The problem with the Oxygen Mask analogy, and the Right to Retreat.

Subversive Self-Care: The problem with the Oxygen Mask analogy, and the right to retreat.

Did your mother model self-care for you? Most of our mothers never practice self-care, so we don’t see it as an option until much later than is good for us. And nobody teaches it in college, though we really would benefit from learning this in kindergarten. Oh, my, just imagine that.

But self-care has become an industry, and a powerfully “shoulding” one at that. Just like in the 40s Madison Avenue scared us with Halitosis (bad breath) as a driving force in selling toothpaste and mouthwash (because if you have bad breath no one will EVER love you, right?), now women, especially mothers, are implored to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first”. At first it sounds good, but under that hides a message that I find utterly offensive: if you read between the lines, it’s not about SELF care, it’s still about being there for others. We are encouraged to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first = safeguard our health (and our looks) in order to maintain our ability to take care of and be desired by others, often at the expense of our joy and deeper well being.

Don’t get me wrong, I like health (a lot!) and like everyone else I wish to delay wrinkles, gray hair, and speed up getting back to my pre-prego jeans. And as former flight attendant, I completely agree with the need to put on the oxygen mask on ourselves in order to be able to help or save anyone else. In my semiotics-sensitive mind, giving ourselves permission to take time/resources to meet our own needs because it is an altruistic act negates the part about truly caring about the self. It implies that the only valid reason to put our oxygen mask on is for the benefit of kids, spouses, society at large.

What if meeting our own needs did not require putting others first? Now that’s a subversive thought! Putting the oxygen mask on myself so that I CAN STAY ALIVE, or so that I can THRIVE is reason enough in my book, dammit!

And no, this doesn’t mean that if there was a fire in my house I’d run out the door to save myself without taking my children/husband/pets with me. (um, full disclosure: no pets here, but if I had one, you better believe I’d make sure it was safe too).

The oxygen mask metaphor holds the message that indulging in self-care to take care of myself alone, is indeed indulgent, frivolous, SELFISH. (God forbid!)

I don’t use the term self-care very much. I prefer to use the term Self-Kindness. Because when I say that, I feel as if I am owning the actions as things that are about me and for me, not for the benefit of others. If I go to bed early, it’s because I deserve to rest my tired bones, not just so that I can can drive my kids around safely tomorrow. I do yoga to help me feel nourished, for the joy and the pleasure of a good stretch, not because it would make me a more patient mother afterwards. The patience is a wonderful bonus, but I do yoga FOR ME!

So what does self-care that is about  MEETING MY NEEDS look like?
According to my criteria, self-care is the intersection of nourishment, creativity, and time.
Nourishment in the deep sense: healthy food and delicious flavors included, of course, but also necessary are restorative movement and rest, meeting my need for self-expression and self-realization (for me that looks like having time/space to write!) and the joy of connection with people (adults!) who make me feel seen, heard, and held. All of these things are not easy to come by. They take time, our most limited resource, and courage: the courage to say my needs matter! The courage to rise above the “who do you think you are” monsters. And they require safety and permission to express myself fully, and the ability to do this on my own terms, using my own standards.

So for me, keeping my fresh supply of oxygen is not something I find in a jar of cream, or at a pedicure or a facial. When I buy my self-care, massage is my favorite thing, but I can’t afford it on a regular basis. And while I wish every mother will get massage gifts regularly, (and my birthday is in September, and if you are wondering what to get me: I want that massage, please and thank you! I love massage! But you don’t have to buy me that massage. You want to make me happy yourself? Rub my feet and my shoulders. Kneed that tight spot in my lower back. Yes, right there.) I could go on a whole rant about how massage is a human right, and how we should all have access to this magic every day of the year. I believe we should all be educated on how to give each other healing nonsexual touch. I feel strongly that in a world in which people’s tension would be rubbed away by family members and friends regularly there would be no war! And I massage the feet of new mothers. I bring them waffles and rub their feet. And I do that to do my part to ease the hardship of new motherhood, for the joy I see on their faces when I take their feet in my hands. And yep, a lovely bonus is that it’s how I practically guarantee my spot in heaven.
Anyway, back to reality: massage is worth every penny, but still out of most of our reach.
The trouble with self-care we can only afford on our birthday is, well, what about the rest of the year?

So what is a mama of average means to do? Self-sourced self-care! For me, the most effective forms of self-sourced, do anytime, no economic investment required self-kindness are:

  • Self massage (I can reach my own feet! Go me!)
  • Short yoga pauses.
  • Walks in the woods.
  • Short self-kindness pause (with this 3minutes guided meditation).
  • Giving myself time to write and engage in other creative forms of expression.
  • Painting my own toes a rainbow of colors (I can’t bring myself to pay $35 for something I can do myself. When I can spare the money I’d rather give it to a baby sitter, buying myself time to write.)
  • Spending quality time with people that make me feel seen, heard, and held.

And while these delightful activities do not take money, they still take time. And giving myself permission to take time away from the to-do list, away from meeting the needs of other people, is hard. This is still the biggest barrier for doing all of the above. Giving ourselves the right to retreat ain’t easy on the mom.

But I’m getting better at it. As I let the truth that my needs matter for the sake of my joy, my happiness, my self-realization, sink into my body, granting myself the right to retreat and take care of me, becomes easier, and happens more often. Amen. – – – So, was that subversive enough for you? Here is a subversive jackpot for those of us who are adamant about having access to self-source our self-care. This is the most beautiful right to retreat permission slip I’ve ever seen:

Story of Mum’s DIY Mama’s Retreat kit.

What a brilliant idea!

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Story of Mum is a website in which mothers tell their stories, give themselves time and space for creativity and self-expression, where mothers share pictures of their home, their art, and share their writing. Wow. A community with so much in common to Mama’s Comfort Camp, finding them feels like reuniting with a long lost twin.

And it’s so cool that Pippa Best and her mother Penny have launched their first downloadable Mama DIY Retreat Kit on March 12, the same day as the Mama’s Comfort Camp birthday. Coincidence? Probably, but I still get to love it.

Pippa asked me to review the Mama DIY Retreat Kit. It is brilliant. Square in the “I wish I’d created it myself” category. Since I host local afternoon retreats for moms here in Ithaca, I was hoping to someday create a location-independent retreat kit so the rest of the Campers around the world can access this magic, and Pippa totally beat me to it.

I couldn’t recommend this more. Go Pippa and Penny!!!

All the details on the DIY Mama’s Retreat – Take a Compliment are available here. Want more self-care ideas? To highlight the DIY Mama’s Retreat packages, Story of Mum is also holding a self-care blog carnival. Looking forward to more good stuff!

Story of Mum’s Do It Yourself Retreat Kit is a gorgeous digital pack brimming with beautiful printables and easy to follow videos. It contains everything you need to host your own 3 to 4 hour Mamas’ Retreat. Just add friends, clear a gentle yoga space in your living room, and bake something delicious…

– – –

So Mama’s Comfort Campers, if you haven’t yet checked out Story of Mum, go there, take a look, sign up for the free community where you can share your art and stories.

And a special hello to those of you who came here through the Story of Mum self-care Carnival. If you are not familiar with the Mama’s Comfort Camp, here is the scoop: We are a free support community online and in real life. We are hundreds of mothers from all around the world (over 500 from the Ithaca area) connecting via a private facebook group, and support is available 24/7/365. Together we normalize the challenges and celebrate the joys of the roller-coaster ride called motherhood, all in a safe space free from judgment, protected from unsolicited advice, and steeped with respect and kindness. We hold free monthly support meetings, fun gatherings, and classes.

Free and open to moms of kids of ANY age: from moms of newborns to grandmothers and every stage in between. Come join the conversation, or just read what the others are saying, that alone can help you feel more normal when you struggle…  You can ask to join the group at

Please help us bring the Mama's Comfort Camp to more mothers by sharing this post via:

21 Responses to The problem with the Oxygen Mask analogy, and the Right to Retreat.

  1. Yael, I am so thrilled to have found you and your amazing community. You have inspired me to go a step further in each moment that we have connected, and this post is a fantastic example of that. I am reaching for the oxygen mask and breathing deeply – breathing in that knowledge that every breath serves me. And of course I serve others, but I serve myself first. And that alone is enough. Apart from when it comes to cake – somehow the kids always seem to get their servings before I do… one of the many very good reasons we came up with the idea of child-free DIY Mamas Retreats… 😉

  2. So much yes! And I want to add: the oxygen mask analogy implies that IF it’s an EMERGENCY, practice self-care before going back to your selfless focus on everyone else in your family. We can’t live well if we drain ourselves by ignoring our own well-being, try to recharge in an hour at a salon, and go back to start again. The family unit cares for each other with give and take all around. If we don’t teach our children that sometimes their needs take precedence, and sometimes ours do, where will they learn it? Even if schools taught it, it would be in a social/group context. A family is so intimate. Mama’s Comfort can’t be ignored without a serious imbalance.

  3. What a lovely post, Yael and nice to ‘meet you’ through Pippa’s carnival. So many amazing people doing wonderful things! I use the oxygen mask analogy a lot with the mama’s I work with as a FIRST STEP to learning about taking time for self. Sometimes it is a concept so lost amongst motherhood, that I try to softly transition them. Firstly from caring for themselves for the benefit of others and once comfortable with that, we move on to acting for self, and truly knowing and believing the value of it. It is such a wonderful transition to witness! Maybe one day we could do a retreat swap :-)

  4. They are normally used for sufferers who need moisture but won’t use an aerosol cover up. It can run on air or fresh air. Usually, there is a large nebulizer linked to the gas resource to give the affected person lots of moisture. They can be used after surgery treatment, when the affected person has a nasal area problem, face burns, and there are a couple more factors that I don’t keep in mind at this time.

  5. Here’s an extraordinary relationship: If you’ve flown on a business aircraft you’ll be comfortable with the ‘breathing device’ exhibition and you’ll likely have seen that they generally teach you to ensure that your own mask! Indeed, in life, a similar rule applies.

  6. I bring them waffles and rub their feet. What’s more, I do that to do my part to facilitate the hardship of new parenthood, for the delight I see on their appearances when I take their feet in my grasp. Also, yes, a stunning reward is that it’s the way I for all intents and purposes ensure my spot in paradise.

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