Is ‘Camel Mode’ Inevitable for Parents?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

There was a period a few years ago when anytime I left the house alone I had to be listening to music in my earbuds. Any errand, no matter how short, was an opportunity to plug in: a quick run to the corner store for milk or a short walk home from dropping the kids off at school was an opportunity to get into my little zone for however brief a time. In retrospect, this behavior seems a bit teenagerly. There was an obsessive quality to it. What exactly was I doing?

I realize now that I was trying to yank myself out of 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.”

Camel mode is a life phase many parents pass through, though its duration varies widely. It may last just a few months, or it may last years. I was in camel mode until pretty recently, and my kids are 12 and 9. In fact, my husband and I had to go to couples therapy before I fully emerged from it — once you’re in it, it can be hard to break loose.

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 (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. 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. You might rather spend time alone with your snacks and episodes, rather than with friends, because you feel boring and don’t want to have to do the jazz hands of socializing. But camel mode is not depression; not everything is a diagnosis.

Camel mode is also no one’s fault. It’s not the fault of your partner for not pulling their weight. (Dads go camel mode too; I know some dudes who were in deep.) It’s not the government’s fault either. Because of where I live, I had a full year of paid leave after I had each of my kids, and their day care was extremely affordable. Also, our health care is free. As a parent, I’ve found my quality of life has been, I don’t mind telling you, objectively excellent. Still: full camel, for years.

We can debate what causes it and how to eliminate it from society through the development of thick ’n’ robust networks of care and interdependence, but I’m not sure eliminating it is realistic in the near term or even really that important. 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.

And I do think everyone needs to emerge because in a few years your kids will stop needing you quite so much, at which point you will have to figure out what to do with those little scraps of spare time and mental space you’ll find yourself with. On Twitter, I recently saw a woman asking for advice on finding a hobby because she had forgotten what she liked to do after having kids. People tried to help her, but I could tell she wasn’t feeling any of it. What she was looking for was advice on how to re-attune herself to the creative adventure of being a person.

For about a year, I had no better plan for how to do that than listening to my little playlists while skulking around. Then I rediscovered thrifting, which perked me up further. I exercised a bit, but it was desultory — I think it could have really worked for me if I’d had access to a Tracy Andersonian workout guru, so consider that. I did start occasionally going out to this one particular dive bar by myself; that was effective. I was pretty much all the way back to being a fully three-dimensional adult with her own desires and dreams when COVID hit and I regressed back in.

Camel mode, like a COVID lockdown, is easier to enter than to emerge from, which is its only innate problem. When you enter camel mode, you’re simply reacting to the immediate circumstances of your life. You submit. Some of you may be thinking, Not me. I never did that. I held fast to my pre-kid needs like my life depended on it. To you, I say: That’s amazing, I admire you, but that doesn’t mean you’re better than me.

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.

Callard Mode

If we were to situate camel mode on one end of a spectrum of behaviors and expectations, the opposite end would be what I call “Callard mode,” after the philosopher Agnes Callard, who was profiled earlier this year in The New Yorker. Callard has an unusually rigorous approach to family life. She sees marriage as an intense project of mutual accountability during which both partners should be continually seeking their own fulfillment. Marriage, according to Callard, isn’t a vessel that holds people through life’s ups and downs; it’s an opportunity to push yourself to be better and better. She says things like “I think grateful acceptance can be loving, but I think exacting demands can also be loving.” Giddyap.

Callard mode demands that you maintain a tight grip on all of your intellectual and emotional faculties, that you never let yourself slip into the slow-blinking complacency of the camel. The profile describes how she decided to ask her husband for a divorce after falling in love with someone else. At the time, they had two young children. There is nothing morally reprehensible about divorce, or falling in love, of course. But it struck me as impressive that Callard was able to feel such decisive, strong feelings at all given how young her kids were. Whatever happened to a period of happy enough? I felt for Callard’s first husband while reading the story. Maybe he was just sauntering along in camel mode for a while and she wasn’t having it. Callard mode is demanding and uncompromising. It’s not for everyone. But we shouldn’t dismiss it.

I think most parents expect their relationships to withstand a period when, at least to some extent, they’re out to lunch. But you can’t stay out to lunch forever if you want to stay in a relationship, and that’s one of the reasons naming camel mode is important. It has a scary quality. You can slip in without realizing it and descend into an emotional locked-in syndrome through which you can carry on as a high-functioning parent. Your partner might notice you’re in camel mode before you do, and when they suggest that something is off about you, it may come across as demanding and unfair. I’m speaking from experience, of course. You can let yourself live inside it, but eventually you need to see yourself out.

Leaving Camel Mode

Emergence from camel mode is a misunderstood stage of adult development. We call it by a lot of names — “midlife crisis” is one, or “moms gone wild.” I’ve always found it infantilizing to call an adult “wild” when, chances are, their wildness occurs in tightly prescribed windows. Wild as an English garden, maybe. The “wildest” adults I know are also — without exception — the most successful and hardworking. They are the type-A folks who organize the vacation rental and show up with a cooler full of thoughtful snacks (and illegal drugs). Can you really call something “wild” when it’s all happening according to a plan? I’m not dismissing “wild” parent behavior, just suggesting a reappraisal of it as a rational, deliberate reaction to a certain time of life rather than wildness. Often, “wild moms” are just trying to reanimate themselves into three dimensions the best way they know how.

Emerging from camel mode is about relearning how to feel desire again — any kind of desire, toward anything. This is not about “getting your libido back” or any other euphemism for having sex with your partner after a long fallow period. Feeling embodied and alive takes practice, and it can be forgotten and relearned. And forgotten again.

It’s easy to slip into New Age–y platitudes when talking about transitions and seasons of life. Eternal becoming, continual renewal, and all that. This doesn’t resonate with me at all. I don’t believe we’re peeling away layers of our onion skin until, one day, our fresh and dewy Truest Self is revealed like the smallest innermost flesh of a shallot. Like, have you ever met an old person? Innermost-shallot mode is not usually attained, and it’s vain to presume you’d be any different. After camel mode is just the next thing. And then the next.

There are no easy answers, and you won’t transcend anything. You’re going to meet the camel again. Maybe it will be when you have to care for a sick loved one. Maybe it will be when you’re trying to get tenure or after you’ve been laid off. You will forget who you are, and you’ll have to relearn. We can’t beat this, but we can, as Ram Dass himself said (I’m closing this essay in guru mode), help walk each other home.

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Is Going ‘Camel Mode’ Inevitable for Parents?