pool – whatever the kids want to do. And we don’t feel guilty in general about spending time doing DIY because we’re building a beautiful family home for our girls (and hopefully demonstrating the value of hard graft!).
Plan your activities. We do most of our DIY from September to November, and January to May. We take the summer and Christmas off, and aim to schedule outdoor projects for the April/May months when it’s likely to be nicer to work alfresco. One of the worst DIY mistakes we ever made was in July a few years ago when Andre speculatively pulled up the entire stair carpet and threw it away, meaning we then had to spend literally 300 hours during a summer heatwave painstakingly scraping away the toxic, flaking lead paint that lay below the carpet, prior to sanding and oiling. Never again! The downside of taking the summer off is that you then have to get all the DIY done during the darker winter months when the hibernating instinct kicks in, and it feels like it’s the middle of the night when actually it’s only about half six.
Identify time-wasting black holes. Do you lie in bed in the morning scrolling Instagram (me)? Do you get the girls to sleep and then collapse onto the bed for a ‘quick five minute rest’ that ends up being 45 minutes of watching random Facebook videos of puppies (Andre)? Be strict with yourself about when you’re wasting time – there’s a difference, in my opinion, between sitting down deliberately for a nice cup of tea and a biscuit for an Instagram session, and mindlessly scrolling stuff you’re not really that interested in simply because you can’t be bothered to get out of bed. And find a way to squeeze things in whenever you can grab a few spare minutes rather than trying to allocate larger blocks of time. The other night I spent five minutes rubbing some dark wax into a trio of terracotta planters to give them a bit of an aged look while simultaneously keeping an eye on the kids having their dinner – and earlier in the day I quickly brushed some clear wax onto a chair while Elodie helped out with a toddler-sized paintbrush. Multi-tasking fries my brain more than single-tasking, but squeezing in little bits and pieces here and there enables us to get more done.
Take time to exercise and eat well. DIY renovating with kids around is hard – you need energy to keep going. I try and run for half an hour twice a week, and to squeeze in an exercise class at the gym near work. I take overnight oats to work (when I remember!) and have a massive vegetable and protein-based salad from the subsidised work canteen (I know, we’re lucky to have this – first time in my career!). We get four meals delivered from Gousto once a week – we still have to cook them, but it takes away the brain power required to meal plan and means you always have something tasty in the fridge. If I don’t exercise and eat properly, I feel really sluggish, and find it hard to summon up the energy to get up the ladder at 9pm and start wallpapering. Equally it's hard to summon up the energy to cook, but it's the lesser of two evils for me.
Just expect that you won’t sit down much. There’s no magic bullet, as I say – we generally do DIY from when the kids go to bed until sometime between ten and eleven at night. And this isn’t an occasional occurrence – we do this pretty much six times a week when we're in the midst of a big project. Of course, we still go out as often as we can (sometimes separately for ease of babysitting), Andre plays squash every week, we have friends over for dinner and so on. And we need to walk the dogs, make sure the house doesn’t disappear under a rising tide of Lego, dirty laundry and takeaway flyers, supervise homework, make beds, pick up the jigsaw pieces, load and unload the dishwashers, prepare and clean up endless meals served in small bowls, and so on. But when we’re not doing any of these things, we’re doing DIY.
So that's how we do it. Hours and hours of sodding hard work, basically. Having operated like this for over six years, we've managed to get shed-loads done - four bedrooms including a massive custom-fitted wardrobe in our bedroom, all the staircases, new heating, ground-floor redesign and extension, new kitchen, utility area, new downstairs WC, living room renovation, playroom renovation, boot room, and most of a bathroom. Boom! We're ready for a rest now, hence the year of RELAX :-)