Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Survival Mode: Tricks to Get You Through the Toughest Times

I know so many mamas doing hard things.  Gosh, you guys are resilient.  I am constantly impressed by the mothers I know.  Whether you are in survival mode for the short term, because you have a new baby, or your husband is gone for a little while, or whether survival mode is a long-term proposition for you, because you have a bunch of kiddos under ten, or because you are going back to work after being at home, here are some ideas that helped me.  I feel like I have been in survival mode SO often during the last 12 years, from being in law school with a new baby and working in the legal clinic, to working full-time, to having four more babies in quick succession, to farming and starting a business and homeschooling....whatever your struggle is, I can understand your feelings, even if I haven't been in your situation.  But you don't need to be stuck there!  Here are some tricks that help me when I am overwhelmed:


A good first step is acknowledging the situation.  The times when I have gotten myself into the most trouble are when I was determined to be superwoman, that I was going to power through, that I could do EVERYTHING myself.  And that does work, usually for about three weeks.  And then it falls apart.  The best thing you can do is to be aware when you are in too deep.  I am assuming here that there is nothing major you can/want to do to actually CHANGE your situation (you're probably not giving that sweet baby back, right?!), but I do hope there are some things we can do to mitigate your stress while you move through it.


An essential beginning step for me, for feeling more in control, is to think through and prioritize what needs to be done.  One defining feature of survival mode is that you CANNOT do every single thing that is on your plate.  It is absolutely inevitable that things are going to fall off the plate-the key is that YOU choose which things get dropped, instead of allowing life to make random determinations.  Over the years, I have figured out an easy way to help me define my priorities during crazy times:

1) Write down three things that make me feel bad about myself or my house or my family when they are not done.  These might be things like a healthy dinner, clean laundry, a swept floor, a good school day, church attendance, my workout....anything that will nag at you and make you feel ugh about yourself.

2) Write done three things that make you feel good about yourself.  This is slightly different than above.  For example, I don't feel bad about myself when I don't bake bread, but I do feel GOOD about myself when my kids are eating homemade bread.  Depending on your personality, several things from above may fit in this category too, like exercise, or getting dressed for the day.

3) Write down three things that drive you absolutely nuts.  When you come in the house from being gone, what is your eye drawn to?  The unswept floor?  Dirty dishes?  Unclean sheets on the bed?  Whatever those things are that you feel absolutely compelled to do, write those down.

4)  Write down three things that are important to your spouse.  What few things are truly essential to them?  Make a special effort to accomplish those things, even if they don't resonate with you.  In turn, your spouse should make an effort to give you special grace to NOT do everything when you are overwhelmed.  (I know this is basic marriage stuff, but I also know that bringing some intentionality to this conversation can help with friction and hurt feelings in the future).

These are the 12 things that you are going to work hard to get done.  Everything that is NOT one of these 12 can be let go.  Really.  That doesn't mean that the things you let go aren't good and worthwhile things!  That's what makes it so hard....they usually are!  But you are not able right now.  No, no, you're not.  If you have extra energy and are feeling great one day, feel free to add on.  But otherwise, if it's not on the list, it doesn't get done.  Toddler soccer isn't in your top 12?  You are not going.  Next year may be better.  But for now, it is not a top priority.

If you are extra overwhelmed, put only one item on each list.  Time will pass, things will change, and it will feel easier.  Then you add more back.

Put Systems in Place

Next, you need good systems in place for everything you do.  Systems and habits allow us to run on autopilot and be successful, even when things are crazy.  If you are a personality type like some of us (#oldestchildren), this is probably a no-brainer.  But I've noticed for many mamas, this is a struggle.

If an activity or some period of time every day feels hard, that is just a signal to you that it needs your focused attention.  For example, it does not need to feel incredibly difficult to get out of the house on time everyday.  It's never going to be fun, but it shouldn't feel impossible.  If you are late everyday, create some systems that make it easier to be on time.  Walk back your schedule from the time you need to arrive, and make sure you build in cushion for the inevitable emergencies that come with having kids.  Commit to packing the baby's bag the night before, or restock it as soon as you return from an outing, so that it is always stocked and ready to go. Have a car bag with outfits, toys, formula, a bottle, water, and other supplies that just stays in the car.  Shower and pick out clothes the night before.  Make breakfast casserole at night.  Whatever steps it takes so that you can be more efficient, commit to those habits.

If the hours between 4-7pm are hellish everyday, that is not a reflection of your character.  It is just a red flag that you need some systems in place.  Maybe you need to meal plan (blah blah blah, I know).  Maybe you need to STOP meal planning.  Frankly, I don't make new recipes often anymore, and I don't meal plan.  Every week, I buy ingredients to several meals that I know my family enjoys, and I make whatever I have time for that day.  And it is LESS stressful than meal planning for me right now.  Maybe making crockpot or freezer meals on Sunday would help (#sundayprepforlife).  Or maybe you don't need to cook much at all-if your husband is away often, and you just have toddlers at home, why not have the cheese and crackers and veggies and dip meal that they prefer anyway, especially if you are just as happy with a salad yourself.  Cook up a bunch of chicken breasts on one night, and happily eat that all week.

Let Things Go

On that note, what can you let go?  Seriously.  I know you're thinking "nothing, for real, that's why I'm overwhelmed lady!", but be flexible with yourself.  The list of things that I do NOT do is so much longer than things I get done.  Intentionally.  (Come back on Friday for an update of this post).

This is a stupid example, but I grew up never eating off a paper plate, ever.  Not even once.  Never at my parents' parties, bbqs, picnics.  Never.  So it didn't occur to me in a house with 7 people that it might save me some time to use disposable plates.  And then when it did occur to me, I was horrified by the idea because it seemed wasteful, I had my mother's voice in my head, etc.  DUMB.  Let it all go!  Your sanity is not less important than the cranky voice of judgment that lives in your head.

What else can you give up?  Baths every night for babies, that's what.  You have my pediatricians' permission (every doctor I've ever had has suggested this).  It is bad for their skin.  Twice a week in the winter, at max. There's an hour per week saved, at least.

You know what else?  Toddler extracurricular activities.  Yes, seriously.  Here's a secret: I drove myself absolutely nuts making sure that my oldest daughter had fun dance classes and story hour and activities when she was three and four.  I sat in the lobby for an hour every time, with another toddler, and infant, and morning sickness.  It felt HARD.  She enjoyed those activities very much. But you know what?  She doesn't remember a stinking thing about it.  At all.  She is (almost) eleven, and she can't remember even having a dance class.  If you are going crazy, if you are exhausted, if you are barely holding it together, DON'T GO.  YOU ARE THE MAMA.  Nothing bad will happen.  I promise.  (Well, that is a lie.  The three year old-especially an oldest child-will throw a fit about missing a class, but she will be quickly distracted with a yay!-picnic-dinner idea).

Corralling all five kids at church by yourself makes you stabby?  Buh-bye sanctuary!  See ya in a few months! Get your Jesus at home with awesome online sermons, guilt-free.  STOP DOING EVERYTHING.  I know we all have this picture in our minds of our ideal selves, working at full capacity, being amazing.  I believe in my heart that you were created to be amazing.  But you don't need to do every single flipping thing, especially in times of survival mode.

How about this?  Stop folding laundry.  Folding and putting away laundry is among the most Sisyphean things we do, right?  So stop.  Clean laundry in one basket, dirty in the other. Easy.  Every morning, pick you clean laundry from the basket, instead of a drawer.  (Half of you are like "duh", and the other half are horrified by this idea.  I'll let you guess how I grew up).

Get Help and Delegate

Let's talk about how you can get help with things that do need to be done.  Many of you who read here are married with children.  If that is you, your spouse can be your #1 support.  Even if they travel for work frequently, there are always things they can do to make your day easier.  Brainstorm together: what can they take off your plate?  Someone who is traveling may be able to make those nagging phone calls for you, like to the insurance agent or water company (heck, it's quieter at an airport gate than at my house most days.  Why not?!)  Maybe they can help you automate the bills, so that you don't need to think about them.

If they are not traveling, now is the time to figure out a new way to delegate the work.  When you are drowning, for whatever reason, they should be a key player in your family's upkeep.  (New things my husband does that he didn't always: unload dishwasher, wash random extra dishes in the morning, carry laundry, make breakfast for the kids, pack lunches on homeschool coop days, occasionally take a kid to a doctor's appointment, take toddlers and preschoolers to work with him in the tractor when I have an event for the older kids...hold on, I know there's more....) In any case, your spouse may recognize that you are overwhelmed, but not the need to step up their help, so consider having a calm conversation about your needs.  (I mentally call these little talks "state of the union" conversations, because they are useful to have at least once a year).

How else can you get help?  Maybe you have older kids who could be pitching in more.  Maybe you have family who lives close by and could be a real support.  I know several families whose mama or MIL takes the kids for a set period every week.  If that would be helpful to you, ASK!  What about friends or your church family?  Is there a way you could exchange work or take turns with kiddos in some way that would give you breathing room?  Be creative.  I know people who do a "friends' summer camp".  Every Friday during the summer, they take turns having all the kids at their house all day, but then they get the next three Fridays off, while their kids are at another family's turn for camp.

If you are covered in tiny babies and you just can't see giving them to other people for any period of time (I've been there), what else can you delegate?  Look for something that doesn't need YOU, just an adult to do it.  Being a mama?  Only you can do that.  Nursing a baby?  You again.  Housework?  Anyone with a pulse.

I know a few people whose mama folds their laundry.  If that option is available to you, take it!  If not (right here!), can you hire help?  I know sometimes it seems uncomfortable to pay someone to do housework, but that has been a lifesaver for our family for the last six or so years.  This was essential to me during all my pregnancies especially, when I just could NOT deal with being sick, and staring at a bathroom that hasn't been cleaned properly in months.  I have a sweet lady, Danielle, (who has become a friend) who cleans my house once a week, and I just recently began to give her hours folding and putting away our laundry as well.

What about meals?  I have a friend who just started a business selling her homemade bread.  I love baking bread, but my kids eat it way too quickly for me to keep up, and it had fallen off my plate of priorities in the last two years since beginning my own business.  Still, it bugged me to buy less-healthy bread at the store. Now I have the win-win of supporting another mama in making a little income, and my kids being fed nutritious homemade bread that I am not having to find time to bake.  You could use more frozen meals.  You could pay a teenager to take care of the yard.  If money can solve a problem for you, DO IT.  I would give up most everything before I gave up my Danielle, because it is such a blessing to me to KNOW that something will be done properly without me doing it.  Really think through what you can delegate.

Find the Fun

Finally, do whatever you can to find the fun in small ways.  You may feel stuck right now, but you can still improve your day little by little.  Have your go-to motivation song ready on your phone every morning.  Buy yourself a decent bottle of wine on Friday nights.  Instead of crying in the kitchen when you are losing your mind, turn the music up loud and have a dance party with your kids.  (This will freak them out at first, but they quickly start to love it).  Always have something to look forward to-manufacture it if you have to.  Buy yourself a new audio book for the car.  Reward yourself whenever you can.  But above all, GIVE YOURSELF GRACE.  No guilt allowed.  You are doing the best you can.  GRACE GRACE GRACE.  When you can do more, you will do more.  For now, hang on tight.  As a mama to a lot of babies in a short period of time, I promise you seasons pass quickly. Five years will fly by without you really noticing, and you will look up and realize that it has gotten easier.

"Courage, dear heart."
     -C.S. Lewis

What are your best survival tips?
What keeps you going when things feel crazy?


  1. Hi Shannon-
    It's Courtney, the DZ who rushed you. Long time, no talk but I just wanted you to know that I fell upon your blog and that this post is awesome! So helpful! So true! Great job!!!!!!!

  2. Hey girl! So happy to hear from you! I am so glad the post was helpful to you.

  3. Thanks! You too! Keep up the good work. The mental illness post was excellent and the beauty and fashion ones are always fun.
    Enjoy strawberry season! We are too!

  4. Thanks for checking it out! I hope you guys have a fun summer!