The “No” Parent Struggle
“Can you help me put the puzzle together? I can’t do it by myself!” He looks up at me with large brown eyes, pulling me into his orbit. He has always had a perfectly round face—even as a baby, people would comment on the striking symmetry of his small head—and it makes his particular brand of cuteness difficult to ignore.
My hands are still drying from some time spent soaking in soapy dish water. They itch to move on to the next tasks: wiping down the kitchen table, refilling spill-proof drinking cups, moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. I want to have the time to sit on the living room floor and assemble a 48-piece puzzle of sea creatures, but I don’t.
Or maybe I do. This is the “No” Parent struggle—this is what happens when you are the parent who nearly always says “no” to your kids, for one reason or another.
Many of the reasons are good. No, I can’t play trains right now, I’m making your lunch. No, you can’t wear your winter gloves at the dinner table because you won’t be able to eat. No, we can’t go to the zoo that’s 90 minutes away today. No, I can’t watch you do a spin-dive off the couch; your brother pooped through his diaper again.
Sometimes, though, the reasons are not so good, driven more by my Type-A personality and inability to feel productive doing floor puzzles. It feels so much better to be baking and cleaning and firing off emails and preparing for that Pinterest craft project we’re doing tomorrow. Being a stay-at-home mom means I often have nothing to show for my eight solo hours with the kids aside from clean diapers, well-fed bellies and an absence of bleeding head wounds. That should be enough, but honestly, it rarely is.
It feels good to be able to point to something concrete, like a paper bag animal puppet or a tray of homemade muffins or a bathroom sink free of blue raspberry toothpaste, and say, “Look! Look what I did today!” But that tangible product of daily motherhood often comes with a price. Some days I feel like a drill sergeant, barking orders at my kids from the other side of the living room baby gate while I try to check something off my to-do list. Some days I sit down after hours on my feet, pull my toddler into my lap, and remember—with regretful longing—the softness of his fine, blond hair and the squishiness of his thick, chunky thighs.
Entire mornings go by without me getting close enough to my kids to really look at them up close. I was there all along, handing them snacks and wiping their faces and helping them wash their hands and kneeling down beside them to clean up their toys, but we were just moving in circles around one another, never really overlapping.
This is the No Parent struggle—this is what happens when you spend your days saying “no” to your kids and “yes” to housework, law and order, and productivity. Yes to what you think they need instead of what they actually want. Yes to the things you know will be good for everyone in the long run. No one cares about those things, though: a silent yes to everyone getting home before lunchtime hunger turns into tantrums is also an audible no to staying at the playground for another fifteen minutes.
A No Parent shoulders a lot of responsibility. I don’t say “no” just for fun. I know that if the three-year-old brings his toy truck into the bath, a brawl will break out between him and his brother. I know that if the two-year-old is allowed to “borrow” that broken calculator from Grandma’s house, it will forever belong to him and will never make its way out of our pile of clutter called a house. I know that if the six-year-old asks to eat breakfast before getting dressed just this once he’ll ask to break the rules every single morning.
The No Parent is used to feeling like a killjoy. The No Parent knows that the kids prefer hanging out with the Yes Parent, not because they get away with murder, but because the stakes are comfortably lower. So what if a kid wants to wear safety goggles to the grocery store? It doesn’t hurt anyone.
To be clear, my husband is a phenomenal, hands-on dad, and not permissive by any means. There are boundaries set and expectations in place and consequences for misbehavior when my husband is in charge. There’s just less of them, but that’s part of what makes him such a great dad—and such a good compliment to my “live by the rules, die by the rules” mentality.
Still, my husband is the Yes Parent. As the person with the full-time job outside the house, his time with the kids is more limited. He doesn’t want—or always need—to spend all of it saying “no.” Because he doesn’t have to do it all the time, he’s less adept at anticipating meltdowns and squabbles and bad habits in-the-making. He doesn’t always see three steps ahead the way that I do. Step 1: Say “yes.” Step 2: Kids take advantage. Step 3: Everyone is miserable.
This is the No Parent struggle—this is what happens when you have too much experience with spontaneity and flexibility going awry. Our days are rigid because it’s hard to stay home alone with three children six and under. I say “no” because rigidity makes our days marginally easier for everyone, particularly me. Predictability and consistency are our friends.
But they also have the tendency to suck all the life out of our days. This is the No Parent struggle—this is what happens when you look around and realize that your kids think you aren’t any fun. That you always make them follow the rules. That no matter how badly they want you to, you won’t stop getting things done long enough to help them put together a puzzle.
So today, with those brown eyes peering up at me, I save the laundry for later. I ignore the crumbs on the table. I save the emails for naptime and forget about the dirty bathroom sink.
I follow my three-year-old into the living room and sit down on the floor. “Where should we start?” I ask.
“With the sharks!” He cries, handing me a puzzle piece.
Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing instructor from Connecticut. She is mother to three wild and wonderful boys and wife to one extremely patient husband. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lost Country, The Forge Literary Magazine and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Her nonfiction has been featured at Tribe Magazine and Parent.co. In her so-called “free time,” Sarah is a homeschooler, avid baker and lover of all things DIY. She also knows way more about dinosaurs than she ever thought possible.