Friday, April 19, 2024

The Motherhood Diaries: The Suffocating Comfort Of Entering Camel Mode

Two weeks ago, Sarah Lang wrote about exiting ‘camel mode’, the part of parenthood where life is subdued by young children. Now, Emma Clifton talks about entering camel mode.

Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertilitytrying to conceivepregnancythe fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, children’s mental health and teenagers, fertility issues and everything in between! 

When I worked in weekly magazines, I had a grim little cartoon pasted on my computer that said, “When work feels overwhelming, remember one day you will be dead.” In similarly inspirational fashion, a colleague had one that read “Hell is empty, the devils are here.” Such fun! But the point is, I have always liked any kind of reminder that our time on earth is very, very finite. I’m a firm believer that low expectations are the key to a good time. And there’s nothing like early parenthood to continuously chip away at your expectations.

When I read the viral NYMag ‘Camel Mode’ article, it perfectly worded the perverse thrill I have been experiencing of being so enthralled and/or overwhelmed by new motherhood that my entire other self has *POOF* disappeared. The same week I read it, I got an automated text from Plunket, which started off with: ‘KIA ORA, MOTHER’. It felt appropriate: the old me can’t come to the phone right now. MOTHER is here instead.

Sarah Lang has already written about her own experience with Camel Mode here, about how she knew she was finally coming out of it as her son turned nine. But to briefly re-introduce the concept, US writer Kathryn Jezer-Morton created the term to represent a phase of life during which her ‘entire sense of self was wrapped up in being a parent.’

Kathryn writes: “I call it “camel mode” because when you’re caring for young children and giving yourself over to their needs, you are crossing a metaphysical desert of the self, without water, like a camel. “Water” is your sense of personal sovereignty — it lives inside you somewhere… but after you become a parent, it recedes from view and soon from mind.”

This is the part that got me hook, line and sinker: “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. When a co-worker idly asks if you “had a fun summer” or “enjoyed the long weekend,” you may feel a tug of awareness that you have no idea what they mean by that.”

The camel mode of parenting is a long-term one because babies (high needs) become infants (high needs plus unpredictable movements), who then become toddlers (chaos personified) and then they become small children at school, which is an entire world of work I don’t even want to think about yet.

The reason I perversely find the idea of entering camel mode very comforting is because it sums up the high-low mix of personal expectations that is early motherhood. People either expect too much or not enough of you. Here’s an example: when I went to vote last year, I was clutching my hulking great infant and to the staff working there, I might as well have been Wonder Woman. “Look at you, Mum!” “Do you need us to hold the baby?” “Oh well done, Mum! Good for you.”

I was thrilled. I love praise! And it stands out because most of the time when I take my baby anywhere, I simply fail to exist. Maybe this is the ultimate way to avoid the male gaze = simply become a mother. Truly, you could probably rob a bank if you happened to be doing it with a pram, because people either only communicate with your baby – fair – or see you all as a piece of furniture to avoid.

Early parenthood is both deified and derided – you are doing the most important job in the world, but if society was to assign a financial value to that work, it would give it a partial minimum wage, at BEST. As a new mother, you sort of disappear into an alternative world and this can the part that either chafes or frees you (or, probably, both, depending on the day). Never before have I had such incredibly low aims for what I want out of a week, month or year (all of those markers of time feel as fast as each other anyway; time has no meaning in this desert).

The comparisons of postpartum to lockdown are plentiful – and correct. A solo trip to the supermarket becomes a Peak Experience. Getting a haircut takes on wider, more existential symbolism; the only two times I have ever cut my own hair were lockdown 2021 and having an infant, which says it all.

Writing this, it sounds depressing – and while postpartum depression is a widespread issue for many new parents, camel mode in itself isn’t depressing at all. It is just a season of reshuffling what was once important to you – and what will be important to you again – to the back of your brain. My son turns one in two months, and I have loved this first year – and myself as a mother – more than I ever could have imagined. I have also been pushed to my edge on an almost daily basis. Both can be true. Also, my core self both feels closer to me than ever, while also like she’s lying dormant. It makes absolutely no sense. It is camel mode.

Everyone comes in and out of it at their own time – I know people who have come out of camel mode whip fast, more ambitious than ever. I know people who have loved it and dwelled within it for years. I know people who hated the baby phase more than they could say; I had a male friend say simply ‘babies are bullshit’, which feels like the kind of thing a woman would never let herself say (even though many, many probably feel it).

But the concept of ‘camel mode’ reminds me that it is a phase: a swooning, crushing, love-filled, relentless, joyous, monotonous, empowering phase. Of all the parental clichés that turned out to be absolutely true, I’m adding entering camel mode to the list. The desert may be vast, but the years are short.

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