The daily balance of parenting & housework: four useful reminders

Photo by Andrea R

Reader Kristen wrote me and asked, “I have so much housework to do all day, but I know I need to spend time with my three kids.  How do I juggle doing both?  Is there any chance I can have a simple life and show them the simple life?”

Kristen, I don’t pretend to be an expert at this, because I’m still learning.  In fact, I was thinking of your question today as my three-year-old and I folded laundry.  She was helping me with the dishtowels, and quite frankly, she was doing a horrible job.  Nothing was even, the pile of folded towels was toppling over, and I knew I’d have to fold some of them again.

But you know what?  Through this mama’s eyes, those folded dishtowels were sparkling rubies and diamonds.  They were beautiful.

At 3 years old, I’m teaching her a small lesson in the value of work.  And I’m teaching her that she’s an important contributor to this family.

Here are four important reminders as you juggle parenting and home management:

1.  Let go of perfection.

I’ve written already about how perfectionism ultimately makes you more unproductivebut it also makes you more of a control freak.  If the towels, the dishes, and the table setting has to be just so, then no one in your home will want to do it.  Which means you’ll have to do it.  When imperfect people live together in a home, the home will be imperfect.

2.  Let them help.

Let your children put their special touch on housework, and they’ll better understand that they matter in the home.  They’ll take more pride in the work if you’re patient and forgiving with their final results. Plus, when they’re young, they actually think chores are fun.  Take advantage of that.

You know what?  My daughter’s towel-folding chore has improved drastically since she first started helping about six months ago.  I know she’ll get the hang of it.  In the meantime, the perfectionist in me has to show her grace and be satisfied with wonky towels.  I cringe, trust me, but when I think about the big picture of things, I’d rather her develop a good work ethic at a young age than have stacked towels worthy of Martha Stewart.

3.  Let them wait.

As important as it is that they help, there are also tasks that must be done by a competent adult.  It won’t kill children to learn to wait.  When you’re paying bills, and they want to play Candy Land with you, teach them the value of patience.  It’s hard for kids, but the sooner they learn that they are not the center of the universe, the better.

It’s also good for kids to learn how to play alone.
My children are not good at this, being the social butterflies they are – but they still have alone time during the day.  The same 3-year-old who helped me with today’s laundry also has a 1-2 hour quiet time every day.  She doesn’t have to sleep, but she has to play quietly by herself in her playroom.  This is when I try to get a good portion of my chores done that require concentration.  There are plenty of “Is my quiet time over?” shouts from down the hall, but at least it’s a bit calmer than the rest of the day.

4.  Let them have your utmost attention.

Ultimately, there are unique times when we, as the parent, need to let go of our agendas and focus fully on our children.  My 8-month-old son has a cold at the moment, and he was wailing as I worked on the laundry.  I had a mounting pile of clothes before me, but I stopped and played with him on my lap for awhile instead.  That was more important.

My to-do list might barely get checked off on those days, but I have to stop and ask myself – how do I define a successful day?  Is it getting a lot done?  Or is it pouring into the lives that matter for eternity? Sometimes it’s hard to remember.

I don’t know a parent out there who doesn’t struggle daily with the balance of managing the home and investing in their children.  How do you deal with this dilemma?

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. This is great advice. I have resisted letting the children help me for exactly the reasons you give. I know I need to include them but I know I’m also making work for myself. About 10 minutes ago I had two small children wailing at my feet as I tried to get something done. Next time that happens I’m going to get them involved. Thanks. Dave.

  2. I had been thinking about this of late, so im trialing a “schedule” very flexable and lose, it hs house work times and activity time and its making me a lot calmer and seems to be helping TYler, he is happier when I am doing things he cant help with as he has had good mummy time. this sort of structured day is new to us but im keen to keep trailing.
    Ive also found when he wants to help with something he cant, I use distraction as well, like asking him to sweep the floors whilst I do this, I tell him it would be a big help and it means i can be done quicker.

    Sarah Latham’s last blog post…

  3. What great advice this is, and thanks for the reminder! I’m a huge control freak, hence the reason I do MOST of the house work……no one can do it like I do it!!…..the kids even say “why bother doing it? Mom’s just going to redo it anyway!” – I have GOT to stop doing that!!

    Thanks for the nudge I need to work on that little quirk!
    Have a GREAT weekend!


    Tidymom’s last blog post…Getting Ready for fall?

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I especially love this – “When imperfect people live together in a home, the home will be imperfect.”
    I need to hang that one the fridge.
    Thanks for the great post.

  5. point 3 is really important. Kids expect instant gratification for everything these days. They will never learn anything if that is the norm. Patience is a virtue.

  6. For a second I thought I was on the wrong blog… Thanks for enjoying & using my picture of Emma. 😀 It goes great with the article and I agree with every word.

    I have to say this is how I approached things with my own kids – one of whom is on his own already. He does his own laundry, cooks, and can generally take care of himself. When he went off to college he was quite dismayed to see how many of his peers did not know how to do simple things.

    So he called me up just to say “Thanks Mom, for making me do chores!” 🙂 Yeah, I melted.

    My two older teen daughters could easily run their own place. One looks after the dishes for me. I haven’t washed dishes in… uh… years. They do their own laundry as well. When I was sick a couple years ago, they had very little problems running the house.

    And Emma – well, she’s seven so she’s messy. 😀 She thinks hanging out clothes is the funnest thing *ever*. Note the clothesline is mounted on an adjustable.. thing… I dunno what it’s called. Hubby made sure to put that there so *everyone* could hang out clothes.

    This kind of makes my house sound super-clean, but it’s not. We’re too busy living to keep it too tidy, but we can all pull together and get it company-ready in a couple hours.

  7. Great tips!

    I have also had to let go of my need to control everything and be with my (also) 8 month old son ALL THE TIME and rely more on the help of family and friends (I realize I am lucky to be able to do this). My mom takes Reesy on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 – 4 and this allows me to get a lot of work done. Sometimes a girlfriend comes buy the house and plays with the baby for an hour or two while I go to the coffee shop on the corner and get some work done. For those of us with family we love and trust around, this is a great option!

    Lucie’s last blog post…Update: Adventures in Sleeping

  8. My son, almost 3, has started wanting to “help”. You’re post this morning helped me see what I can do to relax a little and let him help. I need to stop being such a control freak.

    Alicia’s last blog post…Insert interesting post title {here}

  9. I frequently go back to the line I learned so many years ago from La Leche League. That is “people before things.” In the dishtowel example, the line would make me remember that I wanted my child to take pride in her work more than I wanted perfectly folded towels. The people always come before the things. Especially now that my children are teens and pre-teens, this adage still helps me to keep my focus on what is really important.

    anja’s last blog post…Bike Route Mapping

  10. What a great topic! I have my tasks mentally divided into “with” and “without” categories. Some things I can do with my children around and others must wait until the toddler’s naptime. So, I can dust, clean the appliances and counters, run the vacuum (to her great chagrin), and clean most of the bathroom surfaces with her along helping. Withouts include sweeping and mopping wood and tile floors (she can’t understand that she can’t be right there with the floor and suds, etc), cleaning toilets, and anything that involves chemicals sprayed or spread at her level. Those happen while she is napping in the afternoons. The “without” list is getting progressively shorter! My son is six and is very helpful either with tasks or with keeping his tiny sister engaged while I’m taking care of the house. It’s so important to include them whenever we can, so that we build the culture in our homes of everyone helping with the work. If they grow up with that expectation, they may grumble, but they know that helping is part of the landscape. 🙂

    Amy G.’s last blog post…Here we go again

  11. as a momma of 5 who is never alone and has a farmhouse and farmyard to care for and children to educate for me the secret is togetherness. We work together, we play together, we learn together. Lots of hard work, lots of reward. I am a recovering perfectionist who is learning to cherish the doing rather than the “getting it done” and teaching my kids to enjoy to doing together.

    Prairie Chick’s last blog post…The Call of Fall

  12. we do nearly everything together with our children, because otherwise I would not have enough time with them. So they cook (simple meals), they create cakes (from the year of 3 onwards it is possible to do so), they scramble eggs. I am next to them so I can help before something dangerous would be happen. I had to learn, that their impression of ‘perfect’ is different from mine, but that even a ugly cake can be delicious.

    sevenjobs’s last blog post…Warum stecken kleine Kärtchen an meinem Auto?

  13. @Andrea – When I was searching for a photo on Flickr for this post, I was happy to see you were the photographer attached to this photo! I definitely knew I had to use it then – thanks for letting me w/ the CC license. 🙂

    @Prairie Chick – I love this:

    I am a recovering perfectionist who is learning to cherish the doing rather than the “getting it done” and teaching my kids to enjoy to doing together.

    Thanks for saying this! It’s so important for me to remember to enjoy the process instead of the gratification of crossing things off my list.

  14. My oldest daughter is in charge of certain chores, like collecting the garbage and feeding the dogs.
    My little boy loves to dust. The baby has no chores yet!
    I’ve learned to let things go, the house doesn’t need vaccuumed daily, it’s okay if there are dishes in the sink for a day or two, laundry piles up, but it’s okay!
    I try to enjoy my kids while they are little and know that they won’t be making a mess of my house forever, and when they’re gone, I’m sure I’ll miss it!

    Anna’s last blog post…Finance Fiesta #15~The Patriot Day Edition

  15. I really need to be better about letting my children help with tasks. I am often to much in a hurry to slow things down for them to step in. I have been seeing so many areas lately that I am not being a good instructor for them. Much to learn, as always! 🙂

  16. We do a rest/quiet time each day, too, and the cries wondering if rest time was over stopped when I put my kitchen timer upstairs in the bedroom, so they’d know when it was done.

    Linn’s last blog post…Flannel: A Sonnet

  17. A 12 year old taught me the simple rule of taking turns while she helped watch my kids one busy morning. I observed her telling my kids “First we are going to pick up the toys in the front room and then we are going to play for 15 minutes.” She kept her part of the bargain and kept repeating the process. I was amazed as she got them to do several chores. Not only was our home much neater but the kids never made any messes … she was either playing with them or getting them to help all morning long. Did I mention I paid her extra??

  18. This post really resonates with me. There are always so many things pulling at us as moms. Sometimes I need to stop and focus my full attention on the kids. Sometimes they need to wait while I fully attend to something else.
    It’s always a juggling act.

    chrissie’s last blog post…What are they watching?

  19. I really like this quote from author Anna Quindlen as it helps me to not rush past the fleeting moments on my quest to get things done. She said:
    “The biggest mistake I made [as a parent] is the one that most of us make. . . . I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of [my three children] sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four, and one. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less”(Loud and Clear [2004], 10–11).

  20. I had a lot more patience when I had only one child — I enjoyed having him “help” me do things and didn’t mind the extra work it created for me. My tolerance definitely decreased as I had my second child and I began to get less and less done.

    As my youngest turns two, I feel I’ve regained some balance. I definitely try to include them in the work just to develop the habit and enjoy our time together. If they’re not internally motivated, I try to engage them with little, specific directions. “Can you pick up three blocks and put them here?” or “Where is the yellow truck?”

    They love helping me “cook,” and sometimes I give them their own bowls and spoons and a little bit of something to mix. I have to clean it up later, but it is easier sometimes than trying to keep their hands out of the mixer, etc.

    One thing I am trying to get better at is to take advantage of the times they are naturally absorbed in something and try to sneak off and do some things. I know a mom who kept a box of not-seen-very-often toys and would get it out when she needed time for a phone call or a task.

    I do think kids are on a different plane than us and it is nice to be reminded about enjoying the experience rather than the result.

  21. I let the housework go. Honestly, sometimes I do. I’d rather have the time with the little man and rush to get the housework done during naptime, then again when he’s gone to bed. It doesn’t happen everyday, or even most days, but there are days when he needs me, or I need him, or we both need a break from the daily to-do.

    On the days when the housework can’t be ignored, I try to schedule two or three hour-long blocks where I get gets my undivided attention. For that hour, I follow his lead. If he brings me books for that entire hour (and it’s happened), I read for an hour. We’ll go outside or play at the park. After that hour, he’s usually ready to play more independently, too.

    Rae’s last blog post…Our Dog

  22. This is such a timely post for me. I’ve been wondering how to get more done and have to let go of perfectionism and keep my focus on people. I’m glad to know I’m not alone!

    Jen’s last blog post…Family Fun Friday – Hockeytown North!

  23. I had a lot more patience when I had only one child — I enjoyed having him “help” me do things and didn’t mind the extra work it created for me. My tolerance definitely decreased as I had my second child and I began to get less and less done.

    As my youngest turns two, I feel I’ve regained some balance. I definitely try to include them in the work just to develop the habit and enjoy our time together. If they’re not internally motivated, I try to engage them with little, specific directions. “Can you pick up three blocks and put them here?” or “Where is the yellow truck?”

    They love helping me “cook,” and sometimes I give them their own bowls and spoons and a little bit of something to mix. I have to clean it up later, but it is easier sometimes than trying to keep their hands out of the mixer, etc.

    One thing I am trying to get better at is to take advantage of the times they are naturally absorbed in something and try to sneak off and do some things. I know a mom who kept a box of not-seen-very-often toys and would get it out when she needed time for a phone call or a task.

    I do think kids are on a different plane than us and it is nice to be reminded about enjoying the experience rather than the result.

    Stacy (mama-om)’s last blog post…My kid has an allowance

  24. Was this me who asked this? I am a Kristen and I have 3 kids. 3 daughters to be exact, 5, 7 &8. I have tried and tried to get them to help. Now the 7 and 8 year old do regularl chores (for an allowance) like laundry folding and emptying the dishwasher, but the 5 year old doesn’t care to have clean anything, and if I want to she will help me put her toys in the garbage. The 7 year old is a cleaning machine. She offers to make my bed and does it better than I do. My 8 year old has to be nagged from start to finish, and it is not fun to nag but I know she will learn valuable skills. She has always loved folding and does my towels and her sisters clothes. It is hard to get them put away after (except for the 7 year old, miss perfect). I have tried to bribe my 5 year old, but she only falls for it when she really wants something. I have decided to make the work she does work for me easy for her so she puts her pjs away most mornings and her dirty clothes down the laundry shoot (lucky us). This is working and once it becomes habit, she may be six by then; we can move on. I also believe in the quiet time, but at our house it is at 7:30. They are tucked in for bed but I don’t expect them to go to sleep until 8:30. That hour is precious to my husband and I. We have always had them in bed at that time and as they grew and needed less sleep, it stuck as they wouldn’t partake in an afternoon quiet time.

  25. One thing I’ve started incorporating is meal planning a la SimpleMom. Although it’s not as put together yet as I’d like, I have selected meal categories (like crockpot days) for each day of the week. It’s already helped save time at dinner time, which is when my kids most want my attention – and rightly so. I work full time, and they’ve been in school or preschool all day. Now I can spend more time with them in the evenings and still end up with time for myself after they’re in bed. I’m finding that this planning ahead relieves a lot of evening pressures. Maybe similar planning can be done with housework? I do laundry only every other weekend, but folding it is a whole other ball game. As I take clothes out of the dryer, I separate them into each person’s laundry basket, then each basket makes it into their respective rooms. Sometimes the clothes stay in the basket until the next laundry day, but I’m trying to get better about that. (We rarely wear anything that requires ironing!)

  26. This is such a struggle for me. I’m by no means a fussy housekeeper, but I need a certain level of tidiness to be able to function. I work from home which is even more challenging.

    A phrase I learned from (along with a lot of other useful stuff) is “Progress not Perfection”.

    PS I left dirty dishes last night in order to focus on reading and homework with my daughter.

    Vintage Mommy’s last blog post…Remembering 9-11

  27. #1 and #2 are hard for me. I love to have a clean house and clean working space, so I can focus on other things. My daughter helps put dishes away, sets the table, and even folds laundry. My 2 year old son is just into the “do it myself” faze and I’m hoping he catches on soon to what is older sister is doing. We try to make chores fun, but sometimes I just give up and clean-up after the 2 year old for the sake of time. It’s really hard to be patient when I can clean-up quicker by myself. I guess I have the “do it myself” attitude too. He probably gets it from me:)

  28. I think these are some great tips. I personally often leave the dishes or wait on the laundry, because it’s so important to seize the little moments with our kids when we can. And we do lots of chores together. I give them a bottle of vinegar water and a cloth when we dust together, they fold towels at laundry time and my 6 year old likes to help with dishes.

    Now that my oldest is in full time school I really appreciate how much shorter our time together is and have to enjoy it whenever possible.

    Laurie/Mobile Mommy’s last blog post…Spa-Cation

  29. I’m that perfectionist… who won’t let anyone help cuz it might not be “good enough”… I mean, who am I kidding?! It’s sure not all getting done now!!! Thanks for the awesome post…

    Mikki Roo’s last blog post…pizza pizzaz

  30. This story reminds me of a frequent disagreement between me and my husband. He has a complicated system of organizing the clothes in his dresser, involving the purpose and condition of each garment. I used to smile and nod and put the clothes away without regard to his idiosyncrasies, but when he started complaining I quit. I made it clear that if he wanted to be this anal retentive, he would have to do it himself. He still complains about his laundry, but now it’s usually about me not doing any laundry at all. I have no problem embracing imperfection!

  31. I certainly found your site on the right day! This post is something I really needed. Today I allowed us to have a more laid back, day of creating. The children are still learning, but I am taking the time to “hang out” with them instead of working on “my own thing”. I have 3 loads of clean laundry that need to be folded yet – but when I am done, they will still be there waiting to be folded – my children’s interest may not always be there (I pray it is, though!) Thank you again!

  32. I just wanted to say thank you for your blog! I stumbled across it two weeks ago and have been doing my best to read old posts in my spare time. I was always an organized person growing up, but after having my first son, things got a little hairy and I fell into a conflicting blend of frustration and apathy. With the recent birth of my second son, I was in need of inspiration (read: swift kick in the pants). Thanks! I created my own checklists and meal plans based on your home management notebook and everyday I get a little more organized. It’s so wonderful to be nearly organized again and have more time for my most important clients, my sons (total cheese, I know).

    Lindsey’s last blog post…Swing kid

  33. Great advice! I, too, struggle with the balance. 2 children under 2, a tiny house, a part-time job, and an adoring husband make it challenging. I love how simply you have listed your advice into 4 points. I would end up rambing it all together. Well phrased!

    Brownie’s last blog post…Love is not provoked…

  34. I thoroughly enjoyed todays post! This is something I have been thinking about for the last week. I love how you were able to simply list in 4 points. Very well thought out! Thank you so much, I really needed to hear (read) these words. Have a Blessed Day!!

    Anna Sophia’s last blog post…For the Love of Pumpkin

  35. Great advice. Now I’ll throw in another obstacle. I work away from home too. How can I add that into the mix?

    CC’s last blog post…Yet another attempt to save the world!

  36. Wonderful post. I have four little ones so this is very helpful! Thank you. 🙂

    Betty’s last blog post…Modest is the New Sexy

  37. I struggle with this daily!
    I am definitely a perfectionist and I constantly am trying to “get things done”. I have to remind myself over and over again that the list shouldn’t rule my life… my 3 munchkins should (LOL).

    Niffer’s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday

  38. I love the clothesline in the photograph on this posting! Do you know where to get one like it? The gear looks old-fashioned and it just looks so homey 🙂

    heatherlbrandt (at) verizon (dot) net

  39. My little guy (5) folds our cloth napkins… origami style. 😉 He really comes up with some interesting shapes. I love it!

    Karen’s last blog post…Carl Sandburg Home – Flat Rock, North Carolina

  40. Great advice! Let the children help to share some chores, actually help them grow mentally and physically.

  41. @Heather – You might want to contact the commenter above named “Andrea_R” – it’s her photo!

    Thanks, all, for all the great comments.

  42. Great points. I single parent three boys, and I’ve had to learn to give up on the “perfection” aspects of parenting. It’s still such a hard thing to do, though, to find that balance.

    (I found you through Frugal Dad.)

    Grey’s last blog post…Stop Food Waste to Save Money on School Lunches

  43. Great 4 steps! My DD (age 3) is very social & attached and wants to be involved in everything (& be touching me all day long) … so it’s creating a balance between separate time (I need to work! I need to empty the dishwasher!), her helping (she can put away the utensils), and dedicated play/reading/cuddle time with her. I’m constantly getting off balance … but it’s a journey, right! 🙂

    ~ ElizabethPW

    Elizabeth Potts Weinstein’s last blog post…Visualization: How to Visualize Your Perfect Life and Business

  44. Sounds like great advice, I hope I can live it out one day. Bookmarking this for when I’m a mom!! 🙂

    Lori Ann’s last blog post…Welcome!

  45. I have two boys, ages twenty months and two months. I am still learning how to parent two children, but I have had to become a much better manager of time since bringing my second baby home. Here are a few things that have helped me balance time with my children, time with each individual child, and time working around the house. By the way, some of this was inspired by you. Thanks!

    1. I work from a chore list. Every day chores, twice a week chores, once a week chores, and once a month chores are all included. Every morning, while the baby sleeps, the toddler and I do our best to knock out our chores for the day. A few things are dangerous for him to help (like using cleaners), but almost everything can be done with him. If I’m dusting, I give him a rag to “dust” too. He likes to hold the cord while I vacuum, hold the dustpan when I sweep, etc. Unless it’s a dangerous chore, I do my best not to do them during afternoon nap, which is my only downtime all day. We all need a rest, myself included, and I am a happier mom if I have an hour to read instead of an hour to clean. Breaking the chores down keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, and keeps me from spending all day every day cleaning.

    2. We have a “fun box” in our house. One of the biggest adjustments for the toddler in bringing a baby home was how much more the toddler has to be at home, inside, rather than on playgrounds or in the yard. Our Fun Box has play dough, glow sticks, bubbles, crayons, finger paints – anything novel (and inexpensive) I find that looks like fun. Since we no longer have two or three hours to spend one-on-one, the Fun Box allows him to have individual attention in smaller chunks. It has gone a long way in easing jealousy or frustration at sharing attention.

    3. The toddler is pretty good at entertaining himself under normal circumstances. Even so, his brother needs my attention for 30-45 minutes every three hours, and the toddler was beginning to wreak havock during that time to get my attention. So I have certain toys that are set aside, and only offered when his brother is eating. Puzzles, blocks, games – things that take a little while to do, and because they are not always available, have not lost their novelty. It buys me time to focus on the baby, and it keeps the toddler from feeling restless and left out.

    Stephanie’s last blog post…Silas, meanwhile …

  46. Very good post. As a part-time working mom, I struggle with this too. I come home with an agenda “I have to cook dinner”, and my two-year old doesn’t always go along with it. Of course he doesn’t…he misses me.

    So I’m learning. Sometimes, I just have to sit and read a book or play with cars. And then after 15 mins, I can start dinner, and he can wait. Then we go back to playing. And what we’ve learned these last two weeks? He LOVES helping us hang laundry (by giving us the clothespins).

  47. Thanks for posting this, I am the worst person for moaning about housework and saying that no one helps out….and then shouting at them when they do, because it’s not how I’d do it.

    So now I’m letting my daughter help out and she’s really pleased to do the laundry and folding, but she does it in her own ‘fashion way’! And I’ve learnt to let go of being perfect.

    Liz@VioletPosy’s last blog post…Monday Link Love

  48. Thanks for the advice! This is very helpful. I have a 2 year old and he already helps a little but we do have to play with him or he will be screaming for attention. I will definetely keep your advice handy for quiet times, non-perfection, etc! Thanks!!

    Dariela’s last blog post…Mimi’s visit and Daycare

  49. Great advice. Our child is 7 months old and my wife recently quit her job because she wanted to spent time with her. Any tips on how to manage housework, a child and an online business:)?

    Steve C’s last blog post…Customer Stories – Should I Go Through With the Marriage?

  50. As a mother of 4 kids age 5 and under, this advice is spot-on! A suggestion to help with the calls of “is my quiet time over?”–I put on a CD with quiet classical music, and the kids know that when the music stops, they can get up. If I have to keep reminding them to be quiet, then I go back a few songs. This ensures that they get the quiet rest they need and I get the time I need to get things done and recharge myself.

  51. i have explained patience to my 4 year old son for as long as i can remember like this.
    “patience means you have to wait,
    and it’s

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