Right now everyone is talking about the power of saying yes: yes to new experiences, yes to new ideas, yes to the things that scare us most. But I haven’t heard anyone recently talk about the power of saying no—especially in the context of mothers, and most especially mothers of color.
I can only speak for myself, but I’m beginning to see a trend. We, as women of color, feel the need to say yes to almost everything. We always seem to make time for everything that anyone needs from us. I know I’ve done it: Sacrificing myself because I don’t want to be seen as the angry, stubborn, sassy, black woman stereotype. Instead, I become the other extreme: an accommodating mammy, here to serve with no thought for myself.
Where does this need to be Atlas, holding up the world on our shoulders, come from? I believe it begins in childhood. As young girls of color we grow up with hardly any representation in cartoons, comics, or toys. This absence contributes to a lack of self-esteem and the beginning of feeling that our thoughts and ideas don’t matter.
We then move into young womanhood where, although we are the most educated segment of our race, we are told that we need to prove ourselves over and over again. As some of us choose motherhood, we learn being a mother today is all about the children, always the children, and never about the women who bore them. By the time we reach middle age, we feel even more invisible. (Is there a negative scale on which to measure? Because this feeling of invisibility can dip way below 0.)
… In order to have enough of me to share, I cannot keep giving all my pieces away.
More often than not, by the time I realize I shouldn’t have said yes, I’m overwhelmed, completely in over my head, angry, and exhausted. I’m doing something for everyone at work, not allowing my husband to help at home (aren’t moms supposed to do it all?), not taking any personal time to recharge, and leaving no room for the people and things I love. Because aren’t moms supposed to do it all?
I could undo it all, but I would have to acknowledge that doing so dismantles a structure I have allowed to be created within a system that already exists. I would have to admit that sometimes I commit to things I don’t want to do because then I am needed, then I am wanted, then I am visible. When nothing can go on without me, it makes me feel like I am the master of the universe. It also allows me to be a martyr: “No, no. No, no, I’ll do it.” I create a domain to influence since I have so little authority in the world.
But that’s just it isn’t it? When I accept that I have the power to refuse, I am then responsible for my own full plate. It is no longer out of my hands—I must use the control that I have to make room for my own sanity. Give myself permission to breathe, to slow down, to enjoy my life, and make other people responsible for their own stuff. I have a choice.
Yet choice is a sword that cuts both ways. When I set up boundaries, I have to know that people will test them: coworkers, family, friends, and especially my children will test the limits of my no. But in order to have enough of me to share, I cannot keep giving all my pieces away. I must have time and space to replenish, restore, and revive myself and not wait for approval or agreement from others to do so.
As someone who has said yes most of my life to other people’s needs, I am learning to say no in little ways. I am learning that although it is wonderful to say yes, it’s infinitely more powerful to say no.
This post is a part of our Mental Health Awareness week. Read on for more stories that address mental health in the Black community.