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Moms, Deploy Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Saying no more often will help you breathe easier. Then you can take care of the rest of the world.

As a woman with two young daughters of my own and a mom a couple of hours away, I faced Mother’s Day with what I hoped was a more enlightened approach than my usual. My usual is feeling unsure of what to expect my own family to do for me, while also worrying I’m not doing enough for my own mom.

Ah the mother-guilt of it all!

I actually took the opportunity and forethought to ask: How can I best honor a woman who’s a mother and all her life brings to the world?

I think of a recent picture from a friend on Facebook. It showed a comics-style image of a smiling, pretty, 50’s housewife at the stove. The cut-and-paste text reads, “Why, I’d be delighted to put my needs last again.”

I both laugh at this and think: Yes, bless her, she probably is. When I consider what mothers would do for their families, (what wouldn’t we do?) I know that if nothing else, it’s a divine gift to be able to feel such devotion. Give up dairy to breastfeed, deliver papers in the dark to pay for college, drive hours in a snowstorm twice in a day for sports, and give up just about every limb we have a la Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree before we’d deny our family what they need.

Next up though, after the awe and gratitude that we can care in such an all-encompassing way, comes remembering to take care of ourselves first. Please deploy own oxygen mask before assisting with that of another. This way it’s so much easier to breathe for everyone else.

Taking care of ourselves as moms – that's a choice that has a long-standing tradition of being ignored. For one thing, it usually means saying no many more times than we currently do to all the demands others put on us. Think of The Giving Tree denying that little boy while she still has a few leaves left.

No, drawing boundaries around our own needs doesn’t come easily. But to be able to do this more is what I wish for my own busy mom, as well as most of my friends who are moms.

I’m thinking of all the requests for more work—to make more money for your family, the requests from your kids’ schools, those from their extracurriculars, those from your spouse, parent, neighbor and friend. Horrifying if you say it out loud, I know.

“No I can’t do it. Sorry, no I can’t help you right now.”

But sometimes, to have the time to tune up your own motor, you have to say no to all kinds of deserving, loving people and causes. This includes even that of the almighty dollar, or worse: the bake sale people.

And then what? Perhaps then you can do just one more thing for yourself than you’ve done in a while: do your nails, do yoga, do nothing. But do it for you.

I promise saying no will make you a better person. It will make you a better mom, a better daughter. And it will make you a better set of lungs with which to breathe for the world.

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