Saying No

People talk a big game about about how they want their life to be more “balanced.” They wish they had more time. They always feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. They don’t sleep enough. Finances are tight. They don’t see friends as much as they’d like, etc… Actually, I feel like this an awful lot of the time, and I’m starting to realize that it often comes down to one thing:

    I have limited time, money, and energy, but I act like I don’t.

I pretend I have unlimited time when I stay up late instead of going to sleep. I act like I have money to burn when I go out for dinner with perfectly good food in the fridge. I imagine that I am a machine and not a human being when I schedule friends, work, errands, and out-of-town trips back to back for two weeks solid.

I originally drafted a very long post that dug into each of those three resources – time, money, and energy. I discussed how to quantify them and leverage excess amounts of one to make up for a deficiency of another. I had a long lecture with a bunch of math in which I concluded that you get about 40 hours of disposable time a week after doing the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, and working a full-time job, so you should use your time accordingly. But after writing lots of what amounted to pretty obvious “life-hacking” tips, I realized that it’s pretty much all about saying “no.”

Some of us, some of the time, are good at saying “no” to spending money when we can’t afford it. That is basic financial responsibility, and it’s generally understood that you shouldn’t be allowed to be an adult until you possess it. What very few of us are good at is saying “no” to spending time and energy when we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, almost every adult I know – including myself sometimes – is not only pretty awful at this, but doesn’t even consider it an important skill.

Imagine a friend invites you along on a weekend trip to New York. You are short on money lately, and Manhattan is an expensive place to visit. It’s hard, but you have to say no. You say “I wish I could, but I just can’t afford it.” Your friend does not argue that you technically could make it happen – by borrowing the money, skipping paying your bills this month, or acquiring some credit card debt. That would be extremely stupid and not worth it, and both you and your friend know it.

Now imagine the same situation with one difference: you have money to spare, but you have been very worn out lately and not getting much sleep. Do you tell your friend “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I don’t have the time or the energy?” Even if we do, I think most of the time our friend attempts to convince us (and does not have a hard time doing so) that we could totally make it work. We agree to the weekend trip and – without really thinking about it or meaning to – decide that we will just do all the sleeping, resting, housework, shopping, errands, seeing friends, and everything else we would have done and need to do that weekend “some other time.” We don’t figure out where that time is going to magically come from. And we don’t consider that we will be even more worn out after a couple nights in the big city and not up to hitting the ground running on Monday to make up for lost time.

We make ruinous, bankrupting decisions with our time and energy while carefully stewarding our money. We even save up money for unforeseen needs, but have you ever “saved up” time or energy? I usually spend mine as soon as I get it – and then spend some more that I don’t have. We are so careful with money, which can buy goods and services, but utterly frivolous with the resources we need to function as decent, effective, creative, and loving human beings. Being short on money may impact my credit rating, but being short on energy impacts my marriage and being short on time impacts my friendships. I can love my daughter and be an encouraging co-worker with $0 in the bank, but when I am sleep deprived and burnt out I can’t do either of those things no matter how much cash I have on hand.

If God wanted us to have more hours in a day or require less sleep, he would have built humans or the world differently. He didn’t. We need to learn to say “no” wisely and without guilt. Only when we do so are we able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.

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It took me a minute, but then I figured it out.

I used to feel like a substandard Mom.

When we first had our daughter Jubilee, I took my cues from my wife on how to interact with her. Jubilee’s mother would read books to her, sing her songs, cuddle with her and stare into her eyes… She could do this for hours.

So I tried it. On mornings when it was my wife’s turn to sleep in, or when she went back to work and I had a day off, I would do all the things i thought a parent was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, it drove me crazy. It was fun for about ten minues and after that it was really boring. Every day the nagging feeling that I really wasn’t enjoying this grew stronger. The only logical conclusion was that I was a bad Dad who didn’t really like hanging out with his daughter.

One morning I got up with Jubilee at 7:00am and really gave it my best shot. We cuddled, we rocked, we cooed at each other, read books, sang songs. After resisting the urge for a very long time I finally looked at the clock. It was 7:15.

This was not sustainable.

“Jubilee.” I said. “We are going on an adventure.”

This is why you don't need baby toysI packed Jubilee up in her stroller, loaded it up with the necessary supplies and equipment (it’s kinda like playing Oregon Trail) and left the house. Nothing was open yet, so we walked around the neighbourhood and I showed her different trees and their leaves. We went past our old apartment that “worked just fine until you happened.” At 8:00, we went and got a table at a cafe and I ate breakfast, read my Bible, and journaled a bit. Jubilee was endlessly entertained by my keys taped to her stroller. Afterwards we went to the park and lay on the grass and watched clouds. We ran into friends while we were there and hung out with them for a while. The time flew by, and it was the best day I’d ever had with my daughter.

I realized that morning that when my wife and I hang out with our adult friends, it looks very different. She can sit with her friends talking for hours. I can, too, and sometimes do. But more often my friends and I do something together. We get out of the house and go somewhere. We play a board game or video game. We have a project we’re working on. It makes sense that the time I spend with my daughter would also look different.

This isn’t to say that as Jubilee grows up she won’t need her father to sit and talk with her for hours – I am excited for that day! It’s just that I often get the feeling that when we talk about “parenting” we consider it synonymous with “mothering.” But I am not just a substandard Mom. I am, in fact, a standard Dad. “Fathering” is a whole separate art in of itself, and it’s one in which I need to grow and develop in order to be the father that Jubilee needs me to be.

I sometimes hear other fathers refer to the days they have to watch the kids as “mommy days” and I couldn’t disagree more. That’s called a “daddy day” and you and your kids will have a much better time and a much better relationship if you make it your own. Ever since I took ownership of figuring out my own ways to spend time with Jubilee – how to make her laugh, comfort her when she cries, teach her about love, about God, and about the world – I have enjoyed the role of being a father so much more immensely. I’d also like to think I’m doing a much better job at it.

(As I write this, my wife hands our daughter to me, saying “go to Daddy!” My response: “I can’t be Daddy right now. I’m writing a blog post about it.” This is an example of doing it wrong.)

Nurse Ferris

I’ve decided that I am not myself on night shift. I am an alter ego named “Nurse Ferris.” Nurse Ferris is pretty much me except more sleep deprived and curmudgeony.

For example:

Nursing Assistant: “What did you bring to eat tonight?”
Nurse Ferris: “Oh, some sandwiches, a banana… some kind of cake.”
Overly Interested Nursing Assistant: “What kind of cake?”
Nurse Ferris: “I don’t know, some kind of cake.”
Food-Preoccupied Nursing Assistant: “But what kind of cake?”
Nurse Ferris: “Some NOT YOURS kind of cake! Jeez.”

or

Nurse Ferris: “I want to die of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.”
Naive Nurse Sarah: “But before it ruptures you’re just sitting around waiting to die!”
Nurse Ferris: “Sarah. We are all sitting around waiting to die.”

Margie said I should share some examples of grumpy things I’ve said to her while on night shift. But then we realized that I don’t say funny grumpy things to her when I’m sleep-confused and miserable. I’m just kind of mean and bitchy.

I’m working on that.