Pregnant woman
Pregnant woman resting before her life is taken over with the demands of looking after children iStock/Izabela Habur

Many first-time mothers-to-be spend the last few months of their child-free existence putting the hours in at work in anticipation of parental leave, boning up on baby names or taking a final childless holiday.

According to Mumsnet users, though, what they should really be doing is sitting very still and appreciating just how tidy their front room is, and wallowing in a situation where nobody is about to demand they produce a tray of cupcakes or a miniature scientist costume by tomorrow morning.

"How do you stay on top of it all when you have kids? Really, how?" was the heartfelt question that ricocheted across the talk boards this week, posed by a mother of four who found herself sinking in a sea of mess, missed appointments and unopened letters.

The discussion mostly consisted of anecdotes about Lego/instep interfaces, interspersed with howls of anguish from those who'd always believed everything has its place, before they were introduced to the concept of Happy Meal toys.

If you can afford a cleaner go for it and don't you dare feel bad about it; and while you're contracting things out, get someone to give your oven a going-over
- Justine Roberts

"There are six of us and I work part time and have a dog," squeaked one exhausted user; "There are three boxes from our last house move rotting in the garage," confessed another. "I haven't seen the kitchen windowsill in years," remarked one mother, cheerfully; "I just move things from one end of the room to the other."

So, how do you stay on top of it all? Luckily, there is some practical advice, other than simply lowering your standards. Have regular clear-outs in which nothing is sacred: "Even the dog now has fewer toys," remarked one user who had just single-handedly re-stocked several local charity shops. "Do it now" is the motto for anything that will take less than five minutes: dealing with school or nursery admin, wiping down the sink, watering the very unhappy plant.

Routine, cleaners and iPad syncing

Sticking to a routine seems to be the common factor with the hyper-organised: "I time myself using Radio 4," says one user who reports always cleaning the kitchen to Woman's Hour (there is perhaps a feminist paradox in there somewhere).

Deploy modern technology: robot vacuum cleaners are great, although pricey; steam cleaners add novelty value if nothing else; and older Mumsnet users are still thrilled by being able to pay bills online. "We put everything on the iPad diary, which syncs to the home computer, my husband's work laptop and both our iPhones' trills one gadget buff, although she goes on to say 'don't ask about cleaning though, the house is always a tip'."

If you can afford a cleaner, go for it and don't you dare feel bad about it; and while you're contracting things out, get someone to give your oven a going-over. Online food shopping is universally beloved, although you should "clean out the fridge before it arrives, and be absolutely ruthless".

Effort spent in the pre-school years training your kids to pick up their shoes and pyjamas may see you through the teenage period, when "their natural habitat is pig-sty"; "I have two teenagers who help and don't help at the same time," revealed once user thoughtfully, outlining a problem that may be of interest to university philosophy departments.

Finally – a Mumsnet perennial, this – "never go upstairs or downstairs empty-handed". (Unless you genuinely don't have anything to carry up or down the stairs, in which case you either don't have children or you live in a bungalow.)

Most importantly perhaps, for mothers, the lesson is to make sure that child-related organisation and general tidying doesn't become your responsibility simply by default. (If it becomes your responsibility after lengthy discussion or arm-wrestling, fair enough.)

And don't beat yourself up: any family home with small children and without full-time paid staff is likely to be a little chaotic at times, and no child ever wishes that their parents would spend more time with the Hoover.

As one of our users remarked, presumably from the depths of a slightly furry armchair: "Just keep the children alive and not too filthy, and discourage visitors from arriving without a 20-minute warning." Which will give you just enough time to suggest a trip somewhere else instead.