Remember the Airline Oxygen Mask Instructions

breathe easier image

breathe easier image

The first time I referenced the oxygen mask metaphor was during my first job out of college with Teach for America. I had so much young, bleeding-heart passion for doing my part to foster social change in public education and all that remains unfair about it. I rocked (or thought I did) during the six week summer training program and with naive hubris requested a middle school assignment. I scored a particularly challenging gig. And soon after I began the school year, my overwhelm spiraled into severe anxiety and the inability to sleep at all for six weeks — and eventually the inability to do much of anything — let alone teach.

I was 23 years old. And I remember saying to one of my friends who was teaching with me at the same inner-city Houston school (and is still one of my closest friends today):  “There’s a solid reason the airlines instruct adults to put their oxygen mask on first, and then assist their child. If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help your child do anything. I can’t teach these kids when I am struggling to help myself.”

The decision to leave the job was agonizing and the aftermath solidly demoralizing. And yet my heart at the time felt clear that my presence in the classroom was contradicting the mission that I signed up for to provide excellent education for under-privileged children.

Now, fifteen years later with success in another career, I’m in a fairly chronic sleep-deprived state once again — but much less severe, and thankfully not because of all-night-long anxiety attacks.  Yes, we’ve “night-weaned” our baby, but that doesn’t mean she’s sleeping through the night.  My wakings now alternate between hearing the baby waking, crying briefly and my husband shushing her back to sleep, and my toddler waking me to request a trip to the bathroom or some water. It’s getting easier each week and I know there is also magical parent-child closeness to be relished during this chapter of life.

Yet the self-care struggle remains. As I strive to provide consistent loving care for my girls while frequently neglecting myself, I’m reminded of the airline oxygen mask instructions and the poignant applicability of this metaphor to these intense early years of parenting.

As a frequently over-tired Mom, I go back and forth between thinking I’m mostly sane with occasional days of craziness, to mostly crazy with occasional days of sane.  My husband gets this tense wrinkle in his forehead whenever he hears me even say the words, “I’m going crazy” or “The kids are driving me crazy” and requests that I correct myself.  He knows how powerful language and intention can be — planned or unplanned — and is not on board for living with a literally crazy wife.  Neither am I.  So from here on out I’ll be more careful with that figure of speech.  🙂

Classic me to live in this constant state of polarity though.  One day I blog about how putting a PR spin on things comes naturally to me and that I find it so fitting that I ended up in Communications. Two days later, here I am giving PR the bird.

Some days breastfeeding just ain’t all that. And some days finding the patience to do everything that Mamas do to get the tots out the door, to feed, to clean up after, to entertain, to lovingly guide, to prepare for sleep….all feels like running a marathon.

Today I went down the path of mentally wondering if I could remove feelings of weariness that arise if I experimented with parenting like a Dad for a day. (Roll with this Mark….all in good fun here).

What if I blew off putting together the diaper bag with snacks, bottle for baby, sippy cup for toddler, change of clothes for each and trusted that whatever was in there was good enough?  What if I didn’t worry about dressing the girls perfectly warm for the weather and just went with whatever clothes were immediately handy?

The Boob Factor complicates this experiment going very far.  I’d have to convince my guy’s guy husband that get him going on that, and then lovingly hand the baby to him in the morning while I luxuriate in the shower or let him nurse her down at night while I enjoy a few beers and watch t.v.

OK — so playing Dad makes no real sense whatsoever.  I know in my heart we’re all doing the best we can and all parents — whether in a heterosexual or homosexual partnership — each contribute to our children’s well-being in our own ways.  I don’t mean to unfairly gender-stereotype.

I just think it’s easier for women to fall into the Martyrdom trap — especially because of the Boob Factor and even more so when practicing Attachment Parenting.  In the moment, the do, do, do, do do, give, give, give may seem imperative for your children’s well-being and our collective desire to maintain loving, consistent care — but if you’re like me and you take it too far — it can produce the opposite effect.

I push it to the very edge and then when dear husband walks in the door refreshed from a full day of uninterrupted adult conversations and a nice new haircut, I’m immediately triggered to hand-over the kids, spit a few nails and storm off in my frumpy, stay-at-home, now work-from-home mom clothes that I’ve been wearing for two days straight.

When things get this way on occasion – everything that I intended to do and give for the benefit of my children ends up actually sucking for everyone because of the way it’s delivered at the end of the day in my tired, frazzled state.

I’m putting myself out there as a “what not to do” example because my propensity for falling into this trap is a recurring struggle.  I’m working on it.  I know what the Oxygen Mask is for me.  It’s regular exercise outdoors.  It’s doing things that feel self-nurturing to me like time with girlfriends without the tots, changing the question to change the perspective, remembering to stop and breathe, and forgiving myself for not being perfect at the all-important job of Mothering.  It’s one big process and the more I create intentions, the more I hope I will live into a more consistent state of genuinely wanting to give when I am.

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5 Responses to “Remember the Airline Oxygen Mask Instructions”

  1. Louisa says:

    Amen, sister. 🙂 Be sure you’re taking lots of Vitamin D. And my only other words of “wisdom” (yes that’s in quotes for a reason) are that this time truly does go quickly. My kids are a couple years older than yours, and although we still have our days, things do get much easier every year!

    • Monica says:

      Thanks Louisa! Great advice. Of course I’m not taking Vitamin D. At all. I have some terrible resistance to taking pills. And I know I’ve got to get on it. thanks for the reminder and thanks for reading my posts!

  2. Alison says:

    Monica, I always look forward to your blog entries. Your writing is incredibly insightful and I can really relate to your struggles. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Shannon says:

    Hi there! Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your articles! This was GREAT as I struggle with self care although I recognize when I need it (it’s just hard to take time for myself…I feel guilty). I was just talking with a friend today about how important it is for us to care for ourselves. It makes us better moms in the end! But getting my hubby to understand is a challenge. Whenever I want to take time for myself he states, “when do I get my time?” What do you say to that?!?!?!

  4. Reggie says:

    soooooooo true . I am struggling with this too and I am my own worst enemy. Even with the sleep somewhat improved, I feel like it is constant and I find myself snapping. Good to know I am not alone. SO, I am getting some oxygen today… 2 hrs at a coffee shop – me , book, lap top, Chai tea, cake etc…..

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