Set Realistic Expectations: Lower the Bar and Lift Your Spirits High

We’re in our Mom-centric mode. With Mother’s Day fast approaching, we’re both thinking a lot about our grown children and the wonderful time we invested through the years to raise them. We hoped all would turn out well, but we had no grandiose expectations that we were raising little Einstein geniuses, future Presidents, musical prodigies or super athletes.

Our wish was to turn out decent human beings who might do some good in the world, find their own paths to happiness and independence, want to be with us periodically and remember to call home occasionally, especially on Mother’s Day!

This is a time we also take to think about our mothers—Margaret’s Bea who died three years ago and imparted so much wisdom, elegance and style far beyond her own family’s circle, and Barbara’s Estelle who’s now inching closer to 100—just six months away—and passed down a good sense of values. Their expectations for us were also far from exceptional but to marry happily, have children, work we enjoyed and live in nice suburban homes. 

And maybe it’s because both our generations’ hopes were modest that we were so appalled about the recent college admissions scandal, where the parents’ expectations of what was acceptable behavior to get their offspring into top colleges sent us into disbelief.

How could they think it was ethical to bribe administrators and coaches to get their children into the schools of their choice? And whose choice—theirs or their kids? Did they even ask the kids where they wanted to go? And how outrageous also to have stand-ins take tests for their teenagers or arrange for proctors to correct their wrong answers. 

We know It’s not just illegal but morally reprehensible. Equally important to consider: What did taking these steps tell children about parental expectations of them? The message seemed so clear cut and terrible to us: Do whatever is needed to get to the desired goal. However, we think not. 

Naturally, we all want the best for our children, grandchildren, partners and aging parents. At the same time, we believe we should never cross the line of what’s right. Also, by setting unrealistic expectations we do more that’s bad. We set them up for possible failure. Are we so caught up in our goal to see them—and tangentially us--succeed, that we lose sight of who this is really supposed to benefit? Is this about them…or us? We always try to bear in mind that our children are not narcissistic extensions of ourselves, though clearly some forget this important lesson. 

The best practice for anybody even thinking about helping a little or a lot is to take a deep breath, slow down and set simple goals and expectations that best fit the person, their wishes and the circumstances at hand.

Those goals should be the ones that might result in real success whether it’s a child learning how to play the piano at his own speed and skill level, a middle-aged adult tackling a rigorous exercise regimen for the first time and limited because of certain aches and pains, a partner who never cooks slowly learning how to mix and match flavors and techniques, or an aging parent who falls and needs to build up strength again to live as fully as is realistic. Certainly, that aging parent is never going to run a marathon or play a wicked game of tennis again but walking on their own or even with a cane or walker can be a realistic and rewarding goal.

With kids, it’s a known fact that not all develop at the same time. Some are products of wonder and awe such as an 11-year-old golf prodigy or gourmet chef who wins on the latest version of top tot chef. Others are late bloomers. Some of us are just average and so be it. We should play up and celebrate strengths and accept that not every effort needs to result in a trophy or over-the-top accolade. Learning that we’re not good at everything and how to deal with disappointment is an equally important lesson.

As for the middle-agers who decide to make a healthy lifestyle change by exercising and eating better, perhaps rigorous exercise is not their thing. A brisk walk is more appropriate. And moderation can be just as important. Too extreme can lead to unexpected expectations like eating disorders, excessive weight loss, body injuries, anxiety…the list can go on and on. There’s enough stress in each of our lives, why add more?

We have written extensively about our aging parents, and the heartache of watching them decline. What can we do to make it better or fix it? Reality check: It’s not up to us. We can do the research, consult and bring on board the experts, talk to the aged parent. However, we cannot do the work and should not set unrealistic goals.

This takes us close to home for Barbara who is struggling with her nearly 100-year-old mother’s health. Margaret went through this three years ago with her late mother. Right now, Barbara compares watching her mother lose the zip in her step, her energy to go to classes and temple, watch TV, talk about current events or her life, to an elegant sinking cruise line. “There seems to be no joy anymore,” she told Margaret. A recent fall and a fractured wrist have sped up the decline, which Barbara and her daughters are determined to help repair. They all want her to bounce back and fast—put on her walking shoes and hurry across streets, ignoring lights, as she used to do. Physical and occupational therapy are the required regimen to get her stronger, but her mother resists. “I’m a 99-year-old woman and tired; I shouldn’t even be around,” she says repeatedly. 

They initially thought a few weeks in rehab, and she’ll walk and be home, said Barbara. The home part was correct, but she had little get up and go to do the daily exercises the therapists wanted her to do improve walking and use of her hand. Leaning on a walker with her damaged hand was hard. She needed assistance. Even to sit in a chair to eat or just move her legs so they wouldn’t atrophy in bed was hard. “All I want to do is lie down and be in bed,” she’d say.

Barbara and daughters try to engage her in conversation, but her hearing makes that very difficult. A long-time friend’s visit and talks about the old days on the street where they raised children helps—in the short-term. They try to rev up her spirits with her favorite New York black-and-white cookies, fresh bagels and watermelon. They bring large print books, photos of her great-grandsons and a travel article from the New York Times about her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “It has become a hip place,” Barbara said. Her only question was if a certain department store with lunch room was mentioned. It wasn’t but at least her memory was still intact.

They encourage but try not to be pushy. It was Barbara’s younger daughter, a psychologist, who made the rest of the family more realistic when she explained, “She wasn’t running around her apartment before this; she was mostly lying in bed or sometimes watching TV and reading. Give her short-term goals--seeing her great-grandsons at Passover (done), getting strong enough to return home (soon), being able to use a walker and go to the bathroom on her own (they hope).”

We want so much for our loved ones to be okay, be the best that they can be, but it’s their life. Lowering our expectations whether for parents, ourselves, kids, partners, friends, makes it easier to accept their current status and meet their challenges head-on. As Barbara now says about her mother, “Thinking this way makes us all a lot less sad.”








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