Forget About the Oxygen Mask
It is an odd phenomenon, when I think about it, that so many treatise on self care—especially for mothers—begin with the same metaphor. Flight attendants going through their pre-flight safety briefing. They demonstrate how to fasten our seat belts and inflate a life vest. Then they get to this critical instruction.
It is so ubiquitous, I doubt I even need to tell you what comes next. It’s the line about putting on your own mask before helping others. Because, you know, otherwise you’ll die (or at least faint from lack of oxygen) before you can be of any use to anyone else.
That, dear Mamas is why we must take care of ourselves: so we won’t faint away into uselessness before being able to care for the ones we’re trying to nurture. This is a truth so immutable it’s trotted out time and again, urging mothers to throw some scraps of nurturing their own way.
The only trouble is, it doesn’t work.
I’ve heard this. You’ve heard this. And, yet, nothing changes. We keep pushing through. We serve out whatever dregs we have left to work with, until we reach a breaking point. Our body may give out and refuses to serve a thankless master. Our emotions run thin. Crisis of whatever variety may move us to take action. But, no exegesis on oxygen masks will. Not real and long lasting action.
That’s because it’s wrong.
Not wrong about the physical facts of depleting oxygen. But wrong about its basic premise.
This oxygen mask argument assumes that the reason mothers must invest in themselves is so that we are a more lucrative bank from which others can withdraw.
There is something deeply flawed with the idea that you must take a few minutes to take care of yourself quickly before your children/partner/friends/aging parents descend upon you and suck from you all the reserves you just built up.
But there’s an even more fundamental problem here. Yes, you must take care of yourself. But, self care is not critical because you have to fill a bucket that caring for those around you will then deplete.
The real reason you must take care of yourself is that you are the only one who can.
Listen to that for a minute. Let it sink into the recesses of your mother heart. Under this armor of motherhood that we have built, we are still humans as well. Humans who have the same needs and cravings and shortcomings as all the people we’re trying desperately to care for. If those needs aren’t acknowledged, they’ll act out—in our bodies, in our mental health and in our relationships.
You can feel the strain of that truth. You know that there are underlying needs that are going unmet. And yet, you wait for someone else to fix this. A partner to be more supportive. Friends to be more thoughtful. Someone else to step in and nurture the nurturer.
As lovely as all of those things are, they can not replace the power of showing up for yourself. Unapologetically and consistently. No friend can substitute for building a trust within yourself. No spouse, no child, no parent can ease the breach caused by ignoring your own needs.
Taking care of yourself makes you feel safe in a way that no one else can. That safety creates a permeating trust with yourself that goes into the very recesses of your soul.
Once you trust yourself to be overwhelmingly kind to yourself, you’ll let go of resentment and frustration at your situation or anyone else for not taking care of you.
It does not have to be a special day to warrant showing up for yourself. You don’t have to wait until you are in the middle of crisis to practice self care. And you don’t have to wait until your situation is perfect.
You already have the skill set to do this. You know how to soothe a worried child. You know when they need food or rest or a quiet book on the couch.
You know this for yourself, as well. You just have to be brave enough to listen.
You can stand up for yourself. You can say, “I will keep you safe. I will give you what you need.”
You can do it today.