May 31, 2016

The Oxygen Mask: On Motherhood and Self-Care

Does anyone ever listen to pre-flight instructions anymore?

I remember the first time I rode on a plane at age fifteen. I sat, eyes wide, listening intently. I knew the information I was being given could save my life. And when you are flying for the first time, you are most certainly convinced that you are risking your life.

“The instructional portion that always seemed counter-intuitive to me was the oxygen mask. Wait- let me get this straight. You mean before I save my kid’s life, I need to save mine? And that if I don’t put my oxygen mask on first, my kid is less likely to survive? This goes against every intuition as a parent. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. And the more it applies in all aspects of motherhood.

I have seen it time and again, in my life, and the lives of friends: when you put yourself and your marriage first, your children thrive.

I don’t mean this in a “it’s all about me- my kids can figure it out” kind of way. We love and cherish our kids with all we have, and we do everything to provide for their physical and emotional needs.

But I would argue that as a mother, your primary job is not to raise happy kids.

Your job is to be whole.

I’ll let you reread that sentence.

More than anything in the world. They need to see you as someone who is fighting for wholeness.

Put on your oxygen mask first, mama.

Without it you will not be able to care for your children. It is not selfish, it is not wrong. It is the most loving, most sacrificial, and most important thing you can do for your kids. The oxygen mask isn’t employed every single flight- but if you find yourself in a crisis- you have to choose wisely. When you find yourself exhausted, resentful, and bitter- put on the oxygen mask. When you find yourself at the end of your ability to express care or concern, put on the oxygen mask.

Making our children the top priority, every second of every day at the expense of our health and sanity, is doing them a disservice. It is laying a burden on them that they are not strong enough to carry. They will disappoint you, eventually. They will be unhappy, rebellious, or disinterested. They will not live up to the standard of happiness that we so unwittingly place upon them. But if you are tending to yourself, your marriage, and your wholeness along the way, you can weather any storm together.

So often we are told that we have to choose- between tending to ourselves and tending to our children. But this dichotomy is false. We can do both. We can take care of ourselves. We can make time for ourselves. And we can love our children well.

We need to ask ourselves- is this something our kids are asking us to do? Or is it something culture has demanded from us?

My husband and I recently took our first ever “staycation” at home without the kids. And let me be really honest- it was amazing. Yes, I missed my kids. But it was so needed. Rather than going somewhere else, we got to be us, in our home. We inhabited the space differently. We moved about the building in a more relaxed, less chaotic way. Our bodies, our space was just ours. We weren’t tending, fixing, consoling, diapering, or cleaning. We were just being.

We talked and talked until I finally ran out of words, around the afternoon of day two. I just stopped, and realized that everything inside my heart had finally come out. And it took two days. And then we talked more, but it wasn’t the kind of talking that is frantic, the kind that is just about the kids, or the bills, or the groceries. It started there, sure, And then it went to what we were thinking about lately.

Our lives, current events. And of course, how amazing our kids are. What they have been doing lately that delights us or perplexes us. And then it went to what we were feeling. And then to what our souls were experiencing. It took three days. And at the end, we felt whole again as a couple. And we realized that although this wasn’t easy to make happen, and we wondered if it was the best decision- we needed it.

And you know what? At the end of that, we loved our children better.

So book that massage. Take that run. Linger over that coffee, book, or long-overdue conversation. Schedule that counseling appointment. Do what you need to be the best human you can- your kids will be better for it.

About The Author

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Hilary Barnett

Hilary Barnett is the founder of The New Mystique where she believes every mother is extraordinary, and typically writes the words that she most needs to hear.

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