Put on your oxygen mask first. I’ve been told this a lot. It’s not advice I’ve really taken to heart nor truly understood, and I’m not the first mother or caregiver to admit that. At least I’m pretty sure I’m not. It isn’t because I’m a martyr. I’m not. That was my mother. “I’ll just sit over here while everyone has a good time over there! I won’t have a good time! I’ll cry! I’ll be sure to look like I just ate a lemon, too!”
Our mothers. They do have an influence on us and how we parent particularly if we are women. I am who I am as a woman and mother, in part, because of who my mother is. I see that so clearly now. The epiphany hit me while we were decorating our Christmas tree oddly enough. Grace and Milly chose the Christmas-themed movie again. Last year, they chose “Elf”. This year, they chose “Home Alone 2”. My husband groaned at that, but I think it’s a funny movie. I happen to like the pratfalls and the chemistry between Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. As we watched the plot unfold, once again seeing young Kevin get left behind but this time at the airport, I remembered my mother. It wasn’t a painful memory. Just a reappearance of forgotten facts. My mother left me at the airport when I was about seven years-old except, unlike Kevin’s parents, she did it on purpose.
It was a strange thing to ponder. The juxtaposition of experiences wasn’t lost on me. Remembering my mother’s behavior and my childhood predicament in the midst of decorating the Christmas tree with my own family was surreal. As a child, I recall thinking that it was normal for my mother to do odd things, and I never thought much of it. She dropped me off at the airport on a Friday afternoon and simply left me there. She had “plans” i.e. It was Friday night in 1979. Let your imagination run wild, and you’d probably land on the right thing when it comes to my mother in the 70s. I was supposed to take a flight to a tiny airport near Louisiana where my father lived only the flight was cancelled, and I was alone and essentially abandoned at the airport. She never stayed to see to it that I actually boarded a flight that took off. I was at the airport until the wee hours of the morning hanging out with the flight attendants in their “room”. I remember that they smoked and talked about dating, handsome pilots, and sex. It was the 70s after all. My father was forced to drive two hours to retrieve me because my mother was unavailable after she left me at the airport. He finally arrived at almost 3 AM.
All this is to say that it occurred to me in a tangible way that my mother was an irresponsible party girl who simply abandoned her young child at one of the largest airports in the United States so that she could go out and get drunk and get laid. I’ve always known that on some level, but I really understood that on Friday night. And, I’ve spent a huge portion of my life not being like her. Defining myself in terms of being her opposite. Where she spent her entire life only putting on her own oxygen mask, even stealing everyone else’s, I have spent my life making sure everyone else had theirs at the expense of myself, in part, to prove to myself and others that I am nothing like her.
This is the root of my caretaking. Not caregiving. Caretaking. Why discuss this? I’m talking about this because it’s December 1. For many, the advent of the holiday season is the beginning of the most stressful time of year. We caretake by spending too much money on everyone at the expense of our own financial health. Guilty! We do too much, never saying no, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We stay up far too late baking, preparing, decorating, and making sure that everyone else has a meaningful holiday even though we might feel like we’re going to collapse. We feel as if we’re responsible for everything even though we’re not, but when you’re a caregiver you are responsible for a lot. This is a triggering experience because it can bleed into old caretaking habits and beliefs like, “I’m responsible for you and your happiness.” So, we put on everyone else’s oxygen mask and become too exhausted to put on our own.
Some people get an emotional charge from doing this. They need to feel needed. It gives them a sense of worth. Me? That was never my thing. I tend to feel cloistered. I needed to know that I wasn’t her, and, at the same time, she parentified me. I was forced into that caretaking role at a very young age. Children of alcoholics will be familiar with this dynamic. The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is a personal, fearless inventory and be honest. Is this familiar?
Do you find yourself always concerned about other people’s needs? Do you feel that your needs don’t really count? Do you feel as though you have to take care of other people’s feelings, but no one seems to care about yours? Are you surrounded by people who need you? Is your self-worth dependent on being needed?
Do you go out of your way to make sure that you don’t cause anyone discomfort? Do you find yourself trying to help someone with an addiction, but you just enable them to continue? Do you believe that you know better than other people how they should run their lives?
If you have the Caretaking Pattern, you are caring and compassionate toward others, but often at the expense of your own needs or desires. If you have this pattern strongly, you will find yourself constantly taking care of others, financially, logistically, and emotionally. At some level, though, your caring comes with some strings attached. You have a deep desire to be appreciated for all that you give to others, rather than giving without concern about what you get back. You may hope that people will like you or not leave you in return for your efforts.
You may take pride in being a “mind reader.” With a strong Caretaking Pattern, you get a lift from providing assistance that you believe people need, even before they ask for it. You may frequently give too much help, and often at the expense of taking care of yourself. You may regularly be the last person to leave a party even when you’re exhausted because you’re always helping the host tidy up. You may believe that all of your giving to others is building up a pool of help and favors that you can call upon someday. Or you may believe that by reading the minds of your loved ones, you will be able to expect them to do the same for you—that they will know and deliver the support you want without you ever having to ask.
Some level of the desire to help others is natural and healthy. We are, after all, social beings who need interpersonal support to get along in the world. But if you find yourself regularly sacrificing your own comfort for the sake of helping someone else—for instance, if you give up a therapeutic massage appointment because your sister “just has to have your opinion” on a new couch she’s buying—you very likely have the Caretaking Pattern.
In fact, your Caretaking part may assume that other people aren’t as capable of taking care of themselves as you are. You might believe that you “know better” when it comes to what would be good for someone else. Unless this person is a small child, though, it is unlikely that your perception of someone else’s needs is more valid than their own.
For a variety of reasons, you may not have received feedback from others that your Caretaking is a problem. If you have the Caretaking Pattern, you probably attract people who may, on some level, like being taken care of or who become dependent on you. If you have a Caretaking Pattern, you may have people in your life whom you believe would suffer if you were to stop caretaking them, and you may have a sense of enjoying “being needed.”
The key to knowing if you have the Caretaking Pattern is to look at how often you are meeting your own needs. If you are always putting yourself last, if you are tired and feel as though you are responsible for making sure other people are okay emotionally, logistically, or financially, you have the Caretaking Pattern.
False Belief of the Caretaking Pattern: I am responsible for other people’s feelings. I must do what I can to make them happy and keep them from feeling pain or discomfort. (from Beyond Caretaking)
Be good to yourself this holiday season and put on your oxygen mask first. If that idea is foreign to you, makes you feel guilty, or even causes you to think something like, “I can’t do that! What about ______?”, then explore those responses. Develop some curiosity around why your needs are secondary to everyone else’s. I know what drives me. It takes time to learn new habits even when you know what you should be doing. The ‘doing’ is the hard part. Let this be a gift to yourself and consequently those you love. The gifts of personal responsibility, respect for boundaries, and autonomy are three of the best things that you can offer someone. In turn, you are left with a sense of freedom, a sense of self, and personal empowerment. The result? Peace within our relationships. Whatever your belief system, peace is one of the primary blessings of the holiday season. It is one of the wishes that everyone passes on to another during this time of year.
Shalom. Peace. Pax vobiscum. Peace on Earth. Good will towards men.
May that be true for you as we all find our way through the din of the holidays. May you make your peace as you put on your oxygen mask first.
Beyond Caretaking: Balancing Giving with Self-Care by Jay Earley PhD