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Every time someone tells me that I need to take better care of myself, it never fails that I also hear that oxygen mask analogy.
You know, the part in the onboard safety-instruction video where the super-high-cheek-boned flight attendant with gigantic lips tells you to put your own mask on before helping others around you.
Like I haven’t heard that one before. I’m married to a pilot, for God's sake.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concern. I certainly don’t want to be the next casualty of motherhood, run over by thousands of little Matchbox car wheels and strangled by my husband’s boxer briefs that can never seem to actually make it into the laundry basket.
But if we’re speaking in cliches, here’s one for you: It’s easier said than done.
I know some people will argue that the second we push out a baby, we go on auto-pilot and our needs become secondary. And on some days when my husband has the incredible ability to drop absolutely anything he’s doing to take a shower, even if it’s right at dinner time or better, five minutes before we have to get somewhere, I’m inclined to believe in the sacrificial mother.
There are about 4,000 other things I would choose to do before showering. And you can bet that if we’re about to eat dinner or leave the house and I’ve only got five minutes to spare, I’m reapplying deodorant, scrubbing my head with dry shampoo and dousing myself in perfume.
Give me seven minutes and I’ll have a new outfit on, too.
I do wonder if it has less to do with this socially perpetuated “motherly instinct” and more to do with my personality: Once a people pleaser, always a people pleaser. And a people pleaser with kids is dangerous. Also, a little dirty, apparently.
As much as I try to put myself in the Top 3 on my list, I’m still probably a close last. Barely.
I’m quite certain that as much as many of us have seen and acknowledge the importance of the whole "take care of yourself first then deal with the kids" concept, our first instinct—moms and dads—would be to put that oxygen mask on our kids.
I don’t know many parents, if any, that would tell their kids to wait for their food so they could finish their meal.
In fact, I can’t even really fathom telling my kids to wait because I needed to go to the bathroom first, even though my post-four-kids bladder is far less stable than my 3-year-old’s.
So when I've been run ragged, I rest comfortably in the same dress I wore the day before (but hey, with new shoes and mascara!) knowing that my children have been attended to.
I can get by, treading water. Indeed I won’t necessarily make it across the pool and I look a bit ridiculous, but my head is afloat! And true, sometimes that’s really all that matters. So much of parenting is just plain survival of the fittest. Or in this case, the biggest.
But there comes a time when you’ve got to learn to swim.
I’ve found the realization comes with experience. Having a few years of parenting under your belt quickly makes you realize that your kids don’t need as much as you think. The long-winded bedtime routine you insisted was necessary for your first doesn’t even matter for the second. The third could probably make his own bottle and rock himself to sleep before he could talk.
Suddenly you don’t need to blow on their food and cut it into a thousand little pieces. And if you are still doing that for your older kids, just stop it. Now.
But mostly, you hit a point where you just can’t keep going at the pace you’ve set for yourself, and you realize that there will always be something else that needs to be done. Dishes to wash. Teeny underwear to fold. A ridiculous number of LEGOs to put away.
And you understand that your mental health is more valuable than folding underwear that will just get unfolded two seconds later.
For us people pleasers, it’s often the kids that’ll give you the biggest wake-up call. Like when your 5-year-old asks you why you were eating his peanut butter and jelly crusts for lunch, or that time your 7-year-old complimented you on dressing up ... in jeans and a T-shirt.
So while I can’t say I’ll put my mask on first, I’ll at least pull it down to my lap instead of ignoring it altogether. After all, we’re a team. And our kids need us ready and able to coach. Not passed out on the sidelines, missing the entire game.