Before we have children of our own, we typically form a lot of expectations about what it would be like to have children, and expectations of what kind of parent we plan to be. When those expectations meet reality, we may need to take time to re-evaluate and re-adjust our own definitions of what it means to be a successful parent.
What did you expect?
Our pre-parenthood expectations may have been unrealistically optimistic, filled with the sorts of happy, active families having lovely outings that you see in all the commercials for medications that will fix all your ills. We may have imagined that we would always love spending time with our children, and that we’d teach them to love the things we love, and that they would achieve things we had not achieved. Even if we saw other people’s children being challenging or difficult, we may have reassured ourselves that our children would be better, because we would be better parents – we believed that if we just did things right, it would all work out.
Within a few days after a baby’s birth, we typically discover that the reality does not meet our expectations. Even if we “do everything right”, our babies still cry and they still spit up all over us. And often we don’t do things right. We make mistakes all the time as we try to manage this new full-time job we weren’t adequately prepared for. Parenting is hard work! And it’s made harder by the contrast between our expectations and our realities. That contrast is a significant predictor of postpartum depression. Parents with very high, even unattainable, expectations are more likely to experience mental health challenges.
For parents of infants and young children, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on what expectations you hold for yourself, and making conscious choices about adjusting those expectations to make them more realistic and compassionate.
What expectations did/do you have that don’t serve you?
Let’s examine some types of thinking that parents may have which are not helpful.
- To be a good parent, do you need to be happy all the time? Fully functional, with a clean house, healthy home-cooked meals, and festive decorations for holidays?
- Should you always know exactly what your child needs? Should you always be able to meet all their needs? Always enjoy spending time with your child? Never speak harshly to them?
- Is your self-worth tied to your achievements or your child’s achievements? Are you afraid that if anything goes wrong, you’ll be blamed? If you’re coming from a successful long-term career, do you expect to be just as successful at your brand new job of parenting?
- What criteria do you judge yourself on? Should you never make mistakes? Should you do all the things that other parents show themselves doing on social media?
How would you like to adjust those expectations?
If you find yourself often thinking you’re not a good enough parent, maybe it’s worth re-defining what it means to be good enough.
- Can you assess your own personal values so you can prioritize putting energy into the things that matter most to you, and let go of the high demands in areas that aren’t that important?
- Can you role model resiliency for your child? We can’t always control whether bad things happen to us, but we can control how we respond. We don’t always get everything we want, but we can find ways to be happy despite that.
- What do you want you child to remember from this time? Do things have to be perfect to make good memories?
- Can you embrace messy moments when things go badly as learning opportunities? Can you remind yourself often that not everything will go as planned, and it’s OK to make the next best choice?
- Can you admit that sometimes you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and that it’s OK to ask for support? OK to take breaks? OK to prioritize self-care?
- Can you let go of your not-enough story? Let go of doing things because you think you need to prove your worth, and start believing in your inherent worth.
- Instead of setting vague goals – “to be a better parent” or unattainable goals – “to never yell at my kids again”, can you set up clear and achievable steps in the right direction?
- Can you practice self-compassion? I often urge parents to remember the power of the word YET. Instead of thinking your child will never do something, just think “they can’t do it yet.” We can do the same thing for ourselves – we can hold ourselves to high standards AND forgive ourselves for the times we aren’t yet meeting those standards.
I created an exercise you can do to examine your expectations, and to re-frame them into more reasonable, achievable goals. You can do either art or some creative writing of a “job description” in this exercise.