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The Mothering Oxygen Mask- 4 Steps To Breathing Normally Again

by Jessica Martin-Weber
Photo Credit: Meghann Buswell, Your Street Photography, Portland, OR.

Photo Credit: Meghann Buswell, Your Street Photography, Portland, OR.

See those 4 darling little girls enjoying a magical tea party outside? They are precious and 4 out of 6 of the most amazing people that I get to have call me mom. I’m lucky enough to breathe them in deeply daily. I’m crazy about them. Crazy. Sometimes I’m crazy from them too. Sometimes I end up breathing rather labored because of them.

Sometimes I need to breathe in deeply away from them.

This is a little risky to admit. The internet loves to judge mother who admit they find, well, being a mother can be… difficult. Even more so loves to hate those that admit they don’t always like being around their own children all the time. But I’ll take the risk.

On commercial passenger airplanes, safety instructions are given each flight before take off on what to do in the case of an emergency. Flight attendants (or a video) explain that in the case of pressure changes, oxygen masks should drop down and passengers should place them over their mouth and nose and breathe normally. For those flying with small children or someone that would need assistance, instructions are given to secure your own mask before helping someone else with theirs. The reason for this instruction isn’t given but should you help someone else before securing your own mask, it is very possible that you could end up deprived of the oxygen your brain needs and pass out before your own mask is in place. Should that happen, you wouldn’t be able to help take care of anyone and worse, would be at even more risk.

Are you breathing normally?

Do you know where your oxygen mask is?

When was the last time you did something for you, truly for you? For many parents, particularly mothers, doing something for ourselves can be very difficult. It feels selfish, wasteful, extravagant, unnecessary, and laden with guilt. If we can pass it off as being for the whole family, such as a family vacation, then it is ok, but when taking care of ourselves really is just for ourself it can get much, much more difficult.

Parenting requires sacrifice, it’s true. We give up a lot for our children, getting in exchange such beauty and joy. But are we really able to care for our children if we can’t breathe normally ourselves? If we lose our selves? For a long time I believed that being a good mother required not only sacrifice but a sort of martyrdom, losing one’s self to build up one’s children. That was what I saw modeled for me in my own mother and what I thought I would need to do as well. Some women are able to do this and find it quite fulfilling, maybe even more in touch with who they really are. I was not one of those women. Losing myself, sacrificing so much I didn’t even know who I was any more, being constantly burnt out, led me into a deep and dark depression and instead of being a good mother, I was too lost to care for my children.

I needed an oxygen mask.

I needed to be able to breathe.

As admirable as it is that my mother gave up so much for her children, the truth is to this day I don’t really know her. What I know is the woman who loves me and did her best to care for me as a child even when she was constantly depleted of much needed air herself. As depleted as she was, she gave so much but often it wasn’t what my siblings and I really needed as much as it was what she thought we needed. She was too spent to assess what care was actually required. Our family suffered. Realizing I was headed down the same path, I knew something needed to change. I needed to nurture the nurturer.

My 4 steps to finding my oxygen mask

1) Change wasn’t easy. It would require asking for help. Asking for help would require admitting I needed help. Admitting I needed help would require letting others know that I couldn’t handle it all on my own. I saw that as failure. Failure to live up to a standard of motherhood of a perfectly decorated and cleaned house, perfectly cooked healthy meals, perfectly executed crafts, perfectly planned parties and play dates, perfectly perfect children, perfectly perfect family, perfectly perfect life, perfectly perfect me. This was hard, in fact, it ended up being the most important sacrifice I would ever make in my motherhood journey: sacrificing my pride in presenting a perfect facade by admitting I needed help.

2) Equally challenging admitting that the help I needed was so I could have a break. Time away from my children. Space to do something just for me. A break. In my head it sounded like I didn’t like my kids and the truth was, from my burnt out place, I didn’t. But it was way more than that, it was finally recognizing in myself that there really isn’t anybody I can be around 24/7 and not get tired of them and, for me, that though I seem like an extrovert, I actually get energy from being alone with my thoughts and having time to be creative by myself. What I would come to discover is that I actually really, really like my children but I needed some space from them from time to time to be able to truly appreciate that connection more.

3) At first I didn’t know how to make that space for me, I wasn’t even sure where to find my oxygen mask. With no family close, who could watch my children? My husband was more than willing to equally parent, it wasn’t him that was a barrier, it was me. I felt as though I was slacking, being a lazy mother to let him. Or that he wouldn’t do it as well as me. It wasn’t until I realized that he could parent differently and still not only be capable, given how burnt out I was, he was probably better. Now I love that we have different approaches and styles with our children, agreeing on certain non-negotiables and being flexible on grey areas. Beyond my own partner though, how could I find the space? We couldn’t afford sitters at the time, we didn’t have family near us, and we struggled to trust others. Eventually it was in intentionally finding and cultivating community, finding space for myself in friendships and gradually building trust. Today our family has several dear family friends that are like family, stay with our children for short and long periods of time, join us for meals and events, and swap helping each other find space as parents needing oxygen masks. This parenting thing isn’t meant to happen on an isolated island, being alone isn’t healthy, it isn’t what we would want for our children, we need to be aware of what we’re modeling for them in our own lives. Be it family or friends, we need to put effort into finding our tribe, not just online, but in real life.

4) Eventually I realized that my oxygen mask had some variety. There were big ones and small ones. Some were actually easily accessible right in front of my but I could only see them once I had a shot of fresh air. Making my own self-care a priority gave me the energy to grow as a person and a mother. The little daily hits on my oxygen mask rejuvenate me, giving me the clarity I need to care for my children in a sustainable way. Many of these 22 ways are a regular part of my self-care now.

Now, with my children, I teach them the importance of self care as well because there are times when everyone needs their own oxygen mask.

There is no one-size-fits all and what you may need during one season of parenting may change in the next season. Find what works for you and consider how you can be in community with others and help them find their’s as well. There is no firm how to use it or what it looks like for you, what’s important is just that you use it.

Your children will thank you one day and will know you not only as their loving, sacrificing mother, but as the thriving individual of value that you are.

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Are you burnt out? Even as you love your children and enjoy parenting them, are you ever in need of a break? What steps have you found to making that possible?

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Leaving the parenting island and asking for help

by Jessica Martin-Weber
Parenting Island and asking for help

Parenting Island AKA Poop Rock.

 

I was struck by the beauty of that island looking rock from afar on the shore in San Francisco.  Then my friend told me it was so pretty because it was covered in bird poop.  Poop Rock.  Reminded me a lot of parenting, pretty from afar but sometimes lonely and covered in poop when you get up close.

Don’t lecture me, I know parenting is wonderful, I love it but that doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes really hard and stinky like a rock covered in poop.

Last week, my good friend Cindy was battling pneumonia.  It was horrible and scary.  Her husband is in the military and away at the moment so she and her 4 children are on their own as she struggles to get well.  I couldn’t get to her, we’re over 8 hours from each other in different countries, but I wish I could.  Every time I saw her share something of her struggle I was moved, inspired, and ready to jump in the van (that broke down 4 days after I wrote this).  Through Facebook, I feel like I get to keep up with my friend and in some small way offer support.  I wish I could do more.  Yet even so sick and all the way in Canada, my friend reminded me of something incredibly important: we all need help from time to time.

Asking for help is one of the hardest needs to voice sometimes.  Or all the time.  People judge and are judged for even needing help and we all feel it.  There is such shame attached to needing help or even encouragement.  We’re all supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and in made for TV moments, triumph over whatever challenges we face.  Alone.  Without resources.  Without bragging. Without getting anything we don’t deserve because by our own blood, sweat, and tears we paid for it or worked for it or fought for it all on our own.  We talk about the strength of the human spirit and applaud those that figure out how to go it without help.  And anyone that is worn out, broken down, or overwhelmed must be less of a person.  Even in a safe place, like The Leaky Boob Facebook, mothers (and sometimes dads too) may take the bold step to admit they are struggling but do so with trepidation, beating themselves up for being a “horrible parent, feeling like a failure” before someone else does, all because they find parenting hard sometimes.

This cultural attitude of glorifying individualism and self-sufficiency is hard enough when children aren’t involved, but when we become parents it’s not just us any more.  Our pride can get in the way of seeking out desperately needed help.  Pregnancy and childbirth set the precedent in parenting without help and while I love doulas and highly recommend having doula support for birthing women (I have for mine), traditionally the role wasn’t a paid position but one filled by a family member, friend, or a member of the community.  There seems to be a growing sense of shame in needing help from someone who isn’t designated as a paid professional.  We see it in infant nutrition all the time, mothers struggling but too embarrassed to admit breastfeeding isn’t working as well as it “naturally” should as she struggles with pain and a frustrated baby or families not knowing where to turn when they need an alternative.  In fact, the number one reason mother’s don’t reach their personal breastfeeding goals is lack of support.  Support = help.  But it certainly isn’t isolated to the area of infant nutrition, pregnancy, and child birth.  Parenting dilemmas such as health care, child care, discipline, education, financial stress, housing, safety, you name it, are often hindered by our own pride in asking for help.  As though needing a helping hand occasionally, let alone for a long season, is an indication of inadequacies or failure.  Afraid it reflects badly on us and our abilities, many parents forgo voicing their need for support and actual help because we know people will say things like “you shouldn’t have had children if you couldn’t handle it” (what are parents supposed to do, put the kids back from where they got them?), we suffer quietly and so do our children.  Sometimes it’s major roadblocks that threaten the health and safety of the family, particularly the children, others deplete personal internal resources and reinforce feelings of failing over every day aspects of parenting that may wear us down.  Either way, while learning to deal with hardships and having the experience of overcoming them on our own once in a while can be empowering, is this isolation really what we want to be the norm?

But the truth is we all benefit when we help each other, yes, even when we admit we need help and ask for it.  Not only individually are we strengthened, our communities are too.  It can be risky though, by admitting our struggles, we’re opening ourselves up for criticizing judgment or worse, being ignored and that is more than hard, it’s down right terrifyingly heart breaking.  Most parents would do anything including swallowing their pride to care for their children, there’s not a job we wouldn’t work or begging we are above when it comes to the safety and provision of our children.  That fear though, the fear of judgment or of not mattering enough for someone to even notice, can be paralyzing and parents may, unintentionally, cause suffering for their children simply because the cultural attitudes about asking for help have effectively silenced them for issuing the call when most needed.  Yet almost no parent would say their child deserved less.

Asking for help is something I continue to grow in along with knowing how to offer help, carefully avoiding judgment.  Including learning how to have grace without judgment for myself.  The journey hasn’t been easy and I’m still learning.  How does one master admitting you can’t do something on your own?  That you don’t have it all together and need others?  I’m not sure yet but I know it has gotten easier for me simply by looking at my children, I never want them to be afraid to ask for my help when they encounter difficulties.  They have not only been my inspiration in seeking out help when I need it, but sometimes my teachers.  They have shown me the joy that comes from helping and being helped, the agony that comes from pride getting in the way.  From communicating my need for help during difficult pregnancies to admitting I don’t know how to handle certain parenting situations, to finding a mentor in understanding child development when my children were driving me crazy to even asking for financial support because we lack the funds required to help our daughter reacher her dreams, though Jeremy and I work hard for our family, admitting we can’t always do it on our own and that we’re not an island but in fact need the village, our children are the ones that have benefited the most from us humbling ourselves to say three little words: “help me please.”  Accepting our limitations is the first step in being able to strengthen each other.  I firmly believe that in strengthening, supporting, and yes helping, parents makes for a healthier community that is stronger, more creative, and more skilled.  What a gift we can give our children.

My friend Cindy, has posted on Facebook a few pleas for help with her children so she can rest.  Yes, she could keep trying to go it on her own, likely prolonging her illness and a lower level of care for her children while she tries to recover.  There are risks to her not recovering, potentially problematic for those around her.  Worse, she could end up in the hospital and her children in the custody of someone else for an indeterminate amount of time.  It is to her health benefit, the benefit of the health care system, the benefit of her children, and the benefit of her friends for her to ask for help.  Her recovery will be aided and the community circles around her will be stronger as a result.  Relationships are being fortified as her friends respond to her pleas and offer their support not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well.  I am so incredibly proud of her asking for help.  Knowing her personally I know that she is a capable, strong, and hard working woman, talented as a journalist and an attentive and loving mother.  This moment of needing help (and the next one that comes her way) are not a reflection of her capabilities, simply a moment where her humanity is evident.  And she has already paid it forward and will do so again.  Because she gets that we need each other.  We all do.