Happy Mom Secret #1: Realistic Expectations.

A 2007 study in the British Medical Journal explored the reasons why the Danish rank high in life satisfaction, (it’s a funny read) even though they are lower in the factors that are supposed to lead to satisfaction than many of their European neighbors. The conclusion? They’re more easily satisfied because their expectations are low.

I believe you can apply that concept directly to motherhood. Not that I see my expectations for life with children as low, exactly…just realistic. I may not get to shower today. If I do, I almost certainly won’t have time to shave my legs. I may not get much time alone this week. I may not have time to cook gourmet meals. I won’t be an awesome mom most days and some days I won’t even be a good mom. I will almost certainly never get to finish anything uninterrupted. The bathroom door will be knocked upon endlessly, and sometimes small fingers will reach through the crack under the door. I won’t sleep more than a couple hours at a time. I don’t always love it, but if I have clear and realistic expectations, I can go through it and still feel happy with my life in general.

Quite often I’ll be talking to a mom who’s recently had her second child and is having a hard time of it. I can relate. Though I have five kids, the hardest transition for me wasn’t adding the fourth or the fifth, or even the third, when I was officially out of hands. It was going from one to two.

Why? My expectations were out of whack.

I always knew I wanted to have children, and as I was basically bobbing through life before I got pregnant with #1 without any clear sense of purpose or direction, I didn’t give up much in the way of identity or fulfillment or mental stimulation when he was born. Having grown up around other children (my mom ran an in-home daycare for years) I had a pretty good idea of the amount of work involved in caring for an infant, so the sleepless nights and constant neediness weren’t too surprising to me, either. In fact, as I was used to caring for multiple children at a time, I found meeting Jacob’s needs fairly easy by comparison. Jacob was a happy baby and easy toddler, and I eased into the realities of motherhood gently.

We had a wonderful 22 months together before #2 was born. And that’s when Reality gave me a donkey kick to the face.

I learned quickly that not all newborns are content and easily pacified. Some of them scream nonstop when they aren’t eating, in fact. That going out in public with a toddler and a newborn leaves you sweaty and frazzled. That it’s nearly impossible to get a toddler and newborn to synchronize naps. That there’s no way to be as attentive and careful with two children as you can with one.

In short, because my initial experience with motherhood was so positive, I set myself up by expecting it to continue that way with my second child. When my expectations most decidedly weren’t met, I was frustrated, stressed-out and miserable.

Since then, each transition has become easier, with our last being the easiest of all. Now, babies certainly didn’t become more easy to care for in the 9 years between having #2 and #5. Yes, Clara is a very mellow baby and her brothers are helpful, but the fact is that five kids is a lot of work no matter how you slice it. Kids, and all that goes along with raising them, didn’t change…I did.

Namely, my expectations about what I could expect life to be like with a newborn and older siblings of various ages became much more realistic. As a result, when things are normal (you know: crying kids, blowout diapers, squabbling siblings, dishes in the sink) I’m not surprised by it and feel fairly content. When the baby falls asleep, the kitchen is clean, and nobody fights for a few hours, I’m pleasantly surprised.

Of course, your miles may vary. Some people have no idea how hard motherhood will be–they think it’s going to be all sunshine and roses, and their moment of truth arrives at the same time as baby #1. Some people may be startled by the additional work involved with adding a third. And of course, other factors like family support, each child’s personality, and a mom’s tolerance level for noise and sleep deprivation weigh heavily as well. But expectations are huge.

I’m working on a book idea on being a happy mother and right now, principal #1 is “manage expectations”. Not just of your kids, but of yourself. Of course, everyone needs some standards. But setting goals only works if you can actually reach them. Life with children only “works” if you don’t expect more of them then they’re capable of giving.

How do you balance your goals for yourself and your kids with reality? Do you find that it makes you a happier mother when your expectations are realistic? What else makes you a happier mom?

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