I started flying on airplanes when I was 5 years old. My mom would send me on solo trips from Colorado to California to visit my grandparents. I can’t imagine having done this with one of my children, but I keep hearing things were different in the seventies. I remember sitting in the seat paying very close attention to the flight attendant’s instructions. They always explained that when the oxygen masks dropped down, it was important for the adults to put one on before assisting the children. Being one of those children myself, this made me angry. And terrified. I sat there the entire plane ride imagining the plane filling up with smoke or being depleted of oxygen, and watching all of the selfish adults take care of themselves first while I would likely suffocate and die before anyone would be able to assist me. It made absolutely no sense to me. Shouldn’t children be the priority?
At this point of reflection in my life, I see now how I have let that seemingly insignificant childhood incident influence how I’ve raised my own children. When my two oldest ones were little, I would secretly judge the other moms who gathered together weekly to drink margaritas and socialize while their kids were off doing God knows what. I mean, really, they should have gotten that all out of their system before they had children… right? I certainly did. Now, my life was all about my kids. But when I closed my eyes at night, I felt that slight twinge of jealousy that I wasn’t included in any of those groups.
After their father and I divorced, life was obviously turned upside down. I went from being a stay-at-home mom, who devoted all of my time to my children, to working and being gone from them often. We lost the home they grew up in. I remarried. My mom moved in with us. We moved a few times as we tried to settle our new blended family. Everything went from calm and stable to chaotic and frazzled. As my new husband and I butted heads on his role with my children, I became more defensive of them. I was already weighed down with the guilt of everything I had put them through — I couldn’t allow this new person to upset them more.
I counteracted all of that by trying to make their lives easier. I rarely asked them to do chores, opting instead to just do it myself. On rare occasions, I would go away for the weekend with my girlfriends, and my husband would want to surprise me with a clean house when I got home. And to him, that meant rounding up the kids and making them work. However, they would inevitably protest and an argument would ensue. So I would come home to my household in complete distress. My husband would be frustrated that he seemed to have no authority in his own home. My kids would be upset that I even had a new husband. And I, of course, told myself it was all my fault for upheaving their lives and putting them through all of this turmoil. I would spend the rest of the weekend consoling everyone and trying to make it better. In the meantime, the house never got cleaned, and weekend getaways were always more stressful than they seemed worth.
We operated this way as the kids progressed through high school. They became accustomed to life functioning like this. That’s not to say they never did chores and helped out when needed; I just was never consistent with any type of chore schedule. As a result, when I did ask, it was usually met with complaints and reasons why they couldn’t do it at that moment. I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable drama, so I often just ended up taking care of the chore myself.
They are both really great kids and have great friends (we were the house that their friends would hang out at all the time — and I loved that). Because of that, I would go out of my way to accommodate them. Before they could drive, I would pick up and drop off their friends even when I was exhausted. My house would be filled with loud teenagers in the wee hours of the morning because I don’t think I ever said no to a sleepover. If they had a special event they wanted to go to, or something they really wanted to buy, I tried to make it happen. Because, as my 5-year old self surmised, children should be more important than adults.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about those oxygen masks that drop from the ceiling of the plane. I pretty much have the speech memorized now about making sure your mask is secure before assisting your children or others. It randomly plays through my head. And I get it now! Suddenly, I’m seeing how detrimental it has been to me and my children to not have taken care of myself first. By not making sure my “oxygen mask” was secure before assisting others, I wasn’t able to think clearly enough to affix theirs properly.
I know I’m not alone in this either. I’ve met several women who feel overwhelmed. And the one phrase we’ve always, coincidentally, said to one another? “I feel like I need an oxygen mask.”
But I’m getting better. I’ve started taking care of myself first so that I can be a better mom, friend, and human being. And I think my kids not only notice it but appreciate it. There’s a lot less yelling in the house.
My oldest son is now twenty, and I just moved him across the country to continue his college education. I’m a little worried I haven’t equipped him well enough for the real world. I’m concerned he will only be able to survive on fast food and ramen noodles! However, he has also shown me he has a drive and intrinsic motivation to succeed, so that’s reassuring.
My daughter is a senior in high school. Although she’s still not keen on regular household chores, she takes care of her space. She keeps her grades up, is kind and considerate of others, and is incredibly wise beyond her years.
I have realized that I’ve fallen into repeating the same pattern with my youngest son who is only in third grade. I let him spend too much time on video games, and don’t require much of him. But I’m now able to recognize when it’s time to reach for the oxygen masks… mine first. Then his.