"Parent Hacks" Author Asha Dornfest: "Sometimes you just have to do what works in the moment."

by ParentCo. May 25, 2016

Asha Dornfest started her blog, ParentHacks.com, back in 2005. She is now the author of "Parent Hacks," – the book, and co-hosts the "Edit Your Life" podcast.

Parent.co spoke with Dornfest about what makes a parent hack work, why parents need hacks, and how it's helpful to understand that there's freedom to be gained from structure – "very flexible structure."

Asha Dornfest speaking at WDS 2015. Photo credit: Armosa Studios Asha Dornfest speaking at WDS 2015. Photo credit: Armosa Studios

Parent.co: What do you say to people like me who might think they aren't quite organized enough to even put themselves in a position to utilize these hacks, no matter how badly we may want to.

For instance, the idea of creating outfits for your kids and rolling them up with a hair scrunchie. I was like, "That's brilliant." Then I was like, "Wow, when would I do that?"

Asha Dornfest: The first thing I would say is, believe me, I’ve felt that so many times when I've read things. My Achilles heel happens to be around crafts, and the fact that it would require me to go to an art supply store and buy those things. Oh my gosh, the overhead required makes me tired even thinking about it.

I would say that everybody comes to these hacks from where they are. There's no expectation that every single one is going to work for every single person. I think for some people they would look at a hack like the outfits with the scrunchie, and they would think, "Oh, that's great. While I'm folding laundry I'll just do that. That would be so easy."

We stumble upon what makes our individual lives and situations easier, and those lives and situations change day to day, and are totally different based on what's going on with us.

For other people it's like, "It's enough for me to just get the clothes in the drawers. I'm feeling good about that!"

I think there is allowance for that in, if not the book, then the notion of parent hacks. The idea here is we stumble upon what makes our individual lives and situations easier, and those lives and situations change day to day, and are totally different based on what's going on with us.

The key is to notice in your life what it is that's holding you back, and then fix that stuff. If you were to open my drawers, and look at my clothes, you'd be like, "Wow, you don't even fold your clothes. You shove your clothes in your drawers." I'm like, "Yeah, and it pretty much works for me. This is not a problem for me."

I think that's the thing. There isn't an expectation that every hack will, or even should, work for everybody. You pick and choose the stuff that seems to make your life easier, then either ignore the rest, or think that maybe some day it might pop into your mind when it actually becomes handy to you.

As I was looking around on your site, I could feel myself creating a mental file. I'm not going to implement this immediately, but this is really brilliant, and I may not have thought of it on my own, so I'm really glad that I've just read this.

That's really good. I think the thing, too, is that I find that guilt is such an undercurrent in so many parenting books. There's this feeling that maybe I'm just not doing things right, or enough, or I could never do that. There is this insidious guilt and inadequacy that can creep in when you're reading parenting books. I really tried to address that in this book. I'm hoping it came across. To me, it came across, but I'm hoping to readers it comes across that this is about encouraging people to embrace their own moments of genius, and to share them, and even get a little recognition for them.

I noticed on your website there is an emphasis on community. A lot of the hacks are reader submissions. It seems like it's a supportive environment, not a competitive environment.

Not in the slightest. I never could have done it had it been competitive. This was really inspired by my own need as a relatively new parent myself. I felt very left behind by the parenting books that I read, and this was many years ago before Facebook, and you couldn't really reality check beyond your own physical geographical community.

Starting the blog in 2005 was a way for me to reach out to other parents and say, "What's working for you because I got to say it's pretty hard over here? Here's what's working for me. How about we talk about it?" That's really how it started. It was so simple.

Parent Hacks Book

It seems like you were ahead of your time, in a way. Was that just a natural inclination of yours, to reach out through the internet?

Yes. It really was. It's both a natural inclination of my personality to reach out in the community way, but also the web part of it, the blog part of it, came because my previous writing career, before kids, was writing about computers and web publishing. My husband and I, we're super early internet people. We were designing websites in the mid-90s, which was unheard of.

My first big book in that realm was "Microsoft Front Page for Dummies." I don't know if you remember Microsoft Front Page, but it was a web publishing program. Sort of like Microsoft Word, for webpages. I was very conversant with the web. I understood how the web worked. I understood how to create a website. I was using the web long before many of my peers were. Long before Amazon, before Google, before all that stuff. It wasn't that I had this vision that the web would be this grand platform for parenting community, but it just seemed like a natural fit for me.

I found it so interesting that you mention on ParentHacks.com that your children have internet pseudonyms. I think that's brilliant. I wish I could go back and undo some of the tagging that I've done of my children. It makes perfect sense to me now, that you were already more immersed in that world than a lot of other people.

It was a completely different world in 2005 on the web. Then, parent blogging was a relatively small community. Parent Hacks as a blog was – to my mind – one of the first parenting blogs that was more of a community-oriented site than a personal journal.

At the time parenting blogs were very much, first of all, they were written by women, so there weren't men talking about parenting on the internet. Second of all, they were personal storytelling blogs. ParentHacks.com was definitely not. It's never been about me. It's always been about the community.

That attracted an audience, and so did the fact that it was a gender neutral site. Dads could talk about parenting, and that was a big deal because at that time the only people hanging out on the internet and using it a lot were programmers who, for better or for worse at that time, were mostly men. It turns out, lots of men at that stage really wanted to talk about being dads. They wanted to share some of the funny hacks that they'd come up with, and useful tips. That was the first wave of audience.

How you define the term “hack?”

I would define a hack, in terms of parent hack, as a clever or unexpected solution for a kid-related problem. Basically, one of those flash bulb moments you have as you're, generally, dealing with either a moment of crisis, or just a daily annoyance, that you come up with a way to fix it. It's just sort of a brainstorm that comes to you. Often times it's unconventional, or it reuses something creatively in your house, or it's just an unusual way to address, or fix a problem. That's what a hack is.

There's an obvious demand for these solutions. Why do parents need hacks?

I think parents need hacks because parenting is such a moment to moment, seat of the pants job. Literally, you have to think on your feet. You are on your feet, and you've got to deal with situations as they come up. A kid starts screaming in the backseat of the car, or diaper blowout, or whatever...

You have this illusion before you have children, I think some of us do, that we're in control of our lives, our schedules, and our destinies. Then our children arrive and we have to respond to what happens, and what's thrown at us. We can make plans, but those plans need to be flexible.

"Parent Hacks" addresses that. It addresses the fact that sometimes you just have to do what works in the moment.

Then again, the other part of the reason parents need Parent Hacks is because nobody's standing around giving us medals for dealing with a diaper blowout in the middle of the neighborhood park. It's really nice to get a little recognition for that. To not only get recognition, but to become part of something that makes us realize we're not alone. We're not losers because we're all a mess by the time we get to the end of the day. We're all doing this. We're all figuring it out. We can help each other out when we share these little tips.

I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the idea that there’s a whole lot of freedom to be found in structure, particularly as it relates to working parenting hacks into your day, or as it relates to your podcast, "Edit Your Life?"

My natural way of being is – my mind likes to wander, and I physically like to wander. I love to be spontaneous. I love to not have plans. I'm not a risk-taker type person. When I say spontaneous it's not like, "Let's go skydiving!" It's more like, "Let's see what happens. Let's see what reveals itself, then let’s make decisions based on that." This is a wonderful thing.

However, when you're dealing with parenting and the lack of predictability that comes with that, (it’s better to) have certain things structured so that you can get them done without really having to expend a lot of mental energy on them. Things like, a bit of a bedtime routine, a wake-up routine. Or there's a bit of a laundry routine so you know you're not going to be scrambling for underwear for your children.

Here's a good example: If your kids play sports, after every sports practice you immediately put the uniform, or whatever, into the wash so it's ready the next time. Those little bits of structure that take forethought, when you can just push yourself a little bit to take that extra step, it's amazing. It frees 110% more mental energy. It's really more than the sum of its parts, in terms of what it gives back to you.

I am so glad that you mentioned the podcast because my co-host, Christine, is very structured in the way she works, and she does it exactly so she can build in those open pockets of time. If you were to compare Christine and me, in terms of our productivity, she is much more productive because that's the way her mind works. It's really fine. That's how she prefers to work.

I think that the key comes in accepting who you are, and how you like to work, then just adding little improvements, just like I was saying at the beginning. Adding little tweaks and improvements that will fix the problems you're running into, not make you into some sort of ideal from everybody else's perspective.

So many of us need to hear about how to live more simply, how to declutter, both mentally and practically; the idea of creating space in your life. What I'm hearing you say, and the message that I would love to hear more people saying, is that a lot of that space can be found by letting go of the things that you're doing out of obligation, or out of a "Keeping up with the Pinterest moms” mentality.

We spend way too much time and energy and space worrying about stuff that we aren't actually interested in doing.

You just hit on the head. That's exactly it. That's where it starts. Understanding that clearing space isn't some sort of moral thing, that the best people are the ones with the least clutter. It's not like that. It's more like you deserve space for the things that are important to you, so what's important to you? I think that's where it starts.

It's hard to be self-confident in this day and age, as parents, because there's so much information coming at us. We care so much about doing what's right for our kids and being good parents. It's sort of a recipe for feeling inadequate, or feeling like we're messing up somehow. It just seems like everywhere we turn there are all these different examples of people who are winning, but it's like, "Are they winning in the way that I want to be winning?" It's very hard to answer that question, but I do think that's where it starts for sure.

…For me, speaking personally, it's the most important message I could ever finally figure out. It took a long time.

I think that it's easy to be susceptible to the idea that you are doing something wrong to begin with. But it's really good to hear you say that that's an incorrect assumption to start off with. It's more about figuring out for yourself how you want to be doing something. That's what all the hacks are about, right? Something that you organically come into on your own.

Yeah, you organically come into on your own. You recognize that it worked for you in that moment. It may not work for anyone else. It may not work for you the following week, but it worked for you in that moment, and you had the urge share it. That is that whole notion of trusting yourself as a parent in the most elemental form.



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