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The Skill All Stay-at-Home Moms Need to Learn

Photograph by Twenty20

Any parenting manual will spell out in great detail the necessity of teaching children when it's appropriate to say no.

"No" is an essential safety tool for when children don't feel comfortable being touched, when they're in a precarious situation involving drugs or bullying or if their gut tells them that saying no to something that just seems off.

And yet, while how to parent your children is spelled out in great detail across endless platforms, how to be good to yourself as a parent isn't always as clearly defined. In particular, women privileged enough to be able to stay home with their children, or work from home, can find it hard to tell anyone no. This includes their children, yes, but also other people who seem to think the time of a SAHM belongs to everyone, even if just a little.

In a recent piece by Kristin Wong in the New York Times, "Why You Should Learn to Say 'No' More Often," she writes about how "it's in our nature to be socially obliging, and the word no feels like a confrontation that threatens a potential bond. But when we dole out an easy yes instead of a difficult no we tend to overcommit our time, energy and finances."

Getting better at saying no starts with a couple of different words. Wong writes about the difference between saying "I can't" and "I don't."

"Don't" is the more forceful declination of a proposed commitment. By using the more powerful "I don't," an implication is conveyed that "you've established certain rules for yourself, suggesting conviction and stability."

Which is key for SAHMs and WAHMs, who are often the go-to people for things like chaperoning a class trip, preparing extra treats for a school bake sale or picking up an extra carpool shift—regardless of the work and obligations they have from inside their homes. Responsibility for all those tasks may partly be why they made the choice not to report to an office in the first place, and it can be dangerously easy to presume to count another person's time when it isn't as obvious as a 9-to-5 office position with a black-and-white job description and regularly scheduled meetings .

Being a judge of your own time and interests when you're caring for a family is a privilege.

After all, among the supposed advantages of being at home during the workday is the ability to be more spontaneous and available to care for a sick child or attend Mommy & Me music classes. The perceived triviality of those pursuits are what makes others conclude too quickly that you can skip toddler gymnastics class in order to help paint scenery for the third-grade play or prepare snacks for the entire soccer team. But it's impossible (and wholly inaccurate) to think an outsider can calculate exactly how much free time a SAHM has, and should be willing to give to others. Just because someone's day-to-day schedule is less concrete, doesn't make what's contained in it any less important.

Being a judge of your own time and interests when you're caring for a family is a privilege. But no one else is entitled to have an opinion on exaclty how you spend your time. And that shouldn't be something you have to soften or explain to others.

"The ability to communicate ‘no’ really reflects that you are in the driver’s seat of your own life,” Vanessa M. Patrick, associate professor of marketing at the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, told the Times. “It gives you a sense of empowerment.”

While SAHMs may not have the same specific pressure to, say, meet a deadline for a project that has the ability to affect the bottom line of their team or even an entire company, it doesn't mean they're without their own stress. And the expectation of pitching in and contributing above and beyond can be exhausting, especially when the assumption is that the person with the nonexistent (or smallest) paycheck is expected to do the most.

'Get comfortable with your assertiveness when it’s easy so you’ll be prepared when there’s more pressure.'

Except even no paycheck doesn't mean no work, as many SAHMs can attest. There can be much goodness associated with being agreeable, although there can also be equal, if not greater, strength in saying no. Overcommitting has the potential to be a disservice to everyone, not the least whom is yourself.

Experts say carving out free chunks of time in your schedule—whether it's daily, weekly or monthly—can help teach people who always say yes to be more selective and ensure "you can say yes to opportunities that most reflect your values."

"Get comfortable with your assertiveness when it’s easy so you’ll be prepared when there’s more pressure," Wong advises. "Second, it’s easier to say no when you know exactly how to say it, so come up with a few anchor phrases for different situations ... When you have these phrases ready, you don’t have to waste time wavering over an excuse. And you start to develop a reflexive behavior of saying no."

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