“…In the unlikely event of a decrease in cabin pressure, your mask will drop down in front of you. Please be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others around you.”
How many of us have ever stopped to think about what this scripted flight introduction really means? We leaf through the in-flight magazine, look out the window, or try to find a comfortable position in which to sleep away the flight, but within this repetitive monologue lies a critical concept: take care of yourself before taking care of others. In fact, take care of yourself in order to take care of others. What good are you if you can’t breathe?
As mothers, we rarely, if ever, put our needs above those of others. In some cases we run ourselves into the ground giving, anticipating, fixing, planning, accommodating, and assisting. We want our children to be happy, healthy, safe, and well-fed. We want our husbands to be happy, healthy, satisfied. We want our bosses and co-workers to be pleased, we want our friends to be appreciated, we want our houses to be clean and tidy, we want our meals to be home-cooked and satisfying to all, and we want our parents to be impressed. Add to this the external societal pressure to achieve all this while looking young, adolescent, fit, and well-rested, and you have a recipe for complete and total failure.
If one of our friends fretted about her cluttered living room or blotchy skin, we would rush to assure her that the cleanliness of her house or the smooth gloss of her skin was hardly the reason for our friendship. We would remind her that she was kind, funny, sensitive, and fun to be with. Why do we berate ourselves for our own perceived imperfections? Why can we be so forgiving of others when we can’t settle for anything less than sheer perfection in ourselves? And who, aside from ourselves, are we really trying to convince of this “perfection”? Finally, at what cost do we pursue this impossible goal?
The possible explanations are complicated. Some of us worry that settling for anything less than near perfection will lead to a slippery slope of laziness, ultimately resulting in sloth and chaos. We may have unreasonable childhood memories of how our own mother ran the household: hot, delicious, prompt dinners served by a calm and smiling mother with perfectly coiffed hair; while we overlook what was more likely a harried and exhausted mother, bravely struggling to maintain order. We may fixate on the glamorous images in magazines; actresses and models cheerfully balancing families, size 26 waists, and successful careers, while we ignore the presence of nannies, airbrushing, and years of hard work and insecurity.
In any case, we are so busy securing the oxygen masks of everyone around us that we find ourselves gasping for air, barely able to keep ourselves alive. What if we made a commitment to ourselves, one every bit as dedicated as those we make to our bosses and families every day? What if we learned to rest when we were tired, reschedule unreasonable deadlines, and ask for help at home? What if we kept standing appointments with our manicurist, ordered pizza and served it on paper plates, and called a babysitter, even when we didn’t have any plans? What if we stopped comparing ourselves to supermodels, or even to the friend with the perfect marriage, and started embracing the myriad ways in which we are already successful?
Securing our own mask means seeing that our own needs are met first, and not apologizing for it. It means nourishing ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It means forgiving ourselves for our imperfections, and maybe even embracing them as part of our own unique nature. And it means having the strength to assist those around us – our husbands, our children, our colleagues, and our families – because we have finally allowed ourselves to breathe.
Image Credit: Maria Kirsch