The end of summer for some people is spent drinking Rosé while reading thick paperbacks on the beach. However, for many of us, the last few weeks in August are spent buying school supplies, sneakers, cleats and pants that actually clear our children’s ankles. We have been frantically downloading calendars, synching schedules, organizing carpools and finding babysitters for the gaps in childcare. We are managing the excitement, anxiety, adrenalin and fear of our children. We are fielding endless questions that address the logistical and metaphysical worries of our kids. We are literally and figuratively shepherding other human beings through the exhilarating and terrifying stages of growing up.
It was in this context that I sent my husband and three of my children on a trip to meet my in-laws in England. The plan was for me to meet them a day later with my eldest child, who was finishing soccer pre-season at his new high school. With the first travelers safely arrived in England, my son and I headed to Newark Airport in Labor Day weekend traffic, leaving ourselves lots of extra time. We began the check in process, but the typical airport mania was quickly and brutally tempered when I was told by an airline agent that my passport had expired three weeks earlier. The irony of that moment was that I had checked EVERYONE else’s passport expiration before the trip, but not my own. Two weeks prior, I drove with my four children to JFK Airport in the middle of a hot summer’s day to make sure they all had Global Entry so that my husband would have a smoother path through the hell that is TSA when he flew alone with the three younger ones. One week prior I carefully packed three children’s clothing into one easy-to-roll suitcase, filled with the perfect travel size toiletries for this one’s eczema and that one’s sensitive tush. One day prior, I bought the kids’ gum and treats before they went to the airport so that my husband wouldn’t have to spend the time and money to buy overpriced candy at the airport. And yet, here I stood, with an expired passport. Me, the most organized, planful, deliberate person I know, sat shocked that I had somehow failed in my planning.
I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be able fly that night. Arrangements were quickly made for my son to fly as an unaccompanied minor, my husband ready to meet him at the other end. Through all the phone calls, What’s Apps and Facetimes, my 14 year old son said, “Mom, it’s ok. Everyone makes mistakes.” My daughter told me she’d “look after Daddy until I got there.” My mother-in-law couldn’t have been kinder and more understanding, reminding me of time that she and my father-in-law had missed a flight. Via Facetime, my husband calmly reassured me. He told me that it only happened because I was doing so much for everyone else and didn’t even think of my own needs. He said it not in a lip service kind of way, but in a, “You are the custodian of developing human beings” kind of way. It was a kind and generous perspective to take and I was grateful for it, knowing that had the situations been reversed I would not have been nearly so kind nor generous.
To every text I sent to sympathetic friends and family who had uttered the same sentiment, “but you’re so organized,” I responded, “I checked everyone else’s passport expiration but my own!” Needing to defend my status as so organized, so competent, so reliable. The very essence of who I am relies on the three pillars of organization, competence, reliability.
As I sat in the slowly darkening and emptying airport waiting for my son’s flight to take off so that I could begin the lonely, unplanned trek back to New York City, a text came in from my wonderful friend Natalie. “There’s a reason they say to put on your oxygen mask before assisting your child.” On the long journey back to the city in the NJ Turnpike and later as I sat in my empty apartment, Natalie’s line echoed in my ears. I’m sure the people who came up with that airplane safety instruction 50 years ago were not thinking of the self-care needs of 21st century women trying to balance family and career. But this oft-heard and largely ignored safety maxim resonated so deeply in that moment. While the airplane metaphor was apt given my circumstances, it was meaningful because the concept so succinctly encapsulates this: we cannot take care of other people if we do not take of ourselves.
By 11:30am the next morning, thanks to the expedient diligence of the New York Passport Agency, I had a renewed passport in hand and a whole day before I had to get back to the airport. I accomplished so much in that found time with nothing scheduled, without the interruptions of meeting other people’s needs. Natalie’s reminder sounded like a faint drumbeat in my mind, as I took care of things I’d been putting off for weeks, including a pedicure, a trip to the Apple Store and bills that had been waiting to be paid. Nothing too glamorous, but all things that sit in that ever-present to do list in my mind, waiting to be crossed off but perpetually superseded by the needs of others. I was exhilarated by those hours of living the reminder to put on my oxygen mask first.
Now three days later, sitting on the flight home, the to do list in my mind has already grown longer, the tasks more complicated, filled with my family’s need. The new desire to put on my oxygen mask first is still there, reminding me that theoretically I can’t take care of others without taking care of myself. But in practice, the will to do so has already somewhat faded as I am surrounded by my children, for whom these tasks must get accomplished. The stakes feel higher for meeting their needs rather than my own, and I wonder: how do I possibly get to the point where I put on my oxygen mask first?