Note to Moms: It’s okay to breathe

As published in The Week on September 26, 2013


The most unnerving part of any flight is when the flight attendant reminds me that if all the air in the plane happens to disappear, I should secure my own air mask before helping my children.

Now, I’m not really worried about the air disappearing, but if it did, the idea of helping myself first seems completely counterintuitive. I can’t imagine saying to my child, “Hey, hang tight and hold your breath while I help myself to this free flowing oxygen…”

We always help our children first. We feed them when we’re starving. We read to them instead of watching something awesome and adult on TV. I’m pretty sure putting them first is written into my employment contract. And yes, the air mask thing is probably logical. How are you going to be able to help your kids if you’ve just passed out from lack of oxygen? I guess that makes sense. But as a mom, I may need to hear it a few more times.

Women are a self-sacrificing breed. It’s innate. We are genetically programmed to say, “What’s that? You want to be born? Help yourself to my birth canal. It won’t bother me a bit.” The kids come out thirsty and we offer them the only parts of our bodies that still look any good. “Have at it, no problem, there’s a painful surgery that will fix those right up.” From the day we become mothers, we’re pretty darn accommodating.

Maybe that’s not so great for our kids. What if they learn to see adulthood as a time of drudgery and self-sacrifice? To my kids, adulthood looks a lot like driving other people to do things that they want to do, and then sometimes staying to watch them enjoy it. Maybe the reason our kids won’t move out of our houses is because they are afraid they’ll end up in servitude to their own children.

I really want my kids to want to grow up, so I’m trying to embrace this idea of watching them struggle for a second while I deal with my own air mask. In fact, I started on Saturday. On Saturdays, I usually stand in front of the stove, off and on, for three hours, preparing made-to-order breakfasts as my children wake up in shifts. Between feedings, I hunt down cleats and drive to the farthest corners of Westchester County. By the time the last child is up, the first one wants lunch. There is no air flowing for me on Saturdays, which is a shame because I spend the day smelling like bacon.

So this week I got up and had my coffee first. I read the paper and went for a run. By the time I was ready to fully engage with Saturday, I was armed with caffeine and endorphins. No one starved to death while they waited, and everyone breathed a little easier.

The flight attendant is always careful to caution us that, even though oxygen is flowing, the plastic bag may not appear to inflate. That’s totally true. My small gasps for air have gone nearly unnoticed by my family. What they notice is that I’m a little softer around the edges and that my good humor lasts until a little later in the day. I’m trying for small things: Did I exercise today? Did I eat something that wasn’t shelf-stable? Did I sit down to write something? If I hit two out of three of these, I feel pretty good.

I’m also thinking about becoming a stronger swimmer. I don’t believe for a second that those seat cushions can be used as flotation devices.