We were at the park. My son was climbing on a metal structure and while sitting at the top, was swinging his legs against a panel, making a moderately loud banging noise. It was noticeable but not the loudest noise in the playground. Around him, children were running, playing, laughing, calling out and of course, there was the occasional sound of crying.
Less than 2 metres from the metal structure, two women were having what looked like a meeting at a picnic table. They were dressed for work and they didn’t have any children with them. One of the women looked over and gestured for my son to stop the banging and be quiet.
I realise that having a meeting with a repetitive banging sound in the background might be annoying, but if you need quiet, why choose to have a meeting literally in the middle of a playground full of children!?
My son asked “did she tell me to stop doing this?”, and I answered, “Yes she did sweetheart, but you’re in the playground and you can play however you want, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone.”
There are a lot of things that other people expect us to do as mothers.
Expectations can come from anyone in our lives and even from society in general, in the form of explicit and implicit “rules” for how we should conduct ourselves.
Some of these expectations will feel good and we might also value them ourselves, however, sometimes the expectations will not feel “right” or aligned to how we want to live and who we want to be.
When we feel pressure to meet the misaligned expectations of others we can find ourselves in an internal struggle.
Shoulds vs wants
Obligation vs desire
Resentment vs guilt
Compliance vs agency
How do you decide what to do? How do you say no? How do you deal with the fallout? How do you deal with your own guilt?
You get to choose how you respond to the expectations
What are some of the expectations of others that you struggle with?
Let me give you some examples to spark your thinking. You might be expected to:
- Return to work
- Stay back late at work
- Buy your kids certain toys, educational resources or clothes
- Discipline your children in a certain way
- Make your child say sorry or share
- Volunteer your time
- Host family gatherings
- Invest in your friendships in particular ways
- Be sociable and engage in small talk in social settings
- Enrol your children in a certain type of school or activity
- Maintain the house to a particular standard
- Meet someone else’s needs for affection and attention
People are always going to have expectations of others. We can’t control that. They won’t always seem reasonable, fair or right to us. Everyone is different and comes to situations with their own experiences and perspectives. But we do get to choose how we respond to them. We don’t always have to do what others want us to do.
If you learned as a child that you had to comply with the expectations of others to be loved it might feel really uncomfortable NOT to meet someone else’s expectations. Disappointing someone could feel really scary. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the wrong thing.
When you feel that discomfort you have two choices; you can let the discomfort lead you away from what you want, or you can feel your discomfort and choose to still move towards what you want. Sometimes, it might be a case of picking your battles and there’s no judgement if that’s what you choose to do, however, I encourage you to think about whether the impact on you (and anyone else it affects) is worth it.
- Who has to live with the result of your choice?
- Who holds the true responsibility for this decision? (not just because they want to control it but because it is actually their responsibility)
- Who knows the situation and people involved better?
Is it a NO for you?
Sometimes we know straight away that something isn’t right for us but other times it may not be so clear. Many women find it difficult to figure out what’s right for them (remember that there may be multiple right answers and none of them may be perfect).
If you are clear on your values and goals, you can look for alignment. If you have defined how you want to mother your children, or live your life, then this can serve as guidance. If you just have that intuitive gut feeling, then you can follow that.
But what if you’re just not sure?
Your body is ALWAYS on your side and sending you signals. You might just not be noticing them.
When we are very focused on the expectations of others, we become disconnected from what we want and it can take a while to tune back in.
Reflect for a moment and think about a time someone had an expectation of you and it wasn’t aligned/right. Can you remember any signals that your body gave you?
- Tightness in the chest, shallow breathing.
- Sick feeling in your stomach.
- A lightning bolt “NO” through your body
- Decision paralysis/procrastination
- General feeling of unease.
Here’s an exercise to try if you want to figure out the signals your body is sending you when something isn’t right for you.
1. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit where you won’t be interrupted for a few minutes.
2. Think of a statement that is undeniably true about you (e.g. your name, where you are sitting, your age). Repeat this statement to yourself slowly either out loud or in your mind, and in between, notice the sensations that arise in your body. Continue for 1-2 mins.
3. Then, think of a statement that is undeniably not true about you (it could be the opposite of the previous statement or something completely different). Repeat this statement to yourself slowly either out loud or in your mind, and in between, notice the sensations that arise in your body. Continue for 1-2 mins.
4. Alternate between steps 2 and 3 as needed until you feel confident you can tell the difference between the different sensations. While different for everyone, generally, step 2 will lead to more relaxed, expansive sensations and step 3 will lead to contraction, tension and possibly aching.
Once you have figured out your body’s signals, you can use this to help you in your decision making. When faced with an expectation to do something that isn’t right for you, you may be able to notice the sensations you experienced in step 2, while an aligned expectation should trigger the sensations in step 3.
It may also be helpful to ask yourself these questions:
- If no one would ever know what I chose, what would I do?
- What am I scared to choose and why?
How to let someone know you aren’t going to meet their expectations
In some cases, this isn’t an issue because no one needs to be informed. But there will be times when you need to tell the person that you aren’t going to meet their expectation.
It’s best to keep it clear, simple and truthful. You can provide a brief reason but extensive details aren’t required.
Consider offering an alternative if appropriate – another person who could help, another way you could help or another time (if you want to and can).
Here are some examples of how you might word this:
- Thank you for asking me. I can’t help you this time.
- We’ve chosen to handle things a different way.
- Thanks but that’s not going to work for me.
- I can’t commit to that right now.
- No, thank you.
- Unfortunately, it’s not a good fit for me.
- I’m more comfortable with ______.
- Thanks for sharing that, but it doesn’t feel right for me.
You can read more about saying no with kindness and respect here.
How to deal with the reaction
For some, the potential reaction is the scariest part. The other person might be disappointed or angry. They might try to pressure you into agreeing. They might lay on the guilt, criticise you or shut you out.
I like to imagine there is a fence between you and them. The expectation is on their side of the fence. The decision to meet that expectation or not is on your side of the fence. And lastly, their reaction is on their side. It’s their responsibility to manage their response to your decision, not yours.
Of course, you can be compassionate and kind in the way you handle it, but don’t let their response become your problem to solve. If you’ve made the decision that is right for you, they are allowed to have whatever response they have and it doesn’t mean you were wrong. Their response doesn’t need to become your guilt. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy all the time.
If needed, restate your response and offer compassion. But make and stick to your own decision.
Then if you’re feeling unsettled, do something to soothe and calm yourself, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, meditation, going for a walk, something creative or listening to your favourite music.
Set boundaries for the future
The more you show people that you will only meet their expectations if it is aligned for you, the more they will accept and expect it, however, you may need to set some boundaries in particular relationships or situations to make things easier in the future.
Boundaries define what’s ok and not ok in relation to you and how people treat you.
They are lines you don’t want people to cross, because of the impact on your wellbeing or the fact that they restrict you from being you.
If your employer keeps asking you to work beyond your agreed hours and it means you are missing out on time with your children, you may need to set a boundary in relation to the hours you are able and willing to work.
If your in-laws keep on dropping over unannounced and expect you to cook for and entertain them, you may need to set a boundary around the need for notice and agreement around the time of the visit beforehand, or around the help you require to include them in dinner and family activities when they are there.
If your friend keeps expecting help beyond your capacity to give it, you may need to set a boundary around when you are available to help and with what tasks.
If your parents keep involving themselves in decisions about your child’s future, you may need to set a boundary about who will be responsible for those decisions and what their involvement will be.
What boundary do you need to set?
Remember you can’t stop others from expecting things of you, but you can choose whether you will meet those expectations or not, and help them understand what you are willing to do based on your values, desires, capacity and ability. Sometimes this means you will disappoint people, but that does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing or that you are inadequate or bad. You are responsible for your own choices, family, life and wellbeing.