It’s OK to Lower Your Expectations During a Pandemic

Let it go!

Posted Apr 05, 2020

My last post gave some simple tips about keeping your relationship healthy during the COVID-19 lockdown. Readers followed up with questions about how to manage not only partners but also children at home. My kids are grown and out of the house. That doesn’t mean I worry any less about them, but I don’t have to deal with them crawling on my lap during a Zoom meeting with a poopy diaper! So I interviewed the experts, a bunch of moms with children of all ages, to gather themes and tips about navigating working from home while also caring for children.

One critical overarching theme emerged in every single interview. The theme was so universal that embedding it in a list of tips would do it an injustice. It is the only topic of this post.

Not only is it OK, but it is essential to lower your expectations.

Moms around the world mentioned this as their number-one survival strategy. They expressed it differently, but every one of them came to the realization that they just could not function on any domain at the level they had been before COVID-19—as a mother, as a partner, as a professional, as a worker—and the only way to stay sane was to lower their expectations of themselves and of their children.

Andrea Piacqadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacqadio/Pexels

One North Carolina mother of three learned this lesson the hard way. The first day her kids were home from school, she decided that she was going to try to be mom, teacher, and professional at full throttle all day. She wrote up a complete six-subject academic schedule for her kids, oversaw their work, planned and led physical activity time, plus did her own work, cooked dinner, and then collapsed by 7 p.m. She had no personal nourishment all day and was completely depleted by bedtime. In the first 24 hours, she learned that that strategy was not sustainable, not only in the short term but also in the long haul that we all need to prepare for.

On day two, she changed tack and took a triage approach. She listed what she thought had to be accomplished during the day, prioritized the list, then deleted the bottom half. (Note: She and other moms underscored that everything takes 2-3 times longer to accomplish these days, so plan accordingly.) This mom also discovered that her school district considered 3.5 hours of instruction to be a full academic day, so she immediately modified her expectations of how much learning her kids needed to do. Another layer of pressure melted away.

In summing up her advice, she said, “Every morning, lower your expectations… then lower them again. Then go away, do something else, come back, and lower them one more time.” Only then will you have a manageable workload when the whole family is in lockdown.

The second mom in Sweden started off her advice by saying, “Go easy on yourself!” She went on to explain that she was learning to set realistic expectations for herself and for her children and found it very helpful to communicate her limits to others. Her automatic email response now states that she is only responding to emails in the evening hours, so don’t expect an immediate answer. I thought this was particularly clever because it is one thing to lower your expectations internally, but it is another one to actively calibrate others’ expectations of you.

fauxels/Pexels
Source: fauxels/Pexels

A Virginia mom of high schoolers empathized with the losses her children were experiencing. One child just got her driver’s license, the other is missing the opportunity to be the lead in the school play, college visits aren’t happening, there won’t be a prom… all of the hallmark fun experiences that define the high school years have vanished, yet they’re still expected to keep up with their work while being confined at home with parents who are working from home. At a time when kids are supposed to be spreading their wings and rehearsing for independence, their wings are clipped. Realizing this has helped her understand her children’s reaction to lockdown.

Even so, she offered her own version of reducing expectations. Both she and her husband are simply not qualified to help them with all of the subjects they are trying to keep up with from home. Plus, since both parents are working full time from home, they don’t have the time to be full-time homeschool teachers as well. She and her husband can direct them to resources and help keep them on task, but, in her words, “It’s no time to be homeschool parent of the year!”

A North Carolina mom of two (ages 5 and 2) whose husband is a first responder shared a wonderful strategy. Appropriate for her kids’ developmental stage, her new mantra for life is straight from Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go.” She might even cue up the sing-along YouTube video as a reminder when she starts feeling overwhelmed. It has helped her to take the perspective of how her children are perceiving the world: “I’ve readjusted my expectations for myself as far as productivity as well as for my kids. I’ve loosened some boundaries with them, such as allowing more screen time for all of our sanity. I have to remember this time is also frustrating and confusing for them. They have a limited ability to understand what is happening and a limited ability to express their frustration.”

Another mom from Sweden offered a perspective that can be hard to keep in mind when you are being stretched in a million directions on top of a baseline level of stress, “One thing that I remind myself of every day is that it’s really great to spend this much time with my kids. Normally I rush from work to pick them up, and I get to spend 2 or 3 hours with them at the most. Now I get to see them so much more, and it’s been really lovely.” Even though at times you are going to feel like you want to find a cave and hide, her point is well taken. There can be opportunity in adversity, but unless you lower your expectations of yourself, it may pass you by.

Next up will be some of the concrete strategies that these moms shared, followed by how to help older parents who are distant from you during the lockdown.