Friday, January 28, 2011

Confessions of a (Mostly) Reformed Yeller Part 4 of 7

Part 4: We need to relinquish our unrealistic expectations, both of ourselves and others.

I have to tell you, that to this day, my expectations not being met is one of the surest ways for me leave Compassionland and enter into the Kindgom of Damnthem! Nothing can get my ire up as quickly as walking into the house after running errands to a complete disaster, after asking those left behind to straighten up while I was gone. Nothing can make my teeth clench so quickly, as offering detailed instructions about what needs to be done and then having it only half done or done improperly. If you were a fly on the wall in my house for any length of time, you'd be sure to hear me say "Gah! Expectations are the killer!"

Leaving things for other people to do, or allowing them the freedom to make choices requires a voluntary surrender of power. We actively have to release control of a situation, if we are going ask others to do things. As you will recall, habitual yelling at its root stems from a lack of a sense of control and a feeling of disempowerment. Granting freedom to others is a monumental challenge for Yellers. We do NOT want to be disappointed.

For the first four of our children, the first seven years of motherhood for me, I relinquished almost no parenting control of the babycare to my husband. At the time I really believed that I was just better at it and more hormonally and biologically adapted to caring for our small children and babies. While on the one hand that is true, it is also true that what was really going on was me not wanting to feel powerless when the baby was fussing or someone was having a meltdown. I would perpetually swoop in to "save" my husband and the baby. Voila! Control restored.

What I didn't realise was that I was undermining myself as well as my husband to actually be the most effective parents we could be. Only with our fifth child did I surrender my absolute rule and allow my husband to find his own way, with his own techniques and skills to comfort and nurture the baby. I decided that as long as the baby wasn't crying alone, but in someone's loving arms where they were nurtured and safe that I would not offer to help unless I was asked. I had no idea what a revolution that would cause in terms of the entirety of my approach to parenthood.

In my first post I wrote that I believe most Yellers to be people who take their responsibility as parents very seriously. They feel very deeply the desire to raise their children "right". Wherever they fall on the parenting spectrum, I think Yellers tend to be people who want to do all of the things prescribed by that particular style or styles of parenting to a T. I think categorically they have high, often inflexible, expectations of themselves and of their children.

One inadvertent side effect of these high expectations is an ever present need to actively control situations and our children. Another is that people and events seem to persistently fall short of our expectations. Yellers tend to have pretty firm ideas about what their children "ought" to be doing, and how their life "ought" to be. You might hear them say things like "My children ought to just listen to me." Or "My baby ought to be able to fall asleep on their own by now." Or my own seemingly perpetual mantra,"My children ought to be able to pick up after themselves."

One of they keys, I firmly believe, to overcoming habitual yelling is to build on the compassion and self compassion we've learned and practiced, and begin developing realistic expectations. When we view others and ourselves as works in progress who are all learning and growing, we can move to a place where we can alter what we once would have viewed as "failure", with the perception of it as "part of the learning process."

I think one of the very greatest uses of time and internet you can employ as a parent is seeking out and firmly understanding what age, or better yet, developmentally appropriate behaviour is reasonable to expect from our children. For example, six week old babies generally do not have the basic neural ability to sleep through the night. While we might be exhausted and wish they'd sleep, most babies that age simply do not have the capacity for that behaviour. It would be setting up falsely high expectations to try to set out on a program at that age and developmental phase to try to achieve that end. Another example might be a toddler grasping, reaching and pulling out things on tables and shelves. At that stage of development they are hard wired to exercise their new skills and to explore their environment. If we leave things in reach which we do not want broken or touched, we are setting up unrealistically high expectations which are doomed to failure.

On the whole as a culture, I think we have very unrealistic expectations in regards to the behaviour and ability of children. We want our babies to sleep longer than they're really able to, toddlers to be able to control impulses better than they're really able to, pre-school aged children to begin academic undertakings they're not really ready for, kindergarten aged kids to be able to sit still for much of the day, school aged kids to relinquish playing long before they're ready, tweeners to manage the massive hormonal shifts without big emotions rising to the surface, teenagers to balance vast amounts of responsibility, and so on.

Besides allowing my husband to learn to parent our young children his own way, there were two other major breakthroughs for me which helped me begin to cull my expectations to more reasonable dimensions. Both experiences were born from having a very colicky third baby. She would literally cry for three hours every.single.night. For months. At the time, my husband was working mostly nights and was away for bedtime. I somehow had to manage bedtime for the older two kids and deal with the cry-o-matic infant. After having tried everything I could to make that little girl stop crying I got to the point where I realised that it is NOT my job as a parent to make sure my children never cry, but rather just to be with them as they cry, offering a place of safety and unconditional love. I am just an emotional midwife, so to speak, who is there as someone to help them facilitate working through, as well as bearing witness to their big emotions. This understanding has extended now far beyond babyhood for me, into the entire emotional lives of my children. It is not my job to make sure they are never hurt, never cry, never experience disappointment, never struggle; but it is my job to be with them as they process through all of these things. I don't need to control what they feel and how they feel it, I just need to control how I respond to it. The second massive shift during that colic time was an understanding that I was just going to have to surrender my expectations of what I thought bedtime ought to entail. I gave up the nightly bath for the kids. Accepted that most nights I would not be able to read them a story. Acquiesced that every night would not have lullabies and long, gradual transitions to dreamland.

Surrendering those expectations of what I thought I needed to do to be a good mother, helped me deal with the situation as it truly was and get creative about working things out. Surrendering those expectations immediately decreased the stress level and my sense of being in a situation completely out of my control. If I could realistically look at what I was capable of, I could find ways which would still meet the basic need of creating a gentle transition to sleep for my children. So I would just put socks on dirty little feet for bed if a bath wasn't in the cards before colic time set in, sing one little lullabye, and learned that books and stories on tape were a wonderful thing! There was suddenly very little left to yell about.

The most crucial component of what I was doing, was changing my expectations about what I was supposed to do. It was hard, because it felt like capitulation and failure. Being raised in a household where perfection was expected, relinquishing my own perfectionism about myself, my children, my parenting and out life was massively conflicting for me. I didn't understand then that it was healthy resilience. Over the next few babies and the next few years I came to understand that my expectations for what I could successfully manage needed to be always flexible, adjusting them for the situation at hand. I am sick and tired? Okay, this week we're gonna watch a lot of TV. I am really pregnant or have a new baby? Okay, the house is gonna be kind of a disaster for awhile. I have lots of meetings this week? Okay, we're gonna have quick, but not so healthy food for a few days.

There was a shift in my thinking from always parenting for twenty years from now (If I let this behaviour stand, she's going to be an irresponsible, ungrateful adult!), to just doing the imperfect best I could in the present. My firm belief and hope is that my children will walk into adulthood taking the entirety of their experience, and that each and every moment of their childhood taken individually will matter very little. I am sure there will be a handful of individual moments which stand out, but the overall general impression of their upbringing I think will be far more important in terms of the adults they become. So if we need to have popcorn and ice cream and fruit snacks for lunch because I haven't made it to the grocery store yet, that in no way means that my children are going to enter into adulthood obese and with a messed up relationship with food.

We have their entire childhoods to teach and impart values and wisdom. Just because my two year old can't sit on his bottom for meals, doesn't mean he is going to be jumping up and down when he is out on his first date a decade and a half from now. Just because my three year old will not consistently use the potty does not mean she'll be wearing diapers in college. Just because my baby doesn't sleep very well, doesn't mean that I'll never get sleep ever again. We have to take the longer view, and release that immediacy of needing to control our environment and behaviour if we are going to move away from habitual yelling.

Two last thoughts about expectations. First, I want to be clear that I think children generally live up to the expectations we have for them. I still believe that I'd rather set my beliefs about them too high, rather than too low. However, I think that emphasizes the need to ensure that our expectations are developmentally and situationally appropriate. I also think that it means that I have to remain ever flexible in my expectations, being open to setting them higher or lower as the present demands.

Finally I want to address our expectations in regards to the transition from Yeller into a reformed Yeller. I sincerely hope that you will walk away from reading all of this and that things will be immediately and permanently better for in terms of yelling at your children. However, I believe most change is more of an ever-expanding spiral, rather than a linear path. There will be times and days where will do just awesome. But there will also be times and days where we completely fail. If we can keep trying to practice self-compassion and forgiveness and asking forgiveness throughout this process, those bad days will space further and further apart, and our yelling outbursts become more and more infrequent. Give yourself time to enact change in your life. Set realisitc expectations! Your entire lifetime up to this point has yielded to this behaviour, it's probably going to take you some time to consistently replace yelling with other ways of communicating.


  1. i had a nice long comment, but computer not working well. ugh!

  2. trying again:
    i agree about adjusting on.
    i tend to yell too, and have been convicted of this lately. a friend and i were just talking today about how we see our own selves in the way our oldest child "yells" at the younger ones. I see myself, and cringe. nothing like that to convict you! i have enjoyed your posts, and also want to add that my faith in Christ is a HUGE help. you talk about compassion and forgiveness, and what better model than Christ. when i struggle, doubt, fail again and again, i know that his grace is sufficient. that does not mean i do nothing...taming the tongue is a discipline that takes real work, but i know His word, prayer, and fellowship with others are means of help.

  3. wow. lots for me to identify with. i was like, "yep, i do that. oh wait, i do that, too!" i'm working on it -- your words give great suggestions. and shannon, your writing is still so amazing. thanks for sharing your experiences.

  4. Hi, this is amazing and I needed to read your post. Thank you!!
    Maggie, mommy to Sage, 5 years and Azalea, 6 mo.

  5. Shannon, I hope that your life slows down enough that you can finish this series. I am a Yeller who hopes to reform. I need all the help I can get!