December 13 2011
Realistic Expectations: A Gift for the Holidays
Carrie L. Lukas
Christmas isn't about presents, it's about getting to love people. That's how my four-year-old put it, after watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas the other night. She wanted reassurance that “we still get presents, right?” and added that it was also “Jesus's birthday”—a sometimes overlooked aspect of the secular celebration that dominates the U.S. and Western world.
Yet rather than complain about the commercialization of Christmas or any lost religiosity, it's worth celebrating that this core aspect of the Christmas message—the importance of loving the people around us, in spite of their flaws, and committing to sacrifice for them—still seeps through.
The “in spite of their flaws” bit is worth lingering on. The holiday season may be a joyous time, but it's also stressful for many. Family get-togethers can bring out tensions. The many duties of the Christmas seasons—getting the decorations up, making cookies for kids' holiday parties, purchasing, wrapping, and sending all the presents and cards—can become overwhelming. Unrealistic expectations for the joy of the holiday, the idea that we should bask in perfect familial harmony while sipping hot cocoa in front of the fireplace as a light snow falls outside our window, are also a burden.
Recognizing how romanticized images can diminish real life joy seems a critical step to enjoying the holidays...and life in general. A recent article by Parenting.com's Martha Brockenbrough, entitled “Why We Get Mad at Our Husbands,” suggests American women may particularly benefit from a reset of expectations.
Brockenbrough details the anger that plagues many married women with children, who are consistently disappointed by their spouses' inadequacies. She reports “46 percent of moms get irate with their husbands once a week or more.” For about one-in-ten, the anger is “deep and long-lasting,” rather than intense but fleeting. Top complaints center around dads not doing their fair share. Women are frustrated that men wait for instructions on what needs to be done, rather than notice on their own, and then often fail to carry out tasks properly. Women with the youngest children and those with multiple kids tend to be the angriest.
Brockenbrough closes by noting that 60 percent of moms “don't tell their friends what they're going through, or they make light of it.” She encourages women to discuss their anger more, not just with their friends but with their husbands, presumably in hopes of leading to a change of behavior, or in her words to make them “more like us.”
Brockenbrough's prescription for more communication is certainly good advice—stewing in anger isn't healthy. Yet women might also consider trying to take a different perspective: Namely, we women should recognize that we aren't always right and that some of the pressure we put on ourselves, and our spouses, isn't always necessary.
That's not always easy to remember. As a mother of three (with number four expected in just a few months), I sympathize with the list of complaints above. When kids are little, there simply can seem to be too much to do, so neither parent feels they get enough sleep or “me” time. Dinner has to be made; clothes, cleaned; and dishes and homework, done. Yet parents—particularly women—can sometimes create unreachable expectations. Yes, chores have to be done—and undoubtedly clean clothes are better than dirty ones, and organized toys better than clutter—but women could probably cut themselves and their families a little slack, and recognize that it's not the end of the world if a bed occasionally goes unmade and if standards slip, especially while children are young.
George Mason University's Bryan Caplan provides welcome research to stretched-thin parents. He details the findings of studies of twins in his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, and concludes that too many modern parents underestimate the role that nature plays in determining a child's life and put too much pressure on themselves when parenting. Parents' impact fades over time. That means the stress we put on ourselves to enroll our kids in enriching extra-curriculars or even to feature fresh vegetables each night will probably matter very little in the long-run.
Caplan's take-away is that parents should relax and enjoy the experience of parenting. Caplan argues this lower-stress parenting may help build a better long-term relationship with children, which parents' behavior does impact permanently. I'd imagine that this lower-stress approach to parenting—and to other household chores—will also help marriages and women's overall sense of well-being.
This isn't to let men off the hook: Certainly they should proactively help alleviate the child-rearing burden on mom. Yet women shouldn't expect that men will “act like us,” or even assume that all of our higher standards are entirely rational or useful. Readjusting expectations may prove better than endless nagging at alleviating our anger.
Men are imperfect creatures. So are women. In the spirit of the season, we should not only strive to do better as parents and partners, but to cut each other some needed slack and love the people in our lives, flaws and all.