Your biggest problem is your expectations.
When you go out and you discover a flat tire on your car so you can’t go to see grandma and AAA won’t make it there for two hours and your husband isn’t answering his phone and the kids are crying, it feels miserable. And it is definitely not your optimal outcome for any particular day, but there is nothing wrong or inherently bad about the situation.
Your husband shouldn’t have had the phone on.
You shouldn’t always have access to help.
Your kids shouldn’t be happy about the situation.
Your tire shouldn’t be full of air.
All of these things can be in any state without anything being wrong, even all at once.
You’ve just drawn a line in the sand about how your day should go, and when it wasn’t that way, you decided that there was something wrong with the world.
Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst
This isn’t about being a boyscout. You’ll be fine if you run out of a good. You can run to the store, call to someone to get it, or order it on Prime if you have a day or two. Some situations are of course far more inconvenient if you don’t have a particular thing on hand—but this isn’t our real problem.
Very few of our real our problems, our big problems, our Pareto principle problems, actually come from whether or not we have immediate access to a piece of fruit or even a diaper. It may suck to clean up poopy pants or a poopy car seat, but it isn’t going to kill you.
What is going to make today worse, and all of your days worse, is if you expect to not have to deal with problems like this, and you end up having to.
The Real Enemy
Expectations are the real enemy.
Not just in every day nuisances like lacking an ingredient you thought you had, but in your relationship with your child.
And your partner.
In believing that you or your son or your daughter or your partner should be something other than they are, you create an unwinnable.
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you lose the chance to the admire the beauty in its swim.
There was a popular infographic going around talking about the cognitive capacities of children, when it becomes appropriate to expect things from them. I think that the effort of this infographic was noble—reducing the frustration that parents feel with their children when they have unreasonable expectations. But I feel that it also had two implicit messages that I have a harder time supporting:
- Expecting it: If you have an idea that someone “should” be able to do something, you will get annoyed with the fact that they aren’t doing it. If it is backed by “science”, the backlash is even worse. Parents feel not only put out by their child’s behavior, but might begin to believe there is something wrong with them.
Milestone-mania is already rampant, and there is no need to double down on that sneaking sense of paranoia in an attempt to allay anger.
- Reducing Agency: One thing that happens when we decide what people “should” and “shouldn’t” be able to do is stop attempting to get them to grasp concepts or build the tools to head in that direction. This is called the tyranny of low expectations. It is essentially writing someone off and letting them pay the consequences.
More useful than developing suitable expectations is having none, but to give your children the support and skills that they need to develop and strengthen their capacities.
It’s not as if, on their fourth birthday, all or even more kids have impulse control. It’s not as if most adults have even worked that muscle particularly hard.
What is happening is a slow progression to have more emotional control—a completely unpredictable path that will move backwards and forwards more time than anyone could possibly count. A path that your child will continue to walk through toddlerhood, teenagerdom, and well into adulthood. Skills and abilities that you thought they had will seemingly fade overnight, and that they should be able to do these things—according to science!–isn’t going to help you or your child get anywhere.
Try This Instead
Let’s go back to that day in the car.
You have a lot of other options, outside of disappointment. Give yourself five minutes to feel those feelings, then move on.
Check what your options are to carry out your original plan: Consider an Uber, see if grandma can come over, or someone can pick you up.
Or just go inside, tell grandma sorry, and have a different day from the one you were planning.
If you didn’t have that plan, how would the day have gone? How would you feel if those things didn’t happen on a day you didn’t mean for them to happen?
We can’t always have such peace and clarity, but working on lassoing in our expectations bit by bit, we can stop trying to handle disappointment, and instead just go about with our days.