Making space to say yes and, more important, no
I stood in the doorway of my rural New Mexico home and listened to the wind rush over the sage plain. No one phoned me. No one asked for my attention. The girls were with their dad for the weekend. I was in the early part of the divorce process, and the space my husband left behind was enormous, like the empty backyard of my childhood home after the city came and cut down our giant 150-year-old elm tree the summer before I entered third grade. Suddenly, in my mid-30s, there was space in my life in a way that I had never experienced before.
Those early months were oddly transcendent in the sense that I didn’t have anything with which to fill the space of my husband’s departure. I started to feel an inclination toward my writing again—the poems and lyrics, the creativity I had set aside for so many reasons during my marriage. I noticed the intense impulse to reinvent myself, a desire to hear myself speaking more clearly, and the strongest yearning to be a better mother and a better lover and friend—to myself.
But, after a few months, I started filling that space with activities and responsibilities outside myself and outside my home. I took on work that required travel. I gave my time and energy in an advisory role. I became involved in several volunteer projects. When my children wanted my attention at night before bed, I was on conference calls. When they wanted cuddle time after school, I was too busy trying to respond to emails.
These days, the word “bravery” comes to mind when I think of myself as a Solo Mom. But not just bravery for the deep inner journey I’ve traveled coming to my “solohood” or for the outside help I’ve dared to seek or for the long days of work and parenting that inspire strength and exhaustion in equal measure. There is another kind of bravery that often goes unnoticed in our busy, action-oriented culture—the bravery of making difficult choices with time and energy so as to protect and grow our deepest sense of wellness.
This kind of bravery requires discernment, learning to say yes to those activities that really matter, those things that bring us more health and vitality, and also learning to say no to the activities that tether us to feeling obligated, distracted, overwhelmed, and unavailable to the preciousness of our children’s lives.
Have you ever noticed yourself saying yes every time the PTA needs a fundraising volunteer, the animal shelter is looking for evening dog walkers, your child’s school calls for field-trip chaperones, a friend wants someone to help her move an oversized couch, or your child’s soccer team needs cupcakes for the bake sale?
Somewhere in my early upbringing, I learned that helping others would bring me many things: approval, for one, as well as the delightful feeling of being an instrument of generosity. Although giving my time and energy to friends, family, and community adds meaning to my life, I need to stay alert to balancing all that I offer to others because showing up for myself and my children is not something I do once in a while. I do it day after day after day.
As a Solo Mom, I also need a little unorganized “downtime.” And I also need meaningful activities that challenge my sense of personal limitation and inspire creativity. But parenting as a Solo Mom is already plumb full of meaning, chaos, order, and frivolity without adding more responsibilities to the mix that throw me off balance. Although I can readily identify with feeling overwhelmed, no one will ever hear me say, “I have so much time on my hands.”
Recently, it has taken every ounce of courage for me to step back from serving on a board of directors for a professional organization I belong to, from offering my services on a volunteer basis to veterans, from saying yes to everything that comes my way. But it’s been essential to step back, so as to maintain my sanity and yield the happiness that is rightfully mine. Without ample space in my life, I cannot be the joyful woman, mother, writer, friend, lover, human I am designed to be.
How is it done? How do I cultivate this kind of boundary-setting bravery? It has required radical self-honesty. It has required me taking ownership of the fact that some small part of me, my ego perhaps, has thrived on being too busy to hear the real yeses and nos of my heart. I often ask my clients, “If you could do anything, starting tomorrow, no limits, what would it be?” If I had answered this question properly after my divorce, I might not have been so busy, and instead I might have been more present to myself and my children and written a lot more poetry.
What is it that you love, fellow Solo Moms? What activity of your heart’s calling brings additional happiness to you as a human, as a mother? What do you need to say no to in order to say yes to your inner wellness? Can you imagine the vitality that arises when you make space for such a thing? Can you offer yourself as an example to your children in this way? Show them with your actions that “when I make the space to follow my heart, I am happier.”
May you have the bravery to turn toward whatever is calling to your heart most vividly. Say yes to simplifying your routines and responsibilities. Say no to taking on too much. Your true supporters will understand. Turn toward one thing that you love, that feeds your inner wellness. Turn toward your self-care. Turn toward offering your vitality to your children in a new way; they will thank you later for being true to yourself.
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