It doesn’t happen often, but you know how every once in a while someone gives you some simple, practical advice that hits you like a lightning bolt? Like a little nugget of gold that seems like it might change your life? Well that happened to me last Friday night and I’m really excited to share it with you. My husband and I went to a marriage/parenting talk. And the topic was something I’m sure I’ve heard before, but it has never resonated with me like this.
The general premise of the talk was that when we get angry or upset with our children, it’s almost always due to unmet expectations. This is pretty intuitive when you think about it. For example, here are a few of my expectations – see if any of them sound familiar. I expect my house to be eternally spotless and my laundry always done. I expect my husband to be home on time and not have last minute work phone calls. I expect my children to do their homework with joy in their hearts. I expect my daughter to be exactly the same as my son (because at least I’ve finally figured out how to parent him; kind of). I expect wonderful family dinners (that I cooked from scratch), where my children eat everything on their plates and everyone happily shares the highs and lows about their day. I expect my children to be grateful for what they have. And I expect to never, ever have to raise my voice to get my kids do what I want.
As you can tell I have completely reasonable expectations! But seriously, when I think about what makes me nervous, mad, upset, etc. on any given day, it’s almost always that one (or, more likely, ALL) of these expectations went unmet. Some days reality rubs up against one of my expectations a little bit – and when that happens I get annoyed. Some days reality rubs up against one of my expectations a lot, then pushes it over, kicks dirt in its eye, walks away, gets into its Tahoe and runs it over a couple of times – and when that happens I explode. Like I said, does any of this sound familiar??
But here is the truth that set me free. If I let myself get angry, that’s my fault. Those are MY expectations. And if they really matter to me, then it’s up to ME to meet them. Nobody else is responsible. Now, this is not a “mom shaming” blog post. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m not saying it’s wrong to want all of the things I listed earlier. Of course having the perfect home life would be AMAZING. But I am saying that you’re setting yourself up for failure – and for anger – when you expect those things.
So what can we do to try to reduce our stress and anger?
First and foremost, setting realistic expectations is key. That doesn’t mean we can’t strive to be and do better, but it also means not holding others hostage to our dreams. What do I mean? Well, I listed my expectations about family dinner earlier – but here is my reality. My husband works late and often has unexpected last minute phone calls. My incredibly picky four-year-old will only eat pancakes and uncrustables and only if the pancakes are drowning in syrup and if (I kid you not) I take the “crust” off the uncrustables…. And my seven-year-old is drop-dead tired by six pm every day and all his big feelings come out. So having an expectation of perfect family dinners is really ridiculous. And still, I have been expecting them for the last couple of years. And it usually doesn’t go according to plan and I get frustrated. But I’ve been reflecting on this and you know what does go well?! Saturday breakfast. Saturday is the only morning we are all together. People are rested, happy and excited for the free day ahead. And Astrid gets her pancakes 🙂
Second, I can’t expect from my family to do things I do not do myself. Like when I mentioned that I have an expectation to not have to raise my voice to get my kids’ attention. Since we are sharing here, if I’m honest with myself, I raise my voice to get their attention all. the. time. So my expectations pretty clearly don’t match the example that I’m setting. So that is something I need to work on first, before demanding it from others.
Third, I can’t expect my family to read my mind and to inherently know what my expectations are. For example, I mentioned that I expect my house to be eternally spotless. Being the OCD person I am, I got a wall storage unit with boxes so it’s easy for kids to put their stuff away. It is obvious to me that you put your dinosaurs in one box and your baby doll accessories in another. Apparently it was not obvious to the rest of my family. So to make sense of the system and help my kids who couldn’t read back then, we sat down and organized their toys together. Afterwards I made laminated picture labels for all those boxes. And voila. I expected them to automatically understand the system I set up, when clearly I needed to take time to explain it to them. So now I realize that things that come natural to me might take more effort for other family members and I’ll try to set my expectations accordingly.
Finally, I’m realizing that if I don’t like the way something is done I have two choices. Here’s what I mean. I have an expectation that the dishes will get done in real time – no dirty dishes lying around in the sink. My husband does a great job doing the dishes almost every night. But I hate the way he puts them in the dishwasher. I also have an expectation that laundry will get done regularly and again, my husband does a great job of helping out with that. But he folds things all wrong. But, as should be clear by now, the thing that’s annoying me and getting me riled up is an expectation that these things be done in a certain way. I have two choices: either let it be, because the dishwasher is loaded and the clothes are folded and so my basic expectations have been met, OR do it myself so it can be done exactly the way I want it.
After all, the only person who can control my expectations is me.