Want a Good Parenting Day? Lower Your Expectations. Lower. Nope, Even Lower Than That.

hammering golf tees
Via My Baba

Sometimes the worst parenting days are the ones where you’ve got a plan and a positive attitude. You know what I’m talking about? Those days when you’ve finally got enough energy and inspiration to do something fun? Your toddler starts putzing around the house, bored, and instead of flipping on the TV, you say, “Oh! I have an idea! You’ll love this!”

So you set up that activity you’ve had pinned on Pinterest for two years, that one where the kids hammer golf tees into styrofoam. It’s perfect because your toddler loves “booming” things. You don’t have golf tees or styrofoam, so you run around the house looking for nails big enough and blunt enough to be reasonably safe. You can’t find any, so you call your husband for a hint as to where they might be. They’re in the garage, and the hammer’s in there too. You find the nails, but you can’t find the hammer, which is fine, you’re still chipper, because you remember seeing your toddler’s toy hammer somewhere, recently. You’re running around the house checking everywhere you might have last seen it. OH MY GOSH YOU JUST SAW IT WHERE IS IT. It’s under the couch, of course, all the way in the back by the wall, of course, so you whack it out with a broom. You find a cardboard box. There. Ready to go.

The toddler is already dumping the box of nails everywhere. “No, no, no, wait, let me show you how to do it,” you say.

The toddler seems excited. “Boomin’ hammer, Mommy! Boomin’ hammer!”

“Yes! You can boom with the hammer!” You knew he’d love it.

You can’t really hammer the nails in with the plastic hammer, but you discover that if you jam the nail into the cardboard really hard, it’s creates a big enough hole for a toy hammer to make headway.

“Whack it!” you encourage.

Your toddler gives a halfhearted whack.

“That’s it! Keep going! You’re doing it!”

“Mommy do it,” your toddler says.

“No, no, you do it! It’s for you! It’s supposed to be fun!”

“Watch TVs?”

You know. Those days?

Or the days you wake up and feel the urge to deep clean the house or write a blog post or drink all of your coffee while it’s hot — feel the urge in your soul — and every part of the day conspires to make sure you reach only a semblance of that goal with the maximum possible stress and disappointment?

Those are the days I want to hand in my notice to my husband and walk out the door. (That’s how you quit parenthood. Right?)

Life with littles can be so frustrating.

God grant me the serenity to accept the moods I cannot change, and the courage to change the one thing I can — my expectations.

Emily Nagoski, author of the must-read book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, taught me about the brain’s discrepancy reducing feedback loop:

In your brain there is a little monitor, a watcher, who knows: (1) what your goal is, (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal, and (3) how much progress you’re making. And it keeps a ratio of effort to progress.

And it has a very strong opinion about what that ratio should be.

As you encounter obstacle after obstacle in your attempts to entertain your toddler or enjoy a cup of hot coffee, your brain must recalculate how much effort is required and how likely the goal is. This is frustrating for your brain — to continually put effort into something that seems less and less likely. As the goal continues to float out of reach and the required effort piles up, frustration turns to anger. Then there comes that point where the required effort becomes so overwhelming or the feasibility of the goal so unfeasible that your brain just gives up and pitches you into the depths of despair.

I can think of a dozen examples of that psychological process from the past hour alone. Parenting littles, in particular, is rife with failed, delayed, or prolonged attempts at reaching goals. And that’s what often makes up those defeating, rage-inducing, burnt-out days.

But when I understand what is happening in my brain — that it isn’t the day just magically and hopelessly crumbling around me — I can consciously evaluate my effort and my goals. As Nagoski advises, I have three options:

  1. Change the goal.
  2. Change your effort.
  3. Change your expectation about how difficult the goal will be.

For me, in the context of littles, the lesson here is lower my expectations — lower, lower, and lower still. I change goals into either tiny concrete things more within my control or broader goals that allow for whatever happens to happen. And I anticipate that things are likely to go awry. I plan for the worst (or really, the normal) toddler behavior, I lowball my goals and expectations, and I feel that glorious ding ding ding of achievement when I hit those simple goals. If it’s one of those days where I easily meet the bare bones of parenting, I can build up toward loftier goals — like enjoying a hot coffee all the way through.

It feels much better to start humble and grow than crash and burn from aspirational heights.

The other day, I took my kiddos on a walk. I consciously framed it, as I frame almost all walks, as toddler-led. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I planned on going slowly, maybe doubling back, stopping in spots for an absurdly long time. I set the goal as enjoying time in nature with whatever my toddler found interesting. That’s a doable goal, because it accounts for a wide variety of toddler behavior, from getting engrossed in nature to sitting like a rock in the middle of the trail, and it focuses on something I can control — my behavior.

If I was strapped for time, or wanted to get a brisk walk in for exercise, or desired to get to a particular destination, I would buckle the toddler into the stroller and communicate that he wasn’t getting out. I would anticipate some extra steps and maybe some more emotional friction to accomplish that goal — thus changing my expectation for how difficult reaching my goal would be. Since he was walking, though, I knew it’d be a colossal struggle to get him moving in the direction and along the timeline I wanted. So I lowered my expectations and broadened my goal, and we enjoyed a lovely slow, meandering walk that involved a lot of standing in one spot looking at bugs.

Not going to lie: I still got a bit agitated once we hit minute ten of watching the beetle walk around in circles. But I repeated my mantra: Lower your expectations. Lower. Lower still. Accept that this is what today’s toddler-led walk looks like. And God granted me a little more serenity in that acceptance.

Some day, the toddler won’t be a toddler, and can more realistically and reliably meet greater expectations and bigger goals. But for now, the toddler does what toddlers do — and we are all much less frustrated when I meet him where he’s at. Then we both experience success.

Even if I start out with too lofty of goals (silly me, thinking I could brush my teeth before lunchtime), and the day is crashing and burning around me, I can reset goals in hindsight to get myself back on track. My mom taught me this one: When she was a young mom, overwhelmed with how little she had achieved that day, my dad encouraged her to focus on what she had achieved, no matter how small — even if it was just nursing a baby all day. Which is an amazing reframe for me because I do, indeed, spend a great deal of my time sitting and nursing a baby.

Every day, I set my goals super low: feed the kids three meals and one snack a day, change their diapers, put them down for their naps, and respond to their emotional needs as best I can. That’s it. Depending on the day, that seems far too aspirational or far too easy — but it keeps me from migrating toward the despair at the end of my brain’s discrepancy feedback loop. And when I feel positive and successful, it’s a good parenting day — no matter how much I actually accomplish or what craziness actually goes down.

What do you think?

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