You can’t give what you don’t have.

The first time I flew on an airplane, I watched the safety demonstration like my life depended on it. As instructed, I checked that my seatbelt was properly secured, identified the nearest emergency exits, learned how to inflate the life-vest, and noted that my seat cushion doubled as a flotation device. I was keenly interested in everything I needed to know to survive an air travel disaster, and if necessary, I would happily put my head between my knees to prepare for a crash landing and calmly exit the burning plane without my personal belongings, because that is how you live.

But the first time I flew with kids, something changed. I followed along as the flight attendant skillfully mimed the Survivor’s Guide to Falling Out of the Sky; Seatbelt? Check. Life-vest? Check. Butt-floaty? Check. Toward the end of the announcement she held up a severed oxygen mask, showed us how to wear it, and reminded us not to freak the eff out if it doesn’t inflate. Then she stood there smiling like a creep while a disembodied voice from the back of the plane chirped, “If you are traveling with a child, secure your own oxygen mask first, then assist others.” And I was like, “Yeah. I’m not doing that.”

If we’re all gasping for air like fish out of water, you can bet your ass I’m putting my kids’ needs first.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why we’re supposed to arrange our own masks before theirs. I know it’s safer and smarter and more sensible, but, in that moment, I knew I wouldn’t do it. I knew that given the choice and despite the consequences I would never put my need for oxygen before my sons’ – even if it meant I passed out and we all died because I was too stubborn and scared and dumb to take care of myself properly before attending to them.

I was thinking about this on Friday as I boarded a plane to meet a handful of girlfriends for a weekend away. Feeling excited for the days ahead, I was also pestered by guilt over what felt like a great big self-indulgence. I’m definitely not a martyr to marriage and motherhood, but I have always had major hangups about doing things that are justfor me, and this was no exception. This is an annual meet-up of dear friends that in three years I had yet to attend, and I waffled back and forth for 9 entire months before deciding I would go, I was so hesitant to take a short trip that wasn’t for work, or for family, or for hotel sexmarital bliss. It felt incredibly selfish. 

ButI needed a breather.

Big time. 

Honestly? It’s been a really tough year around here, and it took awhile for me to see how much I needed a break from this season of intense writing, and hardcore wifing, and momming actual real live grownass men. I needed a little stretch of time away from the very things I felt like I was neglecting if I left, and I sobbed when I bought my airline tickets, because it finally sunk in how badly and how sincerely I neededto breathe.

For like 5 minutes I believed I was a worthy cause. But as the girls weekend drew near, guilt crept back in to tell me I didn’t deserve a break, my marriage would suffer in my absence, my children would resent me for leaving, and I was selfish and spoiled and stupid for deciding to go, and I actually thought about backing out at the last minute. It was like an oxygen mask had dropped right in front of my face and I refused to put it on. I was simply too busy looking with wide eyes at all the other needs in my personal life to secure my own oxygen, but I was too oxygen deprived to breathe life back into those same areas of need.

I aaaaaallllmostbacked out.

And then El Chupacabra said something in his last sermon that hit me really hard. He was talking about how when we really love people, like, when we really get into the nitty gritty of life and faith with other broken people, it will deplete us, it will stir up our own pain, it will tap our spiritual resources. He said you need to care for yourself in order to care for others, because “you can’t give what you don’t have.”
        “You can’t give what you don’t have.”                      
                                                                        ~ Pastor El Chupacabra, aka Steve

I mean, it’s kinda likeduh. But also? OMG, THAT IS SO ME! So, so, so me.Trying to pull from empty reserves of physical energy and mental health, desperately drawing from a dry well of faith, hope, and love, to bear the weight of looming financial commitments, to fight for a hobbled, hurt relationship, and to launch young adults into a scary world. That is so me. But I can’t give what I don’t have.

I haven’t been caring for myself in a number of ways and it has absolutely hurt my capacity to care for others.

The reason we’re supposed to secure our own oxygen mask first in the event of an emergency is that you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t expect to breathe life into those around you if YOU can’t breathe. Your kids, your spouse, your coworkers, your friends, your neighbors, your parents – they really, truly, honestly NEED you to put on your own mask first.

I fly often enough now that I don’t even bother playing the preflight charades game; I usually read, or sleep, or pick at my fingernails while the flight attendant does the old “in-case-of-death-spiral” song and dance. On my way home after three amazing days with friends, I watched a cranky, overwhelmed Mama trying to settle her young ones around her while she checked seat belts and felt for life-vests and peered over her shoulder for the nearest exit. I saw the familiar flash of resistance on her face when she was told to put her own oxygen mask on first, and I remembered when I was like her, seeing how she was too tired and too empty and too wrapped up in the thick of it – because she been poured out for her family – to choose to care for herself first. And I thought, “I got you, sister. You focus on taking care of those babies, and, if necessary, I’ll take care of you.”

Because that’s how it works.

I felt like I had nothing left to give, and then I spent a weekend having my heart and soul tended by women who generously dipped into their own reserves to breathe life back into these hollow spaces. With an infusion of joy and light and everything else I lacked, I came home prepared to be a better wife, mother, and writer than when I left.

So, on that day, that little Mama may have been empty, but I was full enough for us both.

That’s how it works. 

I take care of me, 
so that I can take care of you, 
until you can take care of yourself,
and then you care for someone else.
But someone has to be smart enough to put their oxygen mask on first. 

Have you ever lost sight of your own needs to the detriment of everyone around you?


Leave a Comment