Oxygen Masks: Letting Go and Self-Care

Last week was a wonderful morning with my moms and babies at The Circle! One of the themes that kept coming up in our conversation was how our difficulty in trusting others with our children makes it hard to care for ourselves. Not only do we have the concerns that everyone does, we worry about how our conditions might make them additionally vulnerable. Intuition tells us when a person or a situation is just not right. Yet, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between intuition and fear. Intuition informs us, guides us. Fear entraps us, holds us back.

Letting go has been a struggle for me. Between the moment my son came home from NICU until he was about eight months old, I never spent more than three hours away from him. Not only did I have trouble trusting people, I had fought so hard for breastfeeding, and thought irrationally, that if he had one bottle, it would all be over. My first overnight trip was to Beyonce’s Formation tour. I prepared for weeks: scheduling child care shifts, typing out daddy instructions, researching breast-friendly nipples and organic formulas in case I couldn’t pump and freeze enough milk. We got tickets to the San Diego show, and would be gone for 26 hours. It was excruciating. And kind of glorious. And my kid was still alive, and still nursing, and still perfect when I got back.

I eventually built a complex and delicate childcare web that included support from his dad, my mother, sisters, in-laws, therapies, an early intervention program, and even a special needs daycare, two afternoons a week. But with the demands of teaching, research, job market, and running a household, this support did not stretch to cover any “me” time. With no release in sight, I kept pushing myself to work, work, work. Then, the same day I got diagnosed with stress-induced shingles, anemia, and exhaustion, I weighed in at ***lbs. (Not giving up the number). I hit a painful wall. I did not like my body: the way it looked, felt, or moved. I used to be a dancer, now I huffed and puffed after half a flight of stairs. Something had to change in my life, immediately.

I had been eyeing the Kids Club on my rare visits to the gym for months. But it seemed ludicrous to leave a baby, let alone one with Down Syndrome there. But, full of apprehension, I tried it. I took him to Kids Club while I went to Zumba class. He was still alive. Went again, to hip hop. He was good. Now we have been going to the gym up to three evenings a week, so I can take dance classes. I feed him, brush his teeth, put him in pajamas before we leave. I dance for an hour, he gets cuddled by one of the aides and watches some horrible kiddie movie and greets me with hugs and kisses when I get back. If I’m lucky, he knocks out in the car on the way home. I rarely see other children so young there, and certainly no others with special needs that I can ascertain. I have seen raised eyebrows, as I stroll in with a toddler (who looks much younger than he is) in an Ergo when its dark outside. I am sure there are people who think I am a horrible mother. But this is working for us. If there is someone different in the Kids Club than the people I have come to know and trust, or if I just don’t have the right feeling in my stomach, I don’t leave him. I try to live by intuition, not fear.

I know this solution is not possible, or fathomable for everyone. I know we have to be so careful who we put our vulnerable children into the hands of. But as moms (I’m going to focus on moms here, since we seem to suffer from the greatest guilt around taking time for ourselves), I think sometimes we have to weigh, when letting go is better for our babies, because we have pushed ourselves to the point where our judgment, balance, immune systems, bodies, minds, and souls are so compromised we actually could become the source of some form of harm. For warrior mamas, this may mean extra, and intimidating levels of preparation—limiting caregivers to people who are infant CPR certified, training relatives and friends on proper feeding and holding, teaching procedures like G-tube feedings and diaper changing with an ostomy—but it is so necessary. I don’t feel alive if I am not dancing. And I cannot be a good mother if I’m barely alive.

People often tell me that I am strong, and I think I had started to believe that I was exceptionally strong, so much so that I didn’t need rest, or to find my own moments of joy and exercise and release. This myth of Black women’s exceptional strength has been so harmful, not only to Black women ourselves, but to the societies and communities that then don’t have to change and transform to support us. It is a myth that I think many women, beyond Black women take on. I believe that socially conscious mothering, particularly for children who live in greater conditions of vulnerability and exclusion, is a political act. And in the process of performing this politics, I call on the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

SN moms, all moms, dads, caregivers, what are your self-care challenges? Are there any strategies or life hacks that you have figured out, to make sure that you are, as the flight attendants say, putting your own oxygen mask on first? Again, I am enabling comments on this one, because I would like this to be a space to share.