Naomi Osaka’s “no” was a shock heard ‘round the world. On May 31st, the top-ranked Japanese professional tennis player announced she was officially withdrawing from the French Open, citing mental health issues as a concern. Osaka’s announcement came one day after she was fined $15,000 for not participating in a mandatory news conference, and also threatened with more serious consequences by the heads of all Grand Slam tennis tournaments if she continued to abstain from future media obligations.
At just 23 years old, Osaka confessed she has battled depression for years, and often feels very anxious when addressing the international news media. Her “no” to the French Open is a rejection of media pressures on athletes, and also a rejection of the culture of “yes” that frequently plagues working women. Osaka’s brave and unexpected “no” is a win for overworked, overcommitted women everywhere.
Osaka’s strong sense of self, and her ability to fiercely guard that self at such a young age– while also candidly sharing personal mental health struggles — truly inspires me. At 23, I was very much still a child, still learning that saying “yes” to everything, to having a constantly overflowing plate, was and is the expectation for working women especially working mothers.
Like Osaka, I recently discovered the beauty of saying “no” — to doing less, to saying “yes” to boundaries between work and self. This discovery has been one of the silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, Covid quarantine forced us all to do less, and obligations of all kinds were cancelled. Now that vaccines are abundant and the pandemic is waning, that hectic previous life is thundering back — and definitely not asking permission. I felt this intensely during the month of May. My kids’ birthdays, extended family graduation parties, end of school year parties, deadlines for signing up for summer camp, swim lessons, and summer vacation itineraries — it all became too much. NONE of this happened last year, and while that solitude was often sad, the peacefulness and reflection that extra time allowed was also a blessing.
While my head was spinning as a teacher-mom during the month of May, a few weeks before Osaka’s “no,” I flexed my own “no” muscles. After several nights of fitful sleep, I withdrew from a teacher’s conference I was supposed to present at. I simply didn’t have time to authentically present the material while dealing with everything else May was throwing at me. My pre-pandemic perfectionist self whispered “Ah! Failure!” when I sent the email message to the presentation team. My post-pandemic self grew wings. The weight off my shoulders literally made me feel like I was lifted off the ground, ready for flight. Who knew “no” could feel so good?! (My inner perfectionist quieted down when we rescheduled the presentation to another venue in October, during a much less hectic time.)
I said “no” one more time during manic May. I had volunteered to be on an education committee for revising teaching standards months ago. Most of the meetings are on Saturdays; all are unpaid. On the Saturday after my son’s birthday, also the day my extended family would be celebrating Eid-al Fitr (the Muslim celebration at the end of Ramadan), I said “I’m so sorry, I can’t attend today due to family conflicts.” I spent the day watching my kids enjoy their birthday presents and prepared for the big Eid family celebration that night. I was (finally) able to be in the moment, instead of constantly looking further down the “to do” list. (Fellow teachers on the committee kept me updated on what I missed, which mostly satisfied the inner perfectionist.)
While neither of these “no’s” took the busyness away, they stopped my plates from massively overflowing. Most importantly, learning to say “no” has empowered me to take charge of my stress levels and guard my free time more assertively.
How much you can take on and still find time for yourself varies tremendously from person to person. For me, I know my work/life balance is threatened when the “to do” list wakes me up in the middle of the night. Everything on the list has an exclamation point. (Take the laundry out of the washer! I left the copies on the printer!) This translates into short-tempered when I wake up, feeling fatigued.
It’s also important to recognize that not every “no” needs to be major, or needs to be work-related. Just yesterday I decided to have the weekly groceries delivered instead of trucking out to the store — the streets were flooding with rain, and I felt truly worn out from teaching summer camp — so I chose to nap instead. I recognize that many “no’s” arrive with a heavy dose of privilege (having groceries delivered isn’t an option for many), but it’s important to protect your boundaries and limit those “yesses” when you can. It can be as simple as saying “sorry, I can’t work overtime” or “the dishes can wait.”
“No” can also take the shape of asking for help. My 12-year-old son makes his own school lunch now, because me making four lunches every morning is too much. My husband cooks most dinners. My 8-year-old daughter vacuums (with varied success). Older students at summer camp help me prep art materials for the next day. My friends and I share extracurricular drop offs and pick ups. I talk out my stress with a therapist, because like Osaka, I also struggle with anxiety.
As Osaka realizes, mental health is priceless. Our lives on this Earth are already so short, so taking the time to defend your needs is never something to be ashamed of — it’s always a Grand Slam win. I truly hope Osaka’s actions encourage women around the world to say “no” when necessary, and in doing so, say “yes” to putting themselves first.