Emerging from the “Camel Mode” of Parenting Self-Sacrifice

From my own experience, emerging from camel mode has been more of a series of baby steps than some dramatic, life-altering moment.

Emerging from the “Camel Mode” of Parenting Self-Sacrifice
Photo by Nick Dunn / Unsplash

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As a parent, are you currently crossing a desert of self-sacrifice without self-nourishment? I’ve been thinking a lot about an idea I read a few weeks ago in Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s wonderful newsletter, Brooding, from The Cut. In a recent edition she coined a term called “camel mode.” I highly recommend reading the whole piece and subscribing to her newsletter, which is always well-written and insightful. She describes camel mode as a phase of widely varying length where your entire sense of self is wrapped up in being a parent. There can certainly be bright spots, but basically, it’s survival mode. As for the camel metaphor, Jezer-Morton elaborates:

“Water” is your sense of personal sovereignty — it lives inside you somewhere (in your … humps), but after you become a parent, it recedes from view and soon from mind. You can be in camel mode for years without realizing it because part of what defines it is a dulling of the senses. What you care about in camel mode is that everyone is quiet, and disaster is averted. Your standards for what constitutes a fun time dip to historic lows."

COVID, of course, also complicated the natural rhythm of camel mode for untold numbers of parents. When many of our basic social institutions cease to exist and you are literally focused on your family’s survival from a global pandemic, the flames of self-actualization burn out pretty quickly. But alternately, I think the intensity of the pandemic experience has spurred me and others into a sense of urgency to find our way OUT of camel mode. COVID clarified our desires for a sense of self outside our families, and also gave us a sense of “if not now, when?” Also, many of us in pandemic camel mode have desperately needed a change of pace and scenery.

I agree with Jezer-Morton that camel mode isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think naming this as a discrete phase of life is actually quite helpful. What I’m most interested in is what emerging from it looks like for different people once they are ready because long-term camel mode definitely has a cost. Jezer-Morton writes:

Why is camel mode so hard to emerge from? I think for some of us, it becomes easier — safer — to allow other people’s needs to supersede our own. This is a morally neutral situation that has nothing at all to do with maternal selflessness or even the patriarchy. I think it’s just a way of ducking-and-covering from a lot of the chaos of life. In camel mode, you avoid confrontation and friction by never throwing your weight around. You avoid disappointment because you don’t expect much. But it does foreclose on the intimacy and emotional connectedness that make for happy marriages and real friendships. When you’re in camel mode, you’re alone in that desert.

Jezer-Morton makes an important point that asserting your needs and sometimes rocking the boat is inherent to coming out of camel mode. That can be a very hard hurdle for some because of how our society conflates being a “good mom” with always putting your family ahead of yourself.

From my own experience, emerging from camel mode has been more of a series of baby steps than some dramatic, life-altering moment. Having twins one month before pandemic lockdowns started, plus a preschooler, means that I was in complete camel mode for a solid two+ years.

The first glimmers of even realizing I was in total self-sacrifice mode came when I took stock that 4 months after giving birth, I still needed to wear those hospital issued belly binders in order to walk any distance because my back muscles where so fucked up from carrying full term twins who weighed over 6 pounds each. Researching and then making the time to go to a physical therapist was my first assertion of any personal needs, but I was still in deep camel. I also don’t want to conflate the most basic self-maintenance as self-actualization. If taking a shower, going to the grocery store alone, or having privacy while you poop feels like a revelatory form of self-care, you are definitely firmly in camel mode.

Reconnecting with my love of (child-free) travel in 2022 was another series of steppingstone moments that allowed me to move past camel mode. I took two international trips last year (the first time my passport was stamped in 8 years.) One was with a girlfriend to lay on the beach in Mexico for a few days and it was glorious, and one was to Iceland with my husband for our 10th wedding anniversary. Travel like this obviously requires financial privilege, but both trips gave me a sense of joy and a sense of self that was worth more than their equivalent cost in therapy bills.

Now that I understand the concept of camel mode, I see plenty of my friends emerging from it, too. And I’ve noticed some illuminating patterns. All seem to be out of the most intensive and expensive stages of parenting i.e., their kids are out of daycare and now in public school. They also seem to be tapping into previous passions, interests, and versions of themselves that existed before they had kids; they are now claiming the space to foster those sides of themselves, rather than coming up with something brand new. Also worth noting: everyone I’m mentioning in this newsletter who’s emerged from camel mode (myself included) has done some amount of therapy that’s helped them get there.

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Here are some camel-emergence stories from my friends, shared with their permission:

A. who’s a single mom by choice to 8-year-old twins, including one with special needs, had to take the first step of having some bandwidth to take on some side hustles to supplement her public-school teacher salary. Through dog sitting and creating an Airbnb rental property, she can now put the kids in some summer camps, so she actually has personal time during the summer. She has also made time and has the resources to pursue her interest in storytelling performance and learning to play the Ukulele.

B. whose kids are 6 and 4, has reconnected with her deep passion for horses and equestrian sports. After taking a 15-year break, she’s started riding multiple times a week. She’s a self-declared “person who hates spending money” and buys all of her clothes from Goodwill but has decided the one thing she does want to spend money on is her passion for horses. The last horse she owned was when she was a teenager; she ended up selling it after her mom died when she was 18. She’s currently thrilled to have just bought her first horse in about 20 years and is making some schedule adjustments so she can ride daily.

Y. has emerged from the double-whammy camel mode of having her toddler undergo cancer treatment during COVID (he’s in full remission now). Her kids are now 8 and 5, and she’s started taking advantage of her work’s unlimited vacation policy and visiting friends quarterly in NYC where she used to live; she also makes regular dates while in town with her favorite tattoo artist.

As you think about your own relationship with camel mode, remember there is no right or wrong process and no shame about whatever phase you are in. It’s not just for those with young kids (Jezer-Morton says it has taken until her kids were 9 and 12 to emerge, with help from a couple's therapist) and it’s also not always linear. A work project, a life change, or a personal crisis can prolong it or send you back into it. Cultivating strong networks of paid and unpaid care seem to be very helpful in emerging from it, which can sometimes take years to cultivate. While having some disposable income might support some interests and hobbies, time and space is far more important to this process than extra cash. The bottom line is, understand that camel mode is real, but it doesn’t have to be forever. It’s possible to let it go when you are ready.

For this week’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking, what’s your relationship like to camel mode? If you think you’ve emerged, what helped you get to the other side? If you want access to our weekly member threads, click the button below and to sign up and become a member!


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