No. No. No. No.
It’s not an easy word for me to say. I’d imagine it’s a hard word for a lot of people, and perhaps especially for mothers.
I want to accept new assignments at work. I want to try new things. I want to help friends out. I want to please my relatives. I don’t want opportunities to pass me by. I don’t want to disappoint people. I don’t want to feel guilty about saying no. I don’t want to miss out on any aspects of life.
So, I used to say yes nearly to all offers and requests, spreading myself much too thinly, and feeling quite frazzled and worn out.
But then I had a baby.
It’s a cliché that once you have a child, you learn what really matters. It may be a cliché, but clichés come from somewhere, and this one definitely is true in my case.
I looked at my daughter and understood that she was what truly mattered, and that I had to put her first.
However, that’s easy to think, and not so always easy to do, especially when you’ve been a perfectionist and workaholic since childhood.
For the first few months of my baby’s life, I kept rushing to my computer in the middle of the night while she was asleep. I’d try to answer work emails and write references for students, though I was on maternity leave, and I’d do freelance translation and copy editing assignments, and catch up on correspondence. I’d be exhausted and cold and longing to get back into bed with my wife and daughter, and yet I felt I had to keep up with all these tasks. Intellectually, I knew they’d wait for me, or that someone else could do them, but I couldn’t let myself rest and focus on our little family.
Then my daughter began to talk. And one of her first words was “no”. I was initially surprised by this, because I didn’t think my wife and I said “no” all that often. I didn’t know where she learned it.
Now I ask my daughter if she wants some soup, and she shakes her head and says “No!” (Or “Nuh,” as she pronounces it.) But she does want an apple, so she eats that instead.
I try to put her socks on and she says, “Nuh!” She makes it clear her feet are warm enough.
I offer her a certain toy and she says, “Nuh!” She reaches for the one she prefers.
And so on. She happily voices her opinions and desires, and we accept them (except, of course, if it’s dangerous. If she says “Nuh!” when we take her hand to cross the street, we insist nonetheless on holding her hand).
It struck me that if she could say “No” so easily, and if she could be so confident about what she needed, then I could learn from that. Often, I know what I need, although I go against that because I think I “ought” to, or “must,” do something. Having time with my wife and daughter, I’ve now truly come to understand, trumps everything else.
So when I recently was asked to run an evening activity for work that would have looked nice on my CV, but that conflicted with our daughter’s bedtime, I said, “No, I’m not able to do that at this stage.”
When I was invited to take on a large freelance task that would have paid well, I hesitated, but then said, “That unfortunately would interfere with family time, so thank you, but no.”
When asked to get together with people on a week when I’d already been quite busy and was tired, I declined.
It’s been scary to turn things down, and I’ve worried about what others might think, but it’s also liberating.
No one can do it all, as much as we might want to, and it’s important to prioritize.
My daughter can say “Nuh!” and so, I now realize, can I.