Sitting on the plane waiting to push off for a 9 hour flight, I watch the automated “safety instructions” on the video screen. Today the language is German and the figure demonstrating what to do is a handsome avatar. As the oxygen mask drops from the ceiling I watch the avatar put the masks securely on his face before assisting the child avatar next to him. I laugh to myself.
How many times have I used this example with the mom’s and women I have worked with over the years? If you want to live, love and parent well, you will need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. What does this mean in everyday life and why is this so often difficult for women to do?
I certainly have my thoughts on these 2 dilemmas – but I’d love to hear yours. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have stories of how you learned to care for yourself first, I’d love to hear those. When did you learn this?, Who helped you learn?, What helped you learn?, What have been the obstacles? and What are the mechanisms you use to stay the course?
Here are a few of my ideas –
Women naturally lead from their heart. In eastern philosophy this is their ‘heart center’. We know from brain research and from child development studies that the female brain is wired to attend to relationship issues slightly more than the male brain. We see in the play of little girls and teenage girls more focus on relationship themes than their male counterparts. This is what I call a woman’s default setting. (Men have a default setting also, but it is different … and for a different blog entry.) Add to this a long history where men were the decision makers and power brokers and women gained social value in direct proportion to how she served her husband, her children, her community and the endeavors of other men. In the church we have also emphasized the role of women as “helpmate”. Add this all together and in part it means that a woman’s growing edge is taking care of herself, finding her own voice and privileging her needs, desires, and purposes in order to balance out her tendency toward tying her value and happiness to others. This is especially true for women who have become moms. But this can also be seen in the strong career woman who begins to replace her needs with the needs of her romantic partner.
When women begin to define their personal “oxygen mask” and begin to use it, one of the first things they say is how guilty they feel. “I shouldn’t be doing this for myself while others have needs I should be attending to.” This is very new territory that is different from her default setting – and thus is uncomfortable at first. Also this guilt is in part a function of how thoroughly and historically women have been taught they are 100% responsible for the well being of the relationships in their lives. This permeating idea leaves women afraid of being judged as ‘selfish’ and ‘neglectful’. Often a woman’s harshest critic is another woman who has not found a way to put her needs even on the radar screen. The mother who balances caring for herself and her children becomes the perfect projection screen for the resentful woman unwilling to face her fear of being seen as selfish.
I remember reading Kaethe Weingarten’s book, The Mother’s Voice when my daughter was small. Kaethe is a Harvard clinical psychologist who has spent a career examining why people do what they do. But in The Mother’s Voice Kaethe tells the story of how after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began to notice how she presented the story of “I am fine – there is nothing to worry about” to her children. She began to wonder where she got the idea that she needed to hide her experience of concern and fear from them – where she got the idea that her real experiences and stories could somehow hurt her children and therefore needed to be silenced. This led her on an adventure examining her childhood, her relationship with her mother and a reflection on the discourses in culture that had shaped her ideas of what a mother should hide from her children. To this day, this is the only non-fiction book that when I turned the last page, I was still aching to read more. Kaethe tells a powerful story of waiting for her mom to come home from work. Her mom was a publicist and she loved hearing her mother’s stories everyday when she came home. She loved her mom’s enthusiasm and energy – and remembers wanting to grow up to be like her. Then one day, her mom expressed that she would not be going to work anymore. Kaethe remembers asking her mom why, and hearing her mom say, “So I can spend more time with you.” Kaethe remembers being confused by this. “I thought we did spend time together” she remembers thinking.
The questions I find myself asking myself and other women are:
· What value do our children get from our stories of passion and involvement in our world?
· What do our children get from our enthusiasm, our opinions, our voice of what we think, what we feel and why?
· What value do our children get from seeing us take care of ourselves, set boundaries around ourselves, consider our desires, thoughts, feelings as we also consider theirs?
· What burdens do we inadvertently lay on our children when we tie our happiness to their happiness? When we inadvertently make them responsible for whether we are happy, sad, strong, or weak? When we see their behavior or words as a direct reflection of whether we are a good parent or not; a good person or not?
· What is the benefit of sharing in age appropriate ways our stories, our learning, our wondering with our children? How are we a model when we ‘show up’ to our children authentically as a person … not just as a role, ‘mother’? And what do they learn from us when we hide inside our role as ‘mother’ or ‘spouse’. I invite you to consider these questions as you forge your way. Are you a vital part of the equations in your life? And if not, how can you ‘show up’ more … allow the boat to rock under your influence? Maybe allow someone else to be peacemaker and stabilize the boat.
So the next time your cabin loses pressure … put on your oxygen mask first. Then, and only then, while breathing freely, love and serve others. You will find yourself enjoying your relationships more when they are balanced by a healthy, hearty, YOU! And you just might find others free and enjoying you more too.