There’s been a shift over the last several decades in how much moms expect from their partners in regards to parenting responsibilities and how much dads willingly provide. However, many moms still describe their husbands’ contributions to childcare and household responsibilities in terms like “helping out” and “being supported by.” This is what is commonly referred to as the “motherhood mandate” – the expectation that the father provides for the family financially first and then helps with childcare and household responsibilities with whatever time and energy is left over. Mothers, including moms who are employed full-time outside of the home, are expected to provide selfless, undivided focus to their children and to all that parenting entails.
In fact, a 2011 study conducted by ForbesWoman and TheBump.com found that 70 percent of all working mothers and 68 percent of stay-at-home moms felt resentful toward their partners, stemming from the overwhelming responsibilities of parenting and household chores. Mothers felt resentment for the unevenness of the division of labor, even when they preferred to do the chores themselves (because it’s often easier to just do what needs to be done instead of explaining and then running the risk of having to redo what wasn't done quite right). Two out of three moms said they feel like single parents because they handled all of the household chores. Of the 1,200 women surveyed in the study, around 84 percent of stay-at-home moms said they didn’t get a break from parenting even after their partner came home from work, despite the fact that nearly all respondents said they needed an occasional respite from being a mom. In fact, a full 50 percent of stay-at-home moms said they never have downtime from parenting, while 93 percent said their partners do.
I lived with resentment like this for years. It encased my marriage and is what eventually drove my husband and I into much needed couples counseling. “Resentment is a huge red flag that you’re burning out,” writes Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. But when you don’t get the needed break from the kids and can expect your spouse to only help out and not take over, how do you stop yourself from working yourself down to nothing more than embers?
It turns out that how you perceive the stress in your life is far more important than the actual events you face day in and day out. “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” writes author and speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer. And the quickest way to change things for the better is to take a look at your expectations.
An old but often cited study from 1992 by Australian nurse Carol McVeigh looked at the expectations of new mothers a year after giving birth. The higher the expectations a mom had going into motherhood about what parenting was going to be like and the greater her anticipation of how much support she would experience from her spouse, friends, and family, the deeper the disappointment she experienced in the year after giving birth, regardless of her actual circumstances. These “inflated expectations” can negatively influence not only a mom’s relationship with her inner support circle but her feelings of confidence in her parenting, as well. This study described the “Conspiracy of Silence” which isolates women from the harsh reality of what it’s really like to care for an infant: exhausting, never-ending, and unrelenting.
After watching my close friend struggle with her two active boys who are about ten years older than mine, I knew how challenging mothering two boys could be. And the proliferation of mommy blogs with such article titles as “Ten Times You Wish You Had a Mute Button for Your Toddler” and “What I Wish I’d Known as a Newborn Mom,” has broken any conspiracy of silence that remained. Blogs like Scary Mommy, Guerrilla Mom, and Renegade Mothering spill all of motherhood’s dirty secrets for the world to see, from the fact that many moms have recurring thoughts of making a run for it the next time there’s another moderately responsible grown-up in the house, to resentment toward a spouse and children that rises and falls like a barometer of a mother’s moods.
I saw first-hand how the most organized and patient women I knew believed they weren’t succeeding as parents. Although in conversations with my friends before I became a mom I reassured them that they were doing a great job, I secretly judged them for not trying hard enough. I knew I was stronger, smarter, and more determined, and had waited way too long for motherhood for it to be a massive, disappointing failure.
And then I became a mom.
I thought that I would enjoy motherhood more. I thought the rewards for being sleepless, selfless, and steadfast for endless stretches of time would be greater than a few sloppy, wet kisses from my toddler. I loved those kisses but the equation of effort versus enjoyment didn’t balance. And what was tipping the scales in the negative direction was my expectations of what motherhood was supposed to be.
There’s a comfort to your expectations – they line up your day in an orderly fashion and act as a mental checklist of what you think is going to happen. The problem is that when the repairman doesn’t arrive between 8:00 and noon, your child doesn’t nap at 2:30, and your mom doesn’t show up when she said she would, you’re disappointed. Expectations also shadow your self-evaluation at the end of the day of what did or didn’t get done. A survey by TODAY.com and Insight Express showed that the average stress for moms is 8.5 on a scale of one to ten and 60 percent of mothers stated that their biggest cause of stress is not having enough time to get everything done. But who decides what goes into that bag of “everything that needs to get done?” You do and it’s based on your expectations.
Economists and authors of the book Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells theorize that happiness equals reality minus expectations. But if you were to drop your expectations, to let them go like flotsam and jetsam on the sea of your experience, wouldn’t happiness simply equal reality? And if you stop arguing with reality, would you be left with only happiness? “We can know that reality is good just as it is, because when we argue with it, we experience tension and frustration. We don’t feel natural or balanced,” writes Byron Katie in her book Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. “When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless.”
Letting go of my expectations and not arguing with reality meant that I stopped evaluating my days with the parameters of good and bad, easy and hard, willing to stay or ready to run. It meant recognizing that my expectations were like Harry Potter’s early efforts with casting the Expecto Patronum spell – attempts at complicated magic meant to keep the darkness at bay but producing only a wispy wish for things to be different. As Karen Maezen Miller, author of Momma Zen, a book that lived on my bedside table for years, writes, "It’s not a matter of expecting less or expecting more, expecting the best or expecting the worst. Expecting anything just gets in the way of the experience itself. And the experience itself is a stunner."
Kathleen Harper is a life coach and mentor for moms. She works with moms in one-on-one sessions and in groups and also speaks to mothers' groups throughout the Bay Area. She is currently in the midst of writing her first book which will be published on September 1st. This month, her Saturday Sanctuary mothers group focuses on how to ease your expectations and increase your happiness. We'll also be decorating canvas bags to remind ourselves that we can choose what we carry. You can register for the May Sanctuary group by going here.