Put on your own oxygen mask first!

MomFoThinking (2)This week I was interviewed by a BDN reporter for an upcoming story on divorce in Maine. Apparently, being divorced more than once, and having the nerve to write about it in my blog, makes me an expert of sorts. So, I guess that makes me an expert at failure! Great!

Or, we can re-frame that. Maybe it makes me an expert at overcoming hardship or at starting over. Maybe it makes me an expert at settling for nothing less than I deserve, or an expert at self-examination and self-improvement. Maybe it makes me an expert at optimism, at choosing to try, choosing to love, again, when the odds of success always seem to be stacked against me! Yes, let’s go with that! I am an expert at optimism! Go me!

Until a few years ago, I had never lived alone. Like many women of my generation, I had lived with my parents, husbands, children, and significant others but had never before lived completely on my own. For the first time in my adult life I found myself picking out and decorating a new apartment that was going to be mine alone.

It was both exciting and terrifying at the same time! I realized that for the first time in my life, I answered to no one. I could put the couch anywhere! I could set up the kitchen just for me. I could decorate any crazy way I wanted! I could lounge in my favorite chair for hours on end doing nothing but drinking tea and reading Harry Potter and no is going to know (well, now you know).  No one is going to complain if I haven’t done the dishes in the sink! I can wander around in my underwear and have nothing but wine and cheese for dinner, and no one is going to question my judgment (okay, look, it was a long week, don’t question my judgment).

While I may be alone in my apartment, I am not alone in this experience. Many of my middle-aged friends are finding themselves divorced, with an empty nest, learning to negotiate their lives independently. Oh we are not without responsibilities, don’t get me wrong. We are still there for our adult children when they need us, and many of us are now caregivers to our parents, but at the end of the day we have a place to retreat to that is ours and ours alone!

Now this does not mean that we live a lonely life, and that is key. Most of my middle-aged single apartment dwelling friends have very full lives. Besides busy careers, we have multiple volunteer commitments, full social circles, active dating lives, or even committed relationships, but we choose to continue to live alone because at the end of the day, we know that is the healthiest thing for us!

The hardest part about living alone, other than trying to pay all the bills yourself, is the time you spend in your own head. This is also the most important part, at least for me. For years, my life revolved around the needs of other people. I rarely had time to stop and think about my own needs and wants. I rarely had time to think about my own motives.

Now, I have more time to think than I ever dreamed of, or even wanted, and it’s been a time of huge growth. While sometimes painful, and sometimes pleasant, the time I have had in my own head has been essential to my overall health. I’ve had time to reexamine the past, and to think about the future. I can actually make plans based on what is best for ME rather than reacting to the current crisis or the needs of multiple other people.

Quality alone time is something you can’t even picture during the years you are raising a family; when you are a nursing mother, or tending to the needs of toddlers, even your personal space is no longer your own. You are constantly surrounded by people who need you and while this wonderful, it is also incredibly draining. Quality alone time when you have small children consists of that one time last week when you got to take a shower and no one banged on the door while you were in there!

Decisions at that time of your life are based on what is best for your children or what is best for you spouse or the family overall. Certainly, that’s the way it should be and if your marriage is successful you will continue to make plans for the future that meet both your needs. However, having to think of no one but me has turned out to be a luxury I never expected. Oh don’t get me wrong, I still think of my family, my friends and my significant person, but the bottom line at this stage of my life has to be me because at the end of the day I’m the one person I will always live with. I’ve got to be at peace with me. After all if you don’t love you, you have very little left to give all those other folks in your life.

It’s like they tell you on an airplane, always put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help anyone else with theirs. That is a very important lesson, on an airplane and in life! We often forget that when our days are packed full of taking care of other people!

As the years march on, my single dwelling peers and I may make changes to our lives that eventually involve living with other people again. Some of us might find that we long for someone to come home to and may look for roommates or move in with significant others. Our age, health or finances may force us to make decisions that we might not have made otherwise. We may even, once again, be called on to be fulltime caregivers to someone we love. That’s okay, because most of us have learned that the only consistent thing in this life is change. We’ll be ready for it because we took this time in our lives to take care of ourselves first.



Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.