By Laura Kohler
Between Christmas and New Years, my husband brought me breakfast in bed almost every morning. I say this not to brag (okay, fine, I’m bragging a little), but because it was the result of something I’d worked very hard at: saying no.
Women are socialized to say yes to everything. We learn from a young age to be friendly, to be helpful, to be agreeable. We are taught to take up as little space as possible, to not make any demands, lest we be seen as domineering, bossy, or worst of all, bitchy. We are raised with expectations set upon us by others, carefully internalized, until we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to and cheerfully agreeing to things that we really don’t want to be doing.
Think about it: how many times have you said yes to something you had no interest in, because you didn’t want to offend? The dinner you didn’t want to go to, the Elternbeirat you somehow volunteered for, the Facebook comment you felt obliged to write, in support of a friend you haven’t spoken to in years? How many times have you agreed to do something that you didn’t have time for, because you wanted to appear helpful, because you wanted to be seen as reliable? Suddenly you find yourself in the kitchen at midnight, waiting for twenty-four sugar-free cupcakes to cool, because if you didn’t do them, who would? (Quite possibly no one, and in the end, does it really matter?) How many times have you sat there, wondering how you got roped into this again? Because, in the end, it was easier to say yes.
I’ve always seen it as somehow my responsibility to make sure everything was done. When I was in seventh grade, I was put on a group project with three boys, only one of whom was known to ever do any work. When I complained, my teacher told me that she did it intentionally, because she knew I would get the work done. It was only recently that I realized this wasn’t a compliment, despite her having meant it that way. It was one more expectation that I said yes to, that I met, despite having to pull far more than my own weight. (Our project was on the history of potato farming. David’s contribution was a homemade potato gun. For those of you thinking “Awesome!” – congratulations on your male privilege.)
This doesn’t mean I’m saying no to everything. As I was writing this, my husband asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he said, “You didn’t say no to that?” No, I didn’t, because I wanted to write this article. I knew I would enjoy it, would consider it an hour well spent. That’s what my year of no is all about, after all. Only doing the things I want to do, the things I value. I don’t particularly enjoy cleaning my kitchen, but I value having a clean house, so I continue to scrub diligently. I don’t really enjoy being on not one but two Elternbeiräte, but I value being involved in my children’s schooling. There are lots of things I don’t enjoy doing, but I do them anyway, because I value the result. But I am saying no to the things I don’t want to do, when the results really don’t matter. I can sign up to buy chips for the Girl Scouts Snowflake Ball, rather than baking cupcakes, and the world won’t end.
Suddenly, I find myself with lots of time on my hands. My January is wonderfully empty. I have no more obligations I dread. I have only unavoidable doctor’s appointments (I value my health), trips to the gym (I value my fitness), and lunch with friends (I value their friendship). My days aren’t empty – I work, I have two children – but they are less stressful. I can stick to my 10pm bedtime.
Which brings me back to breakfast in bed. The time between the end of November and the beginning of January is a very busy time for my family. Both of my children’s birthdays, Thanksgiving, Nikolaus, Hanukkah, Christmas. I baked seven cakes in the time between the last week in November and the last week of December. My in-laws decided at the last minute to visit, adding another birthday to the mix. My cleaner went on a whopping six week vacation. And yet I was still volunteering to do more. And then, suddenly, I said no. I told my husband his parents were welcome to come, but I wasn’t cooking them the three warm meals a day they were expecting. I wasn’t going to get up at 5am with our sleep-regressing two-year-old and then stay up till 11pm with his night owl parents, somehow having to find time to decorate and clean and cook and bring Christmas cheer in between everything else. They were his parents, and therefore his responsibility. Of course I would be kind, and hospitable, and friendly, and even bake a pie for his dad’s birthday, but he could choose whether I did the 5am wake ups or the evening socializing, and if I was in charge of breakfast, we were having Semmel. And also Semmel for lunch. And possibly dinner.
To my surprise, no one found this unreasonable in the slightest. “We never expected you to!” (You did.) “Of course it was too much!” (Then why did you let me do it, year after year, without any help?) When I set my boundaries, they were respected, and beyond that, it led others to set new expectations for themselves. My husband was already making his parents the warm breakfast they wanted, so he felt he might as well get the husband points bringing it upstairs had to offer. It stopped after New Years, when his parents left and we went back to work, but that’s okay. It’s perfectly acceptable for him, too, to say no.
No is a complete sentence. Use it, when you don’t want to do something, when the effort exceeds the reward. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you don’t want to do something, though you can offer one to those whose opinions you care about. “No” is enough, “because I don’t want to” is a phenomenal reason, “I don’t have time” is a valid explanation, “that’s not a priority for me” is an important distinction to make. Prioritize yourself and the things you want to do, or the results you want to see. This is going to be my year of no. It might sound negative, but it’s going to lead to incredibly positive results.
Laura Kohler is the resident Über Moms editor, comma wrangler and secretary. She has two little girls and recently founded her own copy editing business.