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Saying no and setting boundaries

As a working parent, managing the multiple demands that you face on a daily basis can be overwhelming and, frankly, exhausting. The sheer volume of things that need remembering, the to-do list at work and the desire to have a social life can mean that we find ourselves doing things that we don’t want to do or don’t have the energy for.


Do you know how to take care of your own needs?


Finding ways to say no and establish boundaries is harder than you might think. Depending on your experience growing up, you may not have learned how to take care of your own needs. As children, many of us learn to comply and be polite. We believe (may even be told) that it is rude to disagree or to “talk back”. As human beings we are hard wired for connection, and so we want to belong, to fit in and not miss out and we can become fearful of being judged.


Whilst being a “good kid” may have been an effective strategy in childhood, as we develop and take on senior roles in organisations and become parents ourselves, these conditioned tendencies can begin to cause difficulties. In my coaching practice I often see parents taking on all the responsibility themselves, rushing from one place to another, depriving themselves of any form of rest or down time as they put pressure on themselves to get things done and cross them off the to-do list.


As a working parent, the long school holidays can present a particularly difficult challenge. Many parents experience guilt when they need to work and the children are off school, it can be stressful finding and organising childcare or activities and with the current economic climate, the cost of these can be prohibitive leading to pressure on finances and tensions at home.


How are your boundaries?


Boundaries are our personal rules of engagement. They help us to clarify in our own minds what is ok and what is not ok. They are important because they help to protect our time, energy and health and they are crucial for creating healthy relationships.


Boundaries help us to honour our own wants and needs, and to create the space we need without feeling guilty. You might not know what your personal boundaries are - especially if you didn’t learn how to set them as a child. But don’t worry, you can still discover them for yourself, and as a parent, you can be a role model for setting boundaries for your own children.


Boundaries are central to helping us accept that what we think, how we feel and what we want matters. And, that it is ok for us to think, feel and want.


Learning to say no


First of all, the word no is valid. It is a boundary in itself. If you find it hard to say no, try reframing it in your own mind. Rather than feeling horrified that you might offend someone or disappoint them (especially if you like to please people), reframe the beliefs that you are holding. For example:


I don’t like conflict becomes it is ok for me to be honest and disagree.


I don’t want to disappoint them becomes it is not my responsibility to please others.


Try thinking before you say Yes automatically. For example, ask yourself:


  • Do I have the time and the energy for this?

  • If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?

  • Am I just saying yes to please the other person?


Prepare yourself with some responses that you can use instead:


“Thank you for the invitation, I’ll need to check the diary and come back to you”


“Thanks for thinking of me, however I am unable to”


“No thank you, but it sounds lovely”


You don’t need to give a reason why, or justify why you are saying no. No is a full sentence. If you feel the need to follow up with a justification, take a deep breath instead, and smile!


Tips especially for working parents


Put on your own mask first

Something that we all find hard as parents is to put ourselves first, even if we know logically that we can’t pour from an empty cup. However, it is essential to resource yourself or, as they say on aeroplanes, take our own oxygen mask first. What this looks like will be different for all of us. It could be an early night, a hot bath, a quiet coffee in the cafe on our own or an hour to read a book. Whatever it is, intentionally create space for it.


Check your expectations of yourself

Is there a voice in your head that is telling you to do more, you should be able to handle this, toughen up, juggle it all? Be more kind and compassionate towards yourself and remember you are doing your best. Spending 20 minutes of quality time with your child where you are focused and present with them is better than half a day of distracted time where you are answering emails or calls whilst trying to parent. Give yourself a break - you aren’t a super hero!


Share the mental load

It is so easy to take it all on ourselves, and often we do it all because we are good at organising everything. But this can easily turn into resentment and exhaustion. If you co-parent, sit down together and draw up a list of what is happening and what needs to be done. Agree who is doing what, and check in regularly. Perhaps set up a weekly meeting. If you are a single parent family, be honest and ask yourself who you can ask for help. Can you share the load with a friend or if you can afford it, are you able to outsource anything, even if it is just over the school holidays?


If this is a new behaviour for you it may take a while to get established. You’ll have good days and not so good days. But persevere. Habits take a time to unravel, but it is possible. Just imagine how different life might be if you were able to create a few boundaries and say no a little more than you do now. How might you use that new space and time that you’ll gain as a result?


If you’d like to explore this topic further I recommend checking out Terri Cole’s work on boundaries.


If you or your organisation would like to understand more about how to support your employees as they take parental leave, please get in touch.


My colleague Sarah Turner and I have been busy creating content highlighting the importance of organisations providing support for working parents. As part of this, we created this video series exploring the entire journey of maternity leave, from before the leave starts, through to preparing to return and then the first few months back at work. If you or your organisation would like to understand more about how to support your employees as they take parental leave, please get in touch. This blog post is a collaboration between Maternity Coaches Laura Duggal and Sarah Turner. They are working together, sharing their experiences and bringing the best of their joint advice and knowledge to you.


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