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Motherhood is full of expectations. Some of these we place on ourselves and our children, and some society places on us. We have ideas about how a woman should look, feel, and act during pregnancy. We have preconceived notions about what giving birth will feel like and how the entire process should be handled. Once the babies are here, there are milestones to be met and parenting styles to follow or avoid.
Whether you’re thinking you should gain no more than 15 pounds during pregnancy, spending hours crafting a birth plan, or fretting because your kid isn’t peeing in the potty at age three, you’re dealing with arbitrary ideas that you (or someone else) have created. You can choose to cling to these ideas or let them go. Mamas, letting go of expectations will change your life. Here’s how (and why) to do it.
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HOW TO START LETTING GO OF EXPECTATIONS
Begin to notice your expectations and call yourself out
The tricky thing about expectations is that they’re often so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t even notice them. We treat our assumptions, prejudices, and ideas about the world as givens or facts.
In my house growing up, my dad did all the ‘icky’ chores, including taking out the trash. When I got married, I expected that my husband, like my dad, would take the trash out every day. He’d grown up in a more egalitarian household, though, and had a different expectation. I learned quickly that “if there’s a guy in the house, he will handle the trash” was a bizarre idea that I’d made up, and that if I actually wanted my husband to be the trash guy, I’d need to communicate my expectation and hope that he was willing to take on the chore.
Is something that you’re treating as a given or a fact actually an assumption or an expectation that isn’t grounded in reality? Hint: the word “should” usually indicates an expectation, and that expectation is probably totally bogus. No matter how long you’ve held an expectation or who told you life ‘should’ be a certain way, an expectation is a made up, imaginary rule that you can let go of at any time.
Realize that other people have their own emotions, ideas, and ways of behaving
We don’t live in a bubble, and unfortunately people are not always going to behave the way we want or see the world the same way we do. This sounds so obvious, yet for much of my life, I’ve treated strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones more like actors following or deviating from my script for them rather than people with their own thoughts, opinions, and emotions.
It turns out that other people often don’t think the way I do, they typically don’t react to situations in life the same way I would, and they usually don’t behave in the way I would expect. I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that, either consciously or unconsciously, people will sometimes act in a way that disappoints me, makes me angry, or makes me sad. Part of letting go of expectations means not expecting the people around you (or yourself, for that matter) to be perfect.
As a side note, if you need something specific from the other people in your life or have expectations of how a person will behave, it’s helpful to tell them. In the “taking out the trash” scenario I mentioned above, I wasted a lot of energy silently fuming as I carried trash outside. Learning to say, “would you please take the trash out while I put the baby to bed?” meant that the job got done without my husband having to read my mind.
Can you stop treating the other people in your life as supporting actors in your story and instead try to understand them, find your commonalities, and appreciate their differences? Can you kindly and clearly communicate your needs to others rather than silently holding an expectation for them and fuming when they inevitably fall short?
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Prepare rather than plan
We recently took a magical trip to Chincoteague Island as a family. I love to plan trips and have been guilty in the past of planning every second. I’d run myself, my family, and my friends through a regimented routine—racing from one site to another—and feeling angry and disappointed when things inevitably differed from my vision.
For this trip, I was still well-prepared. I had a list of activities I thought our family would enjoy. I’d made a list of restaurants that were popular. I’d booked a boat cruise that I’d feared would fill up. When we arrived, though, we rolled with it. If the boys were tired, we rested. If it was hot, we played in the pool. When we decided Sandy Pony Donuts were the best things we’d ever eaten, we had them two days in a row. The result wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it was wonderful.
When you are preparing for an event in the future, can you resist the temptation to plan every second? Can you leave space for life to surprise and delight you?
Try experiencing the present rather than living in the future
Mindfulness has loads of benefits, and one of the major ones is that we enjoy things while they’re happening rather than looking ahead for the next thing. When you are in the midst of an experience, try your best to simply be aware of what’s taking place. As cheesy as it sounds, take a moment to take note of what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Stop and feel the emotions that you’re feeling. Most importantly, try to find a reason to be grateful for whatever you are experiencing rather than mentally moving on to what’s next or looking for what is missing.
Imagine how much different a family dinner might feel if you were simply enjoying the presence of your family and the taste of the food rather than fretting over the foods or amounts of food that the kids “should” be eating, correcting everyone’s table manners, and dreading the dishwashing and the bedtime routine to follow. Can you allow yourself to simply take in an experience, enjoy it for what it is, and resist mentally moving on to the next thing?
Set realistic, process-based goals
Many of us have expectations for the things we “should” be accomplishing in life. Goal setting is important, but it’s vital to set goals that are achievable and don’t leave us constantly feeling disappointed when we fall short.
If one of my goals for the day is to “clean out my closet” I’ve set myself up for trouble. I have likely underestimated the time and energy it “should” take me to do it, and I probably have a vision of how things “should” look when I’m done. When the job is too big for one day, or my kids or my husband interrupt me to ask me to do something else, I’m likely to feel angry and frustrated.
Shifting my goal to “spending at least 15 minutes working in my closet” sets me up for success. This goal is easy to attain and to quantify. It highlights the process rather than the outcome.
Set your goals carefully, realize even then that any expectations you have are arbitrary, and be kind to yourself if you “fall short”. Focus on the journey of the goal rather than the destination.
Realize that holding rigid expectations is an attempt to feel in control of uncontrollable things
No matter how secure your worldview may appear in your head, you are actually in control of very little in your life. Things won’t always go your way. Terrible (and wonderful!) surprises will come up, no matter how carefully you plan or how closely you follow the rules you’ve set for yourself. Why not surrender to this uncertainty and let go of the responsibility of trying to rigidly manage every aspect of your life?
Realize that you always have a choice
Realizing that you’re not actually in control of much of what happens in your life can feel pretty scary. There is one aspect of your life that you are always 100% in control of, though: your response to a given situation.
Whenever something happens in your life, you can decide how to react. You can choose whether or not to be disappointed or angry or to take things in stride as they come. You can decide to go into situations with a strict idea of how they should be, or you can enter them with an open mind and an open heart. Why not choose to be flexible?
WHY TO TRY LETTING GO OF EXPECTATIONS
There’s no doubt that we moms are dealing with an impossible load of expectations. The seven suggestions above should give you some ideas for how to start letting go of those expectations, but why should you bother?
- You’ll spend less time and energy being disappointed when imaginary events don’t turn out the way they were “supposed” to.
- You’ll spend less energy holding yourself to a rigid and impossible standard of “shoulds”.
- Your mind will be more open to the ideas and beliefs of others, making your interactions with the people you encounter much more pleasant.
- You’ll be able to focus more on the present moment to experience fully what is currently happening rather than fantasizing about what is to come.
- You can use your limited time and resources to deal with what actually is rather than what might be.
There is no right or wrong way to do this mom gig. You and your children are not ahead or behind in some kind of cosmic race. No matter how carefully you plan or prepare, life likely won’t follow your instructions.
Why not see what happens when you open yourself up to multiple endings, outcomes, and possibilities? Save your energy for responding to life rather than creating a story and expecting the Universe to follow your script. Enjoy life more. Allow it to surprise you.