In my experience, women struggle to give themselves the emotional permission to create more time. I think we have internalized the societal expectations to be polite, to never say no, and to multitask until we collapse from the physical and mental exhaustion that results. We’ve accepted that the guilt we feel when not doing everything is worse than taking on a never-ending list of tasks as our sole responsibility. Which ultimately results in us feeling resentful, tired, and like workplace and homemaker failures with “no time.” We can learn to give “no” as a complete answer, but we must also learn to accept “No, because I don’t want to” from other women as a valid response to our questions.
One night I shared my thoughts on this topic with my husband, and he, quite unintentionally, reinforced my idea that guilt associated with how we spend our time is most certainly a gendered issue, at least in our household. I explained that I think as women we internalize so much guilt from an early age about our expectations from others that we cannot say no without apologizing, explaining, rationalizing, compromising, or ultimately caving in and just saying yes. I explained that there have been so many instances (probably daily instances if I’m being honest) where I just want to say no, and I feel like I can’t because my reasons aren’t valid enough – to friends, to him, to clients – to anyone who puts demands on my time. He responded by disagreeing. He thought that as a man he still has to give a “reason” as to why he is choosing to say no to something; he still needs to give a justifiable explanation and cannot simply say “no.”
Perfect. Any time I have a discussion like this, hearing an opposing viewpoint is exactly what I’m looking for. So I asked him, if someone asks him to do something that he really does not want to do, but feels that an explanation other than “no” is owed, what does he say? I asked him if he explains how busy he is, how he can get around to it later, how he has other plans but will make time another day – all things I might say, while feeling guilt and sometimes apologizing. His response: “I just tell them I don’t want to.”
To Kanan, “I don’t want to” is a full and complete “reason” for choosing to not participate or do anything he wants to say no to. Essentially he is just saying no. He explained that “I don’t want to” is ultimately the best reason for choosing to not do something. AND I COULD NOT AGREE MORE. He’s exactly right. It is the best reason. The catch? He usually doesn’t feel an ounce of guilt saying it because he feels empowered enough in his choice and decision to believe that he does not owe anyone an explanation about how he wants to spend his time. He has given himself the emotional permission to create more time.
As women we aren’t born with that privilege – the privilege to just say no and actually have it just mean no. But also the privilege to answer no guilt-free because every action we take and every small thing we say has a loaded connotation, often times negative, and rooted in a deep history of patriarchy.
This brings me to my next observation: Personality traits are not created equal. My first Women’s Studies class assigned a textbook called Women’s Lives, and inside you’ll find a chart full of qualities that are supposed to mean the same thing, but are considered admirable in men, and undesirable in women just by the way that we describe them. The information in that chart never leaves my mind, even ten years later because of the ways women, including myself, live these experiences daily. Clearly creating any sort of binary based on gender ultimately has a negative outcome for everyone, but here I focus on women specifically.
Men are firm. Women are stubborn.
Men exercise authority. Women are tyrannical.
Men lose their temper. Women are bitchy.
Men are careful. Women are picky.
Men follow through. Women don’t know when to quit.
Men make wise judgments. Women reveal their prejudices.
You get the point. This book may be ten years old, but these ideas are built into the very foundation of our society, and they influence our decisions. I think this is why generally speaking, men are more comfortable protecting their time and saying no, while women struggle. Because there is always a deeper meaning, there is always something to defend, to explain, and to protect. We’re thinking about what it means to say no and what it says about our character, because we’ve been taught that as a woman, being assertive makes us bossy. But men have been taught the opposite: Being bossy makes them assertive. It’s easy to say no when almost every situation is being systematically spun in your favor.
According to Allan Johnson in his essay “Patriarchy, the System” we have to ask ourselves “How do we participate in patriarchy, and how does that link us to the consequences? How is what we think of as ‘normal’ life related to male privilege…” He then goes on to explain that “When privilege and oppression are woven into the fabric of everyday life, we don’t need to go out of our way to be overtly oppressive for a system of privilege to produce oppressive consequences…”
I hate to to be the bearer of bad news, but the likelihood that your husband is guilt-ridden over not doing your laundry or making your breakfast, or kept up at night thinking about sending out birthday invitations or remembering to write things on the calendar is slim. Because they’ve been entitled to have ownership over their own time since birth, not conditioned to joyfully and selflessly give time away as a service to others like many women have been taught is our inherent duty. It’s not. But it will take a significant amount of unlearning, and not doing to unravel this expectation. From ourselves, and from those around us.
In her amazing TED talk, “How to Lean in Without Burning Out” Vanessa Loder gives an example from her research on this topic. A husband and wife are discussing their days at the dinner table. Because the husband had some “time to kill” before picking their child up from school earlier that day, he goes to get a midday beer. The wife is in disbelief because if she had that thirty minutes of free time, she would have gone grocery shopping, made work calls, returned emails – she would have accomplished something instead of “wasting time” getting a beer.
Loder’s point is that the time isn’t wasted if you’re choosing it, and it gives you joy. We’re allowing the guilt we feel to control our lives. As women we are always concerned with saying “yes” to all the errands and tasks we can possibly fit into our schedule, but we are also worried about what it says about our character if we were to say “no” – if we were to get that midday beer. As a woman, she could be perceived by herself and others as being irresponsible to waste time on something as trivial as a beer break when there are much more important tasks at hand. The result: burned out, resentful women who have so much potential that is being squandered and chipped away each day by never saying no, always giving to others, and never realizing that thirty minutes spent doing something you actually want to do with your life is not at all wasted. There is nothing wrong with choosing yourself.
If I spent those thirty minutes on myself, my husband wouldn’t mind a bit. He’d probably be happy for me. So this forced me to look internally and accept that I am putting much of that guilt and those unreasonable expectations on myself, and it’s up to me to break that cycle. It really is my husband who has inspired me to explore this topic, partially because he is so good at protecting his time, but also because he has taught me that explanation is almost always unnecessary when I’m communicating with him. And apologies or excuses when it comes to how I spend my time are things he doesn’t care to listen to. Almost every time he asks me a question, anything outside of a basic yes or no answer is unnecessary. My long texts go unread, and he skips over what he considers to be extraneous information. He is literally choosing to not read my long apologetic messages explaining my reasoning behind how I spend my time, in order to protect his own time.
Woah. And he’s not being rude, or uncaring. He just didn’t need me to explain why I’m not cooking dinner tonight , because he doesn’t care. He just wants to know if he needs to do it.
Maybe this should be an additional lesson: Stop wasting your time explaining yourself, apologizing, or rationalizing your behavior. In that time you could have gotten that midday beer. And your husband probably wouldn’t mind.
The other piece of this discussion is the understanding and trust that we will need to build with other women about our time. I think that although learning that “no” is a complete sentence, and “I don’t want to” is a real reason for not doing something, the response we give back to these answers is equally as important in order to support one another.
We’re taking our time back, but that means we need to use our collective voice to not pass judgment on one another because this ultimately creates more guilt and perpetuates the cycle. When you invite your girlfriend to dinner and she says no thank you, I think this should be answer enough. If you have real concern and ask why not, you must be willing to accept “Because I don’t want to” as a full and complete answer that exists outside of any sort of underlying meaning or connotations. If it is more complex than that, I think you will have to trust her to talk about it with you when she decides it’s the right time for her. Accept what she says at face value and trust that she’s being real and honest with you. Resist the urge to label her actions as rude or dismissive, because how she spends her time is her decision that does not need to be defended.
My idea is that as soon as we let go of expectations, learn to say no without guilt, and accept no as a full and complete answer, we can be capable of so much more. This behavior can expand out into all areas of our lives, giving us an unapologetic voice in the decisions we make, but learning to say no to create that time and space is the first step. We will have so much more time, and we will ironically be able to give much more to our families, friends, and communities by shifting from a place of resentment and obligation to a place of love.