Me First

By Susan Traugh

I was not a mask-first kind of girl. You know, those instructions they give you on the plane that, in case of an emergency, you are to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your child. Well, nothing doing. I’m a wrestle-with-your-own-mask-WHILE-you-simultaneously-help-your-kid-kinda-woman.

And, it worked for me.

Sort of.

All three of my kids have disabilities. And, between attending to seizures, running to the hospital, handling bleeding episodes, dealing with emotional and physical meltdowns and balancing dozens of doctor’s appointments, their needs clearly came first. Soon, those needs consumed my life with my own interests and desires taking a back seat and then simply getting out of the car.

You see, any one of my kid’s issues would have been a full time job, but with all three of them needing me all at the same time, I felt like one of those jugglers running from spinning plate to spinning plate – dashing, attending, watching, twisting – trying as I might to keep everything spinning in the sky but eventually – always – hearing the crash of glass as some forgotten plate flew off the handle and smashed to the floor.

In the midst of it, there was simply no time or space for me. I wanted to write – sometimes actually produced an article or two – but then some plate would careen onto the floor, and I’d drop everything and run. By the time I’d cleaned up the mess and gotten all the plates spinning again, I’d inevitably forgotten what that thing was that I was doing for myself and started focusing again on the plates.

But, over the years I got into the habit of helping where help might not have been needed. Truth was – it was easier.

I was so exhausted from all the emergency measures and crisis intervention I had to do that those simple tasks that might be time consuming to teach our kids at first just felt overwhelming. It was easier to do it myself. It was easier to run over and spin that plate again before it began to wobble rather than trust my child to get to it in time. It was easier to step in rather than deal with the stress that cleaning up the breakage – again – would cause.

But then one of those milestone birthdays came around, and I was a mess.

As I’d given up more and more of my own life to the care of my children, I hadn’t realized that an alarm clock had begun ticking in my brain. That clock said my sacrifices were temporary. That clock said there was an end-point. That clock promised that my birthday held freedom.

But, it didn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know motherhood never ends. I know our babies are always our babies. But, birdies do fly from the nest. That’s all I was asking.

But, mine weren’t all going to – even though they were all adults. Well, one is launched. The next may do so in another few years. A third may stay with us “forever.” But, there was no way all those chicks were going to leave the nest by my birthday.

And upon that realization, I became angry.

When was MY time arriving? When did I catch a break? When would MY NEEDS come, if not first, then definitely into play?

At first I didn’t have an answer. So I stomped around and pouted for months leading up to my birthday.

Then came the New Year with a glass of champagne and a moment to make a resolution. And it hit me: I didn’t need an empty nest to make me a priority. I just needed to decide that I was.

I needed to put that oxygen mask on myself first…and at this stage in their lives, I needed my children – disabled or not – to work at getting their own mask on to the best of their abilities. Of course I would help. But, it didn’t have to be my 24/7 responsibility to care for needs they could manage themselves.

I told them what I wanted to do; they promised to help – and they did.

I’ve begun really writing again…and they’ve begun to let me. They try to leave me alone when they can see I’m “on a roll,” and I try to check in with them when I take breaks. And you know what? It’s good for all of us.

I attended a writer’s workshop last month. My one daughter was not in a stable place emotionally, and we discussed whether it was a good idea for me to leave her. Ultimately, we set an alarm on her phone and mine for the time when the meeting would be over. She could call only with major emergencies before the alarm went off, but could check in about anything after it rang.

As my alarm buzzed, so did my phone. “Mommy! Mommy! Do you hear that?” my 21-year-old cried with delight. “I did it! I let you have your meeting even though I had a problem. But, I fixed it myself! Let me tell you how I solved it…”

For you see, my resolve has turned into their resolve. Together, we’re all trying to take another step out into being the best we can be – and we’re all succeeding. In fact, my first novel was published this year. A second one is under consideration with a publisher, and the third is rattling around in my head. My kids are coming to me regularly to show me their accomplishments along with their steps toward independence while we’ve each kicked it up a notch in all aspects of our lives.

And all because I finally resolved to put me first.

About this writer

  • Susan Traugh Susan Traugh is an award-winning author of both commercial and educational books for children and adults. She lives in California with her husband and three teenagers.

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