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Parenthood Gave Me A Black Eye

Sometimes taking care of others requires first taking care of yourself, says psychologist Tania Lombrozo.
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Sometimes taking care of others requires first taking care of yourself, says psychologist Tania Lombrozo.
iStockphoto

I faint once every 10 years.

The first time, I was 16 standing in the sun early one morning. I thought I was going to pass out and immediately told my mother, who caught me as I fell.

The second time, I was in my late 20s. I was on vacation, up early for the views one hot morning. I thought I was going to pass out and stepped toward my husband, who caught me as I fell.

The third time was last week. My daughter woke me up at 3 a.m. to help her use the potty. A few minutes later, I felt like I was going to pass out and I thought: "I'll just get her tucked in bed and then I can lie down." It turns out that was one thought too many.

I came to a few moments later on the very hard bathroom floor, very sore (though not nearly as sore as I would feel a few hours later). I was lucky that the only thing I broke was my glasses.

What went wrong?

At a physiological level, the story isn't so interesting: dehydration and low blood pressure. But there's a parenting lesson embedded in here as well, one I've been told and, apparently, failed to internalize. One version of it borrows the familiar language of airline safety announcements: Put your own oxygen mask on first.

In other words, sometimes effectively looking after others requires first looking after oneself. In this case, it would have been better for all involved — including my daughter — if I'd looked after myself by immediately sitting or lying down, rather than aiming to get her to bed first.

As is sometimes (but not always!) the case, this parenting platitude is partially backed by some solid scientific research. For instance, my colleagues Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan have conducted longitudinal studies investigating factors associated with major family transitions and children's well being. One finding is that the quality of parents' marital relationships, as well as parents' symptoms of depression and perceived stress, predict the success of their child's transition to formal schooling.

There's also a large body of research documenting effects of parental depression on both parents and children. In these cases, what's best for the child tends to be what's best for the parent: addressing the depression and improving the quality of parents' relationships and experience.

This parenting lesson may be obvious, but it isn't always easy to implement — especially in a cultural context that often idealizes intensive parenting. Fortunately, I have a good reminder for now: a fresh black eye to bring some new clarity every time I look in the mirror.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo