Sunday, August 28, 2011
GASPING FOR AIR
“Be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” You hear it every time you fly, right? And it makes sense: if you didn’t put on your oxygen mask, you would be useless to help anyone around you in an airplane emergency. But even worse, you could be a burden, a hindrance. Your unconscious, inert body could actually block the way and keep other people from getting out of the plane safely. So if those masks ever drop from the ceiling, it’s a no-brainer to most of us that we should put our own mask on first, then help our kids or other people with theirs. But….. I’m sure I’m not the first person to see the obvious analogy. I’m sure you have, too, right? Let me explain.
Right now I’m sitting in my mom’s hospital room, trying to provide help, care, and loving company to her while she struggles with several different ailments. And it occurs to me that this oxygen-mask advice makes sense emotionally, as well. I’m finally learning that when I don’t take care of myself, I can have a negative impact on those around me. In all kinds of relationships, it’s a good idea to “secure your own emotional oxygen” in order to be available to nurture those who depend on you. When we always put other people’s needs first while consistently ignoring our own, we are asking for trouble. No one can be ok all the time, but I’m beginning to understand that I do have a responsibility to try to increase my ok-ness whenever I can.
It seems to me that parents of young kids are at great risk for doing this. Of course it's true that parenting involves sacrifice. Lots of it. It’s just the way it is, and people who aren’t willing to accept this often make lousy parents. When you have kids, especially when they’re very young, it’s a given that your needs and wants will go on the back burner, at least for a number of years. Kids are totally worth it, but there’s no denying that they take priority over everything else. However, it’s important to figure out which of your own needs are so basic to you that they could be classified as “emotional oxygen,” and then work to make sure you take care of those needs. Otherwise, both you and your kids will suffer.
Looking back, I realize that I most certainly didn’t quite get this twenty years ago when I was in the middle of raising little kids. I can see now that some of my difficulties and bad parenting moments were the result of being deprived of the emotional oxygen that I needed in order to function at my best.
In my case, one of the most basic things that I needed when my kids were little was alone-time. Having a little time on a regular basis to zone out or actually complete a thought for a change would have made a big difference, but I didn’t get it very often. I had been raised by a very selfless, devoted mom who never put herself first. I'm so lucky to have such a loving mother who poured her heart into her kids. However, having this role model made it almost impossible to see self-care as an option when my kids were really little. When Emily and Audra were toddlers, I often found myself melting down unexpectedly and being emotionally volatile, which I don’t tend to be by nature. In retrospect, I understand why. My head was spinning with kid-stuff all the time, with no time to think. I still remember how it felt, and I can still conjure up the crazy feelings and headaches that were my almost-constant reality during that time. Being deprived of solitude may not be a problem for some people, but for me it was a nightmare. Marlin was already working extremely hard to support us, as well as pitching in a lot when he was at home. It seemed that he was already as maxed out as I was so I didn’t feel I had a right to complain or ask for even more help. We were on a fairly tight budget, having just moved to California from the much-more-affordable Midwest, and we couldn’t afford luxuries like babysitting very often.
It wasn’t until the kids were a little older that I realized how much it would have helped to have a bit of me-time to look forward to on a regular basis. There would have been fewer mommy-meltdowns and I could have made better parenting decisions. I still remember how awful I felt each time I raised my voice at my kids, and I still remember how they often asked me if I as happy, anxiously scanning my facial expression for signs of stress. Poor little things: they really did absorb my stress and exhaustion. If I had realized that my unmet need for a little bit of down-time was impacting people other than just myself, I probably would have found ways to take care of myself a little better. For example, I could have tried a little harder to work out reasonable kid-trading and babysitting arrangements with other moms on a regular basis. I did some of that but it was sporadic because I didn’t realize the importance of it, and it took effort to plan. With just a little more up-front effort, I could have built in a little more sanity-time, and prevented passing on my stress to my little girls.
While struggling with my mom’s health problems lately I’ve had to remind myself frequently of these important lessons. Caring for an ill and aging parent isn’t all that different from parenting young children. In both contexts, It’s hard not to give in to the strong urge to forget about myself while focusing on the immediate and urgent needs of others. So I am trying to deliberately remind myself to get out of this hospital room several times a day, get fresh air, take walks, immerse myself in a good book, and take other kinds of breaks when I can. Even writing this blog post has given me a refreshing breath of emotional oxygen during this difficult time. Thankfully, starting our new year at preschool next week, with the opportunity to meet my new group of toddlers and their parents will definitely be therapeutic for me.
What is your emotional oxygen? The next time you ignore a strong basic need of your own in order meet some “wants” of your kids, think about it. Every day in the life of a family is full of little emergencies as well as the occasional Major Disaster. But there are always opportunities for self-care if we really look for them. It’s important to remember that no one will do this for you. Even the most sensitive and loving partners or friends can’t see what you are feeling and fix it for you: it’s your job to do that.
My advice: secure your own emotional oxygen before assisting others. Otherwise, you will be of no assistance to anyone.
Posted by ANNIE CASTLE DECKERT, M.ED.PSYCH.