Parenthood

How Learning to Say No Saved My Career (and My Sanity)

The best-selling author of Maid reflects.

Just five years ago, I never went anywhere. At 36, I was semi-fresh out of college, trying desperately to launch a professional writing career while caring for a five-month-old and seven-year-old on my own. We’d just scored a small apartment in low-income housing, and I fought on a sometimes hourly basis to work. 

I had three or four small jobs, all of which had to do with creating or editing or posting content. Between getting the older kid up, driving her to school, caring for the newborn, cleaning, shopping for and cooking food, picking the older kid up, driving her to ballet or Girl Scouts or whatever, then putting everyone to bed, my “work hours” became the times that both the girls were asleep, because I couldn’t afford childcare. 

I’d make a huge cup of coffee at 9 p.m. and often wouldn’t finish until two or three in the morning. 

I did this for two and a half years. But, really, I’d fought to work as much as possible since becoming a single mom in 2008. Before kids, work had always been freedom, independence, so I never turned it down; but then I found that I never had a day off. Now, I had too much unpaid work, and too little income to pay for our basic needs.

When I became a single mother, I went from someone who’d always had several jobs to one who couldn’t even find a part-time one. After a year of looking and applying, I started cleaning houses, but couldn’t work full-time. I was constrained to daycare hours, long commutes, a car that always broke down, and somewhat constant illness between me and my kid. It pained me to turn work down. Work became something that could leave at any moment. I could be fired randomly for my car’s inability to drive in the snow. A client could cancel while I stood on their doorstep knocking, prepared to get four hours of pay, and then it was gone. And I would have to scramble to come up with rent.

Work became something that could leave at any moment. I could be fired randomly for my car’s inability to drive in the snow. A client could cancel while I stood on their doorstep knocking, prepared to get four hours of pay, and then it was gone.

Work was survival. Work was our future. Work was some kind of foundation that I could possibly create that would never fall out from under us. But it went impossibly deeper than that. Americans have dignity from an ability to work drilled into them from an early age. Being on government assistance, I constantly had to prove I was working. I was penalized if I wasn’t working enough, and I’d lose hundreds in benefits for an increase of just $50 in wages. Ability to work was my path to being a contributing member of society. To be acceptable among my peers. 

At the beginning of 2016, two years after I graduated college, I discovered I’d started making too much to receive food stamps. I’d become a freelance writer, often with about 20-30 pieces I worked on at once. I still did all of that at night until I could afford full-time daycare on my own, when my youngest was almost two.

Writing about social and economic justice from a first-person perspective was a niche I fell into, then it launched me to places I never thought I’d reach. I suddenly had a major book deal and it was featured at the Book Expo, made all these “anticipated” lists, and debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list and stayed on it for five weeks. 

I found myself going from living in a tiny low-income apartment, hardly ever leaving, and being someone who hadn’t flown on a plane in several years, to someone who flew across the country several times a month. I also spoke in front of large audiences, shaking and somewhat terrified, to advocate for people who live in poverty. 

After the book made the bestseller list, people kept emailing me, and my publisher, and my agent, to ask if they could fly me to their event to speak. And not only pay for it all, but send me home with a paycheck. How could I turn that kind of opportunity down? All I had to do was fly there, check in, hang out, do the speech, and fly home. 

After the book made the bestseller list, people kept emailing me, and my publisher, and my agent, to ask if they could fly me to their event to speak. And not only pay for it all, but send me home with a paycheck. How could I turn that kind of opportunity down?

I wrote the first draft of this on an airplane, mid-flight, after we sat at the gate for an hour because of some repair, and our flight is almost four hours. I had a head cold, flying across the country to give my 13th keynote speech in just eight weeks. The week before, after getting home from an event, when the kids were finally asleep, I was so exhausted I started sobbing and couldn’t stop, leaving my husband to do whatever he could to comfort me.

At some point during the Q&A that followed my speech, I had thrown in a joke about being an introvert. Being so introverted, that standing in front of a large audience like I was in that moment is my worst nightmare. People came up to me and told me I did a great job, that they couldn’t even tell I was nervous, and I smiled and nodded. If they asked to hug me I said no. Sometimes I have to physically hold up my hands like I am saying “STOP,” and I tell them I get sick. They seem to understand.

I really do this because my therapist strongly suggested that I need to start setting some boundaries with work. Even though I still don’t feel financially stable enough — I may never truly feel that way — to turn paid work down, I decided I could say no to the unpaid work. People ask for unpaid work all the time. I get some kind of request almost daily. The appearances at book clubs, the podcasts, the wanting to pick my brain over coffee, the informal dinners, and yes, the want for connection that leads to hugging. 

Despite these efforts, when I am home I barely go out in public, and rarely without my husband as some kind of buffer. I’ve developed social anxiety from people approaching me at the grocery store or my daughters’ schools. A break from work now means a break from talking to strangers, and I try to hold myself to that.

I told another big-name writer friend recently that I probably wouldn’t get a true break for about five years. She said she didn’t get one for ten. 

After nearly two years of being away from home on a semi-regular basis, I sank into my little routines with a thud. Everything was packed the same way. All items had to be in their place, or I’d worry about forgetting them. Everything was unpacked when I got to the hotel down to the socks and vitamins. I first thought it was on the side of obsessive, but then I saw what it was: creating familiarity. A home on the road. 

As an introvert, I’d never had opportunities to measure the depths of my aversion to mingling through large crowds, creating some kind of small chit chat type of language that filled the uncomfortable spaces around me. Through traveling, public speaking, and forced cocktail hours, I saw my attempts to put up physical boundaries to create safety — the refusals to hug, the belongings in the same place at every Marriott or Hilton—but I still struggled with the emotional ones. 

I had to stop saying “yes” to every opportunity to speak, write or appear. I began to see my energy as a limited source, and I had to conserve it for opportunities I truly cared about, or I’d walk away from it feeling used or taken for granted in some way. I started telling people I had to conserve my energy for paid work opportunities, and most people understood. I started turning down speaking gigs, conserving time to work on other projects where I write, at home, in my office instead of standing to speak in front of a large crowd, and I am starting to see that action as vital. Though I am turning down an opportunity to advocate in an outward way, and choosing to go inward and reflect and write, I see the ripple effects from both actions equal in importance, despite the major difference in pay. 

What it’s really become is learning to have faith in work still showing up later. That I can trust it will be there for me in the future, so I don’t have to scoop up every dollar tossed my way in an endless hustle that living in poverty created inside me.

What it’s really become is learning to have faith in work still showing up later. That I can trust it will be there for me in the future, so I don’t have to scoop up every dollar tossed my way in an endless hustle that living in poverty created inside me.

I’ve had to learn what people call work-life balance or self-care because I’d never had the ability to attempt that before. What began as an action that felt too self-indulgent, like watching shows in the middle of the day or exercising, are now necessary to be the best version of myself. Not only when I speak to hundreds, but when I parent, am a partner, and, eventually, when I have to run to the store alone without fear of a panic attack. I’ve started responding to work requests with “let me look at my calendar” and “I just need to make sure I won’t be too drained” and “I need to be realistic with what I can do in order to be my best.” While this all feels the opposite of “manning up” to do the work and get the job done, striving to lean in like women are often told to do, all I have to do is think back to that night of such utter exhaustion that I couldn’t stop sobbing. Self preservation is securing an ability to work in the future, because I will be able to show up and get it done. 

Stephanie Land is the New York Times bestselling author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive.