Survival Parenting: How to Navigate the Hard Days

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

I was going to write a post about the strength and tension that we develop during motherhood. How as mothers from the moment of conception we are thrust into athleticism and develop means of survival centered around strength and toughness. The pressure we put on ourselves, and the importance of softness.

I wrote out most of the post, but today as I sit here my brain cannot develop the thoughts and nuisances I wanted to portray in this piece. The words will come, but today is not that day. You see, last night I spent 9 hours in the emergency room with my two-year-old; and I’m 30 weeks pregnant with our third baby. She is just fine, in fact she’s been telling everyone last night she went to a party with Grammy and had popsicles.  We got home at 5:30 AM. Needless to say, I’m tired.

So let’s talk about something else- because today I am Survival Parenting.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and in a world of social media’s Pinterest worthy insta-perfect life, we think we have to get it all right all the time. Raise socially conscious, critically-thinking, kind, loving little humans by being on in every situation. It’s a wonderful thing that we are trying to raise our children to develop the skills that many of us didn’t learn until our early adulthood; but what happens when you are so tired you barely have the energy to put in your contacts, never mind set up an engaging educational activity for your kids while cooking and cleaning and walking the dog? Or when your partner is working more hours than usual due to work deadlines or financial need? Or the day after Christmas? Or on an airplane? How do you parent in those moments?

Survival. Parenting.

In those moments, days, weeks, it’s important to manage your expectations on what parenting is going to look like. Right now your main goals are keeping everyone alive and relatively happy. During these periods it is okay, and even beneficial, to deviate from your normal style of parenting. It’s all about surviving these moments and coming out on the other side in one piece.

How do we know when to go into survival mode and how do we navigate these periods? Any time that you are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, sick, or overburdened is the right time to implement some survival parenting tactics. This could look like:

  • parenting a toddler during the first trimester of a subsequent pregnancy while battling fatigue and nausea
  • during the third trimester when your body is tired and achy
  • the fourth trimester as you get to know your newborn
  • basically any time you are or recently have been pregnant
  • while traveling
  • the day(s) after spending the night in the ER
  • the day(s) after being up all night with a sick child
  • periods when you and/or your partner are working more hours than usual
  • during the holiday hustle
  • while cooking dinner
  • before during or after a move
  • while processing a loss

The first, and probably most difficult step for many of us, is to recognize that the circumstances of your life are currently different and because of that your parenting priorities are going to shift and pivot for a period of time. This is OKAY. But, for a recovering perfectionist or someone with a type-A personality, this will be especially challenging. Let those standards drop way down for now…further…okay a little bit lower… yep that’s good. Know that this is not forever, it’s just for now and all the hard work that you’ve done won’t just evaporate into thin air. The foundations and values you have instilled in your children and your family are solid. Navigating tough periods with flexibility is also a valuable skill to teach them.

What does survival parenting look like in real life? I bet right now all you have pictured in your head is a scene from Lord of the Flies. Don’t worry, we aren’t talking complete anarchy. Survival mode will be different for everyone depending on your family, resources, and situation. Lean into the support you have around you and lower your expectations of what you will be able to accomplish in a day. Here are are some ways this might look in your life:

  • More screen time than usual
  • More snacking and leniency at mealtimes
  • Less rigid or more rigid sleep schedules
  • Relying on childcare or family support more than usual
  • Use of other supports like online grocery ordering or takeout
  • Saying no to anyone or anything that adds to your overwhelm (including your kids)
  • Did I mention more screen time?
  • Relying on sleep aids that you may have phased out (sleep sack, white noise, old routine, etc.)
  • Break out the special arts and crafts or toys that you keep stashed away.
  • Allow your kids to play with things that you usually wouldn’t (keeping safety in mind of course). For my kids, that is band-aids, coffee beans, and whatever (non-sharp) kitchen items they want.
  • Eat in a different space than normal. Have a picnic in the living room, go outside, eat at the back door while you watch cars go by, etc.
  • Keep meals and activities as simple as possible!

At the end of the day, Momma’s mental and physical health is what matters most. Although no one loves having to go into survival mode it’s certainly a necessity, and lowering my expectations of what motherhood looks like in real life has been huge for my overall well being. Now excuse me while I adjust the wake time on my 4 year old’s wake clock so I can get 30 more minutes to binge You on Netflix in peace. You’ve got this, Momma.

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Kara is a Perinatal Fitness Specialist and Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism Coach.  A momma of two amazing littles, lover of the beach, former college athlete who has never met a pizza she didn’t like. She lives in Central Massachusetts with her husband, 2 kids, 2 crazy dogs, 5 chickens, and a beta fish named Nemo 2.0. Through her online and one on one coaching, Kara helps women find joy in motherhood through movement using rehabilitative and corrective exercise strategies. She is on a mission to dispel myths that leave women fearful of movement and empower women with knowledge and confidence to help them better navigate their new role as a mother. Kara thinks all problems can be solved with either a chocolate chip cookie or the ocean, and loves checking out local small shops and breweries. Her favorite type of movement right now is hiking with her dogs and is grateful to be surrounded by so much natural beauty here in New England. 


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