When my husband sold his business and became a stay-at-home dad, a friend cautioned me, “You need to give him a job description. He needs to know what you expect.”
She knew that we’d tried this him-staying-home thing twice before. The first time he’d quit a job he’d hated and I suggested he work for me, instead. That didn’t go so well. The second time he lost a job he loved and I, again, suggested he work for me. Again, it didn’t go so well.
So my friend probably had a point. Still, the idea of a job description for “dad” “husband” and “person who manages the house” seemed cold, clinical, and authoritarian to me. Our communication skills have improved so much over the years. We could chat about what we both expected over time, couldn’t we?
I thought back to that decision about a week ago, on the day that Mark left me with a completely bare refrigerator and nearly empty kitchen cabinets. The house was a mess, and the laundry needed to be done, too. Oh, and the dog was whining for a walk that she never got.
Where was the man? I’d like to say that my first thought was Home Depot, where he was getting materials for a home improvement project, but I knew better. He was probably either riding his bicycle, fixing his bicycle, talking to a friend about bicycles, or watching a TV program about bicycles.
I was swamped with work, and I didn’t have time to drive somewhere for food. At the same time, my hunger was distracting. I tried to make due with the few foods we still had on hand. There was peanut butter on apple for breakfast, peanut butter on bread for a snack, and peanut butter on bread again for lunch. By the end of lunch, I was out of bread. And apples. And pretty much everything except for a jar of peanut butter.
I figured, by dinner, I’d be looking at eating a jar of peanut butter by the spoonful, and I was NOT. HAPPY. ABOUT. THAT.
(Yes, I’m aware that this is a first world problem. There are places in this world where families of four eat a jar of peanut butter for a whole week and consider it a rare treat and not a problem at all.)
So I called the husband and asked him when he might be thinking about going to the grocery store. He got all flustered with me and gave me the “oh” “ah” “um” “well” business. I later learned that he was with a friend all morning setting up a bike course. (See?)
By the time he came home, I was so hungry I thought I might pass out. I’d had the least productive work day ever (with the exception of the work day I wrote about here), and that was truly a shame because I had a ton of work to do.
Somehow, amazingly, my mood was pretty chipper. Meditation is magical that way.
So I walked over to the husband, put a hand on his back, made kind, but firm eye contact and said calmly, “I’m okay with you riding your bike and doing bike things, but only after you get your home duties done. If you had a full time job, you wouldn’t be able to set up a cross course instead of meeting a work deadline. Rank your home chores on the same level.”
He said he understood and he’s been meeting expectation ever since.
But, of course, ever since has only been about 10 days.
So what did this teach me? And what can it teach you? You might think that this taught me an important lesson about stating my expectations firmly and out loud. True, there’s that. But mostly it taught me this: expectations are a seed of suffering. That’s because, invariably, at some point, we or someone else will fail to meet them.
Case in point, when I began my work day on a different day last week, I had some expectations for myself: 1) Write a post about the stages of marriage for Babble.com 2) answer editing questions for a huge work project 3) promote a meditation course that I’ve organized in Bethlehem 4) write a post here at PHEA 5) go to the bank 6) write a newsletter for my volunteer job as Education Coordinator at a meditation center.
Actually there were more than 10 things on the to-do list. I’m not going to bore you by listing them all. The point is this: around 2 pm I realized that I was going to have a below average day. There I was, checking Facebook and Twitter, inventing excuses to walk into the kitchen, and generally getting nothing of any significance done. It was clear to me that my brain was too tired to tackle the newsletter. I also decided that it was raining too hard for me to go to the bank. As for the rest of the to-do list? I could either drink a pot of coffee or I could just lower my expectations.
I went with the latter.
Below average days happen. They happen to us, and they happen to others, too. Sometimes we think we can achieve more than our bodies or brains allow. Other times we goof off. We get sick. We get lazy. We get uninspired. We get spring fever. We fall victim to time sucks. We miscalculate how long something will take.
And on and on and on.
Maybe you can tell me about a below expectation day you might be having yourself. I’m guessing that most of us fail to meet our own expectations over and over again, more often than we can count. Usually we just forgive ourselves and move on, saying something like, “Well, you can’t wake up and send a man to the moon every day of the week, you know?” or “Well, you can’t find a cure for ebola every day” or “You can’t pen a best selling book every day of the week” and so on.
Sometimes it’s an accomplishment just to get out of bed and brew a cup of tea.
But when our significant others fail to meet expectations, suddenly it’s very different, isn’t it? Instead of thinking, “Well, no one can wake up and send a man to the moon every day,” we think things like “Why is he like that?” and “What’s wrong with him?” That leads us to “How could I marry someone like that?” and “I can’t put up with this anymore.” We assume they did or didn’t do something to spite us or because they don’t care about us or because they don’t prioritize us.
And while many of those things might be true, in reality what’s mostly going on is this: they’re busy being human, just like us.
So talk about it. State your expectations, but don’t get attached to them. Laugh when they aren’t met, solve problems, and embrace your marriage for the magical journey that it is.
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A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.