Why Moms Should Say No More, and How to Actually Do It

It's important to say yes to opportunities that can bring you joy, but it's also necessary to know how to say no when you need a break. Here's your guilt-free guide. 
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Saying "no" is hard. Saying it as a mom can feel downright impossible. And it's not only because those big, bright kid eyes are so hard to resist.

"There's this feeling that moms have to be it all for everybody, whether it's at work, or with our children, or with in-laws," says Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, a New York-based psychotherapist and cofounder of honestmamas.com. That means that carving out time for yourself, and turning down requests from those around you, can come with a healthy serving of guilt.

"Moms who are not working full time are going to feel guilty about saying 'no,' because after all, I'm not working full-time," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Washington and director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. "Moms who are [working] may feel guilty both because they feel like they ought to do something, and because they feel like their reputation in their community will be damaged if it feels like they're doing nothing."

Coontz says that women are socialized to put others' needs above themselves, and go the extra mile at their own expense."The very same thing that makes women great achievers in education, and particularly reliable at work, is also the same thing that makes them prey to saying 'yes' in situations where they don't want to," she explains.

The good news: Saying "no" is like a muscle. The more you flex it, the easier it becomes. Warm it up by leveling with yourself about how much you can—and want to—take on.

"Start getting really clear about what you can handle," says Divaris Thompson. "That way, when you do have to say no, it's coming from a place of authenticity. It's not just a nebulous 'No, I'm not doing that today'—it's coming from a deeper, wiser knowing that, if I say no, I'm actually taking care of myself, which translates to taking better care of my children and my family, because when you're taking care of yourself you have more resources."

Plus, Divaris Thompson adds, setting boundaries as parents can help kids learn to do the same. "It's imperative to model to our kids that we honor our time and respect our bodies when we need more rest, downtime, or anything else," she says. "We learn over time that when we say no as gently and kindly as possible, we have more energy to show up for the things in life we really want to be doing."

Here's how to make that happen.

THE SITUATION: You're asked to volunteer at your child's school.

Can't squeeze volunteer time into your day? Be honest about it.

"The first step is to be as real, transparent, and vulnerable as you can," says Divaris Thompson. "That may sound something like, 'Hey, teacher, my resources are really limited right now. I have a baby at home, or, I have a family member who is ill.'" Naming the reasons why you can't do something will help you feel more assured with your decision, and keep your kid's teacher from pushing for a yes.

Still worried? Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco-based psychologist who specializes in families, suggests looking at why you feel obligated to say yes, and playing through what you're worried will happen if you say no. "You can say, 'What's the worst-case scenario? Maybe the parents won't like me. OK, then what? Maybe they won't invite me to their parties. OK, then what? Maybe my child will be ostracized. OK, then what?'" he explains. Once you've gotten to the bottom of your concern, you may find it's not worth the hand-wringing.

THE SITUATION: Your in-laws are coming for the holiday—and they want to stay with you.

Navigating in-law visits is particularly tricky, as you risk upsetting two parties—your spouse, and his or her parents. Begin by opening up to your partner. Divaris Thompson recommends saying something like: "When your parents come, I notice that I start to feel really anxious as a mom." If your spouse sees things differently, try suggesting a compromise, like offering to take care of their hotel costs. Then, decide who should have the conversation. "Oftentimes, this news is a lot easier to hear when it's coming from the child, versus the daughter-in-law," says Divaris Thompson.

THE SITUATION: Your boss needs you to put in extra hours at the office, but you've committed to an activity with your kids.

If you have an agreement in place to leave at a certain time, Divaris Thompson suggests standing your ground. But since you don't want to compromise your role at work, offer an alternative to working late. Instead of just saying no, "You can say to your boss, 'This is what we initially agreed upon. I'm so sorry that this impacts you, and I will have to go, but I'm willing to take this work home and be sure to take care of it,'" she suggests.

It's frustrating to feel like your boundaries are in question, but unless the requests feel unreasonable—or more than what's asked of your coworkers—it's worth finding a solution that will work for you and your boss and sticking to it in the future. "There has to be a give and take with your boss," she says. "You want to feel that, as they're giving you something, you're also giving them something back. Otherwise, the relationship can start to feel one-sided."

THE SITUATION: Another mom wants you and your child to come by for a playdate.

First, get a read on why the offer won't work for you.

If your child doesn't want to play with a friend, trust his or her intuition. "You have to be an advocate for your child," says Divaris Thompson. "I think there's nothing wrong with letting [the parent] know you're not available."

If your child is game but you don't feel like you can squeeze it in—or don't want to spend time with that particular parent—simply explain that you're busy, then don't sweat it. You're perfectly entitled to spend your free time as you see fit.

But don't always feel like you have to say no to fit your idea of healthy parenting, warns Coontz. Turning down invites to spend time with potential friends, even when you feel too busy or tired to handle it, may do more harm than good. "Social integration is a health-protective factor, and it's particularly important for women," says Coontz, who worries that women could shut themselves off from healthy relationships because they feel like it's the right thing to do. While it's great to say no when you need to, Coontz adds, "[don't be] afraid to say yes to things that give you pleasure and get you out into social interactions."

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