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How to Say No as a Mom

Oct 22, 2020

I remember Elisa Morgan once describing a mom as one of those juice boxes with multiple straws coming out of it, with little ones sucking energy out all day long. Not a bad description of the kind of demands that moms find themselves under each and every day. Add to that being a working mom, or a single mom, and the straws just multiply, because there is a second set of straws as well: time.

In the lives of moms, those are the two great commodities: time and energy. And the reality is that there is usually less of each than there are those who want to take them. So, the trick is to make sure of one thing before everything else: mom must be in control of both.

In all kinds of coaching, one of the most important first steps is to help the person regain a realization that they are “ridiculously in charge.” That is a phrase I wrote about in, “Boundaries For Leaders” for CEO’s to wake up to in their leadership: the fact that they are ridiculously in charge of what occurs in their organizations. But, moms need to realize the same thing. While they are not in charge of many of the demands upon them, they are in charge of which ones they invest themselves in, i.e. what they say “yes” to and what they say “no” to. And to get to that agreement is a tough tug of war in many instances. They often feel more out of control of the demands than “in control.” To help them, I suggest a few strategies.

First, prune to a specific budget. The first step is to help them realize that their time and energy is not unlimited. It is finite. There is only so much of them. So many hours in a day, and so much of themselves to give. Therefore, by definition, they must begin to treat time and energy just as they do money: a finite amount that must be budgeted.

What this does is to force them to prune their activities. Pruning occurs in three instances:

1.) The rose bush produces more buds than it can feed, so the gardener has to differentiate the best from the good, and cut the good ones, leaving only the best to get the resources of the bush.

2.) There are some branches and buds that are sick and not going to get well. The gardener has tried all he can do, and no amount of fertilizer, minerals or medicine is going to help. It is time to let it go.

3.) There are some branches that have long since been dead and are just taking up space. Other branches need this space to have room to stretch their limbs. So, the gardener must clip the dead ones. (For a full diagnostic paradigm for pruning, see my book “Necessary Endings.”)

Sit with your client and go through a pruning exercise in each of these categories of all of their activities:

Which meetings, friends, groups, activities, sports, clubs, social groups, etc. are “good, but not best?” Be ready to continue to drill further into her with questions, “And why is that the best way to spend your time, given your stated mission?”

Which activities, or even relationships, are “sick and not going to get well?” Maybe an extended family member, or friend, who is in denial and taking much time and energy, but is not using the help that is being offered? Maybe helping has turned into enabling, and that activity should be pruned, as it is not going to help the sick to get well.

And which ones have really not been contributing anything to her mission for a long time? They have been “dead” for a long time and should be cut.

So, what pruning leaves you with is the things that actually matter for her stated mission and objectives, whatever those are: the health of her children, her marriage, her work, her spiritual life, her well-being, etc.

Then, look at the budget and see how much time there is to spend, and spend it. Specifically in a calendar. Put in the “big rocks first,” meaning that the most important activities get a time and a place in the calendar. The most important, the vital ones, get put in first. Period. If not, the urgent will always get in the way. Then, she is left with the discretionary time and energy blocks to spend on what comes next in priorities. Remember, hone in on priorities, not on desire. Priorities are what drives activities, not desire.

At that point, she is realizing what reality truly is: there is only so much time and energy that any of us have, and we must be in charge of making the choices of how we are going to invest them. This exercise will drive those hard decisions.

Your job then becomes helping her to work through the conflicts and difficulties saying “no” to everything that there is not time left to do. Those are the choices that drive success in every area of life. What are we going to say “yes” to, and what are we going to say “no” to? When we realize that, and get our “yes’s” on the side of the things that really matter, we are truly back in control, the kind that we were meant to have: “self-control,” the “fruit of the spirit.” Then we are focusing on the things that are truly vital.

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