Sarah Lang has come out of ‘camel mode’ as a mother – but first, let’s explain what it even is!
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What exactly is being in ‘camel mode’? Well, imagine yourself bent over like a camel, with your child sitting on or sliding off your hump.
If you haven’t heard of ‘camel mode’, that’s because the term was only just coined. In an article for thecut.com called “Is ‘Camel Mode’ Inevitable for Parents?”, Kathryn Jezer-Morton says she experienced a “phase of life during which my entire sense of self was wrapped up in being a parent. Looking back on that phase and my gradual emergence from it, I’ve started calling 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…. [And] what you care about in camel mode is that everyone is quiet and disaster is averted.”
“I was in camel mode until pretty recently, and my kids are 12 and 9,” Kathryn says.
The ‘Drought’ of Early Motherhood
As a mother (to a now nine-year-old), I identify with being in ‘camel mode’. For years, like a camel in a desert, I was really thirsty: thirsty for my own time and some semblance of personal space. Because being parent to a young child is a heck of a drought. (I worked part-time but that time was spent, well, working.)
Gosh, those first years when your life revolves around this little being. Time spent pureeing pumpkin. Time spent wiping their bum. Time spent pushing the pram up the street, sweating. Time when nights are not spent sleeping. Time spent wondering how the hell do you know if you’re even doing it right. Time spent wondering if the person you once were is just a distant memory. (Don’t let me put you off motherhood altogether, because it incrementally becomes easier.)
Until fairly recently, I longed for the day when I could come out of camel mode (although I didn’t know of the term then). You just get tired of having to do thing after thing for your little dictator, even though you love them dearly. It’s like ‘hey you can reach the Weetbix, and also wipe your own bum’ (the latter being a much-awaited milestone for any parent).
One day I suddenly thought ‘wow, my son is literally able to physically sustain his own life’. Were my husband and I to leave him at home by himself (though obviously we’re not going to yet), he’d be physically able to go about his day: feeding himself, going to the toilet, finding entertainment etc.
Obviously one of us needs to be with him legally, but the time spent with him is not as all-consuming now. There’s a freedom in that. It’s like, finally, that leaves me some time for myself (though as mothers we often don’t get much of that, between paid work, housework and the mental load). I remember feeling an astonished thrill when my son became old enough to bring me things. One day, he found my phone after extended hunting; it was in the fridge. Now he can also clear the table – and sometimes stack the dishwasher!
So…. I think I’ve come out of camel mode? But, whatever you call it, emerging from camel mode can also be a bummer. I know my child doesn’t need me as much as he used to. He’s still super cute, but I miss that baby, that toddler, that pre-schooler, that little boy, and that feeling of being someone he hugely needs. There’s almost a sense of loss.
Maybe ‘coming out of camel mode’ is a precursor of Empty Nest Syndrome which, praise be, is another nine years away. I expect to be bawling on the couch when it happens.
Writing this actually makes me want my son to sit on me like I’m a camel. Because I don’t know how much longer he’ll do that – both in terms of him wanting to, and in terms of him becoming too long of limb.
The Path Out Of Camel Mode
Coming out of camel mode can be particularly hard if you’re a solo parent because you’re doing everything – and it can become second nature for your child’s needs to supersede your own.
Kate*, a single mother to a five-year-old, has been in full ‘camel mode’ since he was born. “I feel like my identity has been completely subsumed by my son. I’ve spent nearly every moment with him since he was born and, now that he’s at school, I’m, like, ‘who am I without him?’”
She likes the term ‘camel mode’ because it conveys how she feels. “I mean, as a single mother parenting by yourself, you can lose your sense of self. If I really think about it, maybe wrapping myself up in my child so much is a way to procrastinate about what the next chapter of my life will be. And maybe a way to put off working out what that is, and how I might get there.” Kate doesn’t think she’ll be coming out of camel mode in a hurry, but she can visualise an eventual exit.
As Kathryn from thecut.com wrote, “the important thing I’ve learned about camel mode is that you don’t need to avoid it altogether – you just have to figure out how to get out of it when you’re ready”.
As for me, I’ll remind myself that, as my son gets older, he’ll still need me – just in a different way.