Shifting Expectations

Well, it happened last week: I snapped.

The accumulation of months of thoughtfully choosing my words, carefully picking my battles, and patiently awaiting spontaneous combustion to light little fires underneath my four teenagers led me to call an official “family meeting.” These gatherings, which were a regular feature of my own childhood, usually yielded both an airing of grievances and a pivot toward agreed-upon, achievable family goals.

Prior to last week, I can only recall calling a family meeting once. Individually, each of us brainstormed a list of what we thought ought to be enshrined as “family rules,” shared the same with the members of our family, and then consolidated and adopted the ones that we not only believed were important but also those which we deemed would meet with success. That contractual agreement hangs on the wall of our kitchen, a reminder of our commitment to living together harmoniously. (Incidentally, I noticed that my spouse’s signature is absent from the page.)

I texted my spouse and four children that an all-caps FAMILY MEETING would be happening, I surmised that they all suspected that something was amiss. Suspicions were confirmed when my spouse, trained as a mental health counselor and uniquely skilled at framing difficult discussions with ease and open-mindedness, outlined the current issues. The primary one being the general ennui and lethargy exhibited by our four teenagers to meaningfully contribute to the management and maintenance of our shared home.

Last week, I wrote about the frustrations of not getting done what was planned despite all the time we have been allotted thanks to quarantining. But the impetus to call a family meeting stemmed from the failure to meet expectations, which rested on everyone’s shoulders, and the failure to understand what our four teenagers expect from their parents, which rested mostly their mother’s.

I asked my children for help in understanding their needs and desires with the simple inquiry of “I would appreciate knowing what you expect of me,” because I had come to my very last straw in trying to accurately guess. I explained that my call for a family meeting was my last ditch effort to not end up with a broken back.

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A decade ago, when my children were 9, 7, 5, and 3, I had a very clear sense of what they expected of me. It was clear because they were constantly making demands on me.  Although most were age-appropriate, reasonable demands, the occasional unreasonable ones were uttered as well. My children all know, and have perennially known, that my preference is to say “yes” to their requests. So they have, over the course of their childhoods, filtered out the ones that they might have anticipated would end in a “no.”

But now, with them at 19, 17, 15, and 13, I’m at a loss. Admitting to my present parenting ineptitude was easier than I expected; hearing their commentary about the same was harder that I wanted.

The strain of listening to past gripes and future fatalism forced me to step away, in something of a juvenile fashion, from the table and march out the door. An hour later, when I sheepishly returned home, the five of them were still participating in the family meeting and a quick surge of jealously shot through me. What had I missed? Did they come to terms with the current crisis? Am I the crisis?

I didn’t ask to rejoin them. I went to bed.

It took a cooling-off period of 72 hours for me to send out a call (yes, via text and in all-caps) for a continuation of our family meeting. In my invitation, I attached a video about trust and requested they watch it prior to reconvening. The ideas Brene Brown expressed in this video served as a wonderful launch pad into the meaningful discussion that I wanted to have earlier in the week. Over the course of a couple of hours, each of us had an opportunity to be heard and to really listen. While we did not enter into any written agreement relative to our expectations of one another, we probably didn’t have to: our family rules, drafted years ago, still applied.

Throughout our family’s life together, we’ve always eaten dinner together. If you are in the house at dinnertime, you are at the table, engaged in talking, and committed to listening. So, it’s fair to say that we have a daily family meeting, though with far less serious subject-matter, but there is always the space to learn and reflect if something, like “what exactly do you need from me,” comes up in the future. I image that it will.

 

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