If your social media feed looks anything like mine these days, there is no shortage of smiling, happy, seemingly perfect families living their best life on their summer vacation.
They’re dressed in coordinated outfits on some exotic beach with the sun setting behind them. They’re sailing on a yacht. They’re posing in front of the Eiffel Tower while gallivanting through Europe.
Despite having just returned from our own family vacation, not a single picture exists to prove that the four of us spent three whole days together.
That’s because at the exact moment we arrived at our rented house in the mountains, both of our children headed straight for their respective bedrooms and promptly shut their doors. And aside from mostly silent dinners devoured in less than five minutes and an excursion to the local ice cream shop (the only activity we managed to interest them in) we barely saw our offspring.
I wasn’t concerned. If they needed us, I figured they would text us from the cell phones that always appear surgically attached to their hands.
This behavior wasn’t unexpected. Nor was it the result of an argument or disagreement. It’s just the way our particular family functions. (Or, probably more accurately, doesn’t function. Whatever.)
Our kids, you see, are 17-year-old twins. One of each — boy, girl. (That means not identical. You’d be shocked at how often we got that question when they were infants.) Despite sharing a womb for almost nine months (or maybe because of it) they simply do not get along. Never did. They don’t have a special encrypted twin language or a sixth sense about the other’s well-being. And although my husband and I would like to believe everyone who says they’ll be closer when they’re older, we strongly have our doubts. In fact, we fully anticipate that when they go their separate ways for college, they may never speak to each other again.
Yes, this makes us profoundly sad. No, this isn’t the vision we had for our family. Yes, we wish things were different. Yes, we’ve all had (and continue to get) plenty of therapy. At this point, it is what it is. I can either be upset, angry and frustrated…or I can learn to adjust my expectations.
I’ve chosen the latter.
Expectations are tricky things. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else has the perfect family, that they know some parenting secret you weren’t told. Nothing exacerbates this feeling more than social media and our inherent tendencies to show only the best parts of our lives. Combine this with times of heightened emotions such as holidays and vacations — when we’re conditioned to feel like every moment must be blissful and trouble-free — and our expectations go into overdrive.
And when our reality doesn’t match those expectations? We feel like we’re doing something wrong, that we’re screwing up and that everyone else must have their shit together.
Learning to manage my expectations hasn’t been an easy process or something that’s happened overnight. It’s taken years. And if I’m being honest, it’s something I continue to struggle with. I could finish this post and see a friend’s photos on Facebook and fall into the trap of thinking, “if my life was like theirs, things would be so much easier.” But that’s a knee-jerk response because intellectually we all know that pictures don’t often tell the true story. We don’t know the realities of others’ lives; we only know the parts they choose to let us see. For better or worse, those parts are often carefully cultivated and filtered in some way or another.
It sounds simplistic but one way I’ve been able to manage my expectations is by not having them in the first place. During this vacation, for example, the owners of the house generously gave us guest passes to a private beach in their development. We were only there for two full days and it rained most of the first day. On the second, The Husband and I wanted to check out the beach. When I suggested this to the kids, our son immediately declined, opting to stay back at the house. A gorgeous summer’s day and he’s spending it indoors? That’s his choice.
What would have happened if I’d insisted he come along? Most likely he would have been miserable, which would have impacted our mood. There probably would have been an argument between him and his sister (who chose to go) or maybe between him and us, and we all would have been stressed out. Instead, everyone got to do what he or she wanted.
For me, the key is learning to be in tune with our reality and dismissing my internal voice that insists “but this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” It’s more important to me to keep the peace and to savor the slivers of quality time I do get: the quiet walk down to the lake with my daughter, the brief conversation on the porch with my son about colleges, the time by the fire pit with my husband. Those are more important to me than any photos on Facebook.
Adjusting your expectations allows you to experience those real moments and appreciating them for what they are. In doing so, you’re no longer living based on others’ false criteria or creating an image just to please others. You’re living for yourself and according to your own truth. And we shouldn’t expect anything less.
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