Why is NOT over-committing so hard for moms?

I was talking to my girlfriend the other night on the phone and she started crying. She was feeling overwhelmed. Her husband was going out of town, she was going to be alone with the three kids for the two weeks before Christmas and had lots and lots to do to get ready for the holiday, including run two class parties. Within two breaths of the breakdown she then said, “Oh and I signed up to work the Scholastic Book Fair at school next week.” (I need to also mention that she moved to a foreign country just a few months ago so she is alone with three kids half-way around the world from everyone she knows.)

I chastised her for signing up. I said you’re not allowed to cry about being overwhelmed and then take on even more. I told her we need to set limits for ourselves and not overextend.

At that point she said, “Hello pot, it’s the kettle calling.”

I had told her minutes before that I had agreed to take home 150 envelopes to stuff for church, offered to stay with a sick friend for a couple of hours, had planned to offer the next day to buy our class holiday present for the teacher and had agreed to host a Pinkalicious cupcake baking party for Lilina and some buddies. (Sucker!)

So I am wondering: Do all mothers have a hard time saying NO to volunteering at church and school? Is everyone out there extending themselves beyond 24-hour time limits to do things for others? And if so, why? Do we want to genuinely help our communities? Is this just in our nature? Is it for appearances? Is it just in our DNA to care for everyone else? Is it habit?

45 comments Add your comment


December 10th, 2013
12:27 am

We are naturally caregivers. But my parents took advantage of it by relying on me as the eldest and telling me that this was what girls did. (My brother ran on his bike after school, while I learned to clean house.) It’s not just nature, it’s nurture, too. Check yourself—which child do you ask first to do things around the house and to watch the other kids?


December 10th, 2013
6:28 am

Didn’t we do this topic just three years ago? “Frazzled moms just say ‘NO’ to volunteering!”


December 10th, 2013
6:59 am

One part of me says,”Does she also work full time?” (The snarky part?). The other part of me says it is more co-dependent behavior. She does it because it fills some need of HERS.


December 10th, 2013
7:23 am

I’m with catlady on this one. I work full time, my husband is currently out of town, and we have two daughters. I have ZERO problem saying no to extra crap. I refuse to let volunteer activities stress me out.

Holden Caulfield

December 10th, 2013
7:35 am

Mommy Martyr syndrome – volunteer for all this junk and then have a breakdown seeking attention for your own choices…. “Poor So-and-so”

Please. Subliminal manipulation.


December 10th, 2013
7:38 am

I know in advance what I HAVE to do, then see where there is room, and THEN volunteer as I can.

Sk8ing Momma

December 10th, 2013
7:55 am

So I am wondering: Do all mothers have a hard time saying NO to volunteering at church and school?

No! I have absolutely no problem saying, “No.” I used to have a tendency to overextend myself; but, I soon learned that doing so makes me crazy and is not in the best interest of my family. Now, I unapologetically will say no and not feel compelled to give a reason.

Is everyone out there extending themselves beyond 24-hour time limits to do things for others?

No, I serve others when time and energy permit. I am cognizant that time is a finite commodity.

Is this just in our nature? Is it for appearances?

I think one’s personality plays a large part in whether one routinely overcommits. My guess is that those who are people pleasers and easily feel guilt overcommit more than others. I am neither a people pleaser, and I don’t easily feel guilt; hence, I can say no and never give doing so a second thought.

Is it just in our DNA to care for everyone else? Is it habit?

Caring for others is a learned/modeled trait, IMO. Managing how one goes about it doing it may be habit. Just a couple of thoughts!

Sk8ing Momma

December 10th, 2013
7:58 am

A few of mantras I live by:

1. Every good thing is NOT needful.

2. Everything good thing does NOT have to be done NOW.

3. If I don’t do [fill in the blank], tomorrow will be a new day, and the sun will still rise.


December 10th, 2013
8:03 am

No I have absolutely no problem saying no once in a while. I refuse to add stress to my life, never did.

I volunteered at the kids schools when they were younger. We all do volunteer work, especially this time of year, with Toys for Tots.

If you want to run yourself ragged, then have at it. I prefer to relax and enjoy my family.


December 10th, 2013
8:03 am

I have always worked but luckily it was not 40 plus hours each week. I also volunteer. I am fairly organized, so I got asked to do a lot of things. It was hard to say no, ” Oh you are so good at it…can’t you just do it this time?”

When I turned 40, I adopted a new thought process…

If someone asks me to do something I really do not want to do
They will be mad if I say no
I will be mad if I say yes ( as I will be overwhelmed)
THEY can be the mad person as I do not want to be mad and cranky.

Easier for them to be mad for 24 hours ( and find another person) than for me to be mad
for the time leading up to, during, after the event I did not want to do.

It also helps to say, ” If everyone does one ( two three four) four things…a lot gets done! I am already doing one ( two three four) things so I am good! Perhaps you should ask someone else”

I volunteer for things in December, as I am not traveling. I like to do it. I love to meet/help people. I do not volunteer much when I am traveling. I simply say NO. I learned the hard way, as I got way too frustrated and I was not doing a good job of anything.

@ just…hats off to you! We do what we have to do and keep moving. Hope you can take some time for yourself.

@ catlady…funny.


December 10th, 2013
8:05 am

I feel guilty when I don’t volunteer. Specially at my kids’ schools because if I don’t do it, someone else will. Which is great of course, but I always feel guilty when OTHER people are doing for my children what I can’t/won’t do to make the school better.


December 10th, 2013
8:10 am

BTW I volunteered at the check in desk at my kid’s Middle School. I did this 4-8 hours a month for 6 years. About 3 years ago, I ran into one of the office personnel. She said, ” Wow…we miss you and could use your help!” I laughed and said, ” My kids are in COLLEGE now…time flies!”


December 10th, 2013
8:37 am

@Sk8ing….wow…I learned something today. I am a people pleaser. I Googled to see why this might be. I did have critical parents. I was punished. Read on…it is interesting!

From Psychology Today:

“Why am I a People Pleaser? Typically, the intense need to please and care for others is deeply rooted in either a fear of rejection and/or fear of failure. Fear of Rejection is the underlying feeling that, “If I don’t do everything I can to make this person happy they might leave or stop caring for me.” Fear of Rejection can come from early relationships in which love was conditional or in which you were rejected/abandoned by an important person in your life (parent left or was emotionally unavailable or inconsistently available). Fear of Failure is the underlying feeling that “If I make a mistake, I will disappoint people and/or be punished.” Fear of failure can arise from early experiences with severe punishment for even small mistakes. People who had highly critical parents may develop a people-pleasing pattern. Early experiences with harsh criticism or punishment can lead to significant anxiety upon attempting a task. Even though the parent or other important person in your life who doled out the criticism may no longer be in your life, anxiety is an emotion that can live on for a very long time. To deal with that anxiety, we do everything we can to get things right, finish the job, and make sure everybody is happy.”


December 10th, 2013
8:59 am

I have no problem saying no to school requests for volunteers. My paid work comes before that and family even before that. I do help out at school a couple of hours a week, and that’s as much as I can handle between work and other things. TWG–it’s really easy to say no. I don’t get why you and other people have such trouble not overextending yourselves.


December 10th, 2013
9:00 am

I’m not sure Theresa’s friend’s problem is being over-committed (Theresa’s list looks way more daunting). She might just be overwhelmed with the situation (new country, new school, new people). It’s hard not being at home during the holiday season. Volunteering at the book fair might even be a wonderful way for her to connect with other adults who speak her language (I’m assuming she is in a non-English speaking country). Expat wives normally have the hardest times adjusting to the new situation. I guess she needs more empathy, not being chastised.


December 10th, 2013
9:04 am

It is difficult for me to volunteer at the school on a regular basis. However, when my Mom retired she wanted something “meaningful” to do with her time. She LOVES going into the school to help the teachers with copies or organization or whatever they need, and they really do appreciate her help.

@Mom to Max & Alex…I absolutely understand how you feel. I always volunteer for the “send stuff in” though. I have sent in craft kits for the rainy recess days.

I do think that in years past (my generation and before) middle and upper class girls were taught to just do stuff and not say no. PTA, Garden Club, Civic Club, etc were just parts of what a good housewife did. Also being in those social circles often helped with your husband’s career. Since the 60s we have seen less sahm, in fact as has been seen on this blog, sahm can be a “choice” that gets much negativity. That did reverse some before the economy went down and it became less taboo and sahm were more active in the things that filled my mom’s stay home days in the 70s.

Corporate women (or working Mom’s) tend to say No “easier” but as Mom to Max says there is a “guilt” to it. We are the Mom we are supposed to do this for our kids not expect another Mom to step in.

I have 2 daughters. I was proud of each of them over some tough choices. They were asked to do various activities (singing, drama, music playing, etc) for the schools or holidays. They each had to say at some point, I would love to help but my school work will suffer or I have a different commitment. So they are learning to find what we call “life balance” at an early age. From this blog (and yes the one 3 years ago to that TS mentioned) it is skill that needs to be learned by some of us Moms.


December 10th, 2013
9:09 am

yep. I got lengthy again…it happens.


December 10th, 2013
9:16 am

I’d give anything to have something like those things to do. God bless.

mother of 2

December 10th, 2013
9:55 am

A smart phone was my greatest gift to myself. I now know that I have to check my calendar before signing up for any activity. I also put my kids’ activities on the calendar. I say yes to plenty of volunteering opportunities – that is one of the reasons why I am a stay at home mother. I want to help in the classroom/school/church. I no longer over book myself because I can clearly see on my phone if I need to scale things back. I stick to my calendar and rarely have to back out of an engagement. I don’t just make a note of the day I am volunteering, I also book the hours. It has been incredibly helpful.

My friends who work laughed at me when I got a smart phone. But I now have a very reasonable schedule that works for me and my family.

Real Life

December 10th, 2013
10:11 am

Too many people, not just moms. have a problem with the word NO. I grew up with the word and learned to used it as an adult. It is difficult and guilt can be ladled on heavily, but in the long run you need to do what is best for yourself. Whether the request is school related, a family issue or a community activity, sometimes politely declining is the proper thing to do.

Atlanta Mom

December 10th, 2013
10:16 am

I had to learn to say “no”. It was hard. But the more I said it, the easier it became.
I also had to teach my children to not volunteer me for everything under the sun.
And finally I learned, if I didn’t volunteer, and no one else did, well, that activity just didn’t happen. And the sun still rose the next morning.


December 10th, 2013
10:44 am

Yes, I think it’s hard for some women to learn how to say “no”. We want to make a difference in people’s lives, we want to make our children’s world a safe and happy place, and we grew up with the mantra “do unto others,” with the unspoken admonition “or else they will do unto you!”

At some point, though, most people learn balance between what is important, what is necessary, and what is one of those nice bonuses that add color and happiness to the world. Women, especially, seem to need to be reminded to take quiet time for themselves to rest and recharge (no, an hour in church once a week doesn’t usually suffice), without feeling “guilty” for taking care of themselves. We aren’t Superwoman.

If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone. T’s friend sounds overwhelmed by everything, not just the holidays. I can understand her wanting to find connections to her new community, and she may be from a culture where women are continuously expected to “give, give, give,” but it does sound like she may be reaching a point where she needs to step back and figure out what SHE needs.


December 10th, 2013
12:11 pm

Over committing or over achieving? If you’re going to whine about it later, don’t sign up for it to begin with.


December 10th, 2013
12:37 pm

I think it’s more personality driven than male/female. I am an over-achiever and definitely over-commit. I find it difficult to pass things off to other people simply because I know a lot of people will not put proper effort into things (yes, proper is my opinion). I am trying and feel like I’m getting better at it but by no means am I good at it. I am usually ok with the things I take on and get enjoyment out of them but right now at this time of year I am feeling the pinch between family, work, church, Scout and social obligations… speaking of, I better get back to work!


December 10th, 2013
12:42 pm

MJG, I’ve also read that it happens frequently with children of alcoholics. “If I can do everything, my parent will not get drunk. It is my fault for not taking care of everything.”


December 10th, 2013
3:21 pm

@catlady…interesting. My parents were not alcoholics. My husband’s were. His siblings do not display this kind of behavior though.


December 10th, 2013
3:23 pm

@Techmom….I hear you on the word “proper”. I have learned to let things go and even if they do not get done…in a proper fashion…the world is not going to end. People have long said about me, ” If she says she will do it…it will be done right!” Yes, that is true but there are others who can take a turn too!


December 10th, 2013
3:35 pm

Just say no. It’s really not that hard, and it gets easier the more you say it. Works with kids, too. :)


December 10th, 2013
3:37 pm

It’s also easier for some people to say “no,” because they know someone will pick up the slack for them. Also, TWG: If your friend started crying, why would you start chastising her? I’m sure that she knew you could relate to feeling overwhelmed, but I think you could have been a friend first, and a time management expert later.

Having said that, anyone can get stressed, you just don’t know what one other little thing will push someone into frazzled zone.


December 10th, 2013
5:15 pm

I agree with, Kat. Your friend is overwhelmed, maybe because of the workload or maybe it just seems more difficult than it actually us because of other stresses (alone with kids, new country), and she needed some empathy. I can’t imagine telling a friend in tears that she’s not allowed to cry because she brought her problems on herself. Kindly going through her list and helping her to find where she can drop specific things might be good, but lecturing her for having already committed to an event can’t possibly be helpful. You should stop trying to blame her tough time on her and focus instead on being as good a friend as you can be from afar.


December 10th, 2013
5:19 pm

@catlady, @justmy2cents and others – I agree 100%. It is almost like some women commit to everything just for the ability to gain sympathy. I do see this less with full-time working mothers simply because they are used to juggling more, and they learn to say NO a bit easier simply because there is no spare time. Not a dig on SAHMs at all as I have been both at some point. I think sometimes SAHMs feel a real sense of loneliness and maybe a bit of despair, especially if their lives revolve around the spouse, like this example where the friend has moved overseas. It is almost like these types of moms lose their identity. That said, the whole martyr persona is really getting old. I’ve said this before and I know it is harsh, but, if you spend your time complaining about your stressful life and always play the martyr card, your kids, especially daughters, will lose respect for you and will pity you. I don’t understand why women resort to trying to gain pity form others, but it seems to be a female-focused issue, I have known a lot of SAHD men and they don’t play the pity card or act like martyr… why is that?


December 10th, 2013
5:38 pm

hmm. My first comment disappeared. I hate when that happens! Anyway, my sister and I debate about this topic all the time. She has the classic ‘woe is mom” personality, and no matter the topic, she will eventually whine about all that she has to do. It is a daily conversation for her to say that she stayed up until 3 in the morning to bake cookies for her daughter’s school, or clean the house, or make a Halloween costume. It has become so bad that I sometimes avoid her, as I really don’t have time nor sympathy for people who always play the pity card yet continue the same pattern.

Theresa’s friend may have a different set of issues, and maybe this is not her standard behavior. Being in a foreign country with no support I think would be very hard, but, did she think the husband would never travel? If she is SAHM then her list of tasks don’t seem insurmountable at all. 2 kid parties? Buy some cookies, make a punch and be done with it. It does not have to be such a dramatic event unless you make it one. That said, it doesn’t seem as if you are too good of a friend to her. It is almost like you just wanted to ‘one-up’ her just to let her know how your stress is so much more pronounced. I don’t get it – at all. Really, your kids can’t stuff 150 envelopes? Is it really THAT hard to buy a group present or host a cupcake party?

Sk8ing Momma

December 10th, 2013
10:02 pm

@Motherjane…Thanks for sharing that excerpt from Psychology Today! I needed to read that. My 14.5yo daughter is *extremely* sensitive and very much has a fear of failure. She’s a perfectionist first-born. I need to do a better job of toning down my “not-so-sensitive” personality which has a tendency to come across as critical…Sigh! :/ I do not want to be a contributing factor to her becoming a people pleaser.


December 11th, 2013
7:43 am

@ Sk8ing, you’re welcome. I too am a first born and have my own stuggles with being a perfectionist. I am pleased that I can now wear a sock with a hole in it. Something I never would have done 20 years ago…haha!

Good Grief

December 11th, 2013
8:34 am

If everyone (as this sampling indicates) is saying mostly NO, then who is getting things done in your schools and community? Then you go on to mock the people that say YES too much as looking for attention, etc. I actually know two of these YES WOMAN that were so burned out they are now totally ex-communicated from the schools because they are have health issues. No one feels sorry for them, but yet they said YES because so many said NO.

It is no wonder our society (and most importantly our schools) is going down the tubes. Most here are part of the problem, not part of the solution.


December 11th, 2013
8:53 am

@ Good Grief….YES there is a lot to be done. For everything there is a time and a season. Unfortunately, a smaller group shoulders the larger part of things. I volunteer regularly. I simply do not let people guilt me into volunteering. Not as many woman are SAHM and thus they are already overwhelmed with what has to be done. I have a few friends who have recently entered back into the work force. They see what it is like to balance home and a career. Often, there is no time for anything else.

If I ever have grandchildren, I will be able to volunteer and their schools…hoorah!

YES many schools are going down the tubes. Teachers can tell you which families are priortizing their family and which ones are caught up with other things. True that not as many Mommas or Daddies can volunteer. We made time for that, when our kids were small. We also made time for church and not as many families do that either. Say what you wish. Our Pastor told us, on Sunday, that we need to be reminded of things while at church. Many folks have no conscience and I attribute this to never being reminded. Just read the news. I do not care what church you attend. We all make poor choices and it helps to be reminded how we should act but seem to forget. It also helps to know that we are human and share the same struggles.


December 11th, 2013
9:34 am

I definitely volunteered more in GA. Now that we live in the tundra, I have zero problem saying “no”. I tried to plug-in and volunteer when we moved here. Between the background checks, endless paperwork, and ultimately getting any suggestions I would present met with hostility because I’m an outsider, I no longer make myself available. Want to stop over-committing….move ;)


December 11th, 2013
9:46 am

As a man and father, I sometimes channel my feminine side and irrationally try to have it all. Ladies…you CAN’T. Stop trying and stop complaining. You want a career, family, social life AND a sense of self? Won’t happen. You’re finding out what men have known for eons, life is HARD. Get over yourselves.


December 11th, 2013
1:32 pm

@PopATL: The 70s called; they want your opinions back.


December 11th, 2013
1:41 pm

@malleesmom…haha…the tundra! Made me laugh! It imagine it must be a lot different for you in Minnesota.


December 11th, 2013
1:51 pm

I have a friend that called me crying about money yesterday. She’s terrible about spending through the month and has 2 little kids that go without when she messes up the household budget. At first I said “No, sorry we don’t have it” and then ended up thinking of the kids and called her back to tell her I could loan it to her. Part of me wanted to teach her a lesson but the other part of me couldn’t think of anything but the kids going without. My question is, how do I learn to say no when she asks? I have a huge heart and will do anything for anyone but she’s really gotten out of hand. This is happening every month at house note time. Problem is the kids of course. My soft spot only thinks of them going without milk and food. How would you handle it?


December 11th, 2013
2:58 pm

Start setting limits on your friend. Tell her you will forget the past loans and help her come up with a plan to budget. Let her know that you will help her ONLY ONE more time and only purchase items for her like food or clothing, DO NOT giver her any more money. Stop enabling her, you are not truly a friend if you keep give her money and bailing her out.


December 11th, 2013
4:37 pm

@malleesmom… I’m actually very surprised by your experience in MN. I’m from “the tundra” (ha) and I’m not exaggerating when I say I can’t remember meeting a single hostile person there in my lifetime (minus one girl from high school). Even when I meet Minnesotans down here in Atlanta I’m always blown away by how nice they are. I sincerely hope your experience turns around soon. It truly is a lovely place. I’m counting down the minutes to my Christmas trip home!

As far as saying “no” goes… I feel guilty that I have to say it as often as I do. It isn’t because I don’t want to say yes, but because “yes” isn’t even an option most of the time.

Malcolm Reynolds

December 11th, 2013
4:43 pm

First world problems…


December 11th, 2013
5:20 pm

@ No…I have worked all over Minnesota and have met some very lovely folks. It has been such a great experience, for me. Many of them are life long Minnesotans and their families go way back. Some have had little experience with southerners or perhaps different ways of doing things. When I mention some of my ideas, with those who I am working for, they are often surprised. Since they are paying me, they might be more inclined to go with what I am sharing. If you volunteer, they might not be as interested. I could certainly be wrong. I have had teachers drive several hours to hear me and thank me for my new ideas and for coming all the way to Minnesota. It is amazing, in the summer. FREAKING COLD in the winter! They do not want our heat nor humidty! Good thing we all like different things!