The Mom of No: It’s OK to say ‘NO!’


You know who is really, really good at saying “NO?”

Toddlers. Toddlers are fantastic at saying “NO.” Sometimes they even say “NO” when they really mean “YES,” just because it’s one of the first words they learn. And what could possibly be more fun when you are 2-years-old than running around the house half–naked yelling “NO! NO!” while your mother tries to get you to put on your socks and shoes or brush your teeth? When toddlers use “No,” they often get a reaction, and there is not much, besides maybe cookies and going to the park, that toddlers like better than watching adults’ reactions to things they do and say.

You know who is not good at saying “NO?”  Grown-up women.

I’ve noticed that one of the biggest angst–causing issues among the grown–up women I know is the reluctance to use the word “no.” When we do get up the courage to say “no,” we feel compelled to add explanations to our “No,” so that we’re not disappointing the person that we’re saying, “No” to or sounding like a slacker, and then we feel guilty about saying, “No.” “Yes” is the always the default response. “No” always requires a justification. Some reasons are socially allowable — sick children, working spouse — and some, not so much. Ever tried “no, I don’t want to,” or “I just want to stay home and read ‘Game of Thrones’?”
Do you ever get roped into stuff that you didn’t really want to do because you didn’t want to say “no,” and then you spent the entire time thinking about other stuff you would rather have been doing or not doing? But you felt like if you said “no” you would be letting someone down, or possibly missing out on something, or you didn’t feel like you had a good reason to say, “No?” Me too.

It took me a long time to figure out that I could say no to things and that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation for why I was saying no. Would I like to be in charge of the craft table at the church picnic? No, I would not. No one in their right mind would actually ask me this question, given my ineptitude at projects requiring glitter and glue. This is just an example. Would I like the black pants that go with the shirt I’m buying? No, but thank you for asking. A justification is not required. The saleslady does not need a detailed explanation of the Household of No’s clothing budget.

The perceived requirement to say “yes” to everything gets really bad when you have kids in school, because almost every activity your family is involved in requires volunteers, and the pressure can be strong to volunteer for everything. Especially for Mom. When my kids were younger, I frequently felt like I might actually be an unwitting participant in a competitive reality show called, “Who is the Best Volunteer Mom.” I did not win, in case you are wondering. Not even close.

I know volunteering is important, and I absolutely believe that people should be involved in their community, but saying “yes” to everything will make you feel burned out and resentful. Sometimes, we have to get up the guts to say “Yes!” Sometimes we need to get up the guts to say “No.” Say yes to what calls you — band concession stand, anything involving iNaturalist, or guiding hikes at the nature preserve — YES! Anything involving glue guns, the unpaid use of Excel spreadsheets to keep track of other peoples’ money, or the words “fashion show,” probably not, but thanks for asking. Figure out what your priorities are, and say no to the other things.

The good news is, hope exists. The older and crankier I get, the more comfortable I feel using the word “no.” It’s as if I’m rediscovering my inner toddler, just with a bit more restraint. Just remember: it’s okay to say no. You don’t have to explain the no unless you want to. “Game of Thrones” is calling your name.

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