You’ve probably been there. You want to clean, but you have to rescue the crying baby from the over-exuberant toddler. Once you get the baby asleep, though, it’s time to make supper. You’re almost done making supper–fighting off the toddler who is grabbing knives or emptying the dish soap and screaming–and you’re about to sit down to eat when the baby wakes up screaming again…After supper–which adds to your pile of unwashed dishes–you think about cleaning again, but the toddler finds a previously unexplored cabinet and empties its relatively dangerous contents into the floor next to the baby…. At which point you give up…. For a few minutes. Then you realize that giving up doesn’t actually do you any good.
You’re miserable because there’s so much stuff to do, and it just seems like no matter how hard you work you never get ahead. It’s like bailing out a boat that has a hole in it and you keep bailing and you stay just ahead of the leak so you don’t quite sink. But all you have to look forward to is more bailing because the hole never gets smaller and the water never stops coming in.
When you first got into the boat you probably had a destination in mind. You noticed landmarks, or measured your progress by looking at charts, and mapping out a course. But you’ve been bailing for so long that your life has shrunken to an endless cycle of filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge, filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge. It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even notice that you’re drifting off course. Or that you have the tools to patch your leak, if you would just stop for five minutes.
If fact, you don’t even notice that you’ve forgotten why you got into the boat in the first place.
Now of course in real life it’s not dumping buckets of water out of your boat. It’s working to pay bills, fixing things that get broken, pulling the toddler off the crying baby (I assume that’s not just me), getting dinner on the table, packing school lunches, mediating disputes, checking emails, worrying about money, worrying about kids…. And it goes on. You feel like if you just keep your head down and keep working, maybe there will someday be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when the kids are old enough for school. Wait…. Then there will be even more bills to pay… So, maybe when the kids move out? (You can survive another twenty years of this, right?)
That’s just the trouble though: keeping your head down. You have to look up sometimes.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of busy workers clearing a jungle. They are working so hard, getting so much done, hacking up trees and vines as well as they can. Suddenly the leader tells them, “Wait, stop, you’re cutting down the wrong jungle!”
This is how we can end up if we let the tunnel vision of survival mode run our lives. The tunnel vision is good when you’re putting out a fire. It’s great not to be worrying about what you’ll be doing in ten years if you are busy saving the town from burning up. But life isn’t supposed to be a constant series of putting out fires. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.
The point that Stephen Covey was making with his jungle story, was, as he put it, you have to “begin with the end in mind.” You have to be able to break free of crisis-mode tunnel vision so that you can remember what your goal is, and think about what it will take to reach it. Maybe if you look up from bailing out your boat for just a moment you’ll realize that you can just swim to shore. Maybe you’ll realize that someone threw you a rope or that someone’s willing to throw you a rope if you just ask.
This sort of crisis mood can come into just about any aspect of life.
Financial survival mode looks like this: You try to at least pay the minimum payment on your credit cards, you’re probably renting, and you run out of money by the time the next paycheck comes. You aren’t quite sure what you spent the money on, but you’re too busy to find out and you definitely don’t have an emergency fund so even if you do succeed in paying your credit cards off, if you have to call the plumber, you’re right back where you started: paying interest on credit card loans.
The first step is to choose to believe that you don’t have to live that way. The second step is to sit down with your spouse if you’re married or if you’re single by yourself with a friend who knows about money or a financial advisor if you can get one, and figure out what your goal is. Your goals will depend on who you are. It could be anything from, “we will be debt free by next Christmas” or “we will be in position to open our own home in three years,” to “I want to start a business that provides all the income we need in five years.”
Then, once you’ve determined what your goal is, make a plan to reach it. Divide it up into actionable steps. Schedule them. And most importantly, plan how you will keep checking your progress. It could be as simply as putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to see if you are making the progress you want.
This book could get you started in the right direction: Why smart people do stupid things with money.
Working with your goals in mind is particularly important in a relationship. It’s easy to end up going through the motions of married life, if you don’t remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Presumably you got married so that you could help each other be happy together. Maybe you didn’t think it out quite like that beforehand, but that’s generally why people want to get married. And so if you start taking each other for granted, bickering over chores, or just feeling unappreciated or upset in general, it’s likely that the real problem is that you’ve lost sight of your goal.
The steps for this are the same:
First, recognize that you don’t have to live that way. Assuming that you and your spouse are sane, decent human adults, you should be able to work out a plan together to help each other be happy, and then execute that plan.
Secondly, block out some time to be alone and sit down together and discuss the things that are bothering you. Seriously, do it. If you need a babysitter get one. (If you can’t afford it, do it anyway, and add money goals to your discussion. It’s that important.) If the kids have to eat junk food and watch cartoons one night, or if you have to call in three favors from your sister in law, just do it. And then drink some wine, eat some chocolate, listen to some music, whatever it takes to be in a good mood, and talk it out with your spouse.
I highly recommend the marriage meeting format. It’s simple and really helps the conversation be productive. (My husband and I have been doing them every week for at least a year now, and we recommend it to all our friends.)
And finally, come up with a plan to reach your goal. Set up actionable steps, schedule them. One good step might be scheduling time for intentional communication, like a weekly marriage meeting. Or scheduling fun things to do together–dates don’t have to be expensive. Or getting the kitchen sink fixed… whatever you decide will help you make each other happy.
And then follow through on your plan.
Survival mode parenting, also known as reactive parenting, looks like lots of stress, yelling, and chaos. The kids are always doing something unacceptable, and you’re always tearing your hair out and yelling at them. You probably resort to screens frequently to keep them quiet, and if you don’t, you’re likely constantly sending one or more of them to their rooms. You can’t stand their behavior, but they don’t seem to change no matter what you do. You yell and punish and cry, but they never seem to get any better. If anything they get worse and worse.
Parenting will always be stressful. Children are difficult– that’s just the way it is, but there’s no reason why it has to be absolute misery all day every day. There is no virtue in being miserable. American parents seem to feel that they have to be stressed and overworked or else they’re just not doing their jobs. Which is completely baloney. Following a vocation, like marriage and parenting, should make us happier. If we’re constantly miserable, we’re likely doing something wrong.
So first of all, tell yourself that you don’t have to be miserable. Sleep deprivation might be inevitable at certain stages in your children’s development, but long-term misery should never be required.
Then, sit down (with your spouse if possible) and figure out two things: what kind of people you are trying to raise your children into, and what exactly is making you miserable.
As far as the first question goes, you might think that you already know the answer: well, obviously I want my kids to be good people. But that’s not specific enough. There’s a lot of ways of being good people. You have to choose a few traits that are extra important to you. My husband and I want to raise children who are confident, resourceful, and truth-seeking. Some people prioritize kindness or generosity above everything else and tailor their parenting techniques for those goals. There is no one right answer.
As far as the second question goes, you might be surprised when you figure out what the underlying problem really is. Maybe the whole issue is that you’re not getting enough sleep. If you could get enough sleep, everything else would fall into place. Or maybe the trouble is your children scream too much and it’s stressful for everyone. Or perhaps you just need a system for everyone to get some chores done every day so that the house is not always a mess. Maybe you’re really just lonely, and some company would solve your worst problems. Or you could just be working with an ineffective philosophy of parenting, and just changing a few of your assumptions will make everything easier.
Then form a plan to achieve your newly clarified goals. For example, you’ve determined that you want your children to be independent, so what changes are you going to make to your discipline system to encourage personal responsibility?
You figured out that you need some time to yourself every week so that you can feel like a human? How are you going to get it? Hire a babysitter? Trade off time with your spouse? Trade off time with other parents? Teach your kids to entertain themselves? Get your kids some new activities they can do independently? The answer will depend on you, your kids’ ages and personalities, and your other circumstances.
And finally, once you’ve made your plan, figure out how you’re going to ensure that it happens. Are you going to reassess your progress every week? Every month?
Getting out of survival mode is less about working hard and more about working smart. You have to figure out what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and what’s stopping you so that you can formulate a plan to fix it.
Here are a few books that should help: (Affiliate links: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links. There is no extra cost to you, and I heartily recommend all of these books)
This is a book recommended to me by a financial advisor. It’s a great basic roadmap to why you have money troubles, and how to get out of them.
This book is a good overview of the ways of thinking that will make you happier and more effective.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in a relationship or is planning on being in one. It explains a lot of the misunderstandings that arise between spouses and how to solve them and have a happy and satisfying relationship.
I’ve read a lot of Catholic books on marriage, and many of them tend to be discouraging. This one is not. It shows a balanced view of marriage–admitting the struggles, but pointing out the graces and joys. It also has a balanced idea of the roles of husband and wife–sticking to what the Church actually says, not personal opinions or outdated stereotypes. Every 21st century Catholic married couple should read this book.
This is one of the best books on parenting that I have ever read. It gives practical tips and makes good parenting seem possible and achievable.
Pamela Druckerman, an American who lives in France, points out some of the odd habits of American parents, and contrasts them with how French parents raise their children. She combines the best of both worlds, and tells entertaining stories. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. It also helped me de-stress my parenting style a bit.
3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Survival Mode”
Something I wish we’d had, but did not exist yet… Father Beck’s talks (The St. Mary’s talks, finally released):
Or for those who can’t afford 25 bucks, there is the older set of talks (not as detailed) for (last I knew) one dollar, from the Seminary:
We call our marriage talk, “couch time”, and we schedule it in daily. It’s such a great way to connect and meet each other’s needs.