I’ve lost count of the number of baby showers I’ve attended where the guests are asked to proffer a piece of parenting advice on a frilly piece of card for the mum-to-be. I always struggle with this; it takes more than a few lines of generic sentiment to share anything worth knowing about parenthood.
Is there a catch-all piece of advice to make parenting an easier experience? Categorically not. But occasionally a light-bulb blazes within, something clicks and you think ‘Yes! I wish I’d realised that sooner!’ This article is a result of one of those epiphanies.
It came about one uncharacteristically glorious day at the end of April. The sky was an expanse of uninterrupted blue, the sun was making its debut and the air was balmy, so my husband suggested we take the kids to the beach after school.
As soon as we arrived, our toddler son had his own ideas about what he wanted to gain from the trip and they didn’t tally with ours. His idea of fun was blithely running away from us, licking the floor, trying to throw stones at dogs and throwing an epic tantrum when it was time to come out of the sea.
Our six year old daughter found every possible opportunity to moan about how we were hell-bent on subjecting her to insurmountable boredom. Furthermore, we were the worst parents in the world because we only bought her one ice-cream. The sea was too cold, the seaweed too gloopy and the sand too sandy – all factors which we had purposefully engineered just to annoy her. She made it clear that she would much rather be at home watching Harry Potter for the zillionth time.
As we packed the kids into the car, my weary husband turned to me and said, ‘Next time I suggest a quick trip to the beach after school, remind me it is NOT a good idea’. His brow-beaten expression was all too easy to read. He hadn’t enjoyed our impromptu beach visit at all.
The funny thing was, despite the moaning, tantrums and questionable behaviour, I had really enjoyed the trip.
Why were mine and my husband’s experiences of the same outing so different? The answer had to lie in our expectations. My husband had clearly envisioned a fun-filled and relaxing excursion. His mind had us walking hand-in-hand along the shore, all tousled hair and wide smiles. The reality was entirely different. It was stressful, trying and energy draining. So why did I enjoy it so much? Because I had expected nothing more.
This led me to think about the role expectations play when it comes to parenting. It hit me that every time parenthood has left me disappointed, stressed, frustrated, angry or upset it is because I set my expectations too high.
Let’s take it back to the very beginning and my first pregnancy. I spent months browsing catalogues full of cute baby clothes, organising baby toiletries into beautiful displays and imagining cosy days by the fireside with my gurgling new-born. She would sleep, naturally, and my life would continue in relative undisturbed harmony. In imagining that nothing much would change, I had already set my expectations of parenting way too high. I was destined to experience the despair, worry, exhaustion and tears which became the reality of her first few weeks on Earth.
While no first time mother can fully grasp the way parenthood changes every fabric of her being, perhaps some lower expectations would make the whole transformation period slightly more palatable. Motherhood turned out to be nothing like the vision portrayed in the stacks of catalogues I had placed in my baby’s colour coordinated nursery.
Fast forward a few years to the birth of my son and my expectations were wholly different. During my pregnancy with him, I anticipated that the early days would be exhausting and difficult. I expected to have no time to myself, for neither of us to sleep and for my life to be completely given over to this tiny new person. I drew on my experiences of my first baby and lowered my expectations to ground level.
Imagine my delight when he arrived and I coped just fine. In fact, unlike my initial fraught weeks of motherhood five years earlier, I really enjoyed his early days. Yes I was tired, but not as much as I expected to be. I had moments of bewilderment and exasperation, but on the whole it was far easier than expected.
Learning not to set my expectations of other people on par with my own high self-expectations has helped me greatly in avoiding disappointment and unhappiness in my life. I find this applies equally to parenthood.
If I expect someone to empty a packet of cornflakes over the living room floor moments after I vacuum it, I won’t lose my temper. If I expect my toddler to push his plate away while screaming ‘Yuk!’ in response to my carefully crafted meal, I won’t feel disenchanted. If I expect an outing to our favourite restaurant to result in an hour of attempting to prevent my son escaping from his highchair while listening to my daughter moan about being bored, I may actually enjoy myself. And moreover, lower expectations may cause me to be pleasantly surprised on occasion.
Once we have children, we eventually become accustomed to our new child-centric lives. However, we may hang on to our pre-parenthood, high expectations for too long. My husband has lived through countless outings similar to the aforementioned beach trip and yet he still hadn’t learned to lower his expectations accordingly.
My one piece of advice for every mum-to-be at every future baby shower I attend will be just that. Leave your high expectations of parenthood at the door. One of my friends perfectly summed up the reality of parenthood when she said, ‘Motherhood has made me and broken me in equal measures’.
I know exactly what my friend was getting at. I’m sure every parent does. By all means expect joy, unconditional love and fulfilment from parenthood. It will certainly deliver on all three counts. However, by expecting parenthood to habitually flaunt its difficult sides (stress, frustration, worry and exhaustion to name but a few), I have found my experience of parenting has become a considerably happier one.