For Elaine Welteroth, Saying No Is an Abundance Practice

Photo: Pure Leaf/W+G Creative
For many, establishing and enforcing boundaries isn't a natural proclivity, but more of a skill that's learned over time. Whether in the personal or professional realms, deciding what you want and mapping out what you will and will not tolerate in order to get it can become easier with practice. Over the past 15-plus years, journalist, New York Times best-selling author, and television host Elaine Welteroth has built a big, multifaceted career. But she doesn't sign on to every opportunity that comes her way. To help her draw boundaries that allow her to funnel her energy toward only what fuels and excites her, she credits a two-letter word as her guiding light: no.

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"If it isn't a 'hell yes,' it's a 'hell no'," Welteroth tells me of how she evaluates opportunities to ensure they align with her own goals. The advice doubles as a straightforward counsel for designing a life you want.

Well, until it doesn't. Life has a way of throwing curveballs, rendering the binary yes-no framework for making objective decisions tricky. Case in point: Last year, Welteroth took on another new role: becoming a mom. Unlike her previous endeavors, though, she says this one wasn't in the plan. "When you build your life with such intention, you think you’re in control of everything with your yeses and nos, but sometimes life surprises you. Motherhood was something I did not say ‘hell yes’ to, and that was disorienting to me," says Welteroth. "I did not call this in, so I had to navigate through the murkiness."

Ultimately, though, motherhood—despite not being a "hell yes" she agreed to ahead of time—has led Welteroth to an even sharper sense of the power of no. "That’s what motherhood is—tapping into your instincts about what’s right and feels good, and what serves you and your family," she says.

"We’re all building our lives, and a lot of us don’t recognize the agency that we have." —Elaine Welteroth

Now, one "hell yes" for Welteroth is empowering new parents to make choices that are most supportive to them and their families. That includes spreading awareness of all the complexities of motherhood on her Instagram Live interview series "MaterniTea" and teaming up with Pure Leaf to provide moms financial grants that'll help them support themselves and their families as they exercise the power of saying no.

"We’re all building our lives, and a lot of us don’t recognize the agency that we have," she says when we recently discussed what boundaries look like for her now, along with her advice for new parents. "The only way to build a life that is actually fulfilling is to recognize that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything."

Well+Good: Have you always felt like it’s really important to be able to say no?

Elaine Welteroth: When I was a scrappy journalist-in-training trying to prove myself in my career and other areas in my life, I had a very different model [to saying no], which was "bite off more than you can chew, and chew as fast as you can." I eventually recognized that what gets you to your dream will not sustain you in your dream whether that’s a dream job, motherhood, marriage, or whatever your definition of success is—you have to find new tools.

In my post-Teen Vogue, entrepreneur era, where everything suddenly was on my own terms, it became really important to have a guiding principle for how I would navigate decision-making. I couldn't just bite off everything and chew everything…I didn’t make it to the promised land of my dream job [at Teen Vogue] only to quit and create a job that I hate. So, I had to be mindful that every "yes" I gave was a "hell yes" from a place of enthusiasm.

"So many times when I have said no, the yes on the other side of that served me in ways I couldn’t have been served by a half-hearted yes." —Welteroth

If I couldn't get to that place, then I needed to have the faith, confidence, and courage to say no. It’s always scary to say no, especially when you’re getting used to it, but it’s a practice in a mindset and lifestyle of abundance. So many times when I have said no, the yes on the other side of that served me in ways I couldn’t have been served by a half-hearted yes.

W+G: I’m not yet a mom, but something you’ve said in the past that I carry with me is the need to advocate for yourself. It sounds like this becomes even more important in motherhood because you can’t pour from an empty cup, and now other people need your cup to be full. How have your family and your partner helped you fill your cup in ways that allow you the space to actually say no?

EW: I could not do what I do if I did not have the support of a true 50/50 partnership. We don’t play into the gender roles in the sense of that’s a mom’s job and that’s a dad’s job—we play to our strengths. In some ways, I think we’ve traded gender roles, and in other ways we’ve abandoned those completely. I want that for more families.

Normalizing "no" is an important cultural shift that we all need, no matter what generation of motherhood you sit in. It’s not a mom’s job to [compromise] herself for the sake of her family’s wellness. A whole mom shows up for her family in a healthier way than a mom who has lost herself within her family.

[But], systemic factors perpetuate the overwhelm and imbalance that a lot of [women-identifying folks] carry in their family dynamics. For example, in some cases, women are both the breadwinner and the primary caregiver, without the support of adequate time off for maternity leave and support for childcare. We know that the odds are stacked against moms in this country in so many ways.

W+G: You've referenced how becoming a mom has changed how you interact with the power of no in some ways. What does a "hell yes" look like to you in this new season of your life? Is there anything in particular you’re really excited about?

EW: Becoming a mom has allowed me to drop into my body, and the wisdom that is literally embedded in my body. I’ve lived my life through my head and by being very headstrong, but becoming a mom required me to rely on my body in ways I've never had to before. So I've built this stronger relationship with my body that helps me navigate [choices]. That’s been a beautiful tool in work and life; it's an unintended side effect of motherhood that’s been really great.

My body forced me to slow down during my pregnancy, and that was scary for me because I’m so used to running in the fast lane. Pregnancy forced a stillness that was so challenging for me to accept, but I had to surrender to it. Now that I’m back in the swing of things, I’ve shot three TV shows since my son was born. I shot a commercial for Audi, and I launched an advice column for The Washington Post, which is this Carrie Bradshaw dream that I never knew I could live out. I’ve found work that is even more fulfilling, and it really started with this scary sacrifice of saying no throughout my pregnancy to plant seeds for these richer opportunities.

W+G: Has your approach to mentoring changed in any way since becoming a mom? Has the tenor of your advice you give changed?

EW: When people ask questions about life and career navigation, I approach it with a more nurturing spirit. [Motherhood] has been such a defining part of my life, and everything is through the lens of motherhood for me now. It’s changed me in the sense that my perspective is now informed by being a mom, and it’s only enriched my work as a result.

I find myself saying “grace is the goal now” more and more, and I hope I can share that with people through all the different platforms and mediums where I show up. I'm still a straight shooter, but there’s a sweetness and softness and tenderness that I didn’t have as much before.

W+G: Saying no can be difficult, and it often requires a lot of support. What would you say to someone who is on the precipice of making a big life change and may be holding back or be at risk of self-sabotage?

EW: When you're paralyzed by fear, it's so easy to make decisions based on the worst-case scenario. The what-ifs can be so dizzying when you're at the precipice of a new chapter. It's important to reframe any decision that makes you feel stopped by fear and ask yourself about the best-case scenario and the best-possible outcome.

Envisioning and embodying what that would look and feel like, and living in that as much as you can, is a superpower that can help make decisions that aren't based on fear.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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