After my close call with lightning on a mountain climb this summer, my younger sister suggested I read one of her favorite books: “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” by Laurence Gonzales (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).
I took her up on the suggestion, and she was right. It is a good book, filled with bone-chilling anecdotes and details about how to survive in extreme conditions.
Of course, the first situation that came to my mind? Parenting! Every parent knows that sometimes, especially in those early years, you are battling extreme conditions: hunger, fatigue, loneliness, chaos and ravaging beasts. And that’s just at mealtimes.
I wish I had “Deep Survival” when there were a million little boys in diapers running around my house. There were days when I didn’t know if any of us would make it out alive. I am pleased to report we are on to better times. My quartet of boys are not only older (and potty trained!), but they are actually capable, hard-working and kind children. We made it out of the jungle alive.
Still, for all you parents still in the throes of survival mode, here are the tips I offer, as drawn from the book “Deep Survival”:
1. Appreciate your surroundings. Gonzales calls this attitude “perceive, believe.” Those who survive extreme conditions or catastrophes often pause to appreciate the beauty, even in the midst of catastrophe. Whether they are hanging from a cliff with a broken leg or walking away from a plane wreck, they look with wonder at the world around them. The same is true with parenting. Those who find joy each day look past the fatigue and mess to appreciate the awe of a young child slowly discovering the world around them. They live in that particular moment, not wishing for a different phase of toddlerhood, and certainly not comparing their child to other children around them.
2. Use humor. Also, stay calm. Gonzales says that humor and a level head work in tandem. This is huge for parenting. Those who are able to laugh at another wall smeared with Desitin, or work through tantrum on top of tantrum, can weather the daily storm of childrearing. Humor diffuses the tension and relays the message that you don’t take any situation (or yourself) too seriously.
3. Plan. Gonzales writes, “Survivors quickly organize, set up routines and institute discipline.” That could be lifted straight off the pages of a parenting manual! I have a neighbor friend who has two sets of twins only two years apart. I asked her how she manages to keep her cool with so many little people around. “We keep a very strict routine,” she told me. I’ve seen her parent, and it’s also clear that she is the boss. Her kids have strict parameters. It pays off.
4. Take action. Another quote from Gonzales: “(Survivors) deal with what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. They leave the rest behind.” One of the biggest challenges of parenting is the loss of control. Your time and your schedule are no longer your own. However, the most successful parents embrace the ambiguity while ultimately remembering they are still in charge. They need to be flexible but not snowed under by the change of having kids.
5. Celebrate success. Parenting is about incremental success and a long-term vision. That first full night’s sleep is akin to a miracle. So is a baby’s first step, or when she finally stops biting her preschool friends. As children grow older, success comes through teaching them responsibility and follow-through. We should celebrate age-appropriate milestones. Having children learn to buckle their own seatbelt is great. Having children who can baby-sit or cook an omelet is even better.
6. Count your blessings. Having children is a gift. It is easy for parents to fall into the “woe-is-me” trap of complaining, but we need to be grateful for the responsibility and mantle of parenthood. There are so many worthy and incredible people who don’t get the option of being parents. Beyond that, our children are smart. They sense when they’re valued or when they feel like a liability. If we treat them like the gift that they are, they will in turn honor us as parents.
7. Play. Survivors in extreme conditions like prison camps will recite poetry or sing songs. We can do the same. My kids love when I set aside my taskmaster role to engage with them. Whether it’s a game of pickup basketball, a tea party or a massive Lego-building session, playing with our kids strengthens our family relationships. It shows our children that we know how to laugh and have fun.
8. Let nothing break your spirit. As a parent, it can seem as if some days the entire world is conspiring against you. Parenting can be isolating and heartbreaking. But as Gonzales writes, “Survivors are not easily frustrated. They are not discouraged by setbacks. They accept that the environment is constantly changing.” In parenting, no two days are alike. It is akin to a physical and emotional game of whack-a-mole. You may figure out one aspect only to have something else crop up. The trick is to keep pushing forward.
9. Believe you will succeed. Parenting is about being an optimist and a visionary. We have to believe we will not only survive but also thrive, and that our children will grow up to be good, capable people. We all have days, or weeks, where we teeter on the edge. We have to believe that parenting is a process of growth and learning, and families are God’s greatest success story.