Put On Your Own Mask First: A New Year’s Message To Parents

Put your own mask on first, then assist children with theirs. Anyone who has ever flown has heard this bit of wisdom. It’s also a familiar analogy for how we should approach parenting. We can’t help our kids if we’re not okay ourselves. Most of us know this in theory. But how many of us live like we know it?

We parents worry about our kids’ grades, their social lives, their emotional health, how much sleep they get. We worry about whether they’ll get accepted to a good school and what their employability will look like. And (might as well admit it), we worry about how they stack up against our friends’ children.

What we don’t worry about is whether our own (metaphorical) mask is securely fastened. I’m sure there are a few parents who wear their self-denial like a badge of honor, who think living for their kids is the ultimate virtue. In most cases, though, the “kids first” life sneaks up on us. We wake up one day to find that they’re getting the lion’s share of the family’s time, resources and attention.

What lucky kids, right? Not really. From my 25 years of clinical experience, children who constantly occupy the center of their parents’ universe tend not to fare so well in life.

Kids model what they see. When Mom’s life is a lonely endurance race defined by a stressful job, nightly cooking and cleaning marathons, and weekends devoted to cheering on her offspring as they kick a soccer ball around, that becomes “normal” to kids. They may well grow up to build their own existence around joyless hard work, self-deprivation and little down time.

Or—and this is hardly an improvement—kids can become insufferably self-centered and entitled. Hey, if Mom lives to serve and adore me I must be something special! they quite logically conclude. The world exists to serve me. Me, me, me!

Perhaps I’m exaggerating a trifle. But you get my point: a healthy family life is one in which all members share the load and where everyone gets to play. That definitely includes moms and dads.

So here’s my New Year’s challenge to you: take an honest look at your life and be real with yourself about what you see. Are your needs being met? Are you taking care of yourself? Have you lost that “zest” that makes life fun and interesting? And what can you do in 2013 to change that?

A few suggestions:

To thine own self be true. Ask yourself: Am I living in congruence with my values? If you want one thing yet do the opposite—valuing fitness yet not making time to exercise, wanting to save for retirement but not doing so because your mortgage takes up all your income—the answer is no. And that’s a recipe for certain unhappiness.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but most of us can bring our reality closer to our ideal. Make 2013 the year you aim for that. Living in alignment with your values may be a matter of “just doing it” (getting up 30 minutes earlier and taking a brisk walk) or it may require more daunting changes (downsizing to a smaller home).

Incremental changes can result in a leap in happiness. A single step can shift your perspective.

Get healthy. (Or at least healthier.) Again, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. No one is asking you to go vegan and train for the New York marathon. But you can slowly make the switch to organic food and take a Zumba class a few days a week. Taking care of your health, and maybe shedding the 20 pounds that’s crept up on you over the years, is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

Find a form of exercise that you enjoy and will actually look forward to. It will become your “me time” and you will figure out how to work it in. We find a way to do what matters to us. (If the kid has to catch a ride to soccer practice so you can get to your workout, fine. It will teach him self-sufficiency!)

Nurture your relationships. When people write these kinds of blogs they usually say to plan regular date nights with your spouse or partner. Good advice, as far as it goes; making time for romance does keep you from languishing in the decidedly unsexy “Mom” rut. But I think it’s just as critical—if not more so—to make time for our friendships. (And I don’t mean a once-a-year phone call on your old college roommate’s birthday. Friendship takes commitment and face time.)

Happy women are not socially isolated. They’re not “just” wives and mothers. They’re also friends. They have relationships with other women who know them deeply. Friends give us someone to kvetch to, to work out with, to try out new restaurants and see movies with. If there’s no one you can call right now and ask to meet you for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, you’re missing an essential element in your life. It’s time to change that.

Learn something new. A big part of being a vital, healthy adult is refusing to stagnate. Take a creative writing course at your local community college, master a new language, or learn how to knit. Keeping your brain engaged sharpens innate natural abilities, staves off depression and makes life more rich and meaningful.

A big part of your job as a parent is showing kids what being a happy, fulfilled adult looks like. Sure you’re paying bills and providing for your kids and working hard…but are you having fun? If not, why would kids ever want to grow up?

Finally, when you “get a life” you won’t be so enmeshed in theirs, so invested in every test grade and the outcome of every game. Your kids will have breathing room to make mistakes, to figure out who they are, to find their own way. That’s what kids need—and that giving it to them also means giving yourself what you need is the real beauty of this thing we call parenting.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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