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A mother and child. Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

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. 

I spoke to Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed professional counselor with mental health company, Thriveworks, who has more than 20 years of experience specializing in behavioral issues, relationships and trauma. 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. They often feel that it is easier to just go along with what is asked of them rather than risk someone not liking them, or letting someone down. We want our children to be happy and, in return, we feel like we are doing a good job. When a child is denied something they want, this can lead to crying, tantrums, begging, and a level of perseverance that is far stronger than an exhausted mother. It is easier to just give in than it is to set the boundary. 

Boundary-setting is the way to let others know how we expect to be treated and what we will tolerate. 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. In behavioral conditioning, there is something called the extinction burst, where the behavior increases in intensity and frequency right before it starts to improve. For a tired mom, that increase in behavior can be enough to just say “yes.”

Jennifer Kowalski of ThriveWorks. Courtesy photo

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 a sense that you are never doing enough, or that you are failing at being a mom. It can stem from unsolicited advice from family, friends, or 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. The important part about this is that it is 100% a perception, and not based on any fact. There is no one definition of what qualifies as a good mother. When I work with people who tell me they had a bad mother the one thing in common is that they were not unconditionally loved and their mother did not try to do better. So, if you love your child unconditionally and you are always trying to be better, you are doing a great job. 

How has mom guilt changed over time? What are the factors affecting parenting? 

I cannot say for sure that mom guilt has always existed, but as long as there have been people around with unsolicited opinions, there has always been a mom who felt that they were not doing things right. 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 gives us an inside look at the lifestyles and portrayed parenting styles of our friends and complete strangers if we are interested. There are moms who get paid to influence others on the best products for your child, or the best places to visit. These influencers are getting paid vacations to take their families away to resorts that most people cannot afford, and this leaves moms feeling like they are neglecting their child in some way. In addition, they are posting glamorous pictures of their well-behaved children in neatly pressed clothing with no stains, while most moms have not been able to shower in days and their child has a smear of pureed sweet potatoes down the front of his onesie, which he may or may not have been wearing since the previous day.  It is not realistic. They are not showing what is happening behind the scenes. 

Along with this inability to afford all the products and lavish vacations being thrust upon us, most moms are struggling how to do it all financially. Even if they do have a partner in the picture, it does not necessarily mean that they get to be a stay-at-home mom with no financial worries. That then brings us to the need for a two-income household and whether to have professional childcare. For children that stay home, mom will often feel that the time is not structured enough or that the child has too much screen time. For the moms that leave for work they worry that they are not spending enough time with their child. 

The main factors that influence parenting can be divided up between internal and external. The internal factors are the “should haves” or “ought tos” versus what the mom can do. Things that fall into this category are breastfeeding, disposable diapers, co-sleeping, sleep training. These are things that all the experts have an opinion on, but it really should be left up to the parents to decide what is best. For example, while breastfeeding may be good for the child, it is most important to make sure that the child is getting all their nutrients, and not all moms are able to breastfeed. The other internal factors are the temperament of the mother, parenting style, stress tolerance, self-esteem and mental health. We have all heard people say that some moms are just natural born parents, and while it may appear that way, perhaps the reality is that they are better able to handle high stress on less sleep. The external factors are usually things like going to work, financial situation, housing arrangement, how much support the parent has, access to resources. When a mom is alone out there raising a child, it can feel lonely, defeating, and never-ending. There is absolutely an interplay of the internal and external factors for everyone. The ability to breastfeed may be dependent upon a mom who has a supportive job or the resources to help her when breastfeeding did not come easily.

How can a mom work on saying no? 

Simply saying the word “no” should be enough, but moms will not settle for that, so here is some advice. It is important to validate the child, but stay firm on your decision. 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?” 

The child may not want to pick 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.  

When the child calms down, and if they choose a different day, you should give praise for understanding. It is also good to say that it upsets you when you cannot take them to the park, but sometimes they 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 you are not able to even get to step one, give them time to cool off first and then start the process. You want to remember that by giving in mid-tantrum, you are reinforcing the tantrum, and that increases the likelihood of a tantrum every time they hear no for an answer.

How do you suggest we prioritize?

Just do whatever works best for you. The other people with all their opinions are not living your life. When you take this unsolicited advice, you often create unrealistic expectations and standards that were not even yours to begin with. Have an honest conversation with yourself around what really matters. Do you really need to be the mom that can do it all, or can you settle for something in between perfection and failure.  What does that look like for you?  When life feels chaotic, I recommend making a list of everything that needs to get accomplished.  There may be 30 things on that list. Then, I want you to circle the five things that are most important and the 5 things that really are not necessary. That way, if they never get accomplished it is not a big deal. Your top five should really focus on the basics: making sure everyone is clean, fed, and clothed. After that, you can add in other items, but know that these are miscellaneous and do not need to happen, so stressing over them is pointless. The mess will be there when you get to it. The laundry will get folded at some point. The dishes will be washed when you need them.

What are some reminders we should take with us into the new year?

Every year should be the year of you. We do not need to wait for a defining date on the calendar to make new resolutions, but often it is just a reminder to start fresh. If setting healthy boundaries and incorporating the word no is something you want to be better at, start small.  You do not need to say no to everything, but if your gut is telling you that you really do not want to do something, listen to yourself.  Think of it as a way to honor your own needs. If you do not take care of yourself, how can you take care of your children who depend on you? Eventually, the exhaustion will catch up and you will burn out.  Burn out means that you can no longer effectively parent because you cannot think clearly, and your emotions start to negatively impact your judgment.

Setting a boundary does not make you confrontational. Again, it tells others how we want to be treated. 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.  You are the person they will model themselves after, and if they see that you can do this successfully, they will too someday. 

San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.

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Ellen Bullock