A Son Beyond Expectation: Pursuit of Happiness in Parenthood

Helen Keller said, “Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within.”  We all know the woman living a life of ease and stability who remains unhappy.  We also may know a woman living in poverty and hardship, who radiates joy and contentment. The difference can’t be just about circumstances; instead it must be what’s going on in their minds.  Our mental outlook determines much of our happiness. Marcus Aurelius said, “Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself in your way of thinking” (easy for a Roman Emperor to say).  So next we must ask how these two women’s thinking differ, and how we can adopt the second woman’s perspective.  But also, we may ask an even deeper question: is the second woman missing something the first understands? In the next few posts, we hope to answer these question. We’ll start with the burden of improper expectations.

Starting in childhood and continuing throughout our lives, we build an ‘ideal picture” of what we want from life, using what we observe or are told to expect. We want a marriage like our parents, or exactly the opposite. We imagine a rewarding and lucrative career, a handsome and successful husband, and obedient and intelligent children, who magically take care of themselves.  William Glasser described this ideal picture, “It is the ‘world’ that I want right now – it could even be called my ‘ideal world.’ but it is more than ideal; it is the world I believe I must have, or my needs will not be satisfied.” But eventually, the storms of life’s reality arrive, and the idealized world of our imagining comes crashing down like the foolish man’s house built upon sand, “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Matt 7:27 When expectations don’t come to fruition we are left envying the imaginary.

Virgin Mary with Christ and John the Baptist; William Bouguereau

A Tale of Two Sons

My husband and I have been blessed with two sons.  Our first son, Calvin, now 10, has honestly exceeded our wildest imaginings.  My husband wanted a son who liked sports; Calvin has been passionately obsessed with sports since he could crawl.  I wanted an intelligent and confident son; he excels academically, is respectful, and is serious-minded. If this is parenthood, then what is everyone complaining about?  I found out with our second son, Cameron. I had high expectations for him because, why wouldn’t I? They had been met before. He was our easiest baby by a long shot. Cameron was extremely fat, docile, and observant.  We realize now that he was simply using his immobility as a planning stage for destruction. Once he started walking, we awoke from our dream. If there was a garbage can, he would dump it out.  If there was an unflushed toilet, he would play in it.  If there was a permanent marker, he would draw on the walls. His demands were endless: watch another show, have a sucker,  go to the zoo. He was always either at my knees whining or quietly causing property damage. Going out in public was worse. He would cry, or run away, or create some nightmarish scene.  It doesn’t help that he has the build of an NFL lineman so lugging him around was no easy task. And all his bad deeds were done in the least malicious way possible, leaving me feeling perpetually guilty for my disappointment and anger. I wish I could say this was a short phase, he is now six, and although easier, is still our toughest kid.  I went through a time of mourning – grieving for my perfect imaginary child who would never be. Mourning for the stress-free mother I could have been. At night I couldn’t sleep, distraught at the state of my life and worrying about the future of this unruly child.  All my expectations had come crashing down. So let’s examine expectations, and their contribution to happiness or misery.

The Highs of Expectations and the Lows of Happiness

When expectations are high, buy stock in unhappiness. Disappointment is inevitable. It seems to logically follow that the lower our expectations, the greater our potential for happiness. With no dreams, we have no hopes dashed. As Alexander Pope said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed”. Our children, and spouse might appreciate the lowered expectations.  There will be much less pressure on them to perform. (23 sec clip)

Life looks so much brighter if you wake up expecting hell.  I generally find this tactic helpful in feeling content with life.  Instead of predicting the mechanic will say “it was a simple fix, no charge ma’am”, I convince myself it will cost $2,000 and the part will take 4 weeks to arrive.  When reality lies somewhere in between, I am ecstatic! It isn’t hard to convince ourselves bad news is coming because it is so often the case. “Life is suffering”, remember? If I set my expectations low enough, I see myself as blessed when I am proved wrong.  My dad was a master teacher of this. In the 65 years he has been watching his favorite college football team, he has never predicted a win. About half the time he is pleasantly surprised; the other half he simply gets what he expected.

The foundation of Buddhist doctrine are the Four Noble Truths.

  1. Suffering, pain, and misery exist in life
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desire
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from Suffering is possible by practicing the Path

When we release our desires, and the “ideal picture” we create in our head, we begin to see the world in a different light.  Jeremy Sherman, wrote an interesting piece in Psychology Today about how lowering our expectations also increases our compassion for others.  If we are convinced that others’ troubles are simply a result of their own incapacity, we are driven to compassion for their helplessness. (As we build our case for low expectations, let’s put aside the obvious problem with such compassion; the ‘devouring mother’ who makes victims of the potentially competent.)

In summary, our case for low expectations is strong.  In lowering our expectations, not only do we avoid disappointment, but we immediately become more compassionate for all the victims of circumstance and ability that we see around us.

Unmet expectations produce anxiety

“Expectations are the root of all heartache.” Shakespeare.

It’s interesting to consider that improper expectations could be a contributor to the anxiety crisis in our society. Are we giving ourselves anxiety by expecting too much from life? Perhaps, in part. In the following clip, Dr. Peterson explains that the psychological effect of unmet expectation is anxiety. When our predictions do not bear out, suddenly the irrelevant becomes relevant. Life isn’t what we thought it would be. Dr. Peterson said, “The violation of an expectation produces anxiety, You don’t just get anxious if something goes wrong, you get anxious, you get angry, you get curious, you get frustrated, you get depressed – it’s a bursting forward of emotional states.” When your imagined reality turns out to be false, you have to question all your assumptions, as I did. I had been lulled into a false state of security with my first son. I believed my idealized life was coming to fruition. I felt secure in my perceptions. My second son forced me into a state of anxiety as I re-imagined my life. Is motherhood just work and stress after all? Is there something seriously wrong with my son? What have I done to make him this way? (Understanding Anxiety Clip 5:10)

So it seems we have an open and shut case: happiness is to be found in low expectations….finally a short post.  But, wait….I can hear those Existentialists mocking us, “Those fools think they’ve cracked it. When will they learn?  These vain attempts to make life happy are futile; that’s not what life’s for! Living in a world of no disappointment, no expectation, and no apprehension is not only not possible, it misses the point of mortality.” We need to strive, we need to push beyond comfort, to the life of meaning and purpose.

The Picture in our Head

Oftentimes, our imaginings of what a good son, or good life, or marriage looks like is built from the perception of the ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’. What can ‘normal’ three-year-olds do?  Can other kids sit still? We become anxious when our child doesn’t fit into the ‘normal’ box. My son is many things, but ‘normal’ is not one of them.

Exhibit A

Cameron, 23 months

I had a powerful experience one night which woke me up to the damage the ‘ideal picture’ was doing to my relationship with my son.  I prayed in frustration about my ‘naughty son’ and the difficulty of my life. I laid awake, self-pity surrounding me like a cloud, hoping to receive a feeling of comfort and understanding from above. Instead I was surprised by an undeniable feeling of rebuke.  I suddenly became aware of the selfish and uncaring way I was treating my son. I was reminded of his value as a son of God, and that I had been entrusted with his care and nurture. That night, and over the next weeks and months, I began to let go of my imagined son.  I started to appreciate my actual son. I realized all the joy I had been missing. I had missed out on glorying in who he was, opting for the envy of the imagined. I had been so worried he would never talk, or catch a football, or sit still, I had forgotten to laugh at his cute lisp, or glory in his large personality and determination.  My expectations were about me, not about my son. As my previous post stated, I needed to allow him to grow into his unique self, supported by my respect and love.

How Low Is Too Low?

Once I realized my son should not be compared to some imagined dream-child, I had to determine what to expect, and how to act. I no longer cared that he wasn’t ‘normal’, I wanted him to become the best version of himself.  So what next? Should I just set expectations to zero? The problem with setting expectations too low is we don’t get enough out of life to justify its difficulty. Our lives may be devoid of disappointment and responsibility but there is no hope of  progress because there is no attempt to strive upward. If we have no confidence in our children’s ability to achieve, they notice, and act accordingly. They stop believing in themselves. We will also use our ‘compassion’ to further inhibit their progression.  I remember well the allure of lowering the bar to avoid pain; “I’m not even gonna try potty training that kid till he’s four”, “Lets just never go to a restaurant again and avoid the embarrassment”- laying the foundations for a life of dependency.  Children who are not pushed beyond their comfort zones are left with nothing to strive for, and no respect.  The lows of expectations result in the highs of mediocrity.

We want our children, and ourselves, to rise to a challenge.  Studies suggest children do better academically and athletically if they are driven by parents expectations* They are motivated by dreams and goals.  As parents, one of our primary purposes is assisting our children to find purpose and reach their potential (link to article). For Cameron, I wanted to make sure he could read once he started school, and I believed he was capable. It took a full year, every day, sitting down with an often-unwilling child, practicing reading.  It was not fun, but it worked. Now he can read, and read well! He even enjoys it and glories in his hard-fought skill. The joy I feel in my son’s accomplishment is only exceeded by his unbounding confidence. Dr. Peterson has said,“Why have a goal? That’s easy, no goal, no positive emotion. You experience positive emotion by noticing you are moving toward a goal.” (Understanding Emotions Clip 7:27)

We often have high expectations of the life we will lead, but low expectations of the amount of work it will take to achieve success. If we really want that ‘dream’ child, it won’t come easy, and pushing to achieve it may in fact harm your ‘real’ child’s well-being.  As parents, we need to ensure that the ‘ideal picture’ of our children’s potential is truly what is best for them. We also need to accept the struggle and effort required to help our children achieve that potential. Fortunately there is happiness to be found in the proper perspective, and great fulfillment as parents in assisting our children to achieve their goals.   


The Performance Lie

A few years ago I read the book, Nurture Shock.   It describes how improper expectations can cause us to praise children in destructive ways.  If we praise only for good performance, they will begin to fear failure. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control, they see themselves as in control of their success.  Emphasizing natural intelligence (or ability) takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure,” said Dr. Carol Dweck.  An emphasis on performance will cause children to place their of worth on their outward characteristics, rather than on their character or intrinsic worth.  Instead we must focus on praising the things that we most want our children to value. Dr. Chris Thurman said in his book, The Lies we Believe, “Somehow we’ve gotten character and integrity mixed up with externals.  While this attitude may be an inescapable part of our competitive living, it has created a feeling in many that we are only as good as our last ‘performance’.”

When our sense of worth and value are tied up with performance, we are subject to crisis when existential reality hits and tragedy befalls us. (If we women place our worth on our beauty, age will inevitably produce a crisis.) My older son, Calvin’s, expectation is that he will play college basketball. If he blows out his knee, there will be a long, hard fall. Despite our best attempts to focus praise on effort, he increasingly seems to connect his “worth” to outcomes. We see an increase in anxiety in him as he strives for perfection. Being labeled ‘talented’ or ‘athletic’ by coaches and friends may seem positive, but such labels can make children afraid of failure. He doesn’t want to let anyone down. Our younger son achievements often come as a surprise, so Cameron takes risks without fear. Calvin has always excelled, so now he fears falling short, so he is less likely to try new things. However, if we can help Calvin base his sense of worth on the character he has built through hard work and sacrifice, rather than output and labels imposed on him, I am hopeful his anxiety will lessen.

Redefining our Expectations

Going back to the beginning of our post –  the unhappy woman with a stable life may need to lower her expectations.  The happy woman living in poverty may need to strive for more. But the truly fulfilled mother lives in the moment, and finds joy in the journey.  She attempts to reshape expectations to match the potential of each unique child, push them towards it, and glory in their efforts.

Although it may seem difficult to determine the “proper expectations” it is actually quite simple.  On the Sermon on the Mount the Lord tells us, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  Living moment to moment unburdened by ‘toil’ and disappointment is possible. The truly profound clip of Jordan Peterson below, points to the Lord’s answer a few verses later, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” In seeking the greater good, we can let go of expectation. JBP says, “If you can figure your life so what you are genuinely doing is aiming at the highest possible good, then the things you need will deliver themselves to you.” (clip 7:30)

I have found this to be accurate. As I honestly seek the good for each of my sons, unburdened by my own “ideal picture”, I am guided moment to moment.  I know when to push Cameron to try harder and when to encourage Calvin to lighten up. Aiming at their good allows me reduce my own anxiety in letting go of my imaginings; while also striving towards the highest possible good.

As I look at my two sons today, I see how weak and uninspired my ‘ideal picture’ was.  I am so grateful I have been able to appreciate the gift they are. Their contrasting natures have brought depth and variety into our home that has made for a more satisfying and refining life.  The reality of my love and admiration for my sons exceeds every expectation.

– Allyson.

Thank you so much for reading and your support. We are so grateful for Dr. Jordan Peterson’s support in sharing our blog. Please share on Facebook/Twitter with anyone you feel would benefit. If we can get JBP to see our posts it is very helpful to the effort. Also follow us on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/philosophyofmotherhood/

*Why Children Thrive When we Set High Expectations; Motherly.com https://www.mother.ly/parenting/why-our-children-thrive-when-we-set-high-expectations

Special Thanks to Sheila Sayah for her help with clip creation.

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