When my son was about 16 months old, I started to think about returning to work. I’d always expected I would return to the demanding corporate job that I loved.
That’s what career women do.
I expected I would place my son in childcare.
That’s what working mothers do.
I expected I would contribute financially to my family, even though we could afford for me to stay at home.
That’s what independent modern women do.
I expected all this would go smoothly and I would fit right back into my old life, before coming home to my new life as a mother.
I expected I would enjoy it and feel fulfilled by being able to maintain this balance.
That’s what good mums and good employees do.
There were whisperings within me telling me that I didn’t want to leave my son. They pointed out how he was so very attached and really didn’t like to be without me. They hinted at how I had waited until my mid-thirties to have my own biological child and how I really wanted to just be present in the experience.
I didn’t give those whispers my attention. They didn’t match my expectations and I pushed them down, because that wasn’t how things should go. (Let me briefly stress that this is not an article about whether or not parents “should” place their children in childcare. That decision is a personal one and you won’t find any judgement here. I’m sharing this story with you to illustrate how my expectations influenced my thoughts, feelings and actions. It wasn’t right for my son, but it might be right for you and your family. With that in mind, let’s continue…)
We did 6 childcare transition sessions instead of the recommended 2. I listened to my mother express her concern at my choices (I had to push that aside because her concerns only reinforced those whispers and the growing trepidation inside me). I decided to resign from my corporate job and work for myself so that I could have more flexibility and eliminate the need to travel (a fortnightly occurrence in my job prior to going on maternity leave).
Day 1 arrived. So many tears from us both.
Every session after that was the same. Eventually he recognised the entrance to the long driveway of the childcare centre and the wailing would start the minute we turned in. I managed to hold myself together while he was with me but sobbed uncontrollably in the hallway, in the staff room, in the car park, on the drive home and every time I thought about him. Other mothers kindly tried to comfort me saying that I just needed to stick with it and it would improve, or that their children were still crying every day after a year (I still don’t really understand how that is comforting but I appreciate the intention).
My body was telling me this situation wasn’t right for us. I felt physically ill and my heart ached. I started to experience anxiety in the 2 days prior to childcare. I couldn’t to talk about it because I would break down. I wanted to pull him out but I was so bound to my expectations. It was meant to work. This was what we were meant to do. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time (I just felt completely confused) but I didn’t want to admit that my expectations weren’t serving me or my son. It honestly still hurts to write this.
One morning, months later, my husband and I were in the car after another dreadful drop off and I was inconsolable again. He looked at me and said “why don’t we just take him out and you stay at home with him”.
That was it. Those words gave me the permission I was unconsciously longing for to let go of my expectations and trust my intuition. I called the centre that very moment and that was my son’s last day at childcare.
Why didn’t I give myself that permission?
The power of expectations
Expectations are powerful in our lives. They shape our reality through our thoughts, feelings and actions.
We have expectations of ourselves, our children, our partners, our friends, our parents and in-laws, our employers and colleagues, of society, of motherhood and our lives in general. So many expectations.
We can hold onto these ideas of how things should be, how we should be and how others should be so tightly and when they are not met we can experience fear, stress, frustration, resentment, anger, disappointment, grief, guilt and shame.
It can be particularly tricky to let go of these expectations if they are tied to our identity because we see them as part of who we are. Who would we be if we weren’t defined by those expectations?
Sometimes letting go of expectations can mean disappointing others, or not living up to their expectations. A lot of our expectations come from others, such as our parents, teachers, our partner or society in general via the perfect mother myth and beliefs around motherhood. If you struggle with people pleasing, you are likely to prioritise the expectations of others over what you want.
Uncertainty can also be scary. If things aren’t going to turn out how we expect, then how will they turn out?
Shouldn’t I just try harder?
As mothers in modern society, when things don’t seem to be working the way we think they should we tend to blame ourselves and push ourselves more.
When motherhood isn’t what we expected, we assume we’re the ones doing something wrong. If we just work harder, learn more, stay up later and just try to be “perfect” then everything will fall into place.
But that rarely works. That just makes us more overwhelmed, more exhausted and eventually our bodies start to protest.
We expected that we would be able to do it all and that motherhood would come naturally. We would love it. It would fit so neatly with the rest of our pre-motherhood lives. We expected these little angels would come along with us as we continued to pursue our dreams. Our partners would know exactly how to support us. Our parents would be there to lean on. Our friendships would continue unchanged. We would be the independent, successful women that do it all and have it all, just like we were told we could. That’s what we expected.
These expectations develop over our lifetime. They are influenced by the way our parents live their lives, what we read, the TV shows we watch, the advertising we’re exposed to, the things we are taught, what people say to us and about us and the way society views and treats women and mothers in general.
We don’t even realise that our experiences are creating these expectations within us. In fact, some of these expectations are so deeply embedded in our society and us as individuals that they seem to be normal or just the way things are. So we don’t question them, and instead, we question our ability to meet them.
You get to choose
The most important thing for you to know is that you get to choose. You get to decide which expectations you will hold on to and which you will adjust or let go of.
You don’t have to hold onto expectations that are unrealistic, not aligned to your values, not important to you or that just don’t feel right. You get to choose.
Expectations predominantly operate from our subconscious, meaning that you might have to look a little deeper to figure out what they are and where they come from. But it is possible to unhook from the expectations that are not serving you or your family. And if you notice guilt or self-criticism rising when you identify that you have been allowing disempowering expectations to shape your reality, please remember that you are always doing the best you can with what you know and now that you have this awareness, you have the power to choose differently. It took me a long time to be able to recount my childcare experience without intense self-criticism and guilt, and it still makes me feel sad, but we are all learning and we all deserve kindness and compassion, especially from ourselves.
So, lovely, I invite you to take some time to reflect:
Where in your life are your expectations no longer serving you? In what areas of your life are you feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed or resentful?
Where are you still trying to create what you expected, at the expense of what you really need and want?
Where does this expectation come from? Is it yours? Do you really believe it? Is it right for you and your family? Is it aligned to your values and what’s most important to you?
What do you really want in this situation when you put aside what you think you should want and what others expect from you?