Saying No: the Most Affirming and Authentic Thing You Can Do

When the best thing you can do for yourself is what other people are NOT doing

Posted Jun 04, 2015

Saying "no" can be difficult, even if you are not a chronic people-pleaser. It can just be so much easier to go along with what other people ask and want and expect of us — they will like us more that way, and we can avoid so much of the discomfort that comes with demurring or declining.

The power of standing up for yourself matters in small ways in the ordinary interactions of everyday life. But it matters in huge, self-defining ways when it comes to the most far-reaching decisions you will ever make about how to live.

I was reminded of this in Jeanne Safer's powerful essay, "Beyond Beyond Motherhood", in Meghan Daum's edited book, "Selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids." In the context of the theme of the book, Safer was writing about saying no to the overbearing cultural imperative to have kids. As you've probably already surmised, I think it is at least as powerful and defining an act to say no to the relentless cultural insistence that we all get married.

To Safer, who is a psychoanalyst as well as a writer, the decision not to have kids was a fraught one, in a way that staying single or not having kids never was for me. I recognize in her writing, though, the pain and ambivalence inherent in so many big life choices. And the societal pressures she describes, the ones that come raining down on those who dare to take the path less chosen, can be dodged by no one. They are part of the wallpaper of our lives, staring back at us, judgmentally, no matter how unconflicted we may be with our own choices.

Safer's essay begins with an excerpt from a magazine article she wrote about 25 years ago, when she was 42:

"Nobody will ever send me a Mother's Day card — one of those Crayola-decorated creations made by dedicated, not fully coordinated small hands. I will never search my newborn's face for signs of my khaki eyes, or my husband's aquamarine ones, or sing a lullaby. No child of mine will ever smile at me, or graduate, or marry, or dedicate a book to me. I will leave no heir when I die."

(Yes, I wish she left out the part about marrying. The collection of essays, so sensitive about the decision not to have kids, too often fails to challenge the imperative to marry.)

When she wrote those words, Safer wept. She cried again when she saw them in print, and even shed some tears of empathy for her younger self when she recounted them for this essay that she wrote at age 67.

The original essay did not appear under Jeanne Safer's name. Instead, she used a pseudonym:

"…now I see that my real motive for my subterfuge was to prevent the remote possibility that my patients, colleagues, and acquaintances would recognize me and judge me as harshly as I judged myself. Shame — for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture — is one of the hardest emotions to work through for women who are conflicted about having children."

The essay elicited such an outpouring of responses that Safer eventually wrote a book, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children — this time using her own name.

As a 42-year old, Safer struggled mightily over her concerns about her future self. Would she come to regret her decision?

"I finally said to myself, 'I don't really want to have a baby; I want to want to have a baby. I longed to feel like everybody else, but I had to face the fact that I did not. This meant that I had to work through the implications of being radically different from most other women in a fundamental way, that my requirements for happiness and fulfillment actually precluded the things they found crucial."

So it is, too, with the decision to live single.

Safer grieved for what she gave up with her decision not to have kids, but not in a self-pitying way. "Grieving for the road not taken is a healthy thing to do," she believes.

When she made her decision not to have kids, Safer considered not just what she did not want but also what she did want and what she needed:

"…I could not have predicted how much the things I merely suspected I needed turned out to be, in fact, exactly what I needed: freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted…to give myself completely to the dual careers of psychotherapy and writing.

"…I gave up precious experiences and relationships so I could have others that I needed even more.

"…there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything…There is no life without regrets.

"…Real self-acceptance, real liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them. It is true, and should be recognized, that women can be fulfilled with or without children, and that you can most definitely have enough without having everything."

Jeanne Safer calls her stance the "Affirmative No." She defines it as "the refusal to pursue a course of action that, on serious reflection, you discover is not right for you." She believes that it is "the basis of authentic individualism."

To those of you who are single at heart, embrace your own Affirmative No. If marriage is not right for you, say no to it. Say no, no matter how often or how insistently your friends or family or colleagues or strangers or the culture at large claim that you don't really mean it or you are just fooling yourself or you'll change your mind or you'll regret it.

You are the author of your life. Write your own story.