Letting Go of the Great Expectations of Parenting
I was sharing a bottle of wine with a girlfriend on a recent hot summer night when the topic of expectations came up.
She was telling me about the night of her two-year old daughter’s birthday, when she attempted to lull her little girl to sleep by reading her favorite bedtime story, one that recounted the joy the world felt on the momentous occasion of her birth. A story that was as much for Mom as it was for daughter. When her tired child ripped a page and threw the book across her bedroom, my friend admitted that she was surprised at how personally she took her daughters act, as if it were to purposely hurt her. She went on to say that she realized she was frustrated because she had expected a certain response from her daughter but got something completely different. Something that fell short of her expectations.
I felt her pain.
From the get-go motherhood has -- among so many other things -- been an exercise in managing my expectations. Many times I have found myself disappointed for one reason or another because a situation or day hadn’t turned out the way I had imagined it would.
And that is the key word. Imagined.
I have come to realize something about myself these past five years which is that I spend an awful lot of time conjuring up fantasies about how my life as a wife and mother is suppose to play out. These are no B-movie fantasies either. Oh, no. My versions are the big-budget, Hollywood-blockbuster type complete with set designs, sound effects, wardrobe changes and often a musical score. In almost all of these scenarios I imagine my son neatly dressed, his beautiful blond locks perfectly coiffed and myself effortlessly camera-ready so as to chronicle the moment in a photo album filled with similar ideals of JP’s wonderful childhood. Special occasions are particularly vulnerable to these hallucinations, although a trip to the zoo or museum is just as likely to have been rehearsed in my mind. My husband will attest to the number of Christmases, Easters, birthdays and family vacations where I have, to his utter confusion, grown frustrated by seemingly small departures from my script, such as rain or a long-line at the box-office.
It started Day One. I remember meeting JP an excruciating 10 minutes after he was born because doctors had to work to vacuum mucus from his lungs while I wondered where my baby went. Like I had imagined in the MGM-version of our first meeting, it was indeed love at first sight, a waterfall of adoration unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was giddy with joy as I stared at my 9+ pound soul mate, eager to drink in every detail of his physical appearance. However, I also remember thinking, “Huh. He looks nothing like me.”
Throughout my pregnancy I had spent so much time visualizing the little being growing inside me that I actually began assigning it physical characteristics. This was especially ambitious considering I hadn’t found out the sex of my baby. He/She would have my auburn hair and pug nose, I hoped. And Jim’s blue-green eyes, I prayed. Against all reason I even imagined the little peanut with freckles.
But when I finally met JP, I didn’t recognize him. He had a head of platinum blonde hair, alabaster skin with nary a freckle in sight and a face that looked vaguely familiar but was nothing like the one I had imagined. I knew he was mine, but I couldn’t see myself in his physical form.
The next day my mother-in-law showed up at the hospital with a picture of Jim’s older brother on the day of his baptism and I was stunned by the resemblance to my new son. The face of the baby in the picture was identical to the one I was holding and it suddenly occurred to me that this child didn’t belong just to me. He was part of a vast family tree that included people I barely knew, or never knew at all. In a strange way it also made me think of JP as unique and strong, resistant to the dominant DNA of my family that has caused more than one case of mistaken identity among siblings and cousins.
Still in the hospital, still swollen from almost two hours of pushing, I realized I had just learned my very first lesson in parenthood: to expect the unexpected. It is a lesson that keeps presenting itself to me in my journey through motherhood and one I strive to get better at responding to. But as I implied earlier, there are some days when I struggle to see the lesson before me.
Like last Christmas.
It was a typically chaotic holiday season and in an effort to carve out some family time and create a memorable Christmas tradition, I decided to plan a trip into New York for The Christmas Spectacular. Convinced that the show wouldn’t hold JP’s attention if we were too far from the stage, I coughed up the extra cash for orchestra-level seats. I also made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, one that was known less for its chicken fingers than for its selection of single malt scotches, but, I reasoned, it was a special occasion that deserved a four-star meal. In addition, I planned to head uptown after we visited the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for a sugary sweet at the famous dessert spot, Serendipity 3.
In retrospect I should have seen the writing on the wall. JP wasn’t accustomed to waking at the hour he would have to in order to catch the train that would get us into the city early enough for the morning show. And when the forecast called for freezing rain that morning, I should have let him wear his dinosaur rain jacket and not the wool pea coat I deemed more stylistically appropriate. So when JP arrived at the show cranky, tired and more than just a little damp, I should have switched gears. But I couldn’t. The Hollywood-version of Christmas in New York was too compelling to abandon, even if it was destined to become the personal hell of my own creation.
JP lost interest in Santa halfway through the show when he discovered, thanks to our expensive seats, that dear ol’ St. Nick wasn’t actually flying but suspended in air by cables. And when the restaurant we had booked had an unexpected wait due to a lingering office holiday party, we were forced to eat at the food court of 30 Rock lest our son starve. After a celebratory lunch of pre-packaged turkey sandwiches and Pirate’s Booty we emerged from the bowels of Rockefeller Center only to find that the freezing rain of that morning had become a freezing downpour, making my anticipated photo in front of the iconic tree impossible. I quelled JP’s disappointment at not seeing the giant shrub with promises of sugar as we hailed a cab uptown. It only stands to reason that when we finally arrived at Serendipity, seated with our menus in hand, did I realize there was not one treat on the premises that my dairy-intolerant son could order.
As I sat there with my frozen hot chocolate, my son with his bodega-bought cookie and Jim with a coffee I knew he wished had Sambuca in it, I saw the path that brought me to that exact moment. This day wasn’t about my family. It was about me. And my expectations. I was so wrapped up in the ideal I had created in my mind that I had forgotten that JP had yet to sit through an entire movie, never mind a Broadway spectacular. I had forgotten after three years in the suburbs that eating at a restaurant in Rockefeller Center at Christmas time was unthinkable to native New Yorkers unless you had the luxury of a three-hour lunch. And, most of all, I had forgotten that my family -- the three of us -- are the type that like to take things slowly, who get uneasy when forced to rush from one thing to the next, who do better collectively when our attention is towards one thing only.
When I admitted as much to my husband later that day he was shocked by my willingness to accept responsibility for my own frustrations. He also pointed out that there was a great family-friendly Irish pub in between Rockefeller Center and Penn Station, where we catch our train home. Two pints and some chicken fingers and French fries later, we were headed home, tummies full and happy to have spent the day together.
Exactly as I had planned it.
Ellen Askin Bailey is a freelance writer, mother of one and contributor to mamasagainstdrama.com, a daily blog about the journey through motherhood, without all the drama.
Photo Credit: allisonharger.