We’ve all heard the well-meaning refrain, the one that’s been co-opted from airline travel and applied to life:
‘Put your oxygen mask on first, then assist any small children you may be travelling with.’
In case you’ve been living in a cave, this is meant to remind us that we can’t take care of others if we’re not taking care of ourselves. Also, it hardly applies anymore thanks to Covid-19.
On pre-pandemic trips, as the flight attendant demonstrated ‘the safety features of the aircraft’ I thought about how funny it is that we co-opted this phrase about catastrophes and certain death and applied it to motherhood.
Intellectually, I get why putting your oxygen mask on first might be important. But I also know that mask is useless to me if my kids aren’t happy. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg question: what came first, the happy mom or the happy kid?
Yes, self care is important. Yes, I am a better mother when my exercise/social life/mental health/personal fulfillment/parenting juju is all in alignment. At least I imagine I would be should this ever happen.
But there have been occasions in my life when stopping to take care of myself first just wasn’t the right decision.
A lot of us equate self care to a spa day or a night out with girlfriends, or finding the time to meditate or exercise. We feel guilty leaving behind grumpy kids, unanswered emails, and towering piles of laundry to get our nails done or to curl up with a book and a flat white (my personal favourite).
We believe that self care derives from selfishness and we balk at doing things that seem frivolous when there are so many ‘more important’ items that need our attention.
An attorney friend once told me she regularly lets her spa gift certificates expire because she’d never be able to relax knowing how many briefs she could be filing or clients she could be helping instead of lounging in a giant tub of age-defying Himalayan yak’s milk.
Our opinions on self care are fraught with guilt and misconceptions. But for me the bigger issue is why we feel the need to hide our vulnerability.
If your mask slips or we put our kids’ on first instead of our own, what’s the worst that can happen? Okay, don’t answer that. I’m sure you can think of many terrible consequences, as can I, but really… is it so terrible that we let others, especially our kids, see us when we’re at the end of our rope and crying out for oxygen?
As much as I believe self care is important, its newfound fame as a pop culture buzzword has given us something else to feel like we’re failing at if we haven’t made the time.
Truth be told, I fail at lots of things and I’m totally okay with it. This one isn’t a big deal. And I actually think it’s good for my kids to see me being out of sorts, frazzled, and vulnerable every now and then, because then they also get to see how hard I’m working to make sure everyone has what they need. They see how much work goes into running a house and keeping a family together.
When I lose it and I’m struggling, it’s usually because I’m stretched too thin. We can all relate to a version of this: You’re trying to make dinner, keep your eye on a thread of urgent work emails and deal with math homework on compound fractions all while answering 17 text messages from your husband about what size screw is needed for the closet door that’s been broken for nine months.
In the midst of all this chaos, somebody short who calls you mom will demand to know why you had the gall to forget to get her skates sharpened.
And so you lose it. Your mask slips off and you go ape-shit. But this is not a bad thing, unless you’re throwing feces like actual apes. Or maybe that’s monkeys. Anyway, you will then remind your little angels about how hard their parents work to make sure there is food on the table and money for riding lessons and dental care.
You will remind them that mommies and daddies (especially daddies) can’t remember everything. That sometimes we (mostly daddies) make mistakes. That we (mostly mommies) are trying our best and a little slack and support would be appreciated.
And when the media we consume, both mainstream and social, sends us bossypants messages about all the things we should be doing, we get even more worked up.
Yes by all means let your daughter express her individuality by wearing fairy wings and a Miller Lite baseball hat to school everyday but for God’s sake make sure she’s taking mandarin classes and drinking one kale smoothie per day.
No wonder our oxygen masks are slipping.
It’s not news to my kids that mommy isn’t perfect, but these conversations (and occasional mommy meltdowns) often result in greater cooperation and understanding, at least for a few days.
‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’ is not bad advice, but if you can’t always do it, don’t stress. Because guess what? When it does slip, or fall off completely and get crushed by a gravel truck, you AND your kids may get to discover something about resilience and vulnerability together. A slipped oxygen mask may turn out to be an opportunity, rather than a prelude to going down in flames.