“Put your mask on first, then help the child.”

By Jill Wilbur Smith

I hate seeing my daughters in pain. It’s possibly the most difficult aspect of being a mother. Seeing my children in pain and being unable to do anything to fix it. That’s the ultimate definition of helplessness for me. And for someone who craves order, who loves to always be in control, that’s excruciating.

When my children or husband are in difficult situations, I often jump in with both feet and try to redirect some of the pain towards myself. I try to absorb their pain, thinking it will ease their burden. Of course it rarely does. Then I feel helpless and in pain myself. And exhausted. And frustrated. And did I say helpless?

So I give up things that I would normally do for myself and devote all of my time and energy to them. Then I get resentful. Then I feel guilty. Then I’m exhausted. Which leads to helplessness. Wait. Did I already say that?

I’m going to try to stop doing that. I don’t know if I can. But I’m going to try.

I think about my own life. I can’t think of a single time in my life that I made it through a difficult situation because I let someone else claim my pain as their own. It doesn’t work that way. No one can really take away your pain. You have to simply feel bad until you don’t feel bad anymore.

Of course you can listen. You can make soup or offer a hot beverage. You can perform random acts of kindness. You can hold the tissue box and rub a back while the person in pain cries. But their pain will always be their pain. Not yours.

A few months ago, I saw a therapist. I told her it was because I didn’t want to feel left out. But really I just felt a little at a breaking point. I’ve tried to absorb so much of the pain of my family that I felt overburdened. She gave me some good advice.

“You know when you’re on an airplane,” she said, “and the flight attendants go through their safety spiel. They say ‘In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks deploy, be sure to put your mask on first before trying to assist others.’ That’s what you need to do. You need to make sure you’re wearing your own mask before you can help others.”

She’s right. I need to take care of myself so I can be there to care for others. I need to make sure the oxygen is flowing freely to my lungs so that I can be healthy and energized for those around me who need me.

For me, that means taking time to meet with friends. Making space in my day and in my home to write. Saying “no” when I don’t really feel like doing something that my spouse/daughter/friend/coworker asks me to do. Occasionally putting myself first. Taking deep breaths and making sure my heart is full before assisting others.

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