“Before assisting others, put your oxygen mask on first.”
I heard this on the flight back from a women’s retreat. I had been thinking about the phrase specifically on how it relates to women. We are often caregivers and mistakenly prioritize helping others put on their oxygen mask first. Worse yet, we might even insist we’re good!, give our mask away and walk around appearing to thrive in poor atmosphere.
Or we might be in a relationship where we are covertly (or openly) discouraged from taking care of ourselves. We allow ourselves to believe that our partner needs oxygen more than we do or that because we love them, we should suffer alongside, neither of us with a mask on. We give up our agency and wonder why we are anxious or depressed, straining to breathe in thin air.
Or we might be in some weird relationship dynamic where I put their mask on and expect them to put my mask on. I take care of you, you take care of me. If we are lucky, both of us have masks on. Most often, one of us is standing there waiting for the other while holding a perfectly good mask and struggling to breathe.
At the retreat, threads of generational trauma wove through the sessions: abuse, addicted spouses and lost children, disconnection from self, loved ones and community. Trauma wasn’t the focus of the retreat and yet, when you put 50 women in a room and ask them to talk about their lives, it raises its hand. If you put 5 women in a room, trauma creeps in and joins the circle.
Sitting alone on my hotel balcony watching the rain, the questions began in earnest:
- Are we showing our daughters how to put their oxygen mask on first? Or are we modeling how to thrive or at least appear to thrive in a low-oxygen environment?
- Are we building the confidence that comes with agency and self-direction? Or are we recognizing and praising caretaking others and allowing ourselves to be used up?
- Are we focusing solely on others? Or are we including ourselves as a treasured love one who needs nurturing and care?
What we model, what we call out and praise, what we encourage, becomes repeat behavior. If I want to break a pattern, I must first lead. I must put my oxygen mask on first before assisting others. For me, that means fostering healthy relationships, regularly taking time for myself, asking for what I need, figuring out who I am independent of roles, and pursuing opportunities for connection and joy. Mask on, I breathe freely so that I might be my best self for family, for friends, and yes, for myself.