• Alumnae
Parents: Why Putting on Your Own Oxygen Mask First Makes Sense
by Nicole Cutts 'SR, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Success Coach
Portrait of Dr. Nicole Cutts

Saying that parenting is challenging, especially in the time of COVID, would probably garner the “Understatement of the Century Award” (if there were such a thing). Juggling your child’s education, your work, and the family calendars amidst the ever-changing protocols and newly emerging variants of this worldwide pandemic can be enough to drive one over the edge. Every aspect of parenting has been fraught for parents managing complex situations and making anxious new decisions. It’s no wonder that in your efforts to be good parents, you may be tempted to abandon any hope for self-care.

But now, more than ever, we must heed the instructions we’ve always heard when flying (remember air travel?) —“should the cabin experience sudden pressure loss, stay calm. Oxygen masks will drop down; place the mask over your mouth and nose. If you are traveling with children, make sure that your mask is on first before helping your children.”

What they don’t say is, “You only have seconds to put on your mask before lack of oxygen will trigger symptoms of hypoxia: weakness, disorientation, inability to recognize faces and shapes, unconsciousness then death.” Instead, we understand that if we don’t take care of ourselves first, we can’t help anyone else. The same is true in everyday life and even more so today when running yourself down increases the likelihood of getting ill.

As a clinical psychologist and success coach, I can’t tell you the number of parents who still think self-care is selfish or frivolous—but reality proves otherwise. Adults fail to recognize that self-care is imperative to their health. We give it to ourselves and teach it to our children as they learn from the very actions we model.

I can hear you now as you read this, “That’s easier said than done, but how and where do I find the time?” That’s a valid question, and that’s why I’ve provided this list of 6 tips that may help.

  1. Make Self-Care a Priority: You must first see this as a necessity and priority!
  2. Make a Self-Care List: Write down anywhere from 3–5 self-care behaviors. Make the list fun. Include things you enjoy, not just things you think you should do.
  3. Set Your Goal and State Your Commitment: Be realistic. If you start small that’s great! Examples: exercise 30 minutes three times a week; meditate 5 minutes daily; get a massage once a month; eat proper meals; get out in nature whenever you can. Once you set your goals, share this commitment with someone else (perhaps an accountability partner) who can help you be accountable.  
  4. Schedule Your Self-Care: Just like you schedule work meetings or kid’s games, put whatever self-care activities you committed to in your calendar and treat it with the respect it deserves!
  5. Assess Your Plan: After two weeks or a month check in with yourself and your accountability partner. How are you doing? Do you need to revise your plan? Do you need to be more realistic? Do you need help and how can you ask for help? If you missed a deadline don’t waste time beating yourself up (that’s not self-care) just pick a new deadline.  
  6. Continue to Monitor, Celebrate Your Wins, and Keep Going: I recommend assessing your progress monthly. Share your wins with your accountability partner. Take time to reflect on how you feel. To stay encouraged, I recommend a daily practice called the 3 & 5. Write down or think of three good things you did for yourself that day and five things for which you are grateful. Remember to practice self-compassion i.e., via self-talk. Talk to yourself as you would your best friend. If you fall off just start again.