Journeys: Putting on My Oxygen Mask

When faced with caring for her aging mother, Ann Potter struggles to practice both compassion for others and compassion for herself. 

Ann Potter
12 August 2014
Photo by Jake Thacker

What is it I resist about taking care of my mother? It’s not just the actual tasks involved—it’s the whole idea. It’s giving up my own stuff to do hers; giving up my own time to be with her; continually giving up my own needs to satisfy hers.

My mother is ninety-three and lost her eyesight this year; she requires more care now than ever before. Ambulatory and active, she still lives alone but needs help with meals, supervision, companionship, medication management, and other daily things.

My three sisters and I split her care. Two of us live close to her here in Florida, and two live out of town and fly in for three- to six-week stays. Recently, I went to California for five months to take care of my eighteen-month-old granddaughter, preparing her to transition to daycare. Doing so left me burnt out, exhausted, and hospitalized for three days with a lung infection and pneumonia, delaying my return trip to Florida. Now that I’m home, my sisters are chomping at the bit for me to return to “mommy-care duty.” I resisted at first on the grounds that I’m still recovering from pneumonia. But with time, I find myself making up new excuses and investigating assisted-living facilities. I also find myself annoyed and irritable whenever I am with my sisters and my mother.

My Buddhist training emphasizes compassion, including compassion for self, even while acknowledging the concept of no-self. I try for self compassion, but in my Catholic and military family it comes across as selfishness. Maybe it is the way I deliver the message. I don’t know.

If I have no self, why does it get so tired? I look within to see why I resist so, but all I see is a needy mommy wanting to swallow me up. How do I get some relief? Will it come only when she dies? How will I feel then: remorseful or relieved? Even on airplanes they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to assist others, including your kids or the elderly. If you don’t save yourself, you won’t be able to save anyone else. I guess you could argue that you are saving yourself only so you can help others. So that’s where I am right now. Putting the oxygen mask on. And it may take a while before I get enough oxygen to help someone else. Is it a given that once the mask is on, we must immediately go about the task of helping all others? To be a good Buddhist, I guess the answer would be yes. Am I a bad Buddhist?

What would the Buddha do? He left his wife, infant son, and parents behind. He left them to sit with his questions. The answer he found was simple—sitting with your own suffering, watching it come and go, ultimately leads to a place of compassion and equanimity for all, including oneself.

I know I must try to see my mother, my daughter, my sisters as myself; some Buddhist teachings tell us everybody is or has been your mother, so treat all with compassion, including your non-self. Sometimes, though, the most compassionate act is to step away and make room for others to be in their own suffering until they are ready to put it down themselves. We cannot really carry others for long.

I’m still fumbling with my own oxygen mask—it’s awkward and uncomfortable, and I’ve never worn one before. But it’s in my hands. I can see that.

I met with my mother and sisters over dinner yesterday, and as I sat with them, I thought I noticed a softening occurring in my belly. Chris will fly back to Kentucky in a few days; Kay and I will be left here to divide up the caretaking duties until she comes again. Somehow it will work out. My mother smiles with the happiness of having most of her girls at dinner with her. Her wants are simple now: our companionship, a glass of wine, a good meal, a walk outside, a good book on tape, someone to watch over her if she falls. Simple things, really. Who wouldn’t do those things for another once their own oxygen mask is firmly in place?

Ann Potter

Ann Potter has practiced meditation for more than twenty years. She lives in Venice, Florida.