After I gave birth to my third son in February of 2015, I was welcomed home from the hospital by my four-year-old and my 21-month-old. There was the expected influx of hugs and kisses and curious questions, but after the initial excitement wore off, there was an unexpected influx of high-demand needs: Diaper changes, snack requests, toddler nap times, explosive toy messes, and full-body tantrums…all on top of round-the-clock newborn baby care.
Looking around—with an infant attached to my chest, a toddler hanging off my leg, and a preschooler stomping his foot in stubborn refusal of pretty much everything—I realized for the first time that I now had three mostly-helpless, super-needy kids under five.
Enter “survival mode.” If you’ve ever taken care of a baby 24/7 or gone through some other life-changing event, you’ve been forced into survival mode before. Your only goal becomes getting through the day as unscathed and sane as possible.
For me, a classic type-A perfectionist, this meant living by “The Schedule.” I made it my mission to ensure that meals, naps, snacks, activities and bedtimes happened like clockwork. We had to be home from the park in time for lunch. Otherwise, the precise science of achieving tandem baby-toddler nap times would be delayed (or, worse, would maybe not happen at all). Then everyone would be overtired and cranky and miserable (including me). And then bedtime—even with my husband and I dividing and conquering responsibilities—would be a three-ring circus that no amount of sleep would repair. The next morning, we’d painfully start the whole routine over.
So there was no messing with The Schedule. There was no laissez-faire attitude about making it from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Obviously I was prepared for a certain inevitable amount of unpredictability (I had three little kids!), but I tried to avoid it at all costs. I worried that veering off course would trigger a butterfly effect of chaos from which there was no return.
Was this overly dramatic? Yeah, probably. But so was life with three kids under five. There was a lot of melodrama and plenty of tears. I’ll never forget the time my older kids were having a death match in the living room while I was stuck on the couch breastfeeding the baby—we were all crying before that fight finally got resolved.
Because my kids were so little—and it took so long for any of them to become even somewhat independent and self-sufficient—I lived in survival mode for years. And because I’m a stay-at-home mom who also home-schools, it actually became my life. It wasn’t simply a phase, it was What. We. Did.
All day, every day.
Until the day we didn’t have to anymore. One morning I woke up, made a cup of coffee, and drank it to the bottom while checking my email—uninterrupted. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. My kids were then three, four and six. They were still little, but quickly gaining independence. No one napped. All three were potty-trained. No one needed breastmilk or pureed vegetables. We had taken down our safety gates, packed away our high chair, transitioned all of them into twin beds. The baby phase was over.
The only problem was me: I was still living in survival mode. I had clung to it like a life raft for so long that I didn’t know how to live a normal life anymore—I couldn’t remember what that looked or felt like. I had been home with one or more small children for the last six years of my life, with each new baby increasing the daily stresses and demands exponentially.
I was still rushing us through errands so we wouldn’t be late for a nonexistent nap time. In the driveway, I was sitting in our minivan feeling underprepared without an arsenal of toys, sippy cups, and teethers. Each morning, I was mentally plotting out how I was going to entertain my kids until my husband came home, only to find that they were perfectly happy to disappear into the playroom with each other.
I was always jumping to do the next thing only to realize there really wasn’t a next thing, or any reason it needed to be done right that minute, anyway. That feeling led to an absence—of stress, responsibility, urgency—and at first, I wasn’t comfortable with it. How was I supposed to spend my time if I wasn’t fretting over the daily logistics or constantly tending to the needs of everyone else? Now, my job was figuring out how to be a mother of three kids growing up a little more every day.
A year later, I’m still learning how to do that. It helps to fill the absence with things I didn’t even realize I was missing: reading a book in the middle of the afternoon, giving myself a DIY manicure, taking a shower with the bathroom door closed…all while my kids entertain themselves within earshot somewhere else in the house. Until recently, this would have been laughable. Unimaginable, even. But now it’s no big deal. And I’m here to tell you, you’ll get there one day, too.
Right now, as I write, I’m drinking hot coffee while my kids stage an elaborate battle between their army guys and their dinosaur figures. They’re taking their own bathroom breaks and getting their own snacks. We have no place to be anytime soon, and no whirlwind of chaos and crisis dictating how we spend our time.
In moments like this, I realize there is life after survival mode—and it’s a good one.
This article was originally published online in June 2019.