I was thirteen when, to my surprise, I was welcomed by a new family member. My dad’s girlfriend’s stomach got bigger, and the relationship between me and him became more distant. It was all about her and the baby. My parents had already been divorced for quite some time. I was seven when my parents got divorced, but it still hurt that they moved on and I hadn’t yet. I was holding on to hope that they would get back together one day.
I didn’t like that everything was changing around me. I wished things would go back to the way they used to be. Soon I felt invisible and that my existence at my dad’s house was invalid. I was a good kid—a great kid, actually—because I never used the word no. Not even once. It would always bubble up inside me, but it would never come out. I never let my voice be heard, or lived a life of my own, or stood my ground. I dwelled in and soon succumbed to my own insecurities.
When my baby brother was born, things got harder—a lot harder. My dad’s girlfriend soon became my stepmom. That confirmed things were officially over between my parents. I was still a teenager, but I wanted to live in my youth a little longer. They made me grow up too fast for my liking. Eventually my dad and stepmom grew accustomed to having me babysit. They relied on me to watch him.
Never asking, they just told me what I was going to do. What if I had plans like going to the movies or staying over at a friend’s house? What made it worse was that my stepmom was a flight attendant, so she would be gone a few days each week. Sometimes I felt like I was the one who had this baby. My dad worked the night shift, and I would be up with my brother until he got home in the morning. Then I had school. I felt like everything started to fall on me, like I was drowning. My life became very limited.
I knew something had to change or else I was going to fall victim to a life full of resentment. I talked to my mom about my dilemma. She told me that I was allowed to say “no.” I didn’t have to please everyone. It was okay to let people get upset and live my life because I’m the only one who can. She told me to just say no and don’t worry about the outcome. I would sit in my room and practice. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and looked in my mirror. “No,” I said calmly. “I can’t.” I stated. “Sorry, but no.” I said. I took another breath and said it one last time in the mirror, “Sorry, Dad, but no. I can’t.” I smiled. That was how I needed to say it. I didn’t yell; I stayed calm, cool, and collected.
I was so used to saying yes that I didn’t even think about having the option to say no. It nourished my body like a drug, like an overdose of neglecting my own happiness for others. I would always be there to help, but enough was enough—I wanted to live for me for once. My mom gave me numerous ideas on how to say it. “What’s the worst that can happen? He’s gonna get mad?” She laughed. I laughed too, but inside I was terrified of upsetting my father. He had a temper, and I didn’t want him to direct it toward me. So, I thought about it. I practiced more in my room at my mom’s house. The next time I was presented with the opportunity, I was going to say it because I wasn’t scared anymore.
When I went back to my dad’s house, I was sitting in the living room watching TV. Then here he goes, “Ash, I need you to watch your brother because your stepmother is going on a trip.”
“When will you be back?” I asked her.
“Oh, I’ll be back on Monday,” she replied.
I took a deep breath and said, “Sorry, I can’t. I have plans with my mom this weekend.”
“Okay,” my dad said and shifted in his seat. I watched their demeanors change. They weren’t thrilled, but I finally felt like this weight had been lifted off my chest. It was exhilarating, it was exhausting, but most of all it felt good! After that it became easier to keep saying “NO!” more often. I didn’t use too much of my power, only when I needed a break. I was still there for my family, but I couldn’t be there for them all the time.
It’s never easy growing up, but all you can do is learn from your unhappiness. The art of saying “no” is hard, but you can find a way to say it.