03/28/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Putting School Year Activities Into Perspective

This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's second workshop. Asha Dornfest and Christine Koh, co-authors of Minimalist Parenting, are sharing their best advice on simplifying family life. Here, Asha discusses strategies for managing the school year.

"I don't know why, but it feels like I have less time now that they're in school all day."

My next-door neighbor said this, and my mental response was whaaaaa? Her three children were a few years older than mine, which I assumed meant she was living the relaxed life of a Mother With School-Aged Children. My oldest was a preschooler and my youngest was a baby at the time, and I was still in direct contact with plenty of poop, snot and tears. Two kids in school sounded like a resort vacation to me.

My neighbor's a hard-working, community-involved mom, so I didn't imagine she was lounging around eating artisan truffles and playing Angry Birds. But surely, with 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. covered by the public school system, she had more time, right?

It wasn't until my kids were in school that I understood what she meant. There are serious logistics involved when your children are in school. What with the lunches and the clothes and the papers and the pickups and the drop-offs and the homework and the social and extracurricular activities and the vacation schedules (not to mention the volunteering)... it's a lot of overhead to manage. Especially if you work part- or full-time.

So while, yes, you do have more child-free time during the day once your kids are in school, that time (plus the busy hours after school) can get complicated pretty quickly.

How do you keep life relaxed and sane once your kids go to school? For me, the answer evolved as my kids got older. But it began with identifying my priorities. For example, I work during the school hours, so I decided early on not to feel guilty about forgoing regular classroom volunteer time. My absence in the classroom had another benefit for my kids: It helped them embrace school as "their" place and encouraged their independence. (That's just my kids; I know many parents who derive great satisfaction from school volunteering, and many kids who love seeing their parents during the school day.) For me, chaperoning field trips is the perfect way to pitch in.

Next, I structured before- and after-school time with routines. This took a long time and much trial-and-error because I'm not a naturally systematic person. But the more I was able to create simple, repeatable routines for myself and the kids, the more time-efficient we all became. Everything, from getting ready for school to packing lunches to managing the after-school backpack explosion and weeknight cooking, got easier and took less time (which meant more time to relax).

Finally, we limited after-school activities. Again, this is a personal choice based on my family's temperament. While some kids are passionate athletes or thrive with a busy afternoon schedule, mine don't, so we kept extracurriculars limited to one per kid. There have been years when one or both kids had no after-school activities. This means our afternoons have a certain openness to them. My husband or I have time to cook dinner (depending on who's free), my kids have the flexibility to choose how to entertain themselves, and there's time for their homework and chores.

There's more to it, of course, and our balance shifts every year. My oldest is now in middle school, so our expectations about his independent work are much higher. We expect him to manage and organize his homework and get it done mostly by himself. We're always available to help him through organizational and academic rough spots, but he knows that his work (and his grades) are his responsibility.

We still have our share of complications and scheduling collisions, but for the most part, it's working well for all of us. The most important thing, I think, is that it's working for us. Your family's school-year choices may be different, but the bottom line is that they're your choices to make. If school days feel uncomfortably busy for you, ask yourself what you might edit so there's more room for everyone.

Want to put Asha's advice into practice? Check out our workshop and participate in this week's challenge. If you haven't signed up for Stress-Less Parenting yet, go to the purple box on the right side of this page to receive our weekly newsletter.