Family of Me

by Daphne
Updates Mondays and Fridays

Scene 134: Parental Expectations

Mom (Me): Good morning Twyla.

Twyla (The Parent): Hey Daphne.

Mom: Do you think you’re ready to try talking through things again?

Twyla (careful): I think I’m ready to give it another shot, but I’d rather not spiral down into anger again if I can help it.

Mom: Let’s have some boundaries for our conversation then. We’ll restrict our focus to one specific topic, and if we stray too far from that, we’ll pause for the time being.

Twyla: Okay, I’m willing to try that. What topic did you have in mind?

Mom: When we delved into your feelings last time you mentioned your guilt over not living up to your obligation as a parent.

Twyla (reserved): I did, yeah. Sometimes I get really anxious over things that our kid does and I feel like I should be able to manage my feelings better.

Mom: That’s exactly what I’m talking about, so let’s dig into that feeling a little more. To start, a key thing I’ve learned since your time is to be wary of “shoulds.”

Twyla: What does that mean?

Mom: It means when you use the word “should,” that’s an indication that you could be putting unhealthy expectations on yourself.

Twyla (skeptical): Sometimes you need to put expectations on yourself. Sometimes it’s important to live up to expectations.

Mom: Sometimes, sure. But expectations aren’t always coupled with motivation. So instead of being driven to do the right thing or finding extra energy to succeed, “shoulds” often manifest as guilt. “I should manage my feelings better” becomes “why aren’t I managing my feelings better” which feels like failure and then despair. Instead of actually helping you reach your goals, it just helps you beat up on yourself.

Twyla: So I shouldn’t use the word “should.”

Mom: See, you did it again. “Shouldn’t” counts as a “should” too.

Twyla (irritated): Well what else am I supposed to do!?

Mom (calm): That’s a good question. First, when you catch yourself saying “should,” you can rephrase that sentence to use other words.

Twyla: So in this case, I can say “I’ll try to avoid using the word ‘should’ from now on.”

Mom: Yup, that’s progress. Step two is the challenging bit though; that’s to forgive yourself for using it.

Twyla (confused): Forgive myself?

Mom: Forgive yourself. Say “whoops, I said ‘should’ there, but that’s okay because I’m still learning. I’ll do better next time” and then let it go—no need to beat yourself up over it.

Twyla: I guess I can try to think through that…

Mom: Don’t just think it, say it! Going through the motions helps you train yourself.

Twyla (skeptical): Fine… It’s okay that I said I shouldn’t use the word “should.” It’s okay that I said I should manage my feelings better. I’ll do better next time.

Mom (encouraging): Great! Do you feel better?

Twyla: Not really.

Mom: I still think it’s progress. Speaking as a future you, I can assure you it works.

Twyla: Fine, I’ll keep it up. That said, even though I forgave myself for using the word “should,” I’m not sure how to reword “I should manage my feelings better.”

Mom (probing): Why do you feel that way?

Twyla: Because I’m our child’s parent, and it’s something that parents should be able to do.

Mom: You mean answering our child’s questions?

Twyla: Sometimes it’s answering our child’s questions, but I get that feeling about a lot of things. I get anxious because I feel like I’m not doing something I should be able to do as a parent, or not doing something as well as my child needs. And yes, I used “should” twice there because it accurately describes how I feel.

Mom: And it’s a red flag both times; an indicator that we need to examine that feeling more deeply. Where are those parental expectations coming from?

Twyla (frustrated): I don’t know, society? Parents are supposed to be available to their children all the time. They have to be; kids don’t have anyone else.

Mom: That’s not entirely true though. Even in families where there’s only one parent, that parent has to take breaks to recharge sometimes. It’s simply not realistic to expect anyone to stay “on” the entire day every day.

Twyla (agitated): This is why I got upset last time! I can’t tell my child that and expect them to understand!

Mom (calm): No, you can’t… But you have to do it anyway in order to get a break. And that’s okay sometimes; self-soothing is an important skill for kids to develop.

Twyla: Even setting aside the disappointment that our child will feel at not having my attention for a bit, I still feel like taking breaks like that is a slippery slope. I have that feeling nearly every day—multiple times a day, even. Am I just supposed to be “off” for a couple of hours every day?

Mom: You don’t have to make that decision by yourself, you know. It’d be best to talk that over with your partner and set that expectation together.

Twyla (insistent): You say that like it’s trivial to talk it over with her and not a whole other source of stress!

Mom: What stress might that be?

Twyla: Any parenting work that I don’t do is parenting work that she has to do, and she’s already doing the lion’s share of the parenting work. So how can I ask her for breaks? “Hey, you know how you’re already doing all this work for us? Do you think you could do a little bit of my work too so I can have a breather?”

Mom (gentle): It feels like you’re claiming some sort of ownership over the parenting work you end up doing, as if it was assigned to you and someone’s going to give you a failing grade if you don’t complete it.

Twyla: Isn’t that the case? Isn’t my partner going to tell me I failed if I can’t parent our child properly?

Mom (appalled): What? No! Why would she do that?

Twyla (determined): Maybe she doesn’t say those words, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel it! I feel her disappointment! Her frustration at having to correct me over and over again!

Mom: She constantly tells us that she wants a partner that she can talk to, someone who she can work things out with! I don’t think that disappointment is coming from her.

Twyla (angry): Who else could it be? There isn’t anyone else there, Daphne!

(I let Twyla’s words hang in the air for a moment as I take a breath to calm down.)

Mom: I feel like we’re straying from the point here. Maybe this is a good place to pause.

Twyla (exasperated): Yeah, I guess so. I suppose we accomplished something—we’ve identified that my expectations as a parent are destructive, even if I don’t understand how to reframe them.

Mom: That’s something. That’s progress.

Twyla: Hard fought progress, I’d say.

Mom: I agree with you there. Maybe next time we’ll talk about something else instead of trying to approach this from yet another angle… It may be best to let this lie for a bit.

Twyla (relieved): Agreed. Thanks for your time, anyways.

Mom: Always, Twyla. Thanks for your effort.