It’s 10 AM on a random weekday morning, and I’m at home alone with my 3-year-old son. He’s plopped in front of the TV; teeth still unbrushed, pajamas still on. He’s been there an hour, maybe longer, while I’ve been busily answering work emails.
This is not unusual — in fact, it’s a pretty normal start to our day. I’m a mom who works at home and sometimes, the TV helps me get things done. (And no, I don’t feel ashamed to say that out loud.)
Finally, after three back-to-back episodes of Bubble Guppies (hey, they’re only 22 minutes), we head upstairs to get dressed. We take the dog for a walk, we play at the park, and circle back home a while later to have a snack.
At some point, I suggest drawing a picture, but my son rolls around on the floor with the dog instead and I’m just happy he’s occupied. Later, we’ll head to the grocery store, have some lunch, and maybe read a stack of books. He’ll play on his own some, or maybe trash the living room while I answer more emails. Together we’ll clean up the mess before it’s time to pick up his big sister from school.
In the afternoon, he sits next to her at the dining room table while she diligently works on an art project. He scribbles on a piece of paper, before taking scissors and chopping it into tiny pieces. It doesn’t occur to me that we’ve accomplished almost nothing today, and that it’s completely fine, until I have a flashback of when my daughter was exactly his same age, already in preschool and well on her way to “the path of success” — whatever I envisioned that to be at the time.
Throughout her three years of preschool, my daughter couldn’t yet draw form. I can still remember how that rattled me; how often I worried if she would be okay. Her preschool teachers assured me it was fine, and that she’d get there in her own time. But I couldn’t help but look around the room — other kids were drawing houses and trees, and it made me a nervous wreck.
Meanwhile, my son would rather scribble than draw trees, and I’m not worried at all. He isn’t even in preschool yet, and I’m not worried about that either. He gets his social time from playing with neighbors and friends. In fact, just about everything we do and how we do it is a stark contrast to how I spent my days with my first child.
While we take our time picking out books at the library, playing outside, and generally enjoying one another, we don’t have a set schedule we stick to — or even a to-do list. Instead, we fly by the seat of our pants. And it turns out, I like it much better this way.
I may be a slightly less attentive parent this time around, but I believe my more relaxed approach is giving my son a gift that my older daughter didn’t receive: the gift of zero expectations.
Even as a baby, somehow I had expectations of what my daughter should be doing and what I should be doing with her. I felt pressured to take her to baby Gymboree classes and library story times, even though she was always the child wandering around while I chased her, as other kids sat listening intently on their bottoms. At home, I read to her constantly. I showed her flashcards with pictures and when people told me her verbal abilities were astounding, I credited it all to my dedicated parenting. She hardly ever sat in front of a screen, not until she was much older and certainly not for an hour or — God forbid — two.
With my son, though, I’ve somehow lost the need to be a perfect parent all of the time. I’m not mapping out our days from one moment to the next. I’m not obsessed over what he’s learning or what milestones he’s hit. And while he does have mega-three-nager tantrums from time to time, I’m essentially enjoying his childhood much more than I ever let myself with my first child.
In essence, I know better now. I know the value of letting a child be a child, while at the same time, giving myself a break. Still, I feel badly about how much I unintentionally expected from my firstborn. In my mind, she was a child prodigy. This kid was special, I told myself. I just knew it. I remember how my husband and I doted on her, hanging on every word she said. We would quote her to our friends and post relentless pictures on social media. I was in every way, a first time parent, but I didn’t yet understand how to just be and let be.
I’ve come to learn that children do things in their own good time and all the pressure I put on myself — and possibly, my child — wasn’t helpful. Neither were all the story times (which she didn’t hear a word of) or the over-stimulating Gymboree classes. Sometimes I wonder if my oldest will wear the scars, in some way or another, of absurd my expectations for her. Because for years, before I knew better, I had them too; and I wonder if she saw that or felt it from me.
I can’t turn back the hands of time and give my daughter the gift that my son has now. But these days, I care far more about both my kids’ happiness than their schedules, abilities, or even intelligence. I want the best for my kids, yes. But I’ve seen how expectations only stressed me to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the here and now.
These days, I keep my expectations at bay as best I can, and while my 3-year-old son is far from being able to draw a tree or a house, I know that one day, without me so much as putting a marker in his hand, there it will be.
In the meantime, I’m relieved that somehow I’ve let go of the pressure to chase another child around the library, shell out way too much money for baby classes, or stay up at night worrying whether I’m doing all the right things. I already know I’m not perfect. But it took me a while to finally be okay with my kids not being perfect, either.