“You need to learn how to say no,” my colleague said, patting me on the arm. I’d just given her a lengthy apology for declining her invitation to a business lunch, because, as I explained, I felt I just had too much on my plate as a small business owner and the parent of two young kids.
For years, “just say no” was the advice I heard over and over again, whether I was grappling with professional challenges or the juggling act of parenthood. Even though the advice often seemed to come with a subtext—say no to everybody else, so that you can say yes to me—I never doubted its wisdom. After all, I’d spent far too many hours in pointless meetings, or making last-minute Hallowe’en costumes, or working overtime on some project proposal, all the time thinking, why did I agree to this?
But saying no is never easy, especially for women. We’re trained to make other people happy, or afraid of looking selfish, or worried that if we pass up on one opportunity, nothing else will come along in its place. Even if we end up exhausted and resentful, that can still feel less frightening than uttering that powerful and most precious of two-letter words: NO.
It took a major life crisis for me to see that word as anything other than negative.
At the time I was a corporate vice-president, working full-time at a downtown office and putting in extra hours on evenings and weekends poring over data sets, writing reports and catching up on email. Mine wasn’t a life that was compatible with homeschooling.
But I re-organized my work so that I could be at home with my son, because there was no other way to manage the costs and logistics of homeschooling. I kept up with work by taking my business calls in hallways or parked cars, while my boy attended enrichment classes or worked with with a tutor. I could scrape together just enough hours to get my job done—but only if I cut back to the absolute essentials. My new standard response to requests for meetings, catch-up lunches or unpromising business “opportunities” was simple and direct: “I am homeschooling my son and now have limited time, so this is not something I can schedule for the foreseeable future.”
As I grew more vigilant about protecting my time, I discovered another benefit to all this nay-saying: The more I minimized the demands on my time, the more patient I became with my kid. If I wasn’t rushed or stressed, I could better navigate his moments of intense anxiety or rigidity, so that he could regain his calm much more quickly.
Building on this welcome development in our lives, I started safeguarding not just my time, but my energy: I cut out the kind of family social engagements that might cause my son a meltdown; the conferences and meetings that drained rather than energized me; the casual friends who were more likely to inspire irritation than affection. My son’s needs justified it all, and I discovered that the higher I built my walls, the happier I was inside them.
Saying no didn’t just create room for both work and special needs parenting: it created more room for me. I was able start reading novels again, go to the gym regularly and enjoy long calls with my very closest friends.
Once I got in the “no” habit, I stopped justifying it by referring to my son’s particular needs; I stopped feeling like I had to justify saying no at all. Saying no was a valid choice in any situation, and I got comfortable exercising it.
But it needn’t take a life crisis to embrace the power of no. Unless and until you’re able to say no to other people’s demands, you can never make time for your own professional and personal priorities. By helping me learn to say no, my autistic son has allowed me to finally say yes to my own needs, goals and desires. And that’s better for everyone.
This article was originally published online in April 2018.