Expectations have plagued me all my life. They can do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of harm. They are the goals I set for myself, many of which I could never realistically attain in one lifetime. It took me many years to realize that they needed to be reevaluated periodically, modified, or changed, and moved into the realm of the possible. Sounds obvious, but how many of us examine these ingrained “shoulds” and move on to a present-day reality? Expectations are dreams of how we think life should, can, or will be—something to look forward to—but, unfortunately, in too many cases they depend on the behavior of others. And who has control over that?

When we have children we often table our own expectations and move them over to our children, with deleterious results.

We all know the classic mistakes made by so many parents in their attempt to point their children in what they have decided is the “right direction.” Proud pronouncements when the little ones show an interest in science or math or art…information that is usually related in a Christmas card litany of boring magnitude that our friends feel duty-bound to read (I soon tired of this and decided to send a litany of fanciful, outrageous family facts to lighten up the Yule). Still we find ourselves gushing, “Look how well she writes. I know she’ll be a writer. And notice how adamant he is about fairness. He’s definitely headed for the legal profession. And see those rocket ships? The colors. The shapes. Positively amazing! He’s the next Picasso or maybe John Glenn.”

The prognostication is always grand and it portends success that we are sure will fulfill the little ones’ dreams, as well as ours. It’s the tyranny of the potential—our idea of each child’s potential—and it’s so very naïve and wrongheaded. A universal mistake in every generation. It’s one thing to want our children to work and perform to the best of their abilities, but another to place a label on them: my son/daughter the doctor, the lawyer, the architect, the minister, the writer, the scientist, the college professor. We somehow leave out other perfectly respectable labels, like gardener, businessman/woman, mason, carpenter, actor, nurse, teacher, dancer, inventor, you-name-it, it’s-out-there.

As the children grow older, parental expectations increase. And many of them are unconscious. Out loud we say, “Be whatever you want to be. I only want you to be happy and fulfilled.” And we believe it, until reality gets in the way, and we decide in our minds what the true definition of happiness and fulfillment is. But how many times do we have to be told that even ‘though expectations are normal and O.K., beware of making your happiness dependent on their fulfillment.

I have to admit that I was guilty of predicting that my children, even at an early age, would be this or that, and they usually turned out to be quite the opposite. As parents, they do surprise us and, if we allow it, expand our view of the world and its possibilities. But like it or not we were security-oriented in the 60’s and 70’s, possibly because we saw the world as we knew it coming apart, and scary alternatives popping up that were great for the young, but would have made it hard for them to support a family as they grew older. And isn’t that what everyone wanted…a family? Here, again, I had my feet in the cultural 50’s, but my head in the rebellious 60’s. But didn’t Oscar Wilde say that consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative?

It’s fair to say that I was of two minds. I had a real hippie side for myself, but a more practical side for my children, especially the girls. Folklore had it that boys would always land on their feet and make a living, but what about a girl who had not established herself career-wise and was saddled with a child and things didn’t go as planned? How deluded I was and how little I understood the changes taking place right under my nose. I was basing my judgments on the fact that I had married right out of college and was thrust into motherhood before any vocational skills had been established. I was happily married at the time, but what if? I wanted my girls to have the skills and a career before they married. I wanted them to have a choice.

So you can imagine my joy when Cary announced at an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. This prompted us to give her the-much-talked-about preserved cat one Christmas. When she changed her mind about medicine, she still was excited about science and was headed for a career in biology. Perfect! There was not a scientific gene in either of her parents, so, although I thought of her at times as a mutation, she had chosen something quantifiable and irrefutable and seemingly secure…not like writing or music or what I considered the more emotional life choices (wrong, again). She headed for college and graduate school, combining her love of the environment with her exploration of the tiny microorganisms that populate our lakes and streams. In my mind she was certain to get work that could last forever and keep her safe.

Not so! Straight out of college she got bitten by the bicycle racing bug, which she transmitted to her two youngest brothers. She gave up limnology and moved to Holland where she worked and raced for the next five years. World class, to be sure, but not what her parents had expected. She became fluent in Dutch, traveled all around Western Europe, and sold advertising for a Dutch bicycle magazine. She even started an export-import business with her father for a short period of time. I combined trips to Holland with my work directing an international organization, so it turned out to be pretty wonderful. A lesson learned. Thank you, Cary.

Martha had it easier than Cary, for she was a dancer, a skill with many avenues to explore. But after high school she decided to eschew college and dance in a nightclub in Montreal, which was racy to say the least! As you would expect, we pushed for college and finally persuaded her to attend the University of Utah, which had an excellent program for teachers of dance. But it was not for Martha. She wanted to dance, not teach! And in Europe. She had been dying to get back ever since our hitch-hiking trip in 1973. So Glen and I put her on a plane at Newark Airport, not without a little fear and trepidation. She had $100 in her pocket and the promise of a job in Madrid. The adventures and misadventures that followed are hers to tell, but we, as proud parents, traveled to Zaragosa, Spain, to see her dance in an eye-opening show we’ll never forget. She learned three languages fluently, lived in Germany, Italy, and Holland, and had plenty of time to return to college, marriage, and family in the future. So much for parental fears.

What parent would be horrified if a nine-year-old announced at breakfast that he wanted to join the Canadian air force when he grows up? He’s just a kid, they’d say. Pay no attention. But what happens later on? We get sucked into our children’s announcements and pronouncements. Instead of listening and allowing them to have their opinions, knowing how they often change daily, we get into a snit and start arguing and explaining and giving reasons why their opinions are not valid and their choices will not work out. We know it’s a dead end and counterproductive, but we do it, anyway.

Schools can be just as relentless as parents in pushing children to reach what they expect their potential to be. They test and measure and evaluate incessantly until they pass on the same pressure that has plagued me—meeting the demands of a tyrannical, ever-present, illusive “potential.” Beware of over-inflated expectations laid on us by others.


As the years passed and the scales fell from my eyes, I tried to adjust my idyllic picture of married and family life to the real world (idyllic is often the earmark of a failing memory).

When I was a child in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s we had breakfast together, three little sisters neatly dressed for school, eating the prescribed eggs and toasts one morning and cold cereal and bananas the next. You could depend on this every-other-day routine and the quiet family gathering with Father sitting at the head of the table reading the newspaper while mother catered to all of us in her gentle, cheerful way.

Twenty years later I expected the same picture-perfect routine. But I had five children, three of whom were boys, whose main pleasure in life was to roar around the kitchen table terrifying their sisters, not sitting up, neatly, at a family repast. I could hear the bickering even before I arrived on the scene.

Any parent who thinks that children won’t bicker, even if there are bucketfuls of love and understanding in the home, is whistling Dixie. And any parent, nowadays, who comes down to breakfast expecting neatness and serenity is living in a fantasy world. This was one of my hardest lessons. As I pointed out in the above tableau of family togetherness, I had been raised with two sisters, both of whom behaved better than I. We seldom quarreled for it so distressed our mother that we ended up consoling her and keeping our disagreements to ourselves. And we were three girls, no boys. Believe me, add a little testosterone to the equation and things change drastically.

As I recall, the only evil thing we did as children was to attempt to hold our little sister under the water in the bathtub to see how long it took before bubbles came to the surface. I know, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? But we didn’t have any rancor toward her. We were just experimenting. This was one time when our curiosity went sideways. Anyway, she was feisty and came up out of the water, beet-red and sputtering. I still have visions of her opening her mouth, which now took up her entire face, and screaming so piercingly that I truly wondered if it was worth the experiment. Mother came flying to the rescue and gave us an evil eye that sufficed for a hundred beatings. Our little sister spent the rest of her childhood in a protective cocoon.

I mention this because my children, on the other hand, never kept their quarrels or animosities to themselves. Tommy had a sunny disposition in the morning. He talked and whistled and carried on as if it were the thing to do, when the rest of the kids were just grunting and wishing they were back in bed. Everybody came down on Tommy, poor fellow. Pretty soon the strain of being shushed and told to stop singing became too much for him and his flip side took over. The raging bull. By the time I hauled my groggy body into the kitchen it was a free-for-all. I must admit that I didn’t help much, for I tried to get to the bottom of the argument, rather than chalk it up to morning temperament and move on to concrete solutions, like eggs, toast, and cereal. I was more than a little like my mother, but my children never seemed to be very solicitous about the effect their quarreling had on me.

Cary, as the eldest, came up with what seemed like a good solution. Being an excellent referee in these situations she suggested that I stay in bed in the morning and leave everyone to fend for him or herself. She would keep the bloodshed to a manageable level and everyone would settle disputes much better if I didn’t interfere.

“It’s because we love you, Mom, and know that you don’t like confusion in the morning. Please, let’s try it. And we do know how to get our own breakfast by now.”

As I’ve explained, our house was big and the bedrooms miles away from the kitchen. So I had my extra forty winks, rolling out just after the gang had departed for school. I stepped lightly on my way down the back stairway, enjoying the silence. Then I opened the door. Need I describe the condition of the kitchen? Did I even know I had that many frying pans? Or that this would be the one time that the box of Bisquick would be opened and used? I could see the trail of flour from the box to the bowl through the puddle of milk to the stove. Oh, God, both boxes of Cap’n Crunch and Grape Nuts in one sitting? Don’t even think about the maple syrup, what was left of it.

This would have been a laudable experiment had it not taken me the better part of the morning to clean up the mess. I had a solution. Wear noise-cancelling earphones—the kind they use with lawnmowers and pneumatic drills—and learn to enjoy short order cooking. Oh, and get up a wee bit early to head them off at the pass!

Speaking of getting them up in the morning, that was no easy task, especially since I didn’t like getting up, either. I’m reminded of my own childhood, when my father put on a record of Irving Berlin’s show tune, “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning!” at high decibels…at what seemed like the crack of dawn. It’s amazing that it didn’t kill my love of musical comedy. I was influenced, however, by the idea that it’s good to start the day with a song. This would get them up without resorting to physical violence. So I’d sing in my husky voice, “Good morning, Mary Sunshine, what makes you shine so soon? You scare the little stars away and shine away the moon.” I would throw open the door to each room and warble my cheery tune, oblivious to the howls and groans that followed. One morning, son Christopher, having planned my demise the night before, had put an exercise bar at neck level across the entrance to his room.

“Good morning, Mary Sun…ugh, ack…Chris, I’m going to kill you!” Laughter erupted up and down the hall. So this was total rebellion. I retired Mary Sunshine.

But I soon found another way to wake them that was less dangerous to my health. I stood at the bottom of the kitchen stairs and sang into a large battery-operated horn Glen had bought me, using Bert Lahr’s famous tremolo, “They say that falling in love is wuuuuunderful, it’s wuuuuunderful, so they say…And with a moon up above, it’s wuuuuunderful, it’s wuuuuunderful, so they tell me.

It had the same results, only from a distance, without any dangerous side effects.

My husband wasn’t any help with breakfast. He wasn’t much help around the house at any time, except to care for the lot of them on Monday night when I went to my symphony rehearsals. I give him great credit, for this was his idea…a cultural outlet to keep me from going mad. I joined the Plainfield Symphony as a violinist when Robert was six-months-old, and I can see—imprinted indelibly on my mind—the look on Glen’s face as I went out the door, leaving him holding the baby and faced with baths for four other children, the ritual nighttime reading, and a baby to change. Talk about a deer in the headlights….

But I digress. Glen’s idea of breakfast was a cup of coffee accompanied by a banana or a slice of apple pie…not a traditional repast. He would stand at the kitchen counter, oblivious to the chaos swirling around him, and lean into the Herald Tribune or, later, the New York Times with gusto. This had its effect on the children. I noticed on one of their first- grade papers—the ones that have you color in the right answers to various questions—that Tom had colored the picture of a slice of pie as breakfast food. There was a large red check next to it. How was he to know?


Dinnertime was also an eye-opener, and a testament to misguided expectations. Again, I envisioned a family gathered around the table, waiting for Daddy (whose train from the City was often late), and conversing about all kinds of current topics and lofty subjects in an intelligent fashion. From time to time I assigned news items from the daily paper to be discussed during the evening meal. It was what I had experienced as a child. I even remember my father coming to the table and asking the ladies if they minded if he removed his jacket, at which time he draped it carefully over a nearby chair. There was nothing casual about our dinners.

In my delusion I expected the same predictable routine. But, instead, I found myself being a referee most of the time, especially when it came to who got seconds (usually the one who ate the fastest). We didn’t have microwaves or packaged meals, like today’s mothers, which may have been good for our health, but was tough on me, the cook, who sometimes slaved for two hours only to have her handiwork devoured in fifteen minutes. The word, “slave,” just popped up, because, after feeding seven hungry people for twenty years, cooking had lost its luster. It was just plain drudgery!

I remember once when I had fixed a sumptuous roast with all the trimmings. It was Robert’s turn to set the table.

“What’s for dinner, Mom?” he asked.

“Pot roast, potatoes, peas, and carrots.”

“Not stew, again!” he lamented.

“It’s not stew. It’s cooked separately,” I countered.

“Call it what you want, Mom. It’s stew.”

Most of the dinnertime conversation was banal at best. Tales of youthful vandalism at the junior high, embellished just for me, or hilarious imitations of particularly unpopular teachers, their idiosyncrasies and failings. Why did I think these expressions were less important to my children than the international news? It was giving them a chance to exercise their imaginations and learn stand-up, in case they were ever so inclined.

At first I was entertained by the comic repartee, and then appalled, to the point that, if I had had the stomach for it, I’d have taken them all out and home-schooled them. I didn’t mind hearing about a bow-legged teacher, but drew the line at a litany of all her physical pros and cons. But I’m certain that most of the stories were exaggerated for the predictable reaction, especially those about near-catastrophic bicycle incidents, bicycles being the transportation of choice for teenagers in those days.

“Enough,” I said, finally. “One more story like that and I shall take away the bikes.”

“Aw Mom, don’t be such a wuss.” And so it went.

At least I maintained some semblance of order. Over the years I assigned tasks to each child according to age, and enforced a dinner-time schedule—posted on the kitchen bulletin board—of table setting, clearing, and dishwashing. Grumble all you want…this is the law.

I wanted to make sure my children never suffered, as I did, from a guilty conscience for not helping their mother with the housework. Whenever my mother needed help, I’d grab my violin and start to practice, or immerse myself in school work, thus avoiding household tasks. My mother, a former college professor, emphasized education of all kinds, but I knew in my heart that I was taking unfair advantage of her largesse.


With all that life was teaching me, I still had not given up on expectations, which led to the biggest disillusionment of all…my divorce. Like many of my generation I had a long list of expectations about marriage, fidelity being top of the list. My soon-to-be-husband believed in total honesty, so announced early in our courtship that he believed monogamy was unnatural for both men and women. I didn’t want to hear him. Surely, he would change his mind once he was married to wonderful me. He didn’t.

I also expected my husband to be like my father. But he wasn’t. Neither was I like my mother. The two main characters proved to be ill-suited in certain basic ways, ‘though the partnership was not without its exciting and glorious moments.True, I hung in much too long, trying for thirty-three years to craft the ideal relationship. If he would only do this, everything would be OK. If I would only change that, everything would be OK. Certainly we could fix it if we just tried hard enough. Divorce was not included in my list of expectations.

Over the years I’ve discovered some truths, which should have been obvious to me a long time ago and definitely would have helped my children and my marriage. You can only control or change yourself, and even that sometimes goes awry. You can try to influence the outcome of life, but more often than not setting up expectations for others dooms you to failure. Tend to yourself and let life flow and unfold. It can be amazing! And don’t try to determine the outcome. It just won’t work.