I recently spoke at a local group for moms of children on the autism spectrum. The talk was on the topic of stress management, and how important self care is for everyone, even more so for caregivers. Studies have found that autism parents have stress levels comparable to combat soldiers, and run the same risks for PTSD as well as other stress-related diseases. Being able to manage our stress levels is critical, not optional.

After the talk, one of the moms remarked, “Thank you for not using the oxygen mask analogy about self care. It is so overused and cliche.” Amen, sister. People often use this analogy when reminding us to take care of ourselves, and I have a problem with it.

If you haven’t heard the analogy before, it refers to the reminder we get every time a plane is about to take off to “Put on our own oxygen mask first.” The idea is that, if we put on our own oxygen mask first, we’ll be able to then assist our children, instead of passing out from, you know, lack of oxygen.

On the surface, relating this to self care seems fine, smart even. However, the issue I see is this: if you think back to the airplane for a moment – when those masks drop from the ceiling we are ALREADY in crisis. Whatever emergency is causing the plane to trigger this safety measure is happening now, in real time.

The problem when we relate this back to the daily stress of raising a child with special needs (or with caregiving in general), is that when we are in crisis we CANNOT stop and take care of ourselves first. When my child is careening toward a meltdown, it is not the time for me to run off and get a pedicure or even step away for a breather. Instead, in crisis I am in full fledged fight-or-flight, as I need to be in order to keep him and others safe.

To put it simply, crisis may be the time for oxygen masks, but is NOT the time for self-care.

Instead, I believe that the time to take care of ourselves is long before crisis strikes. We need to be continually practicing self care, filling our reserves by taking lots and lots of tiny sips instead of a few huge gulps.

As busy moms, we often think we don’t have time for this. Self care becomes another thing on the To-Do list, often in the category of “when I get time”. The reality is self care doesn’t have to take much time, if any, out of our normal day. This is because self care is not an activity, it’s an attitude.

With the attitude of self care, I can practice it at any time by simply taking care of myself, by being present to the current moment. By noticing the sun on my face as I walk to the car. By feeling gratitude for the many hands involved in producing the fresh vegetables I am chopping for dinner. By taking a few intentional rounds of deep, cleansing breaths throughout the day.

These are all ways to practice self care, and they can be done at any time.  In future posts, I’ll talk more about ways we can add sips of self care to our daily routines. For now, I’m going to step outside, and breathe.

Invitation: Think of self care as an attitude, not an activity. What are some ways you could add a few more tiny sips of self care to your day today? Let me know in the comment box below.