The Disappointment Antidote

MC Escher

It’s easy to be disappointed as a mother.

We spend most of our “free” time doing things for our children, or making sure other people — our spouse or partner, nanny or daycare provider — do those things. While some of these tasks are rewarding, most of them aren’t very gratifying. We don’t often hear from our families that we did a good job cleaning the house, doing the laundry, or juggling making dinner with driving carpools.

In my first year as a new mother seventeen years ago, I was often disappointed.

As we planned for the baby, I was disappointed that I didn’t have my own mother to advise me on what to expect or what we’d need (she died when I was 16). I was disappointed that my husband was so happy with our infant son that he didn’t notice that I was suffering from terrible postpartum depression. I was disappointed that I had to share a major portion of my first Mother’s Day with my mother-in-law and with my husband, whose birthday fell a few days later. On top of it all, I was disappointed in myself, for being disappointed, and for not being able to ask for what I wanted and needed. I frequently felt frustrated or angry, and sometimes even bitter.

This disappointment was exacerbated by a number of things, but primarily by the unstated expectations that my husband and I had for each other. I used to judge my husband’s “performance” by the fantasies I had in my head about what would be the perfect night out, the perfect Christmas gift, or the perfect way for him to help with the baby when he came home from work. In the same way, he used to judge how I cleaned up after dinner or did lawn work by his fantasy expectations. We were frequently disappointed.

Our mutual disappointment was one factor that led us to a marriage therapist when our children were 3, 5 and 7 years old. The therapist explained that other people in our lives can’t always – or ever – read our minds. Of course I knew this in general, but I honestly thought that my husband should be able to read my mind.

She taught us that it can be satisfying to get what we want after asking for it. If I was making a nice dinner and planning to have a glass of wine on the porch beforehand, I should call my husband at work and let him in on the plan — otherwise, I shouldn’t be surprised when he came home late without calling, starving and ready to scarf down dinner as he walked in the door. After a few visits with this marriage therapist, we were able to implement her advice and make some small changes in how we communicated. These small changes helped avert big disappointments in one another.

Five years later, we met with another marriage therapist. I was disappointed and furious again, this time that my husband had started teaching a hockey clinic on Sunday mornings that conflicted with the Mass where I volunteered. Our kids weren’t in the clinic, and we had agreed years earlier that it was important to go to Mass together.

In therapy, my husband shared that he loved teaching the clinic, that he felt good at it and found it very fulfilling. I had never known that; I assumed he was coaching because they couldn’t find anyone else to do it, but I never asked him. Later that week, I emailed our Church’s Pastor to explain that I didn’t want to volunteer at that particular Mass anymore because I wanted to be able to go to church with my family. Unbeknownst to me, my husband was emailing other parents to find someone else who could coach the clinic. Our Gift of the Magi moment.

There are two parts to being disappointed: your expectations and the other person’s actions. By adjusting my expectations – and recognizing my part in creating unspoken, unfair or unrealistic ones – I have been able to avoid feelings of disappointment. And because my expectations are more realistic, I feel more satisfied in my relationships and more appreciative of my friends and family for who they are, rather than being disappointed in what they do (or don’t do).

Gratitude is also wonderful antidote to disappointment. I’m much less likely to focus on or even notice the small disappointments of life when I’m alert to small efforts, like my teenagers emptying the dishwasher without being asked — or begged or threatened — or when my husband agrees to drive the last carpool of the night so I can get to bed early. Gratitude from others isn’t always easy to spot. After a lot of work (and reading about things like the five love languages) I’ve learned to recognize appreciation in various forms. Instead of expecting an effusive “thank you!” for doing the laundry, I’m happy for my older son’s, “Mom, this dinner is actually pretty good.”

I’ve also relaxed my expectations for myself. Some years into my parenting adventure, I heard valuable advice: as a parent, you just have to be good enough. As a result, in addition to feeling less disappointed in others, I’m also slower to feel disappointed in myself. I’ve learned to feel good enough about myself to occasionally acknowledge my own good mothering, to offer myself encouragement, and to make sure I’m taking care of myself.

I’m now reluctant to beat myself up for not being a perfect mother, for not always putting my children first, for not giving them enough or not doing enough. They might feel disappointed, but I’ve found that when I don’t meet my expectations of being a “great” mother, my kids learn important life lessons. That they’re not the center of the universe. That they can do most things for themselves. That people are going to disappoint them, and how to deal with that disappointment. Maybe by expressing their expectations, maybe by changing them, or maybe by being grateful.


Melissa lives in Pelham, New York. 

Image: MC Escher

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  1. Meredith Watts

    This post really hit home for me! When I was in the first years of my marriage, I had tremendously high expectations for my husband. I definitely expected him to read my mind, never be late, and be thinking about our relationship as much as I did.

    Ha, how amazing as I look back that I harbored such unrealistic expectations! Men do not read minds, and they rarely think about “the relationship” (we’re married right? Isn’t that enough?) Once when my husband had been silent for awhile, I asked him, “What are you thinking about?” expecting it to be profound or at least interesting. He said, “how much I enjoyed last night’s dinner.”

    We’ve been married almost 44 years, and managing expectations is one of the best tactics I learned along the way, just like Melissa.

  2. Jennifer Dunbar

    Melissa, I’m NEVER disappointed by your insightfulness and your willingness to look to be part of the solution instead of the problem.

  3. Steve Togasaki

    After almost 40 years of marriage, in retrospect we’ve found that issues of expectations, disappointment, gratitude and clear communication can happen. To it is part of human nature and being married. After 40 years we still surprise each other with ideas, answers and requests that are unexpected and new. We know each other well, often have the same attitudes and opinions, yet somehow there’s alwakys something new and fresh. Very nice article.

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