The Exhilarating High of Saying “No” with Amil Niazi

"I think for millennials, we’ve started to realize you can't have it all."

The Exhilarating High of Saying “No” with Amil Niazi
Photo by Nadine Shaabana / Unsplash

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“I remember, a couple of years ago, talking about the “new normal” as something we’d arrive at, a different kind of landscape that would be shaped by our reaction to the pandemic. It’s dawning on me only now that this is our new normal, and we’re on our own. It’s on us to fight for accessible and affordable child care, flexible work environments, and better health care. But we can’t do that — sustainably, at least — without refilling the tank.” -Amil Niazi, The Cut

If you read this newsletter, my money is on that you’ve also read some of  Canadian writer Amil Niazi’s bullseye columns for The Cut, called “The Hard Part.” Two of my favorites went viral: “Losing my Ambition” and “There is No Break Coming for Parents – Ever.” I would describe her columns as having a general theme of elegant real talk in the face of the constant gaslighting parents face. I particularly love her insights into how to reevaluate seeing the world and ourselves in end-stage capitalism. So I made a zoom date to talk about the exhilarating power of saying no, why sustainability is more important to her than ambition, and how her experience with Canadian daycare is offering her a form of reproductive justice.

For Amil, she started to explore many of her insights into the complex challenges parents face after her first child was born. It sparked what she called  “a midlife crisis, or an awakening.” Finding herself in a hellish commute to a full-time job producing other people’s journalism with her much longed-for baby unhappy in daycare, she started to push herself to pursue her writing. After quitting her full-time job and taking the leap to go freelance, the pandemic happened. “I was pregnant with my second and was trying to navigate work and having both kids at home. I had a toddler and a newborn and I felt insane. Yes, my work is about ‘parenting,’ but it's just about being alive right now.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the extended audio version of the conversation where we talk about the tough economics of childcare costs versus earnings and much more, become a member. It starts at $7/mo.

Katherine Goldstein: Having a child changed your relationship to ambition, and giving you new fuel for new kinds of ambition with your writing. But I relate a lot to your writing where you talk about “losing” your ambition. What have been some turning points for you in your relationship to ambition and how do you keep reevaluating it?

Amil Niazi: I think for millennials, we’ve started to realize you can't have it all.

So what is the new way forward? I think we also have to examine and reject hustle culture and the “girl boss” ethos. For me, the ambition to do it all at once has disappeared. but I still want to do interesting and good work. I'm just trying to find a new way of doing that. And it means saying no a lot. For a long time as a freelancer, I would have felt like I always had to say yes. But now, it's not even about choosing my kids instead of my work. When I say no now, It’s about choosing me at that moment. What's going to benefit my mental health? My physical health? My ability to be present at work or with the kids? I'm calibrating that every day.

Now I’m focused on how I can be smarter and how I can make sure I have a real plan for my work, rather than just operating in service to blind ambition. So now my focus is, “how can I make sure that I'm protecting myself and taking care of myself and doing it in a way that is sustainable while also being sure I’m making money to pay my bills? I am coming to realize sustainability is better than ambition.

"I am coming to realize sustainability is better than ambition."

Katherine Goldstein: In my experience, a big part of sustainability is saying “no.” I feel like sometimes it feels so exhilarating to say no. You almost feel high. I think a lot of women and mothers are socialized to not say no. And then like once you get in the habit, it's addictive.

Amil Niazi: Saying “no” is just wonderful. It's the best. I don’t mean to sound like some Brene Brown podcast, but you do kind of have to recommit to your plan and saying no, every time you do, it’s a choice to not make a decision out of fear and panic.

When I’m committed to a plan, saying it’s exhilarating to say no, because I know that there's something better coming on the horizon. I’m not saying. “Oh, I'm quitting my relationship with ambition and that's done and like I've moved on.” Everyday I’m figuring out what that means.

Katherine Goldstein: You wrote a great column at the start of the year about how no help is coming for parents. You wrote: “I'm readjusting my expectations of myself as a parent, as an employee, as a person, and I refuse to run on empty anymore." So tell me, like, very concretely, what does that look like for you to refuse to run on empty? It ties into this question about ambition, but how does that manifest in practice?

Amil Niazi: In addition to saying no, recognizing when I'm at capacity. Having much more transparent conversations with everyone in my life. Like, “I can't do that this week. I need to move the deadline. I can't do that x y thing at home.” Just really recognizing your ability because there are no hidden pockets of time. You think you can say “yes” because you'll find time. Like, “I'll just stay up all night and do it!” or “I'll just get up at 5:00 AM and do it.”  No, no, no, no. That's not gonna happen. Yeah, let's stop pretending that it is. Doing away with that, and the fear and guilt of letting people down and realizing that we're all in the same position, and you don't have to be a superhero and you don't have to make it all come together.

I think there's also this idea that we have to always let people assume that we have it together and that we have it under control. But I think that ethos is what's destroying us. We need to let people know all the messy contours of our life. I think that just even telling people what's happening makes everything a lot easier. If you need more time, you need more time.

We’ve been trained to pay our dues and feel like we're always in danger of losing our jobs, so we have to appear to have it together. For me, it's recognizing that I'm the only one that can help myself. No magic entities are gonna come in and say “leave Amil alone. She's too tired.”  I have to be the one that protects myself. This all goes back to sustainability versus ambition.

Katherine Goldstein: Many progressive Americans I know deeply envy Canadian social policy. While I know every society has its challenges, it is very easy for Americans to think Canadian parents have it so much better than we do. So I would love to sort of hear a little bit about your take on the differences of the parenting realities for Americans versus Canadians?

Amil Niazi: Right now in Canada, the government is rolling out federally funded daycare. We're all supposed to get to $10 a day daycare by 2025. Some provinces are already there. Just recently, my daycare bills were just halved so they're 50% cheaper than they were. So we’re paying around $700 for both my kids. My son is in aftercare and then my daughter is in full-time daycare. Before this, I might have said, parenting in Canada isn’t all that much better, but now with the daycare piece, I have to say structurally it is so much better. Now I feel like, you can plan to have a child and know that you can have paid parental leave for a year or more, and then to know that if you do wanna go back to work, you can have affordable childcare that will allow you to do that.  Or even if you don't want to, but you just want like three days a week to yourself, or just to spend time in the garden and be a self-actualized person, it's not financially onerous. It shouldn't be a miracle, but it is. But those two pieces, paid parental leave for both parents and affordable childcare, are the puzzle pieces that need to go together because then you are giving people choices. I would like to have a third child, and for a while I was like, “I don't know. That seems crazy. That's so expensive.” But with this affordable daycare, it’s changing my mind.

Katherine Goldstein: I love that. And you know, as you're talking about the power of the social policy of the two-prong paid parental leave and affordable, federally funded daycare. To me that really feels like an example of what reproductive justice is, because you're saying, “this allows me to think about my family and how many children I wanna have in a new way because I have these supportive policies.”

Public policy for the win, folks! It really can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. I also highly recommend Amil's newest column about finding the joy and the good parts of parenting that she captures in such an articulate and non-cloying way. "It struck me recently, while lying in a puddle of soft, loving bodies, listening to peals of laughter and feeling as happy as I’ve ever felt in my life, that in so desperately fighting for something better, I had forgotten to adequately name what I’m fighting for. To properly spell out the sheer joy and beauty and love that forms the core of what parenthood is." So good.

I’m excited to get feedback from you, Double Shifters on what this conversation has sparked for you. For Thursday’s members-only thread, I wanna know, how’s your relationship to ambition changed since the pandemic started? This is definitely a big, juicy question and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Remember, membership starts at $7/mo and includes perks like weekly members-only comment threads, and virtual and IRL hangouts.

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