Put On Your Mask Before Helping Others

April 11, 2015 | Blog, News

It’s been quite awhile since I wrote something personal about the work I’m doing. I used to write regularly about being a mama prof.  When I did that, I sometimes received feedback so ugly that it stopped me in my tracks. Today I felt I might write again, and I shared this piece with my Facebook friends. Their response made me feel it might help other people if I tried it with a broader audience. So here it is. Take it or leave it.


I fly at least twice a month. When the safety announcement comes on, I usually tune it out. But one line always gets through, not because I agree with it or it’s especially important but because I object to it. And when I object to something, I respond.

“In the event of an emergency, face masks will descend. Put on your mask before helping others.”

I object. There is no situation in which I can imagine doing this. Pulling a mask over my own face before grabbing and placing the one meant for my child? For my friend? No way.

Yes, I understand why they urge us to do this. I cannot help others if I have passed out from lack of oxygen. I have learned this the hard way. I could not nurse my son when I had forgotten to feed myself. That did not stop me from forgetting to eat, to drink, or to sleep during the 18 months I spent nursing him, or the 12 months I spent nursing his sister. Those periods of my life were simply more extreme version of the life I live every day. A life in which my own body is subordinated to those of others.

I write that and feel like a martyr. I write that and feel judged. I write that and wonder, how do you like me now? I write that and I care what you think.

I wish I didn’t. I wish that I woke up every day and simply did my work, took care of my family, enjoyed my husband, and spend time being alive. But that isn’t me. I live because I work. I live because I am a mother. I live to do those two things. Why else would I be?

So I reach the “end” of each week, a Saturday morning like this one, with a feeling that I have come to the end. I am depleted of all energy. Tears are all that come. There is no more milk, there is only blood.

But this is never the end of a week—it is never a Sabbath—it is another day of work. I have more to do. Today I will go into the office for three hours, since along with my colleagues we are greeting the next round of prospective students. Tomorrow I will prepare for the three public talks I’m giving during the coming week, the nine different meetings, and trips to three cities. I need to find some energy tomorrow, since Monday is one of the only remaining days I have set aside to attempt to finish a book manuscript due June 1.

Even as I write this, I feel judgment—not from others but from myself, as I question whether these tasks will in fact make any difference at all. There is so much wrong in the world today, racism coloring every little interaction, tears pouring down the faces of those comforted by far less privilege than I enjoy, how can I pretend like this life is a burden?

It isn’t. This life is tremendous. It is full of opportunities to help. It may be looked upon as inappropriate, it may be viewed as wrong-headed…I may be viewed as inappropriate for thinking so much of my own role, my body judged as too heavy, misshapen, even ugly for its lack of focus on a regime of self-righteous diet and exercise to prolong its utility to the world. But this is the only way I know how to live.

To say yes, I will, when I know my counterparts would say no. To say, come on in, and cry, even though I have no space for my own tears. To say, I will fight, even though I know my body will bear the wounds. That’s the urgency that provokes me to open my eyes each morning.



When I tell you what I did, do you respond, “That’s great?” Full stop. “Good, and how are the kids?” “Wonderful.” Full stop. No further recognition, no sense of genuine respect or pride. When I reach to you, the people who made me, and that is what I get in return, the hunger continues.

I will fight for more. I will do more. I will give more.

At some point, maybe, it will be enough.

Your mask is off, and I will help you now.





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