Ask Allison: 'I'm so exhausted, I can't keep up with the other mums'
Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships
Q: I have two children, who were born 10 years apart. I have a group of friends that I made when all our eldest children started primary school. We did a lot of activities together and, as a result, all us parents became close. Since my youngest son was born, I feel like I can't keep up. Because of the baby, we are refusing more invitations than we accept. While my friends are all lovely and supportive, I worry that they will tire of me constantly saying no. Should I say something, or just assume that they understand?
A: This sounds like a good mum tribe, and you describe them as 'lovely and supportive', which is essential to get you through the tricky job of motherhood.
The fear I hear is yours. What does the word 'no' mean to you? It's a small word with a major psychological punch, and it packs a heavier blow for women, as so many have been conditioned to understand 'no' as a bad word - 'good girls' don't say 'no'.
We are taught to think of others first, to be compliant and pleasing. I love Brenée Brown's '3 Ps', where you learn to 'perform, please and perfect'. Can you feel the weight of gender conditioning now?
Think back to the first time you said no. How was it received? Were you championed or chastised? Did you hear sentences such as 'Don't be so selfish' or an exasperated 'Just be a good girl'. Those messages can become a life sentence if saying no restricts you to an endless sense of duty and care to others first.
The primary unconscious message you have playing on automatic, from years of programming, is that your friends will not accept you, or this behaviour, for much longer. The danger is that this message, left unchecked, leads to you ignoring your own needs.
When you have young children, they will take what they need - and that means your time, energy and resources. This is natural.
When you know you are tired, or are TATT (tired all the time), ignoring your body's signs carries a cost. When you continuously push past physical exhaustion, it becomes an emotional exhaustion as well, leaving your physical and mental health at risk. Listen to your body and give yourself permission to create and maintain what are, essentially, healthy boundaries.
Share how you are feeling with your friends. They will either accept it or not, and you will realise your true friends from this. Reverse the situation: what you would say to your friend if they said they felt a bit overwhelmed and didn't have the time or energy to keep up?
One excellent way to know that a boundary has been crossed (by the way, it is most likely you who is crossing the boundary by ignoring your own needs) is by your energy levels.
When your public self is saying yes, and your private self is screaming an internal no, what old belief systems are holding you back? This is when the old narrative of 'shoulds' come in. 'You should be able to keep up,' 'What is wrong with me, they are all so together, organised, calm.'
When we share our fears and vulnerabilities with friends, it is scary and can leave us feeling psychologically exposed. The fear of judgment and shame is the usual connection blocker.
The secondary fear is, 'I will never be asked again.' Once you tell your friends how you are feeling, you will clear up any potential communication mix-ups, where people could have taken it personally. Own it and say, 'Your friendships mean so much to me, but I have nothing in the tank at the minute. I'm taking a step back for me, but not from you. Thank you for all your support, it really means so much to me, as does our friendship'. You can have this conversation either face to face or on WhatsApp.
Stefanie Preissner's book Can I Say No? shows this is a common feeling many women experience. The guilt, the fear, the rumination over whether to go to the party or not; secretly hoping the other person will cancel. It is something I see too frequently.
The pressure, the expectations of how you 'should be' ties back to complex, and often tightly wound, family belief systems. Every time I challenge a female client over this, I hear a fearful whisper of the terror of not wanting to seen as 'selfish'.
Being caring or a good friend means being allowed to not be firing on all cylinders all of the time. If there was ever a cohort who will get this, it is mothers. By being honest, you may also grant others permission to 'admit' that they didn't want to go either.
I often recommend women to take a leaf out of men's books in friendship. I like how direct and honest they are. Perhaps their comfort with saying no, and giving permission to care for themselves, is a learned behaviour. Their expectations - be they cultural, societal and/or familial - are so different than women's.
Embrace your 'no' with the jazz and joy of a two-year-old, they are our best teachers.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org