Whenever you fly somewhere, they always give you the same speech. Turn off your cell phone. Check out your nearest exit. And in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling like plastic angels. And what do they always warn you to do? Put on your own mask before helping others.
To be a parent is to know your limits — physically, mentally, emotionally. You work for eight (or more) hours, come home to your kids, and immediately those kids expect you to be more than someone who just worked for eight (or more) hours. They want to talk to you, to play with you. They also want you to make them dinner, read to them, give them baths, prepare them for the next day. In short, they need you.
In the middle of all of these demands, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself, to spend all of your time giving and not expect anything in return. But I think it’s really important for parents to take time away from being parents. Call it adult time. Call it “me” time. I call it the “Oxygen Mask Principle.”
In order to be the best possible parents we can be, my wife and I had to figure out ways to take care of ourselves so we could better take care of our family. For me, it means playing guitar, or getting out of the house to go to a coffee shop and read a good book, or (on particularly rough days) a glass of scotch. For my wife, it usually means tending to her garden, knitting, or just having a quiet house all to herself. (I’m aware that a lot of these things make us sound like a family in the 1950s, but hey, it’s what we like.) It also means we have to jealously guard spending time with each other away from our son. Date nights have become more than a luxury; they are a necessity.
I guess my point with all this is that it’s so easy for me to make life about taking care of other people. But in order to not burn out, I have to also find ways to put my own mask on first. That’s not always easy to do, but it’s incredibly important for me to keep my sanity. And I think this applies beyond just parenting. I’ve seen burn out happen to teachers, nurses, pastors — anyone whose time constantly involves taking care of other people is especially at risk of burning out.
And in a way it makes sense. The reason they want you to put on your oxygen mask first is because without oxygen you won’t have the energy to be able to help those around you. Then everybody ends up in worse shape. You need that oxygen, that energy that helps you be the best version of yourself. Your loved ones will thank you for it.
So how are you taking care of you? What recharges you? I’d love to hear some ideas, as long as you’re okay with me potentially stealing them.
Caleb Gardner is an amateur father and husband who writes at The Exceptional Man and dabbles in photography, design, and music. When listening to the cacophony of modern-day America, Caleb prefers a side of Scotch. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less-nice things.