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7 Things You Should Know About Parenting in Survival Mode

Photograph by Twenty20

If your family is anything like mine, you're constantly juggling a dozen moving parts. And it only takes a slight deviation from normal for all the pieces to slip from your hands and clunk to the ground: One of your kids gets sick, or stops sleeping or pooping, or possibly worse—they stay healthy while you're feverish.

Early in our parenting career, my husband introduced the phrase, "We're in survival mode," into our relationship. As in, "We're in survival mode here, let's stop beating ourselves up for the house being a disaster." "We're in survival mode, we don't need a four-course meal."

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The phrase quickly became a shorthand, reminding me to drop my expectations when life gets extra hard. Last week, when our son had pneumonia? Survival mode.

Got a new baby? You're in survival mode. Sleep training? Survival mode. One parent out of town? You've got it—you're in survival mode.

Here are the ways we drop our expectations when we're in survival mode:

1. Screen time is our friend

Like, our best friend. When we're in survival mode, we relax our already lazy limits on screen time for everyone's sanity.

2. No-cook meals

Crackers and carrots? Sounds like dinner! There's a vegetable in there, after all. We keep meals extra simple, reminding ourselves that no one will die of malnutrition from a few days of having cereal for dinner.

3. Cleanliness be damned

The house will be clean, someday, but not today.

Survival mode isn't the time to worry about a messy house or laundry disaster. I tell myself that the house will be clean, someday, but not today.

In like 10 years.


4. Hygiene is optional

I think someone is cooking some beef stew, but it turns out it's just me (or one of my kids). It's OK. This is survival mode. So go ahead and keep those pajama pants on for one more day. The shower will be there waiting, a watery beacon, and it will be glorious.

5. Eliminate any extra obligations

In Marie Kondo style, any extra appointments that don't "spark joy" get canceled. That board meeting you don't really want to go to anyways? Canceled. Your gyno exam? Canceled that one twice.

6. Ignore any of these rules that you please

For example, exercise is a sanity saver for me, so I'll figure out how to fit in a long walk or a yoga class. If cleaning the house helps you feel like you still have a semblance of control in life, vacuum like the wind. You know what you need to do to take care of yourself, so do it, no matter what anyone else thinks.

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7. Simplicity

There's a hidden gem buried in the chaos of survival mode. Most of the things I feel are so urgent on a daily basis can actually wait. Our jobs can usually wait. The laundry can sure as heck wait. The beauty of survival mode is that it allows us to whittle down life to the bare necessities: taking care of ourselves and our families. Everything else can wait.

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