We have all been on an airplane and listened to the flight attendant give safety instructions to parents with small children. In the case of an emergency, those parents traveling with small children should put their own oxygen masks on first before assisting their children in putting on their oxygen masks. This important instruction is essential not only in airplane emergencies, but in life. I have slowly, over time, learned to apply these instructions to my own life. Although it took many years for me to realize the value of my own oxygen mask, I finally understand that taking care of myself is not a selfish act, but a necessary one. I cannot be the person or the parent that I want to be without giving myself permission to spend some time on me.
I remember the first time I left my son with a babysitter. When he was 6 weeks old, my husband and I decided to take a much-needed break from dirty diapers, feeding schedules, and sleepless nights. We were completely overwhelmed and exhausted by being new parents and we needed a break. So, we went all the way across the street to have a quick dinner together, no interruptions, no babies crying, just the two of us. Or was it? As I sat in the restaurant, feeling anxious and nervous about leaving my newborn baby at home, I realized something profound – it was no longer just the two us. From that time forward, no matter where I would go, no matter where my son’s journey in life would take him, we would always be connected. There was no taking a break from being his mom -- not at dinner, not on vacation, not when he goes off to college or when he gets married. Elizabeth Stone described being a parent quite well when she said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. “
Since there is no “vacation” in sight from the intense love and incredible responsibility of parenthood, it is easy to become overwhelmed by that role and to lose yourself in it. As parents, we become so busy taking care of our children, that we quickly forget about ourselves -- who we are and what we need. When we constantly put the needs of our family before our own needs, we begin to feel emotionally, physically and psychologically depleted. We feel exhausted, inpatient and irritable, instead of calm, loving and nurturing. We forget our own oxygen masks, and that crucial instruction that we must take care of ourselves first in order to take care of those around us.
Not only is taking time for ourselves important for us, it is important for our children to see and to learn from. Our children look at us as examples, and our behavior serves as a model to them. We cannot teach our children to be relaxed, to be present in the moment, to be joyful human beings, if we are not relaxed, present and joyful parents. What better lesson can we give our children than to teach them by example to look carefully at their own needs, to pay attention to those needs and to take the time to nurture those needs? We will not always be there to nurture them, they must learn to nurture themselves, just as we must nurture ourselves.
The easiest excuse in the book, one that I used for years, is, “I just don’t have the time.” If it is important, we can always make the time, and it is important. Whether it is a quiet walk alone, making time to meditate, or taking a yoga class, whatever you need to reconnect with you, to relax and to just breathe, you must take that time for yourself. You deserve it and your children deserve it. By taking the time to put your own oxygen mask on, you will be better able to take care of yourself and all of those around you.