The plane rolled slowly down the tarmac as the flight attendant read the pre-takeoff warnings in a placid voice, a smile stretched across her bright pink lips.
“In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling.” I turned to my daughter who was sitting next to me, her tiny, three-year-old body barely taking up half the seat. She was looking at the emergency procedures card and telling herself a story about the planes and the boats and the water.
The flight attendant walked by and paused momentarily at our row. “Be sure you put your oxygen mask on first and then put hers on,” she said kindly. I nodded instantly. Yes, of course, I’d heard it many times. It’s safety smart. It’s a fantastic metaphor. It’s common sense.
It’s complete horse manure.
Seriously. In that moment I realized it would take a Herculean effort for me to put my own mask on while watching my daughter gasp for air.
There are some things in life you never understand until you are a parent. Before having my daughter I did not imagine it would be very difficult to care for a tiny human. They are small and I’d changed lots of diapers in my lifetime. How hard could it really be? I also did not imagine that out of your vast love for your child, you could actually hurt them—like by wanting to put their oxygen mask on first while neglecting your own. I didn’t imagine that sometimes in caring for her, I’d be hurting myself and other times in caring for myself, I’d be doing the best thing for her.
But perhaps the most inaccurate idea I had about parenting was that real life would pause while I parented and cared for my child. I thought my personal life would run along on nicely-oiled wheels while I learned how to be a perfect mother. Then life-beyond-parenting could gradually reassert itself once my child began gaining independence. I didn’t expect to have to fit in therapy appointments around pediatric visits. I didn’t expect to lose friends, cope with massive loss, and deal with depression and anxiety all while caring for another human being.
Because no one really expects the plane to crash. And when it does, no one wants to have their child sitting next to them as the plane rockets toward the unyielding ground.
Obviously, I know better now. Several months after becoming a parent, my life hit unexpected turbulence—the kind that you call a “family emergency” when people ask because you don’t know what to say and you don’t want to tell them the sordid details that ripped your life apart like shrapnel—and for better or worse, my daughter was right there next to me for all of it. The aftermath found me sobbing on the kitchen floor more times than I care to remember, sending my daughter to her grandparent’s unexpectedly because I couldn’t function, and missing bedtimes for therapy appointments or because I was curled up in a ball and couldn’t make myself move. I was clutching two oxygen masks and trying desperately to keep us both alive.
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that in the thick of it, on the worst days, I wished I wasn’t a parent. I wished I only needed to look after myself. I wished my own self-destructive choices didn’t impact another human being. I wished I was only fumbling with one oxygen mask.
Often I would look around forlornly and wonder, How am I supposed to handle this? Is this what parents actually deal with? Am I the only one whose life is falling apart and hurting both mother and child? Am I a bad mother because caring for both my daughter and myself right now feels impossible? Somewhere there had to be a special home for people like me, I reasoned, for parents who have just gotten in way over their head and need to go live on 56-acres of rolling green hills with free nannies, chefs, and therapists who help you through until you’ve reached stasis again. Surely I’d just missed hearing about this service somehow.
Surely I can’t be expected to deal with all of this at once.
But one crisis, one meal, one bath time, one breakdown, one tantrum, one therapy session at a time, I awkwardly stretched back that white rubber band and placed the yellow mask over my mouth and nose and pulled the tiny strings. I watched my daughter’s fearful eyes as I took the second mask and placed it around her head as she squirmed. We sat there, looking like two little lost ducks with round yellow beaks. And I held her in spite of how confused and terrified I was.
As I waded through the wreckage of what had been my life, I kept her tiny hand in mine, blindly trusting that she needed me as ferociously as she needed oxygen and that though I was broken and bruised—ugly-crying on a regular basis, snapping needlessly because I just couldn’t take any more, hiding my tears and pretending I was fine—she was still better off working through the wreckage with me than being without me.
Gradually, as the chaos settled down and life returned to cruising altitude, I discovered that while it might have been easier to walk through the valley and the shadow alone, I might have given up if I hadn’t had her there with me. I needed a reason to put my oxygen mask on in the first place. I needed her tiny chest next to me, rising and falling, reminding me why I kept going. I may have given her oxygen, but she gave me hope. And when turbulence hits and the fasten seatbelt light flashes on, it’s hard to say which is more important.
Guest post written by Ashly Hilst. Ashly chases grace and an exceptionally fast toddler in the magical land of Portland, Oregon. During the hours when said toddler succumbs to exhaustion, you can find Ashly blogging editing, and supporting writers on her website, Ink and Grace Editing, or perhaps wearing fuzzy socks and enjoying a glass of red wine and the latest Sherlock episode with her husband. You can also follow her on Instagram.