Changing our expectations to match our reality can be, quite literally, life-changing. In a way it can seem depressing to have low expectations of our circumstances – we don’t want to assume the worst about those around us, and we shouldn’t. But having unrealistic and unreasonable expectations, especially for our children, can lead to disappointment, bitterness and frustration. You don’t need a degree in early childhood psychology to be a good parent, but it is important to understand what is developmentally appropriate to expect of our children.
When Miles was a newborn, he would fall asleep around 6:30pm every evening for a nap. My husband, Erin, and I assumed he would stay asleep for awhile and give us a break to eat dinner with each other. But the reality was, despite his longer naps during the day, this particular nap was always short. The expectation that we would have a couple of hours together led to disappointment, and even anger, when Miles would wake just as we sat down to our warm meal every night. So one day after weeks of tears at dinner time, Erin and I talked and realized we could not change our newborn’s sleep patterns, but we could change our expectations. After that, we would sit down to our warm meal and the very moment we heard him cry (which never failed to be just as I was taking my first bite) we would make eye contact and smile at each other. Miles’ timing was comical. Erin used this opportunity to give me a much-needed break and allow me to enjoy my first warm meal of the day. Finally there was no more anger and frustration. No forks dropping onto the plate with a clang of disappointment. Nothing changed but our expectations: Miles was going to wake up and need one of us to rock him back to sleep around dinner time every evening. We knew it was a phase, but we didn’t know how long it would last – so we didn’t worry about that part. We just said, “Okay, this is life right now.” Eventually we were able to cut out one of his naps and start him on a bedtime routine, leading to a longer sleep stretch and the ability for us to eat an entire warm meal together.
Fifteen months later, I can say that changing expectations has truly changed the way I parent. Miles doesn’t sleep through the night, much to my dismay. But sleeping through the night actually shouldn’t be expected until after 24 months of age or later. Once I learned this and surrendered to the reality of it, waking for him became easier. Sleepiness in the morning is now something I just shrug off, its part of my life right now, it won’t last forever. I have never appreciated coffee the way I do now (which is saying a lot because I have always loved coffee). I have stopped going to bed every night praying that this would be the night he started sleeping 8 hours straight and waking up disappointed, leading to a grumpy start of my day. Instead I go to bed knowing that I will be comforting my kid a couple of times. Co-sleeping has made this so much easier and all of us are happy with the current arrangement.
The bigger picture here is accepting my child for who he is and meeting his needs. Each stage brings new challenges. You’ll be happy to see the previous challenge resolve itself just long enough to have a new one pop up. Parenting is hard. You have to dig deep into your reserves of patience and energy to get through each day. We cannot change the weather, because it is part of this world in which we live. But we can prepare for it. It’s going to rain today, I’m going to wear rain boots and bring an umbrella and expect to get a little wet.
It’s too easy to get caught up on changing our reality that this becomes our focus, instead of actually observing our children for who they are, accepting them for who they are, and adapting to our new lives with them. There is a peace that comes with letting go of the need to force change. Not just living in it, but loving it. Loving the middle-of-the-night cuddles with my sweet boy who one day won’t even want me in his bedroom. Having a new appreciation for the mornings I get to sleep in and wake up to a cup of coffee brought to me by my husband. Enjoying that every time my toddler challenges me, I can use the opportunity to teach patience and grace and unconditional love. Accepting the really hard parts of parenting, because that is the reality of caring for little humans.
[For the record, this lesson applies to marriage, too. We must accept our spouse for who they are and where they are, and move from there].