Last week two school emails landed in my inbox. One asked for volunteers for a PTA event. The other invited my younger son to a bowling alley birthday party for a classmate he barely knew.
I stared at those emails. I sighed at those emails. And then I drafted replies in my head.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t sign up to help at the PTA event,” I thought about writing. “My sons have autism and learning and thinking differences. I work full-time, and my husband has to cobble together freelance gigs so we can afford food, clothes and medical co-pays. Any extra time we have has to be used to support the kids.”
And, “I’m sorry, but my son can’t attend the birthday party,” I said in my other imaginary note. “He’ll have a tough time with the loud noises of bowling because of his sensory issues, and it will be hard for him socially since he doesn’t know your son well.”
But as I finished my mental drafts, I wondered why I was saying “sorry.”
The truth is that I’ve always thought parenting kids with learning and thinking differences involves a lot of apologizing. Apologies to the people who expect something different than what my boys are able to do or are comfortable doing. Apologies to people who want more or better from me and my husband. And apologies to the world for the challenges we face as a family.
I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like confrontation. I hate feeling like I’m letting people down. It may be why I apologize so much.
But I don’t like doing it. I know that I’m saying “sorry” for things that I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about, or things I don’t really need to explain.
So instead of writing the responses I had drafted in my head—the apologetic kind I always send—I tried something different this time. I directly, but politely, responded “no” to both emails.
“No, I cannot volunteer at this time.”
“No, my son won’t be attending the birthday party.”
Feeling a little daring, I gave my reasons and didn’t bend over backwards to justify myself.
“We can’t afford to take any more time off from work to volunteer.”
“My son has a prior commitment that day,” I wrote, referring to our weekend family time.
I was anxious as I hit send on those emails. But I also felt strong. I realized how much I needed to stop saying “I’m sorry” and start saying “no.” And not just to emails: To people, too.
I need to stop apologizing when I can’t agree to make firm plans with friends or family members, because I know my younger son’s sensory reactions may derail an outing.
I can’t keep saying “I’m sorry” when I have to cancel social plans at the last minute because my child has a meltdown. Or because we get a last-minute doctor’s appointment with a specialist whose waiting list we’ve been on for months.
I need to stop letting other people make me feel bad about not pushing to have my kids do afterschool activities. If they want to, they can. But if not, that’s OK, too. I trust they know their limits and I know mine. And I’m not sorry about that.
I’m practicing all the ways I can say “no” so it shows I am firm, but still care:
“No, I can’t.”
“No, I’m just not up to it.”
“No, that won’t work for us.”
I’m starting to realize that “no” is more empowering than “I’m sorry.”
By saying “no,” I’m taking charge of what I can control, reducing my stress and allowing myself to say “yes” to the things that really matter to me, especially my kids. And that is nothing to apologize for at all.
Learn how to address feelings of guilt you may have as a parent. Join our online community to connect with other parents for support. And get tips on how to respond when people make insensitive comments about your child’s learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.