How My Son Taught Me to Say ‘No’


I’ve had a problem since grade school. I’m sure earlier, if I could remember.

Since my first grade teacher asked for volunteers to coordinate classroom chores or take on leadership roles or care for the beloved class bird on the weekends, it’s dictated my schedule and determined my work ethic. I never turned down an extra-credit assignment or a chance to take on a larger burden, and that willingness to “do it all” followed me through high school and college and well into my career.

I can’t say “no.”

I have this piercing need to not only please, but to surprise. I want to check off a list so long and overwhelming, that people are left scratching their heads, wondering how I can possibly do it all.

I want to be as busy and important and accomplished as hypothetically feasible. And I learned, probably around grade school, that as a woman that meant saying “yes” to everything. I had to do more, work harder and reach higher than my male classmates or colleges, so I did.

Which, in turn, makes the turning down of any opportunity seem like a public and personal disappointment. I feel like I’m simultaneously admitting my inabilities while being ungrateful for the opportunity to even try.

So, I don’t.

I take on whatever is thrown my way, saying yes to planning parties and heading meetings and extra clients and additional writing gigs and the list goes on, and on and on.

And when I had my son and became a mother, the urge to thoughtlessly accept any opportunity only increased.

I wanted to prove I could do it all. I wanted to be that mother with an invisible cape flapping in the wind behind her, the personification of every woman’s boundless capabilities. I wanted to be a shining light of strength and effort and triumph, debunking any idea that a mother spends her time in nothing but sweats, sitting on the couch, barking orders to her children while watching day-time television and watching her dreams pass her by.

So I did what I do best. I continued to say yes.

I said yes to publications and writing opportunities — even ones that didn’t pay. I said yes to parties and trips and play dates and promotions and clients. I said yes to extra work and extra hours and extra responsibilities — even ones that didn’t pay. I didn’t just keep the same schedule, I added to it.

I became busier once my son was born, even agreeing to complete a deadline two days after he arrived.

And in the midst of my can-do, all-go, no-quit quest to prove my unstoppable efficiency, I failed at the most important task on my bountiful plate.

Being a mother.

Sure, I was taking care of my son seven days a week. He was bathed and fed and clothed and safe and relatively happy, as soon-to-be toddlers are. He was growing the way he should and progressing the way he should and hitting the milestones that parents seem to use to prove they’re doing their jobs.

But I was failing.

I was tired, skipping out on moments when I could play with my family for a few moments of necessary rest. My son and his father would play in the living room while I went to the bedroom, closing my eyes to laughs and giggles because I had an all-nighter ahead of me.

I was irritable, snapping at him for grabbing my computer or important papers or my phone during a conference call. Instead of letting my son be a child, I silently asked that he grow up quicker so he’d know what was mommy’s and what was his.

I was stressed, losing sleep and skipping meals as I replayed deadlines and meetings and emails over and over in my head. I always felt a step behind because I was always adding an additional step ahead.

And it wasn’t until my son was ten months old and walking, that I realized I needed to learn to say “no.”

With him marching around, needing additional supervision and becoming more curious and aware, I knew I had to prioritize.

I had to start disappointing others, so I wouldn’t disappoint my son and, in turn, myself.

I learned that I had the right to take care of myself before I took care of anyone else. That saying “no” to another obligation and “yes” to down time made me a more enjoyable, more engaged mother.

I learned that declining opportunities so I wasn’t constantly busy wasn’t a reflection of my work ethic or my willingness to succeed, it was a reflection of my self-worth.

I learned that wearing nothing but sweats and sitting on the couch with my family, is pretty damn amazing.

I learned that being consistently busy or constantly creating isn’t a representation of my job as a mother or how successful I am at it.

I learned that people’s perception of my abilities paled in comparison to my son’s perception of his mother. His laugh when I stopped to play with blocks or his smile when I stopped to read him a book, was — and is — better than any congratulations I’d receive on any project.

I learned that I had the right to do nothing. That watching opportunities pass me by as I relaxed didn’t mean they would stop coming my way altogether.

I learned that there’s power in saying “no”, and that as a mother and a woman and a person, I had the right to exercise that power whenever I felt it was necessary, even if it upset or disappointed someone else.

Most importantly, I learned that I don’t want to instill the same self-sacrificing tendencies I’ve developed, onto my son.

I want to make sure that when his future first grade teacher asks for volunteers to coordinate classroom chores or take on leadership roles or care for the beloved class bird on the weekends, he won’t feel obligated to say yes.

He’ll know that self-preservation is more important than self-promotion.

And he’ll know that when he feels overwhelmed or tired or stressed, it’s okay to say “no.”

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