How to Say Hell No

We can learn a lot from the mothers around us.

I recently learned a lot from a mother named Katharine during Back-to-School night at my son’s school. Since we have the same name, I think it was the universe telling me I should pay attention.

As parents, we poured our adult-size bodies into pint-size chairs, pretended like we were comfortable doing so and followed the teacher’s instructions. 

When it came time to sign up for volunteer opportunities, the teacher called out one activity at a time and waited for parents to raise their hands. Paper products for the Valentine’s Day party, who’s in? Coordinating the yearbook photos, who’s got their hand up? Captaining a Field Day team, who’s coming with me?

My inner dialogue had its own Field Day as I watched the hands shoot up left, right, and center. The voice in my head barked, should I volunteer for more? I should, right? Because that’s what good mothers do—they show up for their kids. But I was torn. Between promoting my book and working for The Mom Complex, signing up for anything other than bringing napkins could potentially result in disaster.

And that’s when Katharine’s comment entered the room.

We were at a stalemate regarding who would bring homemade goods for the bake sale. The teacher eventually broke the silence by saying, “ Katharine, do you want to bake something for this event? We need one more volunteer.” And without the slightest pause, Katharine replied, “Nope. Not my game. I know my strengths. I’m good at taking pictures and supplying paper products. I’ll be the photographer at a dozen events and I’ll even get the school logo printed on napkins, but I don’t do baking.”

I could have kissed her.

Show of hands—how many of you would have said yes under peer pressure? Thinking that somehow, you’re a better mom if you make chocolate chip double-dip brownies so the school can sell them for $1.50 each.

As soon as she opened her mouth, Katharine freed me from all my worry. She was smart enough to know her truth and courageous enough to say it outloud. She didn’t shift around nervously in her seat, stewing on whether she was volunteering for too much, not enough or exactly enough.

Sometimes we need to see another mother taking a chill pill so we can take one too.

I’m sure you know how this story ended. Yep, with me and Katharine sitting at a bar talking about the secret to life.I learned that she served our country as a pilot in the Navy and that she’s married to the love of her life and partner for 20 years whose name happens to be—wait for it—Katherine.

And suddenly the world made sense to me.

Katharine’s seen more than the average mama bear. For example, the world blurred beneath her as she flew covert missions for our nation, enough judgement to last a lifetime when she expressed the truth about her sexuality, and the thrill of becoming the first same-sex couple in Virginia to have both parents listed on their child’s birth certificate.

In comparison, telling an elementary school teacher that she doesn’t bake was nothing.

I found Katharine’s perspective incredibly liberating. She told me, “I guess I just finally recognized what is most important in life. I learned a long time ago that you can’t be everything to everyone, but most women still try.”

Yes, we do.

But maybe it’s time to stop. During Back-to-School night when Katharine said no, nobody thought less of her. We didn’t think she was a loser; we thought she was a hero. She showed us the power of respecting our time and talents (and lack thereof).

We often fear the judgment of other mothers, but what I learned from Katharine is that setting boundaries and saying no doesn’t piss off other people as much as you assume it will – sometimes it inspires them.

So, go ahead, draw the line. Maybe others need to see your boundaries as much as you do. 

Katherine Wintsch