managed expectations

My husband talks about managing expectations when he talks about his job. He can’t let people expect too much: There is a fair amount in corporate finance that one cannot control or remotely foresee. He can’t let people expect too little: That could create a false sense of accomplishment or  unwise complacency and hinder growth. So: You manage expectations.

Yael Chatav Schonbrun, in her essay “A Mother’s Ambitions” in The New York Times, has mastered the management of her own expectations. She was on a fast academic track, but motherhood gave her reason to slow down. Her change of pace didn’t come without a certain amount of regret. But it seems also to have given her a sense of resolve.

I hated knowing that my mentors and colleagues were not terribly impressed with me anymore… the fact is that I am in a field where incredibly smart people live and breathe the work that I spend only a small number of hours doing… I don’t see much from women like me, who back down from, but not out of, work… Our culture, especially the culture around work, is so all or nothing… Could it be possible that greatness can also mean finding ways to increase the amount of happiness in the world, even if that work happens on a tiny stage that can be seen and applauded by few? … I tell myself that it is.

I like that. Once we make a choice among work, raising children, doing one, doing both, off-site, on-site, whatever, we risk one of two things: A sense of righteousness (“My choice is THE choice to be made, I can’t believe any other choice might be made,”) or a sense of resignation (“I have no other choice.”)

Neither thing is wrong or right. I’ve felt both ways at different times. But neither feeling seems particularly positive, or affirming. And I think when we’re righteous, we might expect too much. When we’re resigned, we might expect too little. 

I like being “resolved.” It’s hard to manage my own expectations: Not too big, not too little, but just right. There’s a lot of trial and error.

I got an email the other night from a writer for a business magazine. She likes this daily news and research summary I write for a nonprofit organization. It made me feel good, knowing that somebody out there bothered to write me at 10:30 pm to say that. Feeling good made me feel silly almost immediately–I mean, it’s one email. It’s not like I’ve been published in The New York Times.

Yesterday, I took the kids to get haircuts. A lady sitting next to me for the 45 minutes we were there chatted with my daughter and son. She said to me, out of the blue, after about 15 minutes, “Now, I can say this, because I’m a complete stranger. Your children are adorable and I can tell that they spend a lot of time with you. I can just tell. They reflect you.”

I almost started to cry. All I could say was “I have a husband whose job allows me to work from home. I’m very lucky.”

But after reading “A Mother’s Ambition,” I think I should not have felt silly about feeling good about a complimentary email. I should not have said to the lady at the hair salon anything about my husband or that “I’m very lucky.” 

I should have said, simply, to both women, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

I’m resolved to do that next time. It will happen again, after all. I’m increasing the amount of happiness in the world, on a tiny, mobile stage on which the show never ends.

And it means a great deal.

To me.

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