After four kids and 12 years of parenthood, my husband and I can confidently say that, for us, the pregnancy and infant years were the most challenging. When mama was sick and sleepless, we all struggled just a little bit extra. Okay, sometimes a lot extra.
We now refer to those more challenging seasons of parenthood as survival mode. Survival mode can happen because of pregnancy and birth but it has also happened during times of sickness, moving, job changes and depression too.
We have lived through our fair share of survival mode. Here are 15 things we have learned from surviving it.
1 | Lower your expectations. Lower. Just a little bit lower. There you go.
For us, adding humans to the family felt like a full time job thrown on top of our already existing full time jobs. We actively practiced letting go of previous expectations all day, every day during those seasons.
Is everyone alive? Yes? Great, it’s been a good day.
2 | Similar to number one, remove the word “should” from your vocabulary. Who exactly is on the “should” committee? Where are the should police? Every time you catch yourself using the word should, put a nickel in a jar. No one needs that kind of pressure. Allow should to die a fiery and permanent death.
3 | Turn off guilt-inducing messages, whether that be television, magazines, Pinterest, or your dear neighbor next door. We hear it from every direction: “You are not good enough. You are not enough.” Well, maybe you are enough exactly as you are today. Find the encouraging, inspiring, empowering messages. Turn them up. You are enough. Take a deep breath. Keep growing and learning. Tomorrow you will be enough too.
4 | Think of life like a bullseye and decide that for now the only things that matter are what can fit in the red center of the bullseye. For us, this looks like laundry, dishes, groceries, work, paying bills, and spending time together as a family. This meant living in a dusty house and driving dirty cars but hey, we were together and we were relatively happy.
One practical way to determine the bullseye would be to grab a note card and each write what you most value in the home, the marriage, the family. Then only that which is listed on the note card gets attention. If it’s not on the one note card, it doesn’t exist.
5 | Remember that what kids (and spouses) really need from us are our eyes, ears, and arms. The rest is superfluous. It’s okay to exist solely on the couch for a season. The couch is a great place to offer those three things.
6 | Teamwork. We are all in survival mode during survival mode. We have to work as a team to survive survival mode. Consider a redistribution of labor. Let the kids do as much as possible themselves.
Last year I had hip surgery and subsequently had to be on crutches for six weeks. This experience taught our family how incredibly capable an 11, eight, four and two-year-old can be.
7 | Take care of mama and mama will take care of everyone else. Every mama I know gives to her family unceasingly, to the neglect of her own mental and physical health. Take care of mama. Mama will take of everyone else.
8 | Ask extended family for help. And/or hire a babysitter or house cleaner as often as the budget will allow. If budget does not allow, let go of a few other things to make room in the budget for this.
9 | Sleep. As much as possible, as often as possible.
10 | Get comfortable with “I’m sorry.” Kids and spouses don’t need us to be perfect. They just need us to show up. We will fall short, screw up, be mean. I’m sorry can go a long way in moving through those moments.
11 | Get comfortable with saying no. Someone else can handle the casserole committee and the field trip committee for a season. We are the sole husband/wife to our spouse and the sole dad/mom to our children, no one else can do those roles for us. Conserve energy during these times by handing off as many other responsibilities as possible. Outsource as many tasks as possible until you are back on your feet again.
12 | Purge possessions. Or if that is too hard, box them up and stick them in the attic until survival mode is over. Give each kid one bin and let them fill it with any toys or stuffed animals or activity books they want to play with for the next few weeks/months. Keep a week’s worth of clothing and one cup, bowl and plate per human. Box up the rest.
13 | Keep it simple in the kitchen. You can be the Pioneer Woman when the babes are older. Kids need calories and a mom whose sanity has been relatively preserved. Write your cookbooks a farewell letter. Promise them you will return someday when you are sleeping through the night again.
14 | Prioritize parental mental health. If some part of your life is creating a significant drain on your mental health, remove it. My sister threw away all of her plants one year because they were taking more energy than they were giving in return. She is my inspiration for balance and I have told myself to “throw out the plants” so many times since then.
15 | And lastly, remember that you were “us” before they were them. Don’t forget about each other. Keep it simple but do keep it. We have learned over the years that if we are connected, you can throw a tornado at us and somehow we stay standing.
And if nothing else, solidarity. Know that someone else has been through it too, survived, and is rooting for you. Parenthood is a marathon. I’ll be the mom standing at mile 22 handing out water and Gatorade and cheering you on. Breathe deep. Drop any extra weight you are carrying. Take it one step at a time. You’ve got this.