Wednesday, October 10, 2012


When George and I decided to have children, we'd already been married for 12 years. In that time, I'd had ample opportunity to do practical research on the subject of childbirth and parenthood through observing and gathering data on lots of other people's experiences.

The only reasonable conclusion I could draw from that research was that my experience would NOT be like anyone else's experience. In fact, everyone's experience of childbirth and parenting seemed so unique and unpredictable that entering this particular aspect of life with a detailed plan seemed the height of silliness.

There's a saying in the United States Air Force: "Flexibility is the key to air power." You just never know what's going to happen when you fly, fight, and win, so you need to be prepared for anything. I liked that saying from the first time I heard it. Flexibility can, indeed, be a wonderful path to success in life, whether you define success as bombs on target or more generally as a happy, useful life.

I decided that flexibility was the key to happy pregnancy and delivery. The more I knew about all the different possibilities of what might happen, the better prepared I would be when something did happen. Preparing myself involved a lot of prenatal classes, birthing books, and conversations with friends and family.

Expectation is the mother of disappointment, so as I studied what might happen, I tried really hard not to develop any expections of what I wanted to happen. My plan, if you could call it that, was to go with the flow, keep myself as comfortable as possible (no brave "natural" childbirth for me!), and be happy with the end result...a baby in my arms.

When the time came to take my large, hard belly to the hospital so it could become a large, soft belly, however, I discovered I had in fact unconsciously acquired two expectations that were not met.

First, it was daylight. Nick was born with late afternoon sunshine pouring through the window. It was so weird. I had unconsciously expected to deliver at night. I was vaguely disappointed, which is silly, but there you have it.

Second, as soon as the doctor said he had to use forceps, I expected poor Nick would be bruised and battered. He was not. He was unbruised and undented. Perfect.

I wasn't disappointed by that at all, but I did learn that no matter how hard we try to avoid making assumptions about the future, no matter how steadfastly we resolve to have no expectations, we will fail.

That tiny little newborn quickly grew into a chubby-cheeked, roly-poly baby who sat on my lap where I could hold him upright. He blew spit bubbles and laughed and generally acted like he owned the world. An elderly gentleman observed him and said, "He looks like a political boss, fat and happy. Wouldn't that be great if he went into politics? What do you want him to be when he grows up?"

And there it was. What expectations do I have for my six-month-old when he is grown?

I hate this question. George and I just want to raise children who are happy, contributing citizens of society. George knew he wanted to fly in service to his country when he was very young, although he also wanted to be a trauma surgeon and architect. I wanted to be a marine biologist, school teacher, veterinarian, astronomer, chemist, doctor, and/or English professor. The closest I've come to any of those earlier goals is college English instructor, but the career path for mommy/blogger/papercrafter/volunteer/Stephen Minister wasn't on the list of majors at Duke University. 

What did our parents want for us? George's parents and my mother wanted their children to be happy, contributing members of society. My dad, on the other hand, wanted a whole lot more than "happy, contributing member of society." His expectations overwhelmed me and contributed to a severe depression in my teens, a time when I felt like a failure because I couldn't live up to his expectations.

I never, ever, EVER want my children to feel the weight of that sort of expectation. So when the elderly gentleman asked me what I wanted Nick to be when he grew up, I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek and told a joke. 

"George and I just hope he's not a felon."

The gentleman was not amused and rather archly replied, "We have higher aspirations for our grand-daughter."

Seriously? Do we have to burden babies with "higher aspirations"? Do we need to start planning their political careers before they can even say super-PAC? Can't we just enjoy them and encourage them at each and every stage of growth until they figure out their futures for themselves? Are we going to be disappointed if they only become a general practitioner rather than a brain surgeon? What if they want to be an auto mechanic like my grandfather or a plumber like George's grandfather?

Oh, the horror!

God put each of us here for a purpose, and who are we parents to presume to know the mind of God?

I've noticed that most people who figure life out for themselves generally turn out pretty well. People burdened with unhealthy parental expectations are damaged, sometimes beyond repair. We lucky ones get the love and support we need to find ourselves eventually, but I know several people who have lived lives of quiet desperation in attempts to make their parents happy. They fail. Repeatedly.

Nick is now almost 13 years old, and I have no idea what he will be when he grows up. He says he wants to join the Army but is worried about the possibility of dying in the line of duty. He also talks about making video games or movies or maybe both. At one point, he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, but then George listed all the stuff I do, and Nick decided that didn't sound like much fun. He hates school and pretty much everything to do with school...going to class, reading, math, reading, sitting and listening, reading, reading, reading. 

George reminded me recently that before we had children, I made a comment about not being able to imagine having a child who didn't love reading, yet here I am, the mother of a child who hates reading.

How silly of me to expect my child who likes to read!

I do, however, expect Nick will figure his future out for himself, just like George and I did. We will stand back, encourage him, and cheer him on.

If he goes into politics, we might even vote for him. But only as long as he doesn't blow spit bubbles and topple over in public and generally act as if he owns the world.

I expect we already have enough of those sorts of politicians.


  1. Thank-you, Susan! Very timely! As my eldest daughter finishes off her school year (grade 4), and is about to undertake music theory, violin, and piano exams, I must try to remember that an "A" is not the only valid outcome (although her piano teacher told her she would accept no less, eek! those expectations are EVERYWHERE).

    As the daughter of a perfectionist mother with extremely high expectations, I fight every day against repeating the same behaviour (and try to release myself from this burden personally). Most of the time I succeed, sometimes I do not.

    I, too, hope that my daughters grow up happy, contributing members of society... and that they are not felons, LOL!

  2. I needed this today. Thanks, Susan! You rock! :)

  3. My oldest is a 10th grader and it just amazes me how many times I get asked "So, does G know what college he wants to attend and what he wants to major in".

    I am almost 46 years old and I DON'T KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO WHEN I GROW UP. How in the world do we expect a 15 year old (or an 18 year old, for that matter) to be making life choices when they haven't experienced life?!!

    Out of curiosity, I did ask my kiddo if he had any idea as to where he might like to go to college or what he might like to major in. He calmly looked at me and said, "I don't know. Can I get through high school first?"

    Smart kid.

  4. Wonderfully written. Our "expectation" of our kids is that they do their best in all they do. If their best is a "C", then they have achieved their best. If their best is an "A" and the sluff off and ge a "C" then there is a conversation to be had.

    With people changing careers an average of 5 times now, the sky is the limit on what you will do when you grow up. But whatever you chose to do, make sure you do your best at it :)

    I enjoyed my mid afternoon c-section much more than my all nighter delivery with my first! Give me sunshine any time LOL!

  5. My mom had seven children. Her expectation was that we would all graduate high school. That was all she wanted. She had to go back to school to get her GED; my dad quit school in eighth grade.

    Now that we are all grown up, she is just proud of the fact that none of us are felons, but she usually says she's happy that we are all productive members of society. LOL

    And boy are we all different. We are a tool designer, electrical engineer, handyman, carpenter, warehouse manager, semi truck driver and real estate agent.

    My expectation for my kids was that they would do something they loved; whether it would involve college or trade school. My daughter is a genetic counselor and loves it. My son is somewhere in the middle of his college education and is crafting concrete counter tops for a living at the moment. They are both happy with what they are doing and I'm happy for them.

    My first grandson was born this past Monday; my expectations for him are the same as for my children. A happy life; doing something he loves.

  6. I have to laugh at the part about not imagining having children who don't like to read! My husband and I both love to read, as does our daughter who loves reading and is pursing a career as a librarian! our 18yr old son absolutely hates reading - probably because the rest of us love it! thanks for the laugh!

  7. Very well said, Susan! I wish and hope that more parents and more people imbibe this philosophy. It would make everybody's life happier!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!