The Big Bad Maybe Later

This will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody: I am rather inept at saying no. Slightly more unusually maybe – or at least, slightly less talked about – is being equally bad at saying yes.

So how do you go through life saying neither no nor yes? By becoming a master of the unholy trinity: We’ll See, Maybe Later, and I’ll See What I Can Do. Used effectively, they will answer any situation known to humanity, and are as useful in a classroom as they are in any number of parenting conundrums. In fact, The Paleontologist has started predicting my response, and has changed her questioning technique, asking open questions whenever possible: “Why can’t we have bubblegum ice cream?” is a frequent opening gambit. Other favourites include “When are you going to let me have a phone?” and the wonderful “Why does our Tooth Fairy give less money than the Fairy that goes to [insert the name of absolutely any other classmate]?” The Cowgirl, predictably, approaches things totally differently, dodging asking questions altogether by doing things she thinks she won’t be allowed to do as secretly as possible. Thankfully, subtlety is not as much her forte as, say, running headlong through any obstacle, from rose bushes to recalcitrant authority figures. The time she ate a whole pack of chocolate coins, hiding the wrappers in her pillowcase so that I didn’t see them in the bin, showed particular insight and forward planning. At least, it did until she asked me to plump up her pillow the next evening. Oops.

So I have one child who has developed excellent open questioning techniques, and another who has mastered the art of independence before mastering her 3 times table. This is good, right? Nothing wrong with a bit of healthy noncommittal… Except, of course, we all know there is. And not just the kind of wrong that leads to my more decisive friends and relations (looking in no particular direction, but we both know who you are!) wanting to throw me out of the nearest window fifteen times on any given day. Avoiding both yes and no is a great way of dodging most forms of conflict: if no one (including me, particularly in busy times, or September, or first thing in the morning) knows what I want, they certainly can’t get in a grump if I disagree with them. But it has a deep darkness as a cost. It also means avoiding contentment within myself. Saying yes means saying this is good; saying I’m happy with this; saying this is enough.

There is often a feeling that living a more sustainable life means saying no. You say no to flying and take your chances on holidaying in the UK – may be amazing, may be the end of your marriage and feel like December. You say no to plastic and no to frappacinos, to deodorants bought in your lunch break because you forgot to put any on this morning, to sanitary towels, to the basic fundamentals of everyday living. You say no to meat, to cheese, to takeaways, to many of the things that make busy lives both enjoyable and achievable. You say no to all the things other people are doing, heart pounding as you say it – will they think you’re judging them? Are you judging them?

What if, instead of saying no, simple living was all about saying yes? It would change my perception of it dramatically if I could navigate that mindshift. Here’s an example of when I’ve tried. A few days ago, I went on a train journey to the very North of Scotland – and, as if 7 hours on a train (plus delays, of course) wasn’t enough, three days later we came back again. I was, obviously, not optimistic about the whole experience. Two children, one tablet, tired Mum, Dad away with work; what could possibly go right? But then came the magic. The first bit of magic was my previously-mentioned saintly mother saying yes to buying magazines for both children. Hooray for plastic toys! Hooray for Ninjago mini-figures! (That’s Lego, if you’re not up to speed with the latest lingo the kids are using.) Hooray for activities, and quizzes, and facts that keep science-crazy munchkins engaged for… well, actually for hours. We also had activity books, Top Trumps (cathedrals in one pack, dinosaurs in the other – only in my family…) and an ancient game of Master Mind that involves breaking a code set by the other player. And with that, we survived. We not only survived, we thrived. Both Mum and I managed to spend time reading; in fact, I stopped when I was ready, not before. I genuinely can’t remember when that last happened. It turns out that saying yes to what is directly in front of you, being present and answering questions, reading instructions, then letting the instructions be followed without interference (even when they Do It Wrong), works terribly well, something I used to know, but had let myself forget.

View from a train window, looking out over a very wide river. In the bottom corner is the reflection of a child playing on a tablet.
The beauty of the Scottish coastline. The wonder of a happy child who hasn’t run anywhere for several hours.

Sometimes, I say we’ll see because I don’t know how to even conceive of having the energy to do what is asked (particularly when I’m being asked to build a working robot out of toilet roll wrappers, to take just one example…) And at other times, I say we’ll see because I mean no. Just no. In fact, I frequently mean I’d rather do the school run across hot coals than even think about doing what is asked. (Building a robot isn’t that bad. A whole afternoon of joining in with watching Peppa Pig is.) So I’m setting myself a slightly late #ChallengeAugust. To say no when I mean it; to say yes when I want it; to say we’ll see when I genuinely mean I don’t know yet whether it’s yes or no. Well, apart from when discussing birthday parties. With four months to go until the closest one, any resolution needs a touch of realism and some hard-won messy survival techniques, naturally.

A long bridge curves across a wide estuary, big enough to almost look like the sea.
The rail bridge approaching Dundee. An utterly stunning sweep of countryside.