Anyone who’s ever traveled by airplane has heard the order from the flight attendant: “In the event the cabin loses pressure put on your oxygen mask first, then assist those around you.” This applies even if the person next to you is your baby, your elderly mother, your significant other or anyone else who is precious to you. The obvious reason, of course, is that you can’t help someone else if you’re not getting enough oxygen.
As I’ve gotten older, I realize this rule is one to live by whether you’re on a plane or not. Last weekend I helped my daughter through a minor health crisis involving her aging dog. She was so worried about the pooch, she wasn’t sleeping and didn’t leave to buy her own groceries. By Sunday night she was exhausted and depleted.
I had another call this morning from my sister regarding a potential upcoming family trip to be planned by our brother, a famous procrastinator. She is stressed because she and her husband need to make plans to be out of work for a few days and time is getting short. If the trip is going to happen, they want to join. But if it’s going to be last minute, she wants to plan something else for the two of them. Of course, it would be great for us all to be together, but I explained that his procrastination is his issue. If she can’t wait around, she should set boundaries and do what is best for her and her husband. She is afraid of disappointing him, and of missing out.
Why do we always prioritize others’ needs over our own? I’m not sure if this is a uniquely female behavior, but I do observe that more women than men seem to worry what others might think of them. I also think we women are more prone to caring for others before we take care of ourselves. I watched my mother care for us kids, my elderly grandfather, other elderly relatives and, in the end, my dad. She was exhausted, overweight, neglected her own doctors’ appointments and ended up with severe heart disease.
As an adult, I vowed to look after my own health and well-being if not first, at least alongside of those in my care. My children never missed an annual physical, dental or eye appointment, and neither have I. I tried to model this behavior so that my daughter, in particular, would see that her well-being is valuable and important. I reassured my sister that the family would be disappointed if she didn’t make the trip, but that we’d still love her, we’d still be here for her and even if we gossiped behind her back (ha!), we’d still love and respect her for attending to her needs. I told my daughter that it’s essential she care for herself, even as she cares for her pet. A tired, stressed out, hangry dog-mom isn’t any good when a crisis happens.
It’s tough to let the vulnerable ones, like babies and pets, wait while we attend to ourselves, but it’s essential that we caregivers learn that if we don’t put on our own oxygen masks first, we’ll never be able to help those around us. It’s the first rule of surviving that de-pressurization.