This from my submission to the NPR program “This I Believe”
Like many, I never paid much attention to the flight attendant’s explanation of emergency procedures. After hearing it over and over, I assumed what I needed to know must by now be embedded into my brain. It never occurred to me that one simple instruction during that demonstration could be applied to everyday life.
Do you know why the flight attendant tells you that, when traveling with small children, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself before your child? The reason is that if you put the mask on the child first, as was my first instinct as a mother, you might pass out before you are able to put the mask on yourself. I learned this from a recovering heroin addict.
After a thwarted suicide attempt I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While in the hospital, my abusive husband of 15 years coached my two young daughters to tell me that I was “too scary” and they didn’t want me to come home. I was devastated.
The heroin addict was also a mother. During a group session after I related what had happened, she said she knew how I felt and that she was going through rehab in order to regain custody of her children. She then told us what her counselor had told her about the oxygen mask, and said that story was what gave her the courage to fight for recovery.
This young mother said to me “It don’t make no difference if your kids were told what to say. If you don’t fix yourself first, you can’t be a good mom.” She said I needed to put my girls second and just focus on getting well so that when I left the hospital I could be a good example to my daughters. Whether or not they were scared, I would be able to prove to them that I was ok. This seemed impossible to me. I had come to believe that I was unimportant, and thought it was too selfish to put myself first. But I kept thinking about the example of the oxygen mask and it started to make sense.
Four weeks later I left the hospital, and about six months after that I won emergency protective custody of my daughters. Twelve years later I have a remarkably wonderful relationship with two emotionally healthy young women.
I believe that in order to be a good parent, I must put my own well-being first.