Put on your oxygen mask first, then help your child

After my post Dear Pope, having kids can be selfish too I got several comments about how parents need to put children first. I disagree. I believe that it’s crucial for a parent to take care of her own needs including stuff like eating when you’re hungry, sleeping when you’re tired, and taking a break from your kids when you need it. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but the idea of taking care of yourself first is a useful notion to keep in your head, something to strive for. Meeting your own needs directly instead of meeting them through your kids (or food, alcohol, and various other addictions) is better for everybody. Rather than being something to feel guilty or ashamed about, taking care of yourself is healthy.

At first, it can be kind of scary, admitting you need to take care of yourself. When I was in my twenties, I smoked a pack of Marlboros a day, and one of the hardest things about quitting was that I valued that five minutes, the break I used to take to smoke. It was easier to say, “I need a cigarette” than “I need 5 minutes of solitude.”

Sometimes, taking care of me just has to do with the narrative I tell myself. For example, if my kids want to go the park and I don’t, I’ll try to think of a way to make it appealing to me. “I’ll sit in the sun,” or “I’ll chase them and get some exercise.” If they want to see a movie, I think “I can blog about it.”

The idea of taking care of myself also helps me try to keep my kids healthy, driving them to various activities or staying calm when they have tantrums. The narrative I tell myself is something like, “I need to help my kids experience their emotions, because in the long run, that’s better for me. They’re less likely to have problems as they grow which would be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for me to deal with. It’s better for me to try my best to keep my kids healthy.” It’s kind of a mind trick, but it works for me. Taking care of my marriage, spending time with my husband, is good for my kids because it’s easier for happy parents to help create happy kids.

Another example: I get up at 5AM so I can drink coffee, meditate, and write before my kids get up. If we all rise at the same time, I feel angry and impatient. I need to take care of my needs first in the morning. I don’t drink alcohol because that affects my sleeping, and when I don’t sleep well, I tend to yell at my kids. When I do feel angry at my children, I often try to separate myself, take a break to let the feeling pass through me, rather than shout at them. I always think of that phrase they tell you on airplanes, to put on your oxygen mask first, and then help your child. I believe that humans need a huge amount of self care, and it’s better, at least for me, to admit that and deal with it, rather than use my kids to take care of me. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it’s been helpful so far.

9 thoughts on “Put on your oxygen mask first, then help your child

  1. I think everyone took what the pope said a little wrong,yes you are right if you don’t take care of you what will happen with the kids ? I think what he said was not wanting children at all is a selfish thing ! Why bother to get married if not to raise a loving family ?

    • surely not wanting to have children is only “selfish” if you come from the assumption that you owe it to society (or whatever) to have children. If there is no assumption that having children is a duty then not having children can’t be a failure to fulfil a duty and therefore selfish etc.

      I do have a spouse and children but can easily imagine wanting to be in a marriage/relationship for its own sake. There’s lots of equally valid ways to live a life and build a family.

  2. And by this philosophy you are also modeling for your kids how to take care of THEMselves, which is truly a selfless gift. They’ll use that knowledge throughout their lives, whether or not they ever have children of their own. It will affect their relationships (for example, they’ll intuitively know that no mate can “complete” them or create their happiness), help them balance their work lives, and help them avoid taking advantage of other people.

  3. It is so important to take care of yourself! For 16 years I put my children’s needs before doing ANYTHING for myself. It changed me as a person – I was a mom only. I lost who I was and was bringing nothing fun and important to my marriage – and it was literally ruining my marriage. Really – we had hit the counseling stage 🙁 I’ve since started taking care of myself – going to yoga and making sure I have ME time – Relearning who I am as a woman and wife. Not “just a mom”.

  4. Agree wholeheartedly. I like the acronym H.A.L.T. to remind me to check in with myself when I’m ” losin’ it” …am I too hungry, angry, lonely or tired? No one knows our needs & feelings like we do. They will always seek to be met whether we recognize them or not. Addictions are borne from deep-seated unmet needs…often going back to childhood. Self-care is not selfish…expecting others to meet our needs is & lays the groundwork for dysfunctional relationships, individuals, families & even communities.
    Yes…it’s that far-reaching. Think about it.

  5. I don’t know when this became such a radical thing to say! Back when my parents were kids, my grandmothers would shoo them out of the house to “go play” because Mommy needed some time to herself. My grandparents would leave their kids with relatives for a long weekend so they could have a romantic vacation together. This was all completely normal and expected. It’s only in the new millennium that parenting is now expected to be a blood sport that requires inhuman sacrifices for 18 years. (And if you’re not willing to be Excellent Mommy 24/7/365 for 18 years, then screw you, you don’t deserve kids!!!)

    I see this as a subtle pushback against feminism. Motherhood must be nigh impossible now, or else you’re doing it wrong and will be branded as a terrible mother. Jump through the hoops, which are constantly moving, on fire, and always getting smaller.

    As cognizant as I am of this ridiculous and unhealthy dynamic, I still find myself feeling guilty for the amount of time I have my younger child (aka, the Destructobot) in daycare while I work from home, since his older brother was home with me at the same age. But I need the time every day, and I’m a better parent/wife/writer/person for having dedicated time for myself and my career. I’m a person deserving of care just as much as my kids are.

  6. YES! Thank you for this. I keep saying that. I can’t be a good Mom-Kim, Wife-Kim, Friend-Kim, Work-Kim if I am not first a happy, balanced Kim. It’s not selfish to look after yourself, it’s necessary. And, frankly, it’s important to me that my son learns that and the best way to teach him is by example.

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