When Great Expectations Don’t Happen

Delayed Postpartum Depression: Expectations

We all create expectations in our minds about life events and big transitions.  Doing so is adaptive in that it can make the future we are anticipating feel more manageable. Sometimes expectations can reassure us and give us courage to face what’s ahead.  Yet, expectations are also made up of myth and fantasy, and there is no better example of this than in parenting.  Rarely do our expectations and images of our future parenting-self match reality.  From birthing and breastfeeding fantasies, to sleeping and baby soothing practices, parents are routinely faced with challenges they did not envision beforehand.  While expectations can be useful to prepare for the future, they can undermine our sense of self when outside circumstances or unforeseen events interrupt the plan.  This can threaten our sense of confidence and security as a parent if we do not recognize that a mental collision is taking place and we are at the center of it.

In April of 2016, I took part in a conversation about this topic with New Mommy Media’s Newbies podcast host, Kristen Stratton and her two guests.  We discussed expectations, why we create them, why they matter, and how to work with them.  After you listen, you might decide you want to do the following activity to explore your expectations for yourself.  Since this is a creative activity this may be more fun to do with your partner or a friend.  Talk about what you created after your activity is done.  And don’t forget to have some Kleenex on hand.

Exercise: Expectations and Reality

Take a clean piece of paper and some colored pencils or pens.  Sit down and take a moment to bring your mind back to that time when you were planning to get pregnant or were newly pregnant.  Bring to mind any images or memories you have of what you were expecting when you became a parent.  Explore your memories of what you envisioned before the experience was clouded with dirty diapers, breast bumps, or sleep schedules.  After several minutes of reflecting back and remembering your pre-parent self, turn to your paper and write down what you remember.  Be free and creative here, giving yourself permission to be messy and imperfect.  Use sketch drawings, stick figures, symbols, words, clouds of color that are symbolic to you or whatever feels right for you to express yourself.  Whatever you choose, put it down on paper. Spend several minutes doing this. When you think you are done, spend a few more minutes in this relaxed place and see what else arises that did not come up the first time.

Next, on the same piece of paper or a different piece, take a moment to connect with your present self.  Connect with your inner story of what parenting involves, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Now do the same practice you did in the first part, sketching, writing or coloring your representation of parenting.  Try not to be afraid and trust that as you capture your life as a parent now, even the hard parts, that will give way to the beautiful parts too.  That by acknowledging the difficult or the imperfect, you make space for the richness and the strength that arises in parenting.  Think of it as your kitchen table.  When you clear away the clutter and the mess, what you eventually arrive at is a tidier space that feels good once you get to it.

Now, pull back and look at the what you have created.  What did you put on paper?  What does it reveal to you?  If the process did not lead you to recognize your strengths and what you did/do to work with the challenges, then explore that now.  Here are some things you might pay attention to to reveal your strengths and resources:

  • What tools and resources have you used to get through the difficult parts?
  • Did you call on people or did caring friends or family show up at times?
  • Did you have a particularly good nurse, pediatrician or mom group that has been helpful?
  • What do you do as a partner or spouse that has led to support or growth in the relationship?
  • Can you identify a few of your successes that you are proud of?

The goal of this exercise is to connect with your inner process of what you hoped for, what actually happened, and who you are now as a result.  This process can also reveal to us how strong or resilient we actually are, by discovering our successes. If you notice that you can’t seem to arrive at any ‘wins’ and your thoughts remain mired in the difficulties or a sense of failure, this may be a sign that you are struggling with something more serious.  In that case, it would be worth considering talking to a safe friend or family member or to a professional.  You can call my office for a brief consultation to see if you would benefit from therapy or support.  There is no obligation.  It is solely there to help you determine what you need to be the healthiest person (and parent) you can be.

Just as you couldn’t anticipate how it would actually feel to soothe a baby through a difficult night, you also couldn’t have known just what it would feel like to be so deeply moved to protect and love someone either.  You couldn’t have anticipated the welling up in your heart as you watched your baby smile for the first time or the precious feelings as you watched him sleep, only to be followed by the humorous exhale of ‘thank goodness for sleep!’ that all parents feel when they finally have a moment of quiet.  So maybe parenting isn’t what you expected.  But that truth applies to both the hard parts and the BReautiful (credit to Glennon of Momastery) parts.  I hope you enjoy this creative reflective process and that you’ll share your journey with someone you trust to listen and appreciate your full story.