When I was much younger and imagined what kind of family I would have, the scene was pretty conventional.
Husband. Wife. Daughter. Son. Kids three-ish years apart.
(Like I’d have had that much control over things.)
I’d freelance write from home until they were older.
(Like I was good enough then to make any money doing it.)
Public school, definitely. Lessons, probably. Sports, maybe.
Vacations? Of course. Maybe to the Oregon coast, where I’d spent summer weeks as a kid. Maybe to Europe, if that was feasible.
I figured I’d get all this underway in my early twenties, and have kids in college before I was 45. My mom had a 21 year-old and a 25 year-old at that age. Even if I waited until I was done a degree of my own, I’d have all the time in the world to be a young mom.
I didn’t. Not even close.
People responded and continue to respond to this in a variety of ways. And because I tend to befriend people who are not exactly backwards about their opinions…
“You know what they say: God laughs at our plans! HA! HA!”
“Wow, June Cleaver! You didn’t aim any higher? I think you dodged a bullet, honestly. I mean, you practically wanted to be Amish.”
“It’s probably because you’re not ready for it. I mean, that stuff takes maturity.”
“I can’t imagine having so many broken dreams. Do you feel like you’ve wasted your life?”
“You might not have even liked that life! Trust me, I have everything you just said you ever wanted, and it’s tough. I mean, amazing and fulfilling and a dream come true, too, but…”
I felt like a failure in my early thirties. I wasn’t married, or close to it — I wasn’t even really dating. I wasn’t a mom, and wouldn’t be, biologically — it would be adopting or nothing, and I wasn’t sure I’d have the money to pull that off, especially alone. And even though I’d had plenty of time to focus on making writing my sole career, I’d done other things that had pushed it further into the distance.
Of course, people had equally strong reactions to me feeling like a failure.
“Are you saying I’m a failure because I’m not a middle class mom of two?”
“Why would you worry you hadn’t followed some template? That’s such a closed-minded way of looking at your life. I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Does the fact I have all those things make you jealous of me? Like, is that awkward?”
“Yeah, I think I’d feel the same as you do. I mean, I can’t imagine my life without my husband and kids. Nothing more worth living for.”
I had a different path, some disappointment to shake off, and a life to lead.
And whatever anyone else thought of it, I was going to have to be fine with it.
So I decided that I would get the most out of the life I actually had.
I learned to really like my own company.
I found things to love about the way my world had shaped itself, and about myself.
And then — not necessarily because I’d “stopped looking” or “learned to love myself” or other self-help greatest hits — I met and married my husband.
I moved to a city I love, and started a home with him.
I met countless new people, and made some dear friends.
I even got so much writing work that I felt like I’d really come into my own, across the board.
I could finally shuffle off all the angst from my own failed expectations and the corresponding frustration, from the lectures and odd responses I’d received about my expectations. I could build on all the work I’d done to be happy with my life and add all the other happy to it.
Then I became a stepmother.
You may not know this, but people have a bee in their bonnet about stepmothers.
And I heard about it.
From stepmothers who’d lived it, from people who’d had stepmothers, from people who’d divorced their way out of being a stepmother, from people who had their exes remarry… you name it.
Bee. In. Bonnet. And I don’t blame them, but GOSH, the comments.
“You’re not a real mom, so don’t overstep. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
“Don’t expect to be loved. You’re essentially in the way.”
“Don’t call them ‘your kids’. They’re not.”
“The ex-wife will hate you, whether the divorce was her idea or not.”
“The kids will be a pain in the ass, but don’t discipline them, or they’ll hate you.”
“Second marriages are WAY more likely to fail, especially those with kids.”
People even sent me articles about how stepmothers had scarred children for life, and broken up families.
Even though I’d already MET the kids. Even though I’d met the ex-wife and we got along swimmingly. Even though I wasn’t about to overstep. Even though I could listen to them talk about video games until they were blue in the face, and knew their personal preferences in soda and candy options. Even if I’d dealt with teenagers — even angry ones! — for years. Even though I wasn’t really easily dissuaded from loving, well… people in general.
I think they were trying to prepare me for, or protect me from hurt, these folks, just as they’d been doing all along… but after a while, it made me second-guess my ability to build a relationship (which is never a good thing when you’re dealing with kids.)
So I ignored them.
And we’re fine.
The harshest thing I’ve ever had to say to one of the boys is, “Wash your hands, they’re covered in fart putty, and the pizza is almost here.”
So why am I telling you all this?
Because I’ve learned a few things in the midst of setting and ditching my own expectations, sharing and being judged for my expectations, steering around other peoples’ expectations and their feelings about those expectations and my expectations, and lastly, how easy it is to accidentally type “expectoration” instead of “expectation” when you’ve typed it a zillion times… which would pretty much change the meaning of everything here.
Here’s my advice to you:
1. It’s okay for people to want different things for their lives than you did, or you do. It doesn’t mean they’re judging your choices, or that you need to have a problem with theirs. Keep on keepin’ on.
2. People don’t always think through the various ways their words can be taken, so assuming they’re trying for mean just isn’t worth it. And if they did intend to wound you, not taking it that way is your best defense.
3. Gather up everything the peanut gallery tells you, use what you can, and scrap the rest. Keep your ears open in case something is useful, but don’t let everything get straight to your heart.
4. Don’t rush to be be the human warning label on life, opinionated friend. You think you’re helping, but it’s important to know when the worst case scenario would help… and when it’s just an unnecessary buzzkill.
… and finally…
5. Wash the fart putty off your hands before the pizza comes.
Feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt, too.
Except for 5.
That’s one for the ages.