What to do when your parenting reality isn’t what you expected

Joanna MacKenzie had the perfect dream baby.

Nursing was easy and convenient, and her baby took regular naps whenever MacKenzie needed her to sleep, so MacKenzie could run out to coffee with friends or even to concerts without worrying about her baby’s nap schedule. 

That was before MacKenzie had an actual baby. Once she had a real, live baby, her expectations were completely dashed. 

“He would only sleep in his bed, and if we were out past bedtime, he was up, and there was no sleeping in, ever,” says the Oak Park-based literary agent. “I did not anticipate years of, ‘sorry, we have to go, it’s bedtime’ outings.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because almost everyone has an unrealistic expectation of real life, says Beth Miller, an Illinois-based parent coach.

Blame social media, which is inundated with images of happy, healthy children or blame the television, which often shows glossy children who pop in and out of the screen looking delightful.“We are drawn to these positive images, and they are filling us with hope that our experiences will match what we see,” Miller says. “In some aspects, this is a good thing: it fills us with hope, desire and commitment to create meaningful relationships and experiences.” 

But there’s also a major downside. 

Pretty quickly, you’ll have to deal with the disappointment that your baby is, in fact, a real baby. Your baby might refuse to nurse even though you’ve been looking forward to nursing; your child might not be that soccer star you envisioned; your teen may not have the grades to get him into your alma mater.

It’s very difficult to decide how long to hold on to your expectations for your child—and when to let them go, says Joanna Faber, co-author of “How to Talk to Little Kids Who Listen.” 

Faber suggests looking at each issue from your child’s point of view. 

For example, if you always envisioned that your child would do sports but your child is more of an artist or a poet, try to see life through his eyes and maybe you’ll find another physical activity that you both enjoy, like cycling. 

Faber imagined having children who loved reading, since she was an avid reader her entire life.But her first child was more interested in running around than cracking open a book.

“Do I give up on that dream?” she asked herself.

Instead, she tried considering her child and realized that reading to him might suit him better.

“It would be impossible not to have hopes and dreams for our kids, but you have to think about what he’s feeling and what his needs are, because if you don’t, it has the potential to destroy him,” Faber says. 

Beyond having hopes and dreams for children, some parents might overcompensate for the faults that their own parents had, says Eirene Heidelberger, a Lincoln Park parent coach and founder of GIT Mom.

They want to be the best parents, and in return, they expect to have dreamy children.

“If it wasn’t a magical experience, a parent may overcompensate and put pressure on themselves to go above and beyond for their child, and that is not healthy for anybody,” Heidelberger says. 

While parents can have ideals and dreams, they have to be realistic when it comes to their actual children.

But it doesn’t mean you have to totally give up on your child, however.

Melissa Ford, a life coach, business coach and former parent coach in Oak Park, always expected her children to excel at school.

But her oldest child just didn’t love school. 

“I had to pause for a minute and separate what I wanted from what I expected,” Ford says. “Sometimes, we hang on to our expectations out of fear rather than love.”

Ford realized that her expectations could turn into a battle and an attempt to control her children. She had to decide which was more important: That she got what she wanted because she was afraid her son wouldn’t go to college or that he went to college but never spoke to her again.

Ford released her wants and gave her son room to figure out what he wanted and what she needed from him. She needed him to pass high school.

“I de-personalized it and took the fear out of it,” Ford says. “I really wanted to have a relationship with him and that mattered more than anything.”

Her son ended up finishing high school, going to college and getting his Master’s degree.“Parents need to realize that their children aren’t them, and they are going to do their lives differently than them,” Ford says. 

While parenting sans pressure can save a relationship, it’s still important to have an open mind, and start with some degree of expectations unless your child pushes against them, says John Duffy, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and author of “The Available Parent.” 

“I find that parents limit their kids unnecessarily: ‘not too bright,’ ‘not an athlete,’ ‘not musical,’ when they are actually quite capable,” Duffy says. “This is not a small adjustment to make for parents, but it is a critical one.”

So parents should have some expectations, but don’t push those expectations to the extreme. 


We can do it, because we’re parents. It’s just another balancing act. 

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