One of the most important things I’ve learned as a mom to three sons is the oxygen mask metaphor. Airline staff instruct you in case of an emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children. Which let’s be honest, in an emergency I’d probably react on instinct and do the opposite. The mama bear in me would be activated and I’d do everything first to save my kids! But I wouldn’t be nearly as effective if I remain calm, take a moment, and put on my mask first because I am no good to anyone passed out from lack of oxygen.
And I think that’s symbolic for much of life particularly in a parenting role where it can be so physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. How often do we react on instinct? It’s second nature to put our children’s needs before our own. But that is a surefire path to burnout. Taking care of yourself so you have the resources (the oxygen) to be a healthy and effective parent is so important.
But how do you do that when the demands of parenthood are never-ending? Doesn’t “self-care” just become another item on your endless list of things to do? Scheduling a pedicure doesn’t mean you’ll be magically restored. Sometimes getting the sitter, finding the extra money in the family budget, or scheduling the time away can feel more trouble than it’s worth.
I found I needed to keep my “oxygen mask” on all the time not just in times of “emergencies.” Certainly, there were times I was so depleted that only a weekend away or a good massage would be the remedy. As delightful as those things are, to be honest, they were more of an escape than healthy coping skills. I needed to find ways to take care of myself in the everyday moments. Here are a few of my oxygen mask techniques.
1. This Too Shall Pass
“This too shall pass” was often my mantra in the early years of parenting. This simple phrase allowed me to pause and remember that whatever challenge I was experiencing in the moment, it wouldn’t last. And you know what? It was true! They really didn’t sleep in my bed forever.
2. Blame My Noise Nerve
I used to call the late afternoon the “wild hour” because it seemed the time of day when my boys were the most rambunctious. I was usually tapped out at this point so their extra energy would get to me! I found the more frustrated I became, the more it would wind them up. Instead, I started blaming my “noise nerve.” When I felt myself getting agitated, I’d say, “My noise nerve is acting up! I’m going upstairs for a few minutes!” Or if it wasn’t safe to leave them alone, “Hey can you take it down a notch? My noise nerve hurts!” It was a way to advocate for myself and what I needed without scolding them for being little boys with lots of energy.
3. Take a Timeout
A little secret…I’ve always locked the door to the bathroom. Still do. Because kids always seem to barge in! Taking a few minutes of personal time with the door locked was one small way to give myself a break regularly. Even if little fingers were wiggling under the door. I would take my time and enjoy the moments alone.
4. Permission to Not Do All the Things
For me, it’s not bothersome to leave the dishes in the sink after dinner to watch tv with my kids. There are always chores to be done! Giving myself permission to let things go and spend my energy on what’s important to me is the best form of self-care.
5. Be Playful!
All too often as a parent, I’ve felt the need to be the rule enforcer. Which is exhausting! When I’d drop the need to always be the grownup and join in on the chaos of whatever messy joy my boys were engaged in, I’d feel so joyful myself. So dance, play video games, make a mess, throw the ball around! Laughing, being creative, and playing are great forms of self-care. Give in to fun and join them!
Wearing the metaphorical oxygen mask is essentially being mindful of how you are feeling and what you need in the moment. Practicing mindfulness in this way becomes the daily dose of self-care you really need.
This blog post was written by a Tera Girardin, Marketing Manager for Nexus Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.