If you’re like me, you have trouble saying “no” to all the volunteer work, the events and parties, and the extracurricular activities surrounding your child’s life. You even just have trouble saying “no” to your children sometimes. However, as we welcome a new year, my goal is to say “no” more often without feeling the typical guilt mothers often feel.
Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed counselor with Thriveworks mental health company, has more than 20 year experience specializing primarily in trauma, behavior, and relationships. Here’s what she said about mom guilt and the guidance she offered on how to just say “no.”
Why is it so difficult for moms to say “no”?
Saying “no” is difficult for many people, but especially for women who have been conditioned to be polite, do as they are told, and not question authority. Many women struggle with saying “no” due to not wanting to start a conflict or disagreement. It is often easier to simply do what is asked rather than risking someone not liking or being disappointed. Our children should be happy. In return, we feel that we are doing a good thing. A child who isn’t allowed something can cause crying, tantrums, beggarling, and a greater level of perseverance than an exhausted mother. It is much easier to let go than to create a boundary.
Boundary-setting allows you to communicate with others how you expect to be treated. The problem with children is that the boundaries often need to be set multiple times and the negative reactions need to be endured through all of them for the child to accept “no” for an answer. Often, we see that the child’s reaction gets worse before it gets better. The extinction burst is a type of behavior conditioning that sees the child’s behavior increase in intensity and frequency just before it improves. For a tired mom, that increase in behavior can be enough to just say “yes.”
Of course, when we do say “no,” there’s that mom guilt. Where do you think this so-called “mom guilt” comes from?
Mom guilt is the feeling that you are not doing enough or are failing as a mother. It can come from unspoken advice from family, friends, and complete strangers. It can come from internal feelings, comparison to others, increased financial and work demands, feedback from the child, or even not meeting one’s own pre-conceived expectations of who they thought they would have been as a mother. This perception is not based on facts. There is no single definition of what constitutes a good mother. I have met many people who claim they had a bad mom. They tell me that they didn’t feel loved unconditionally and that their mother did not do enough to make them happy. You are doing a wonderful job if your child is unconditionally loved and you always strive to do better.
How has mom guilt changed over the years? What factors affect parenting?
While I am unable to prove mom guilt, I believe there has been mom guilt for as long as there were people with unwelcome opinions. I do think that in my lifetime, which spans a few decades I can say that there are two things for sure that have contributed to the term “mom guilt” being part of our everyday language: 1) social media, and 2) very few households that can survive on one income.
Social media can give us a glimpse into the parenting styles and lifestyles of our friends, as well as complete strangers, if we are curious. Moms can get paid to help others choose the best products or places to go. Moms who are able to influence others are often paid to go on vacation to exotic resorts where their children can enjoy a luxury lifestyle. They post glamorous photos of their children looking well-behaved in clean clothes with no stains. Most moms are unable to wash their kids in days, and the child may have a stain on his onesie from the previous day. It isn’t realistic. They do not show what is going on behind closed doors.
Most moms find it difficult to manage their finances, not only are they unable to afford the luxury vacations and expensive products that are being offered to them, but also struggle with how to save money. Although they may have a spouse, that does not mean that they are able to stay home and be financially independent. This brings us to the question of whether professional childcare is necessary and if a two-income household is desirable. Moms who stay at home with their children will feel like the time isn’t structured or that there is too much screen time. Moms who leave work worry about whether they are spending enough time with their children.
There are two main factors that can influence parenting: external and internal. The internal factors are the “should haves” or “ought tos” versus what the mom can do. These include breastfeeding, cosleeping, and disposable diapers. All experts can offer their opinions on these matters, but parents should decide what is best for them. While breastfeeding is a good option for a child, it is important that they are getting all the nutrients they need. Not all mothers can breastfeed. Other internal factors include the mother’s temperament, parenting style and stress tolerance. Some moms may seem like they were born naturally. But, it is possible that their ability to deal with high levels of stress and sleep less makes them more resilient. These external factors can include going to work, your financial situation, housing arrangement and how much support you have. It can be lonely and frustrating for a mother to raise a child alone. Everyone is affected by both the external and internal factors. Mothers who have a supportive job or resources to assist her in breastfeeding may be able to breastfeed.
How does a mom manage to say no?
Simply saying the word “no” should be enough, but moms will not settle for that, so here is some advice. While it is important to validate your child’s decision, you should not compromise your firmness. For instance, “I know how much you want to go to the park today, but we are not going to be able to go.” You can then give alternatives and choices. “I have time to take you to the park Thursday or Friday, which day do you want to go?”
It is possible that the child doesn’t want to choose a day. Again, validate their feelings: “I understand how upset you are, and I know you may not want to decide right now. You can take the time you need to be upset, and when you are ready, let me know what you want to do.” Then you need to walk away.
You should praise the child for being calm and understanding if they choose another day. It’s okay to let them know that it is frustrating you that they can’t go to the park. But sometimes, they will need to compromise. So, to summarize, 1) validate their feelings, 2) offer alternatives and choices, 3) stay firm and give them time to cool off, 4) when they calm down praise them for understanding. If they are unable to get to step 1, give them some time to calm down and then you can start the process. Keep in mind that giving up mid-tantrum can reinforce the tantrum. They will get more tantrums every time they hear no.
What are your suggestions for prioritizing?
Do what works for you. You don’t have to live your life with the opinions of others. You can easily set unrealistic standards and expectations if you listen to uninformed advice. It is important to have an honest discussion with yourself about what matters most. Are you truly a mom who can do it all? Or can you be a mom who can manage to achieve some level of success and perfection? What does that look to you? It is a good idea to make a list of everything you need to do when life feels overwhelming. You may have 30 items on your list. You can then circle the five most important items and the 5 that aren’t. It isn’t a problem if they don’t get done. Your top five priorities should be to ensure everyone is healthy, happy, and well-fed. You can then add other items to your top five, but remember that they are not necessary and should not be stressed about. You will find the mess when you are done. Laundry will be folded eventually. When you are ready to wash the dishes, they will be folded.
What are some reminders that we can take into the new year
Every year should reflect you. You don’t have to wait until a specific date on the calendar for new resolutions. Sometimes it is just a reminder that you need to start over. You can start small if setting healthy boundaries is something that you desire to master. Although you don’t have to say yes to all requests, if you feel that something is not right for you, then listen to your gut. It is a way to respect your needs. How can you care for your children if you don’t take care of yourself? Burn out will happen eventually as exhaustion builds up. You will eventually become unable to effectively parent as you are unable to think clearly and your emotions can start to affect your judgement.
You don’t have to be confrontational if you are able to set a boundary. This is how others will treat us. If you want your child’s happiness, and if being a good mom is important to you, say no, set boundaries, and make time for yourself. If they see you are successful, they will be able to model themselves after you.
San Diego Moms is published each Saturday. Are you a writer with a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.