Everything felt “off” and I didn’t know why.
The way we woke up—instantly crabby, hungry, already feeling done with a day that was just getting started. The way we moved throughout the day—frantically keeping schedules, juggling needs and appointments. The way we went to sleep—no rhythm, no rhyme to the evening, just everyone go to bed so I can have some PEACE.
This is called being in survival mode and the worst thing about it is that you usually don’t know when you’re in it. At least I didn’t.
I like being an intentional person. An intentional mother, partner, friend. But trying to find intentionality while in survival mode feels impossible—you are just going from fire to fire, putting them out as best you can before something else crops up. And when you’re busy in the chaos, things like planning, routine and rhythm don’t happen.
This post is for you if you’ve ever felt like you were drowning in the day-to-day craziness of life.
This post is for you if you feel like you’re doing it “wrong” or can’t put your finger on why you feel overwhelmed.
This post is especially for you if you feel like this way of living—from moment to moment—makes you a bad mom, at least sometimes.
I’m in this season right now—with three kids who need very different things from me, a schedule packed too tight to give anything its proper due, and a million tiny fires all begging to be put out first.
Once I recognized survival mode for what it was, I was able to take some action to make survival mode…well, survivable.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but these small moves have helped me shift my mindset and navigate the rockiness of life:
1. It’s okay to cut corners when you need to.
I am a believer in food as medicine—that whole foods are best for our bodies and our minds. But when delivering a whole foods meal three times a day, seven days a week becomes a burden due to time, money or other resources—mama, something’s gotta give.
My kids are doing fine with cereal, eggs, ramen, burritos and the occasional apple or carrot stick right now. Eventually we will again have green smoothies, home cooked dinners and leafy greens again but not because I sacrificed my sanity to make them work.
2. ‘Balance’ looks different in different seasons.
My kids have way more time on screens right now than I’d ideally like. I really only worry about screen time as a replacer for doing other things like going outside, playing together or reading a book. It’s not that screens themselves are harmful but a balance is important, most of the time. Sometimes that balance is year to year instead of day to day. This is only a season of your life, there will be plenty of time off of screens later.
3. What’s good for you is good for your kids.
If you’re an introvert then staying in and planning less out of the house activities (like grocery shopping, ha!) is good for you and your kids are not going to miss anything with less playdates or fewer (or no) sports. If you’re an extravert then your kids benefit when you get out of the house each day and fill up your social interaction tank. Doing things that are just for you are a must, not a luxury.
Get up in the morning and think only of the things you must do—forget about things that ultimately will not matter. Your kids do not need a bath every day but you do have to feed them. You have to pay the bills. Don’t worry about reading to your kids every night—they will still learn to love reading. Learn to cut out the things you don’t need to do right now. It’s like minimalism for your brain.
5. Try to move your body to help clear your mind.
You don’t have to be perfect about exercise but your brain will thank you for the endorphins and increased oxygen supply. Just light stretching and a walk around the block can be as good as a gym membership when you’re in survival mode. Taking time (5-10 minutes) for a practice of meditation, journaling or other mindful activity can bring you back to center when you’re on the brink.
6. Practice kindness.
Start with yourself. Kindly tell yourself some of the information from above (the kids will be fine with extra screen time and fewer activities. Your needs matter. You don’t have to hold the whole world up today.). Then extend your kindness. Your family is living in a pressure cooker right now and all it takes to diffuse a lot of tense situations is a kind word or much needed show of affection.
7. Create space.
I don’t know what the scientific brain mechanism is at play here but somehow when I get rid of stuff, I feel better. There’s more white space for my tired eyes and less to trip over and curse at. I have fewer things to keep track of. And. I. Have. Less. To. Clean.
When you’re dealing with survival mode, start purging. I like to focus on one room so that I have at least one place to go where THINGS aren’t calling to me and reaching out to me. One place to rest and unwind. One spot in the house that is easy to keep clean. One spot that makes me feel like I’m winning at life.
8. Get the easy things done.
Pick one, tiny thing to do everyday that will make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Could be doing your make up, knitting a couple of rows, filling the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, or clearing a spot for your glass of water by your bed. Choose one super small something that is easy to get done. As you start to come out of survival mode it will be easy to gradual add more substantive things to this list.
9. Stick with the basics.
If you have to eat and you have to feed your kids, make planning and cooking dinner a no-brainer. My go-to meals when I’m just surviving include cheese quesadillas, chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, taco bar, etc. Basically things that can be thrown in a pot or put together easily. Or things that my older kids can make. That is winning.
Don’t start a new routine, just scale back on your basics. Right now, I’m not pushing my 4-year-old to fall asleep on her own—too stressful. So she falls asleep in my arms every night and then I put her in bed. The key here? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
10. Know that survival mode doesn’t last forever.
And anticipate that you will go through several of these seasons in your lifetime. Everyone struggles. We’re constantly being asked to integrate new things (babies, pets, illnesses, loss) and, of course, there’s usually a learning curve. Also know that other people go through survival mode too. Their social media accounts may not show it (yours probably doesn’t either) but everyone has their own season to grapple with too much everything.