Right now, we have our dog, Stella in obedience school. Why? Well because we aren’t crazy enough and adding 4+ hours in the truck each week with a shaking dog that needs to sit on the driver’s lap and pant seemed like the reasonable choice. Also, I need at least being in my charge who sits when I say sit. Just one.
After a recent lesson, I was driving back thinking about the session while Stella was having a low-grade panic attack on my lap. For some reason, I love training this dog. I mean, it’s not a mystery I guess: Stalla listens to me (see above). The teacher commented on how well training her is going and how smart Thai street dogs are. My immediate thought was, I wonder how good Stella would listen if I actually gave 100% to training her.
Every single morning around 6am noises start. These noises come in a variety of ear-delights, ranging from generic wailing to heads slamming on concrete walls to laughing like idiots to someone yelling about someone else peeing in the shower to the doors of wardrobes being slammed so hard they fall off the hinges. Lest this imagery (or soundery…?) doesn’t adequately paint the picture, let me clear: no, we have no control and yes, they are wild animals.
The level of morning f-ery ebbs and flows. Sometimes they’re cherubs who stay in their room until their clock turns green and other times I’m 80% sure the neighbors are in the process of calling Thai police on us for abuse and/or neglect. When we’re in transition, which seems to be roughly all the time, this morning and evening contest to see who gets mom or dad to scream first is really at its finest.
So that’s how the day starts.
Then they play while we make coffee or breakfast. And by play I mean fight over each toy until someone is wailing and the other one is wailing in response.
Then we eat. And by eat I mean say the following sentences every ten (no exaggeration) seconds: use your fork, chew your food, only one bite at a time, use your spoon, stop dipping your hand into your cup, don’t dump your water on your plate, don’t steal your brother’s food, don’t steal your sister’s food, NOPE (yes, that’s a full sentence), eat what you have, dip is not soup, pick up the food from the chair and table, stop using your hands.
Then we go somewhere and one parent works. And by go somewhere I mean bribe, threaten and drag people to the truck then man-handle their dense bodies into their chairs. I buckle Haven in, trying to keep my voice low because, you know, we’re outside, and say ten or so times, buckle.your.arms.please. While we drive I am met with roughly fourteen hundred words a minute and so many questions. I get to the point where I am unsure how in the actual hell Shepherd could possibly have any more questions about what is currently happening. This maddening racket drives me to turn on brain-rot music just so, my God, they will shut up. Then Baby Shark is stuck in my head for the next 15 hours.
Then we play. This play is similar to above play, only now we’re in public or with other children so there are more people to harass and lots more onlookers. It’s really fun.
Then we eat. See above.
Then they nap. Now, between napping in separate rooms and my insane negotiation skills (threats + bribes + man-handling again), nap time is pretty easy.
During nap time, Stephen and I either do work separately or work on something together: money stuff, packing stuff, paperwork, Stella school, grocery shopping, reading, writing, appointments- all the things that make our lives work.
And then the noises start and the whole cycle repeats itself for four more hours until bedtime.
This rough picture of our day matters because it’s really easy for me to forget that we had three kids in three years, moved to Thailand twice, lived in 14 places in four years and had five surgeries and and and. I forget that and just look at the above and think, Shit, man, we’re just barely making it to bedtime.
My default, always, is to shame myself for not doing enough. And, what’s more, I actually then feel bad about myself and how I perceive I’m actually doing. I carry that feeling around like a cloud; most of the time, unknowingly.
When I got pregnant with Valor and we were living with friends fundraising and trying to get to Thailand, people almost always asked if Valor was on purpose. Like, we had a four-month-old, why on earth would we want another one? (VALID.) And then add the stress of fundraising and surgeries and having this baby in another country? That could not have been on purpose.
But he was. Valor was very, very much on purpose. We knew it would be hard, but things were already hard and our expectations of having him and what life would be like with two under two weren’t super romantic. So, we looked at cost-benefit and went for it.
When people ask us how we do it, whether it’s having the kids or having the kids and moving, I never knew what to say until recently. Recently it has dawned on me that when it comes to my day to day life and doing things with kids, I have (mostly) super realistic expectations.
I don’t get really frustrated when I don’t have time to myself. I expect to be tired, so I’m not really taken aback when I never ever want to get out of bed. I don’t think I need to wear makeup every day or do my hair, so I’m not stressed out when I look the way I look 75% of the time. We know that we can’t do all the things we want to do (go places, try new things, have certain experiences) because the kids are so little, so we do what we can and make it fun. I know that eating out is essentially fighting a damn war, so I don’t get overwhelmed at the thought of it or mad at the kids because, hey, I knew it would be like this. I’m honest about how hard it is, about Valor only being alive currently because his face is nice, because it keeps me grounded- there’s no pretending here.
Hear me: I want all those things and need them to stay not-killing, but I don’t expect them. When I don’t expect something, I’m not disappointed or let down when I don’t get it or it doesn’t go the way I wanted. And yes, there are times when I loose my shit at dinner out because OH MY GOD SIT DOWN AND STOP THROWING FORKS ON THE FLOOR AND DUMPING WATER ON THE TABLE and I’m beyond excited for the day when my top knot is for, oh I don’t know, working out or something. I have literal dreams of taking a vacation with children who wipe their own butts and can pour their own cereal so I can sleep in without fear that someone is crumbling up a deodorant stick and shoving into someone else’s mouth (experience). (What I am not saying here is that I don’t deserve time or sleep or a shower. And I do expect those things when Stephen and I work together and make those things happen for each other. I do expect him to help make all that happen for me, not my life circumstances to provide the space for them.)
However, I know those things aren’t going to happen for a while, so I don’t expect them.
We have drastically changed our expectations for what our life is supposed to look like or what we can get done or what we’ll look like, and that has given us so much more freedom in this season to embrace the chaos, the insanity, the lack of control without railing against it and feeling defeated every single day.
We wanted to move to Thailand. We wanted to have kids close together. We wanted to take a 14 hour road trip with our friends and four kids under four years old. We wanted all those things so we changed the expectations that were unspoken and assumed to allow us to have them. And, because we’re realistic, we also have the freedom to say: nope, that’s going to suck and be awful, so we’re skipping it.
When I see my friends feeling discouraged or, worse, ashamed of themselves and their productivity, the first thing I say is change what you’re expecting of yourself. There is no should, there is no have-to, there is only us- we are the committee. We get to say what we will or will not do, and we get to say what is enough. For more on that idea and more freedom, listen to this.
I think so much of the weight we carry around ‘not being able’ to do certain things comes from either our own expectations of what that thing will look like or the perceived expectations from society we hold as a standard to our own reality- and it never matches up.
And listen, I love my kids more than anything. I love being a mom. I like the mom I am. I enjoy spending time with my kids. I’m a happy person, and I’m happy with my season. And, at the exact same time, I wish everyone would back the hell up and stop talking to me. Loving being a mom and contentment with our families and feeling frustrated/lonely/annoyed/tired/spent/ragey are not mutually exclusive. When we live like they are, we never measure up.
While I’ve been really good at changing my expectations for life in regard to outcomes and sleep and personal space and efficiency, there are so many areas where my shame-tapes born out of wrong expectations of myself run rampant. Because for me, not only is there this belief that I should be doing more, but that I could be doing more.
Could I train Stella more? Technically, yes. Could I write more? Sure. Could I meal plan better? Could I meditate daily? Could I breathe deep and count to three instead of yelling at my kids? Could I do more of the little things Stephen likes to show him how much I appreciate and love him instead of just telling him?
See, it’s hard to change a belief (I should be doing more) when there is factual evidence (I could be doing more) to support that it’s true.
But, that is where my own agency comes in. I get to say that no, I cannot do more than train Stella once every other day and take her to class two days a week. In fact, that’s more than enough! It may be too much. I get to say that no, I cannot breathe deep every single time my patience runs out because in the span of breathing deep, someone is going to fall off a step and crack their baby skull open, and, I’m also only human and screaming bothers me. I get to decide that no, I cannot stuff the diapers and grind the coffee ahead of time and not keep moving his stuff around, because I am already doing my very best to take care of four people, one dog and myself, and diapers be damned.
There is so much freedom in intentionally deciding what we expect from ourselves and our lives, and that freedom is from shame. The shame that hangs heavy over our sagging heads and keeps us spinning in the same useless and sad circles until we eventually give up and throw up our hands in exhaustion.
The shame that results in a visceral negative feeling toward ourselves- a feeling that hangs and sits and letches into every other thought. A feeling that heavily skews our perceptions of ourselves and changes how we talk to and treat ourselves.
That day in the truck, as I caught myself sending some low-grade shame my own way for not doing more with Stella, I said, out loud, I am doing enough for Stella, and I am giving her 100% of what I have to give her. And every time that thought cropped back up, I said that to myself, over and over and over again.
What I expect of myself in more and more areas is starting to accurately reflect a belief that I am doing enough. And what ends up happening, ironically, as I walk in freedom, I do more- I experience more, I have more fun and I love myself more.
When you catch yourself going down that familiar road of speaking shame that sounds a lot like regret, frustration and disappointment with yourself, poke at it. Challenge it. See where it comes from and make the deliberate choice to change what you’re holding yourself to or against. If you’re like me, you don’t even really know what you’re holding yourself to until you ask those questions. When that familiar cloud settles over your head and heart after you’ve made the kids’ lunches, examine it. Maybe you’re expecting yourself to send a Whole30 peanut-fee meal because of so and so’s Instagram. Who knows? I bet you do if you ask yourself.
What I do know is that our brain space is precious. We are precious, and we are worth feeling warmly toward ourselves. Dare I say we are even worth pride? How much lighter would we walk, would we live, without carrying all this around? I think that would change everything.
What are tapes you’re trying to change around expectations and beliefs? What are the tapes you have changed? How did you change them?