How Low Can You Go: A Primer in the Importance of Keeping Your Expectations Real

The year was 1999. A group of us, all idealistic college seniors at the time, were perched around the kitchen counter of my friend’s impossibly cool mom, enthusiastically soaking up every last syllable of this woman’s personal gospel. “Ladies,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, “I’m gonna tell you the secret to living a happy life.” We all leaned in slowly, each of us smugly delighted to learn the key to unlocking all the bliss the universe had to offer. “The secret, ladies, is to expect nothing. Or better yetexpect the worst. That way, you’ll never put yourself in a position to be disappointed.”

And with that grand proclamation you could see and feel all the excitement and joy being sucked from our faces and the room faster than your child’s snot disappears with a NoseFrida. We all leaned back limply like deflated balloons. My opinion of the effervescent woman in front of me instantly did a 180. She no longer seemed the bubbly beauty with a zest for life and gift for encouraging others. She was instead a bitter, hardened woman who had obviously been dealt a series of very hard knocks. What a sad, sad life she must have had, I thought. She certainly had me fooled. I left her house questioning everything I knew.

Fast forward to 2001 and my first job out of college. I was a newly minted customer service representative for a homebuilder and just learning the ropes. In training, we were taught the importance of setting expectations for the customer at every stage in the building process. I learned that the key to achieving an “exceeds” rating in the all-important customer satisfaction survey was to set manageable expectations at the onset of the building process. You needed to make sure the customer didn’t expect the moon from you so that when you delivered a star instead they still saw it as a magnificent gift. At the time, I thought my employer’s methods were a little crooked. Why shouldn’t people expect the very best? After all, isn’t your home your biggest investment? Shouldn’t everyone share the same end-goal of perfection?

Travel with me now to 2011. You’d think with all my informal education in the importance of setting low expectations I would have naturally applied this principle to my newfound role as a mother. It would be a logical conclusion, and so like most things logical, it doesn’t apply to motherhood. Once I gazed into the strangely gloriously wrinkled face of my newborn daughter, impossible dreams were born. Not consciously, of course, but undeniably. Big dreams, small dreams. Short dreams, tall dreams. Like toys in a Happy Meal, the dreams just seem to be part of the parental package.

And finally join me, dear friends, in 2015a year of reality checks if there ever was one. I have ended many a day this year feeling disappointed and defeated and perhaps even a little bit wary about the prospect of facing a whole lifetime of this whole motherhood gig. I started to question why I was feeling so heavy-hearted when I have everything I had ever dreamed of (and more).

It didn’t take me much time to realize that my expectations of daily life had gotten way out of line. I’ve been ordering a small sliver of French Silk Pie a la mode, and yet life has been consistently slapping down a big ol’ helping of steaming poop pie and jauntily turning the other way before I can politely point out that I think there’s been a mistake with my order. Adjustments needed to be made. I needed a new ordering strategy, and I got one. I’ll tell it like it is, and how it could be. How it was, and of course how it should be. Let’s talk about sex expectations.

This is how your daughter enjoys spending 99.9% of her days at the park. Guess which day is the .1%???
This is how your daughter enjoys spending 99.9% of her days at the park. Guess which day is the .1%???

Situation: Playdate at the park

Expectation: To bond with your girlfriends while also conveniently providing your child with a stimulating outing.

Who needs a playset when you can just run around at full speed like a crazy person all day?
Who needs a playset when you can just run in circles all day?

Reality: You arrive at the park with a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eye because you have been waiting for an opportunity like this one to get to know an acquaintance better. Your children usually love to be pushed on the swings at the park, so you figure you’ll spend the better half of an hour pushing them while simultaneously engaging in meaningful conversation with your girlfriend whose child will hopefully also recognize the relaxing benefits of the swing. For the very first time in her life, your child refuses to get in the swing. Your child instead decides she wants to race around the park pretending to be a choo-choo train, and guess who she wants to be the caboose? You leave the park sweaty, tired, and very disappointed after probably having spoken only four partially completed sentences to your friend.

Revised Expectation: To leave the park alive.

Didn't we almost have it all? The smile, the poise, the costume…all the trappings of a picture perfect first recital.
Didn’t we almost have it all? The smile, the poise, the costume…all the trappings of a picture perfect first recital.

Situation: Dance recital

Expectation: Your darling daughter will be the prima ballerina, the star of the show. She will not just remember but completely dominate her dance routine and smile like a Cheshire cat the entire time.

Silly Mommy - you thought a performance this sassy would be reserved for family amusement only. No such luck.
Silly Mommy – you thought a performance this sassy would be reserved for family amusement only. No such luck.

Reality: Your daughter is excited about her recital and looks adorable in her tutu and lip gloss. You wipe away a tear of liquid joy as you kiss her goodbye backstage. Once on the stage, your daughter and her classmate have a little quibble about who is standing on whose mark. They miss the first half of the performance due to this disagreement but seem to regain composure with just enough time to salvage the end of the dance. The other girl goes on to recover the routine, but your daughter remains lost. Seeming to realize there’s no use in her trying to keep up now, she starts dancing in a way you foolishly thought would be confined to the little dance parties you two throw in your living room every night before bed. At first there’s a little harmless hip-shaking and finger-wagging, but pretty soon it turns into full-blown booty-bouncing and then escalates to what you now know to be called “twerking.” You feign a fast-acting stomach bug and run for cover in the bathroom. You hide from the wide-eyed stares of your fellow dance moms until your husband has retrieved your mini-Miley from backstage, and you then usher your family to the getaway car as quickly as your little twinkle toes can carry you.

Revised Expectation: Your daughter will appear on stage.

Here is a picture of me (perfect child though I was) doing exactly what you're supposed to do when Santa brings you a toy you can ride on: look delighted and ride on it.
Here is a picture of me (perfect child though I was) doing exactly what you’re supposed to do when Santa brings you a toy to ride on: look delighted and ride on it.

Situation: Christmas morning

Expectation: Your child will squeal with delight at the sight of his one “big gift” item (a la the children you’ve seen going into exuberant convulsions on innumerable YouTube videos). A blissful Christmas morning will ensue, during which you will breathe a sigh of relief and soak in all the fruits of your tireless labor.

Reality: Your child has been asking for a tricycle all year. He gets to ride one at Mother’s Day Out, and the teacher tells you it’s all he cares about playing with. She reports that it’s exceedingly difficult to pry him off of the bike. Every. Single. Day. Your confidence in the perfect Christmas gift has never waverednot for one second. When your son runs full charge into the family room on Christmas morning and sees his bike, he looks right past it. Instead, he makes a beeline to his sister’s big gift: a three-story dollhouse. Before you can stop him, he’s waving his helicopter arms all around in an attempt to bring the house to its knees as if it’s made out of Lincoln logs or something. Your daughter shrieks as though she is witnessing the murder of the beloved family pet, and you drop the iPhone you were using to record this quintessential moment and attempt to redirect his attention to the bike. He wants nothing to do with it and runs out of the room crying. Pretty soon, you realize your kids have the right idea, and you let your tears rain down too.

Revised Expectation: Presents will be opened.

One minute everyone's happy and your evening at the pool is going swimmingly. The next is a different story entirely.
One minute everyone’s happy and your evening at the pool is going swimmingly. The next is a different story entirely.

Situation: Friday evening at the neighborhood pool

Expectation: You will throw caution to the wind and let the children stay up way past their bedtimes to play in the pool like other moms seem to do. They will remember this fun night and for the rest of their lives.

The look on this poor unfortunate mom's face says it all: this trip to the pool did not go as planned.
The look on this poor unfortunate mom’s face says it all: this trip to the pool is not going as planned.

Reality: You wake up the children from their naps early so you can get to the pool before the Friday night crowd descends upon it. Though groggy, your kids are in good spirits and are eager to get in the water and play. Life is good. The lifeguards blow the whistle for adult swim, and you round your children out of the pool for a break. During this time, your daughter eats a snack, but your son just wants to be held.  You assume he’s just tired from being awoken prematurely from his nap. As you start to make your way back to the pool after adult swim, he vigorously shakes his head “no” in protest. You foolishly think he is just wary of the big kids playing catch in the shallow end. You place him down in the pool while still holding onto him in an effort to assure him that it’s OK, and he vomits all over your arm. You scoop him up at warp speed and race to the relative safety the edge of the pool provides, and he throws up again and again all the way down your bathing suit. At this point you’re engaging in a fair amount of self loathing for not having had the confidence to wear a two-piece, on which the vomit would’ve at least had an escape route other than your crotch. You rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help you gather your daughter and other possessions so you can make the vomit-drenched walk of shame past all the seriously annoyed pool patrons whom your son has inadvertently benched for an hour on a Friday night.

Revised Expectation: You and your children may get wet.

In retrospect, I think my employer had the right idea. Setting unreasonable expectations doesn’t do anyone any favors. I also now realize that my friend’s mom wasn’t a bitter old lady whom life had dealt an unfair series of blows. She was just a mom who had survived raising her children and learned a valuable lesson along the way.

A wise man once asserted that 80% of success is showing up. If that’s true, then ladies, WE ARE KILLING IT! We show up each and every day without fail. We show up when we’re sick, when we’re tired, when we’d rather be anywhere than where we are in that moment, and when there’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather be. We don’t get weekends or holidays off, and I think we can all agree that we’re seriously underpaid. What do you say we ditch our ridiculous pursuit of daily perfection and just cut ourselves a break for a change? Let’s show up for our kids and declare each vomit-, snot-, and poop-filled day a victory for that reason alone. Like, a major one.

Elizabeth is a native Texan and stay at home mom to a 3-year-old human hurricane in pigtails and a 1-year-old son who is currently jockeying for the title of world’s biggest mama’s boy. She has been married to her husband, who lives in perpetual denial of the fact that he is, in fact, a Yankee, for eight long (and wonderful!) years. Together they have renovated a historical home with their own little hands (never again), braved the winters of New York (and decided they’d rather not), and discovered a profound and binding love of travel (travel without the children, that is). They currently reside in Fair Oaks Ranch where they are surrounded by family and deer.