Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Eileen Lawrence to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Are you letting your life be ruled by the tyranny of “yes”? The pressure on lawyer moms to say “yes” has been with us from the beginning of our careers. Say “yes” to internships and clerkships and law review to maximize your career options. Say “yes” to billing more hours, taking clients to dinner, spending late nights at the office, and agreeing to tight deadlines so you can make partner and make more money. Say “yes” to your clients’ demands and requests whenever possible. But also, say “yes” to making healthy lunches for your kids, volunteering as a room mom for your kid’s class, keeping your children off of their screens, planning playdates and summer camps and after school activities so you don’t screw up your kids or look like a bad parent.
It can be hard to say “no” — you don’t want to disappoint people, or lose out on opportunities, or feel judged for not doing enough. But if you don’t say “no” every once in a while, you’re letting other people’s invitations, requests, and demands dictate how you live your life.
Listen, mama: now is the time to be intentional about how you spend your time and your energy. Now is the time to choose your own adventure instead of letting everyone else choose it for you.
So how do you say “no” to the tyranny of yes?
First, realize that you are fully capable of saying “no.” We moms don’t hesitate to say “no” to protect our children from hot stoves, dangerous traffic, and cyberbullying. We do hesitate to say “no” to protect ourselves — our time, our peace, our health, our sanity — not because we can’t say “no” but because we don’t prioritize ourselves. It’s not that you can’t say “no,” it’s that you need to get comfortable with putting yourself first every once in a while.
Second, you must start listening to yourself. If you’ve spent years ignoring your own wants and needs, this will not be easy. You’ll need to block out time on your calendar for this — no, I’m not kidding. Block off 30 minutes a week to write down your goals, dreams, wants, and needs. (Be sure to turn off and step away from any distractions during this time. I promise the world will survive without your immediate attention for 30 minutes a week.) And start asking yourself what you want and what you need as a regular practice: at the grocery store, at the bookstore, when you’re choosing how to spend your weekend, when you’re deciding what to do for dinner, when you’re planning vacations.
Third, once you start listening to yourself, you can begin the process of aligning where you spend your time and your energy with your goals, dreams, wants, and needs. That way you’re not saying “no” to other people just to say “no” — you’re saying “no” to other people so you can say “yes” to yourself.
Fourth, be patient with yourself when you screw up. You can’t reverse decades of programming and practice in a few weeks or a few months. Start small, keep at it, and you’ll get better at it.
Fifth, be prepared for pushback. You and your partner, you and your kids, you and your parents, and you and your co-workers have been dancing together for a while (and you’ve probably been dancing backwards and in heels, because you’re a woman). When you start to change this dance by making your own moves and being less accommodating to your dance partner’s moves, he or she will feel unbalanced and uncomfortable. Your dance partner probably won’t be happy for you, at least not at first. They may get angry. They may turn up the guilt. But you have to stay strong. Remember that although giving in and going back to your old dance will feel easy and natural in the short-term, it is unsustainable in the long-term and will only lead to more resentment and bitterness.
Lastly, keep checking in with yourself. Keep listening to yourself. Keep saying “yes” to yourself.
Once you start learning to say “no” to the demands of other people, you will find more joy. You will become more true to yourself. You will be a better mother, a better partner, and a better attorney because you won’t be resentful, and you won’t be stretched beyond your limits. And you’ll discover that the people who truly love you don’t love you just because you’re always trying to make them happy; they love you because of who you are: a person who knows herself and knows her worth.
Eileen Lawrence opened her own estate planning practice in 2020, where she works with individuals, couples, and families. When Eileen is not practicing law, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading novels, writing poetry, and pretending to be a contestant on the Great British Baking Show. You can read more about her on her website and contact her at [email protected].