The email came in at 3pm on a Thursday. Within five minutes I was crying at my desk.

I’ve been a delinquent member of the nursery school Auction Committee this year. I have not attended meetings, met deadlines, or held up my side of the bargain at my daughter’s cooperative nursery school. It has been a source of guilt and stress now for several months, which has not led to me to do of better job of it, mostly because the passive aggressive emails I constantly get from the fundraising committee chairs just further ground me into my obstinate position of inaction.

The climax came when I wrote the chairs to let them know I could not attend the mandatory auction prep meeting, nor could my husband. Back came an email that was a triumph of mom shaming, reminding me of my failures and suggesting that if I wanted to “contribute to the mission of the school” I could cover the Auction heads’ shifts at the upcoming Spring Fair.

Hence the tears.

But I am a blessed person, and I belong to a community of working women who provide wonderful counsel; I wouldn’t make it through without a kitchen cabinet. I wrote a teary email asking for advice to counter the mom shaming, and the incredible Ruth Ann Harnisch wrote me back these words:

Emotions are our teachers.

What values that are important to you are at play when the tears come?

The importance of approval in this tribe?

If that, is it important for you, or for how your child’s experience might be affected?

The importance of keeping an agreement? If you committed and didn’t honor that, is that the value at stake?

The frustration of not being able to do/be all things?

Observe the emotions and see what values inform them.

Then respond according to your values.

I couldn’t care less about the approval of other moms and I’m pretty sure my three year old daughter won’t notice if the auction website isn’t up to snuff.

Here’s what I realized the tears meant: all my boundaries had been crossed and I had failed to protect my time or live up to values that are important to me.

The auction is a symbol for all the other priorities that are out of whack in my life. Ironically, that email gave me a gift and allowed me to reset. Here are my takeaways:

Are You Living Your Values?

No matter how intentional you are with your time, it’s totally natural and probably inevitable that carefully constructed rhythms and boundaries get pushed out of whack: work takes over from kid time, weeks can go by without checking in for exercise, couple time, self care.

I wrote a whole book in which I crowed about my well enforced limits between my work and my home life. But I am full of it. My inability to fulfill my auction duties was a giant trigger reminding me of how I feel I’m failing my work life values.

The tears were for the constant distractions and the feeling of never ever having any room around the margins of my time. The anger was for the sense that I’m failing my kids and myself.

The answer: set new boundaries around my time and cut the extra-curriculars, even the fun and creative ones. Each kid gets one volunteer activity from me. It’s family, and work.

Set the Boundary, and Enforce the Limit. Be Tough.

Once you know your values and boundaries, set some limits. How many times have you tried to set a limit, only to be stepped on?

In my defense, I knew I had to limit my extracurricular activities this year. I told the Auction team in September I was not going to be able to help and asked to be on a different team for the co-op, because I was on book tour this fall, but I wasn’t firm about it. They didn’t take my hints. As Ruth Ann Harnisch says, “Let your no be no, and your yes be yes. I’m really busy is neither.” Don’t expect people to take hints.

I then failed on the follow through, felt guilty, and did not reinforce the boundaries. So we all got angry at each other.

Boundaries are a big deal. If you’ve been asked to do something that crosses a boundary or limit you have identified, don’t give in without a fight. Saying no right away doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s actually the best thing you can do for all involved.

Say No (And Don’t Ask a Busy Person to Do More)

One of the most successful women I know, now an empty nester, gave me a gem: “When my kids were at home, I worked, and I parented. That was it.”

As Ruth Ann notes, its feels bad to let people down. And competent people are often asked to do many things. I hate the old adage, “if you want something done, ask a busy person,” because us busy people then end up crying at our desks.

It’s ok to say no to something and not feel bad about it. It’s ok to say you’re too busy, and leave it at that.

And one more thing: Before you ask that mom to do one more thing, take her seriously when she pauses and says, “I’m not sure. I’m really busy.” And find someone else.