Put your own oxygen mask on first

oxygen maskThey said that today, of course. I was on a plane, flying from Seville to Bilbao, straining to understand the flight attendant who was speaking in Spanish, warning us to fasten our tray tables and move our seats into the upright position for takeoff. And, in the unlikely chance that oxygen masks would drop from the ceiling in front of us, to pull the mask towards us to start the flow of oxygen, and to put our own mask on first, before attempting to help others.

It’s the end of the second week of our four-week family vacation. My husband is blessed with a one-time four-week sabbatical from his job, and we decided to celebrate this year’s milestones (half-a-century of living for myself and my husband, two decades of marriage, an older child heading off to college in the fall, and our “baby” – our youngest – moving on to middle school) with an unbelievable vacation to end all vacations, including three weeks in Spain.

So they reminded us (in English after the Spanish, so that I could understand) to put our own oxygen masks on first, and I smiled. Years ago I heard this reminder shared not only as a physical life-saving suggestion at the start of airplane flights, but also as an emotional life-saving, self-care concept in a room full of non-flying adults struggling to “recover” from a lifetime of incidents. “Put your own oxygen mask on first,” someone told me. “If you can’t breathe yourself, you’ve got nothing to give.”

I routinely share this concept with my coaching clients, and they often gasp (as if I’m brilliant) and laugh in recognition at the inside joke. The directive we’ve heard since we were young, each time we fly. The safety instructions we routinely ignore as we turn off our phones and settle into our seats. These simple words can apply to life on a daily basis. This straightforward command can offer us peace and ease.

As I hear it this time, I think of when my daughter was first born. I had just launched my consulting and coaching business – and had no child care. I’d work while my daughter was napping, and while she was awake, lying at my feet on a blanket on the floor. I either worked or cared for her. I had no time for myself. No breathing room. No space. No oxygen. And I was a not nice word that begins with B and has five letters.

Put my own oxygen mask on first. I look over at my son, sitting next to me on the plane. I think of the moments he asks me for time or energy or attention, and I give him all I can. I think of the moments he asks me for anything and I have nothing to give. I have no oxygen.

I think of the space I take every morning – my “quiet time” – when I sit and meditate. Or something that’s somewhat like meditation, since I work to follow no rules around my spirituality. Perhaps because of my childhood of religious rigidity and rules I currently religiously avoid rules and “right” ways of approaching spirituality whenever I can. I allow myself my own interpretations and work to silence my fears that what I do is “wrong” or won’t “work.” For my quiet time I sit with a cup of tea and think of what’s right in my world. I ground myself. I find the wholeness inside of me. I put my own oxygen mask on first.

Put your own oxygen mask on first. Put my own oxygen mask on first. Find what fills me, and fill myself. Find what comforts me, and comfort myself. Find what I need to have space. To have air. To have oxygen. To have something to give. To enjoy my day and my life. To look around at all I have, that I never even imagined having, and take it in with all its pleasure, its pain, its fullness, and its life-giving, lung-filling air.

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