Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Learning to Put My Oxygen Mask on First

A little over a year ago, Princess and I took a plane trip to Baltimore for the weekend, to help my friend with the birth of her first child. Raising a family of 5 on a single income means that we travel by car, not plane. This was a rare and special event... for both of us. Princess was one of the only children on the flight, and she got some special attention from the flight attendants. I also got some special attention. The flight attendants both stopped by our row just before takeoff, ensuring that I had understood the instructions to don my own oxygen mask before helping Princess, in the event of an emergency.

This advice is contrary to how I live my life as a mother, most of the time. The kids come first. Then DH, homeschooling, the house, the bills, the carpooling, my parish responsibilities, social commitments, and so on. Somewhere on that list is me... usually in pencil, crossed-off a few times, jotted in again at the bottom.

But the reality is... this way of living just does not work. I can't make it as a wife and mother if I am continually on the bottom of my list.

Last fall, in confession, my Pastor laid that out for me plainly. "I admire that you are a stay-at-home mom, that you homeschool, that you are so committed to your family. But you need to get away. You need time to yourself. Regularly. At least every 5-6 weeks, if not more often."

I argued with him. Right there in the Sacrament, I told him that what he was suggesting was impossible. There was no way I could take off as frequently as he suggested. Getting away for a night or two once a year would have to suffice. He disagreed... and assigned me the penance of sitting down with DH and our calendar, and finding the time away that I needed.

That was six months ago. I have taken his words to heart, and to DH, often. My friend and I were able to work out a childcare trade that gives me 3.5 hours to myself every other week, which is wonderful. But the actually getting away thing? That happened once in November and once in February. It was deeply refreshing both times, but a strain on our budget.

Then Father told me about the Hermitage. Suddenly, I had an accessible and affordable way to get away. Suddenly, it seemed possible to look at my calendar and schedule a break once every six weeks. For the first time, I could consider going away when I wasn't crazy, when I wasn't on the brink of breaking, when it wouldn't take at least a day to find myself again. What would that be like? Imagine.

Early last week, when I realized it had been just over a month since my visit to the Hermitage, I opened the calendar, looking for the empty space for me to get away. There was none for at least 6 more weeks... except, possibly, this past weekend, for slightly less than 24 hours. I talked to DH. He was fine with it. I called Larry. He had space for me.

Then I wavered. I didn't really need to go away. I wasn't feeling particularly stressed or tired or worn out. In fact, I was feeling, more or less, fine. So, maybe I didn't need to go away. Maybe I should just call Larry and cancel my reservation.

And then I remembered Pastor's words. I remembered how forceful he was. Pastor is never forceful. He is tender, gentle, encouraging. For him to have been forceful meant something to me. I thought, again: what would it be like to go away when I wasn't crazy?

I thought about those flight attendants. They are masters of pre-emptive measures. They go over those safety rules on every flight... not just the ones that are experiencing emergency situations. I thought about how not just one, but both, of the flight attendants reminded me to take care of myself first. I am of no use to Princess if I pass out from lack of oxygen. And the time to put on the mask is before I am struggling to breathe.

I am no use to my family when I am crazy, when I am stressed and worn out to the point that my voice is permanently set on "screech." I have a very strong need for silence and space. When I take the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, I always, always end up as a very strong "I." Not because I am not outgoing and social, but because I require solitude to be renewed and refreshed.

So, I kept the reservation. I went away for the night. I wasn't stressed when I left, and the effect of that was immediately noticeable to me. I was able to go from calm to deeply relaxed very quickly, and found that even a very short getaway can be incredibly effective. I came home filled with a deep peace that even two difficult nights with little sleep haven't been able to penetrate.

But there is another benefit, too. One that I was not expecting, nor had I intended it. Yesterday evening, Princess asked me to play paper dolls with her. Her doll was married with three children, and wanted to go out with my doll for the night. While they were partying on the town, her doll told my doll that she goes to the "hermi-dadge" sometimes so that she can be a happy mom to her kids.

I glanced over at DH, who was working on the laptop in the same room. Our eyes locked and he smiled. Yes, my time away does make me a happy mom. I'm glad that Princess sees that. How much the better, though, if she is learning this lesson early: imagine, someday, Princess knowing to take care of herself, so that she can be a better mom to her kids. Imagine her not getting caught up in needing to be "supermom."

Imagine if being told to put on her oxygen mask first struck her as silly and obvious, instead of shocking and contrary, as it did to me.


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  1. Jen, this is beautiful. Thanks for the reminder, and thanks for sharing it as a lesson to all of us in our vocations as wives and mothers. :)

  2. This is exactly why I'm such a big proponent of me time for my wife (she is a SAHM, too). I'm all about her getting away, even if for only 24 hours. Cause if Momma ain't happy, nobody's happy.