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The Year of the No: One Woman's Journey to the Dark Side of Yes

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Sue Fliess
Sue Fliess

One December morning of a busy day I had carefully planned down to the minute, I regarded my 9-year-old son's complaints of a tummy ache as an attempt to miss school. After all, if I let him stay home, I wouldn't be able to attend my very important coffee meeting, bill those valuable hours or revise that manuscript with a looming deadline. These were things I thought I could not miss. So, off to school he went.

Cue the inevitable call from the school nurse. I gracelessly left my all-important meeting -- mid-latte -- to pick up my feverish fourth-grader. He said, "Hi Mom. I'm sick." It was a punch in the gut -- and I deserved it. I had been more worried about checking all of the things off of my to-do list than I was about my son's health. Shame on me. Although we made the three-minute trip home, before he could get out of the car, he threw up -- twice -- all over himself and the car. But it's what he said next that brought me to a new low. "Oh, no. Your new car. Sorry, Mom." He was apologizing to me! In that moment, I thought, I am a terrible mother. Right then, I knew that something had to change. I had to change.

I got him to bed, did what I could to clean the car without adding my own breakfast to it, and called the local car wash about a detail job for what I spuriously labeled a "soup spill." Then I sat down and took a long look at myself.

Until then, I had managed it all. I was woman. And I roared! I was working 35+ hours a week for a high-tech company. I was writing three children's books and I'd sold six others that year. I was doing author visits and book signings. I chaired a fundraiser and volunteered in the classroom. I was a soccer mom, basketball mom and Tae Kwon Do taxi. I was a whirling dervish with 16 plates spinning at various speeds -- all with a ton of crap on them. Occasionally, I balanced them while hopping on one foot. I congratulated myself regularly on an unrelenting job of saying yes to nearly everything. All that seemed to matter was that I appeared to keep all my plates spinning without a spill. I was overextended, but thought that I was somehow the exception.

That day, I discovered that I wasn't necessarily doing anything terribly wrong. I was just trying to do too many things at once, with no room for failure, so I wasn't doing any of them well. Including my most important job: Mom.

All the time I thought I was roaring, apparently I was making more of a sputtering, car-on-the-brink-of-stalling sound. I pretended not to hear my own gasping and wheezing because to me,that sounds like whining. And oh, how I detest whiners.

In my quest to be Every Woman, I'd lost sight of the very people I was killing myself to do it all for. Somewhere along the way, I'd dropped a plate. I'd stopped noticing my 8-year-old's copious kisses before school and how my older boy has my dad's soulful eyes. I forgot how hilarious my husband is and that my sister and I have the same cry. How my mom's voice on the other end of the phone feels like home. There they were -- sitting together on the neglected plate, staring up at the grisly, 7-car pile-up wreck that was me. I had a tragic flaw: I couldn't say no.

I had wanted to check the box on some imaginary list that I was living a full and rewarding lif e-- I was adding all of these things to my resume to prove it. When I finally stopped trying to do it all and be it all, I was able to embrace it all. I found out it's way more fun to be imperfect. And silly. And spontaneous. That it's OK to hurt, to want one more hug, to love more, to slow it down, to say no.

Had my son not christened my new car that day, I might still be spinning my plates and missing what's being served up right in front of me. So that afternoon, I decided that 2013 would not be the Year of the Snake or the Whirling Dervish or the Supermom.

2013 would be the Year of the No.

I've been practicing the noncommittal, "Maybe," hoping to work my way up to the all-powerful, "OK if I get back to you?" I figure if I'm not saying yes, I'm not yet locked in. So that if and when I do say yes, those yesses may become my very reasons for saying no.

It's really nice to be wanted and anyone who tells you it's not is fibbing. A friend just told me I'd be a great addition to the PTA. She called me organized, responsible, a leader. Then she invited me to take a leadership position. I actually thought about it for a solid 20 seconds. I caught myself asking, "What kind of role?" But as she was explaining it, my now ten-year old who only occasionally holds my hand in public, surprised me with a leg-hug. He whispered, "Can we go home and finish the Legos now?" I looked at my friend and said, "Thank you, I'm so flattered. But I just can't take on another thing." Then I looked at my son and said, "Yes."

I can still smell it. My family insists it's my imagination. Like how only a medium can see spirits, only I am capable of smelling the lingering odor of vomit in my car. I'm actually glad that even after several months, many road trips with a wet dog, and multiple car washes later, I'm still hit with its repugnant scent. But now it's become the smell of change. The smell of finally getting it right.

When my soul leaves this Earth, no one will give me a medal for the most yeses ever handed out by a single human. I have come to believe it's no longer a race to the finish. And if it is, well, then I want to finish dead last.

I'm not saying I'll never say yes again. I'm simply limiting my number of plates and the stuff that gets piled onto them. So big deal if others no longer view me as having my shit wired tight. Heads up, people: coming soon to a neighborhood/office/bookstore/PTA meeting near you, I may miss a beat. A pile of poo poo may just fall off my platter. But it will fall on purpose. Do me a favor and leave it there.

I am woman. Hear my plates crashing.