A Recalcitrant Wife and Mother Tells All

“My dear…’No,’ is a complete sentence.”

Lately I’ve been feeling the pinch of too many volunteer commitments.

This is ironic because I started the new school year with the very firm mindset that I was going to protect my time like it was a precious, very fragile, endangered baby bird.

But I have utterly failed, and I’m spread way too thin. My baby bird is on the verge of dying a violent, bone-shattering death.

How did this happen?

Am I wearing a sign on my back that says “Ask ME! I always say YES!”?

Apparently so, because the requests keep on coming.

And now my secret is out: I can’t say no. Why do you think I was so popular in college? Well that and the fact that I went to an engineering school with a male to female ratio of 4:1. Like shootin’ fish in a barrel.


Thanks to the loving nudge from my friend Marian, I desperately want to strengthen my “No Muscle” and not be so easily roped into volunteering for so many things in the future. And I’m happy to tell you that I think I’ve finally cracked the code! Things are about to change around here.

First and foremost, being asked to volunteer is a given. Unless you live under a rock or have no arms, someone at some point is going to ask you to help them carry their load.

If there is a smidgeon of decency in your heart, you will probably feel compelled to help that person out.

Are you excellent at time management? Is your house already as neat as a pin? Is multi-tasking your “thing”? Then go ahead and share your gifts with the world. Volunteer away!

But if you’re anything like me and you truly can’t remember the last time you washed your kitchen floor, perhaps you should remember charity begins at home, and in the famous words of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, “just say no” to additional commitments.

Have you been on the volunteer merry-go-round so long that you’re not sure what the word “no” even sounds like? Take a tip from this kickass little lady:

She’s my new hero.

Unfortunately, many of us lose the ability to say no with such confidence and verve as we mature. If that’s the case for you, as it is for me, here are some alternatives for handling the constant stream of requests for your time and talent.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom or dad, or retired, this would be the ideal time to pretend you just got a job. “Oh I’m really sorry, but I have to perform surgery tomorrow. Darn! I so wanted to help you hot glue all those popsicle sticks!” Don’t worry about being caught in a lie if you aren’t really a surgeon. You can always plea insanity later and then you’ll REALLY never be asked to volunteer again.

If you already have a job, you can also play the surgery card, as in “I’m having surgery tomorrow. So sorry I can’t help!” Most people won’t ask what your surgery is, trust me. But if they do (how rude!) just point to your crotch and make a “you don’t want to know” face. Problem solved.

Simply put, knowing that you ARE going to be asked to volunteer, and being mentally prepared to politely decline, are the keys to success here.

It’s a great idea to give yourself a little pep talk before you enter into dangerous situations like School Open Houses, PTA meetings, or anytime you are within five square miles of a House of Worship. Remind yourself of all the other things you’ve already committed to this year (like raising children, or keeping your toenails a decent length, or shagging your spouse more than once a Presidential term). Then practice saying “No” in your own special way. Practice aloud. It helps. Here are some sample responses. Choose one that best fits your personality and make it your own:

“Thank you for thinking of me! Aren’t you sweet. But my plate is already so full with all my other volunteer activities.”

“Oh I would love to help, but unfortunately there is just no room on my calendar right now.”

“Are you saved? The voices keep telling me that the reckoning is at hand.”

“Look over there! A unicorn!”

“Sometimes I want to hurt myself. Is that bad?”

“Fuck off, Jolene. If you were dying of thirst and I had a cup of water, I’d drink it right in front of you and then burp the alphabet in your dehydrated face. Bitch.”

Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here, folks. Try not to put yourself in situations where you know you’ll be hit up to volunteer. If you absolutely must attend something high-risk, my advice is to avoid eye contact with anyone holding a clip board or wearing a name tag.

Unfortunately, most volunteer coordinators are black belts in coercion tactics. Come back tomorrow and we’ll discuss these in detail.

But until then, here’s a quote by one of my favorite authors. Say hello to my new mantra:

My dear,

Don’t let anybody make you do something you do not want to do. Don’t allow someone to utter yes for you while you’re still undecided (say “I’ll think about it”). And do not allow anyone to ever tell you that “No” is not enough. It is.

‘No,’ is a complete sentence.

Saying no is a right we all have. Use it.

Truly yours,
Anne Lamott

Wishing you peace, some guilt-free quiet time to yourself, and a rock hard “No Muscle,”

– Iris

PS – New here? Like what you see? Want to help others enjoy it too? Please share the love by voting for The Bearded Iris at Babble.com’s list of the Top 50 Mom Blogs.  Every time someone votes for me, a depressed, overwhelmed mother stands an inch taller and shouts “NO” to the nearest authority figure. Do it. Vote. You know you wanna.

© 2011, The Bearded Iris.


  1. Alexis@TroublesomeTots

    Would leave a commiserating comment but I’m off to find a circumstance where I can casually drop my new favorite phrase: “If you were dying of thirst and I had a cup of water, I’d drink it right in front of you and then burp the alphabet in your dehydrated face.”


  2. Mary

    This is so true! I’ve been saying “no” more over the past 6 months than I ever have in my life. (And for the record, that has nothing to do with the three boys 7 years old and younger currently living in my home.)

    Practice saying “no” is actually not bad advice. It stills gives me a stomach twinge when I do say “no” to different things, but it’s always a huge relief later to realize that I’ve dodged yet another commitment!

  3. Martha

    From a mofo speech pathologist’s perspective, simply place the tip of your tongue on your alveolar ridge (sounds almost pornographic, doesn’t it?) turn on your vocal folds sending the air out of your nose, and lower your tongue while rounding your lips. That should do nicely!!

  4. Fiveogrrl

    I just sharted the alphabet.

  5. Angie K.

    Oh, how I love me some Anne Lamott! She rocks. I repeat the mantra “No is a complete sentence” many times a day to myself and others. Knowledge is power.

  6. Kim at Let Me Start By Saying

    There is a rumor circulating at the PreK pickup line that I am organized. Now the new teacher keeps looking my way, so I’ve been avoiding eye contact and hiding behind a tree, shoving my 4yo out from behind it right before the bell rings.
    There’s no way in hezzel Imma gonna be no Room Mom. Eff that. I just got my freedom back 2 weeks ago when school started. I’m not giving it up to spend time with even MORE little kids.
    No. No. No. Noooooo. Nonononononononoono.

  7. Livin In Duckville

    I did THAT…. I said No…. and guess what…. tonight’s the first meeting where everyone ELSE who said yes has to go…. and not me…. *delirious dancing around the kitchen – grabbing the WHOLE bottle of wine, sitting my ass down & watching some TV in my jammies!!!* …. woo hoo!!

    • Muffintopmommy

      Hee hee. I think I love you a little. I bow to your no-ness!

  8. Ann

    You have to die to get off a volunteer list at school or church, or your kids get to high school and they don’t want the parents around anymore. (Thank God for that!)

    My new standard reply to a volunteer request is…..I couldn’t possibly (sigh) I’m exhausted. Then I usually slink away in shame and head for the nearest drive-thru.

    • Kathy C

      We’re cut from the same cloth, Ann. Remember the t-shirt that a friend gave me that said, “Stop me before I volunteer!”

      • The Bearded Iris

        MUST. HAVE. THAT. T-SHIRT!!!!

  9. Martha (MM)

    Or you could always mention the time at church when they asked that you are not to be placed with children – that one cracked me up and I’m surprised you didn’t link that one up in this post!

    I’m still lurking around reading everything you write and trying to get back in the swing of things with posting again 🙂

    • The Bearded Iris

      MARTHA! I’ve missed you! Thanks for delurking and reminding me about that special church incident. Ha!!!

  10. Muffintopmommy


    Ahh. I feel better

    Dude, glad someone else doesn’t wash their floor either. Phew. Love your charity begins at home line…one of my friends says that all the time. And damn if it ain’t true! When my closet stops looking like Hoarders and I no longer name my dust bunnies, then I shall volunteer some more!

  11. Allysgrandma

    Good luck beotches…..my days of having to volunteer are over and it looks like my grandchildren will not be living close so I am even off the hook there…..I think I will go sit and cry now.

    • Megan at declutterdaily

      Cheryl, I just love a grandma that will call us all beotches. 🙂

      You just made me smile.

  12. JD

    Thank you for pointing out to the uninitiated (me) that I am about to walk into a giant minefield of volunteer coercion: Kindergarten open house. I know the PTA is going to be stalking me. Because over the summer I volunteered to do one thing: write articles for a town newsletter or paper or something. No brainer for me. I’m a writer. I can do it on my own time. Perfect. The response I got? “Oh, we don’t have much need for that but could you do this and this and this…” HELLS NO. So they scared me off. And now they’ll be looking for me. I am a marked woman. Help.

    • Crista

      Be strong and decline, or like Ann said, you’re seriously screwed until the kid hits puberty and doesn’t want you within a mile of their activities!

      • JD @ Momagement

        I totally avoided all PTA people at the open house. I am on no committees. Success. For now…

        • The Bearded Iris

          ‘Atta girl! Stay strong and don’t let your guard down or they’ll getcha.

  13. bernie bickers

    You don’t see a lot of moms with Tourette’s being asked to volunteer for stuff, maybe you could give that a try?

    • Livin In Duckville

      Oooohhh….. especially the ones who swear!!!

  14. Didi

    Ok Iris, you made me snort w/ the Jolene phrase… I TOTALLY LOST IT!!!!!!!!! LMAO!!!!!

    I agree, just say “no”, to everyone but hubby!! 😉

  15. Shannon

    There is a light at the end of the tunnel…usually by middle school, your kids don’t want to see you at school anymore! My younger daughter is a junior and we received an email looking for homecoming volunteeers – the look we received from her pretty much guarantees certain death if we say yes! On a serious note, you really have to start saying no or else you’ll resent volunteering in general and burn out.

    I thought of you when I was at Sam’s Club – they’re selling Bearded Iris plant bulbs!

  16. Heather

    After almost 10 years of marriage, I am getting VERY good at saying no to my husband but not as good at the school stuff (I’m a heathen and quit church ages ago so no issue there!)… However, I did get asked if I was going to the next PTA meeting to discuss something-or-other to which I replied with a resounding “FUCK. NO.” I haven’t been asked again so I think I did it right!!

  17. Crista

    I have four stepkids and our own little girl. When we got custody of the stepkids, I volunteered with the donation committee for the high school band’s annual fundraising dinner. By the third year, the couple suckered into heading the dinner and I WERE the donation committee. It sucked, but it also toughened me up, and I’m very cautious about my volunteering:

    Need 100 cupcakes by tomorrow for a bake sale? Sorry, I don’t cook…I only burn.

    Need some parents to come on the “Pump It Up” inflatables field trip with preschool? Now THAT’S more like it! What time should I report?

  18. Kate

    OMG! I am ALWAYS being asked to volunteer my time for things I usually don’t want to do. Thne when I am doing something I DO want to do, I don’t have enough time to do it how I want, because I’m stuck doing some project I don’t give to shits about. I am posting the Anne Lamott letter by my computer… or on my FB, so people will stop asking me to be on our town’s Budget Committee (I’d rather jab my own eyes out with a fork). Thank you, Iris!

  19. Tiffany

    I am a yes person too…and I am slowly learning that “No.” is a complete sentence.

  20. Tracy @ Brain Chatter

    I have to say….I am a pro at saying no.

    Sometimes I’m sincere…”Oh, I’m so sorry, I really wish I could help you out, but I just can’t. ”

    Sometimes I’m short and and to the point………..”Um…nope!”

    Sometimes I have a hard time keeping my feelings to myself…… “Bwaahahahaha!! You want me to do what?? Yeah, I don’t think so!” (I think I used this one the last time someone suggested I volunteer to be room mom for my kid’s class.)

    It’s important to have a wide variety of options when saying no.

  21. Lisa Galaviz

    OMG! I think I love you! I have been pretending to be a heroin addict to avoid the PTA meetings. I never thought about faking that I don’t have arms! You are an evil genius and you should be famous. Unless you are famous already. Are you? This rock I am living under gets terrible reception.

    • The Bearded Iris

      SHUT. UP.
      You’re a mega fan of Young Frankenstein (I assume, from Twitter) AND you pretend to be a heroin addict to avoid PTA meetings? Girl, we are a match made in heaven. Yes, I am an evil genius, but no, I’m not famous…yet. Still working on it! Thank you for coming by to check me out and for being such a fun Tweet mate! Happy day!

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