Lower Expectations = More Happiness

IMG_1385I have five young kids who have five sets of needs that often seem mutually exclusive. I co-direct this website. My husband is working hard on tons of his own projects. We’re both involved in parenting and church and community obligations and trying to make ends meet financially.

Given all this, should I expect my life to be generally calm and serene? Should I expect my house to be neat and tidy? Should I expect to be on time to everything? Or should I just go ahead and accept that my life is generally going to involve a fair amount of hurrying, juggling, and messes mixed with laughing, learning and working hard?

Certainly, I can and should work towards peace and happiness in my life and in my home. But I’ve found that when I accept that life is often hard and keep my unrealistic expectations in check, that peace and happiness I want actually happens more often.

As moms, if we go into each day thinking, “This is going to be a wonderful day – I’m going to get all this stuff done and have magical moments with my children all day long,” we’re bound to be disappointed somewhere along the way. While it’s great to be positive, it’s also great to be realistic!

I used to psych myself up about taking my three preschoolers to the grocery store – “This is going to be fun! I’ll let each child pick a fruit or vegetable. We’ll talk about all the colors and letters we see. It’ll be great!” Inevitably, I’d end up SO disappointed. My plans for fun and learning in the grocery store would fade away while my baby cried inconsolably (I did just feed her before we left home!), my toddler threw tantrums (I tried to get him interested in the colors!) and my 4-year-old got on the side of the cart and just about tipped it over.

When this would happen, not only did I feel frustrated about the way my children were behaving, but to add insult to injury, I felt so sad that my great expectations had been dashed. I felt like a failure as a mom because I hadn’t been able to bring my visions and plans to fruition.

After a while, I wised up. learned to keep my expectations LOW when taking my kids to the grocery store (and to avoid taking them whenever possible!). I learned to head into the store with this attitude: “Even though I’ve gone over the grocery store rules with my kids, there will probably be hard times in this store. There may well be a tantrum. There will probably be some whining. I may not get to everything on my list but that’s OK. If things get bad, we’ll just leave. This probably won’t be super fun but it’ll be OK.”

When I kept my expectations low, I found that I was often pleasantly surprised with the outcome and was better able to handle the hard stuff when it happened. “Yep, here it comes – I thought this might happen but I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again and it’ll be fine.”

I used to really care about having my home look lovely all the time. My old house was beautiful. It was clutter-free.  It was clean.  Everything was designed and decorated with great care. Each paint color, each piece of furnishing was chosen with great deliberation (and stress) by me. But what was I thinking trying to raise five little kids in an immaculate house?  It was really all about control.  I felt like maybe I couldn’t control the diaper explosions or the bickering of my kids and I couldn’t control the flailing economy or my husband’s worrisome work prospects, but I could control that house.  I could make it be clean and beautiful.  And I’m sure that little element of control did help me sometimes.  But overall, I learned that keeping a house quite constantly beautiful when kids live in it is an exercise in futility and I needed to seriously re-vamp my expectations.

When we moved into a different house a couple years ago, it was the perfect chance to change my expectations. My new housecleaning philosophy is one I got from my Power of Moms partner April: “clean enough to be healthy, messy enough to be happy.” There’s some clutter here and there. We could probably vacuum and dust a little more. Window washing doesn’t get to the top of the “to-do” list often. There are furnishings that could be replaced. But you know what? This house is a home. We live here and living is often just plain messy.

flowers on table

I’m not saying we should just throw up our hands and let everything go. We need to be deliberate about what we hold onto and what we let slide and realize that what we decide to let slide will likely be different from what some other moms choose to let slide. We need to “plan for the best but prepare for the worst.” Every Sunday, my husband and I sit down and look at what’s coming up that week and plan for how we’ll handle tight times in the schedule and discuss issues in our family that need thought and action. Living life with goals and plans is important. But making those goals and plans realistic is vital.

As I sit here working on my long to-do list in my somewhat dusty house with remains of the craft project my son had to do for homework last night scattered across the table next to me, I can feel a lot of peace when I think “Yep, this is pretty much what I expected for today and it’s totally fine.” As I think about tonight when I’ve got a meeting at the same time that one child needs to babysit for another family and another child needs to be at scouts, I remember that we planned this out and it’ll be tight and we’ll have to be late for one thing but everything will be OK.

I don’t expect life to be perfect. I expect it to be hard and messy and exciting and wonderful in its own imperfect way.

What expectations have you adjusted in your life?

CHALLENGE: Pick one expectation you should adjust and make that change.



  1. says

    this is great advice Saren! makes me think about a wonderful woman we used to have on this Earth…
    “I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails.
    I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp.
    I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbors children.
    I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden.
    I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder.
    I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.”
    ― Marjorie Pay Hinckley

  2. danielletaylor.porter says

    Thank you…Sometimes I have to tell myself that whatever I am doing is “enough.” And sometimes it is hard to admit that, but once I do I feel a whole lot better. While I am so big on setting goals and making progress, I feel like it is wise and safe and healthy to aim low and then be pleasantly surprised when things do work out better. Besides- I tend to forget that all the aspects of taking care of children are very very time and energy consuming. When I think I can do it all, all the time, I am bound to fail, or burn out. This was so nice to read and to hear thoughts from someone else!!!

  3. says

    I remember a client once telling me this when I told her the characteristics of my perfect man (and future husband) and she wondered (sarcastically outloud to the entire team) why I was still single. HAHAHA. And I know this is about kids… but somehow, that story popped into my mind about expectations and managing them. I find myself doing exactly as you said – planning for the worst, hoping for the best… with work, with relationships… and as a mom! As a new mom now.. I sometimes forget to manage my expectations, that I can’t do it all like I did when it was just me. I think we forget our superwoman powers get weaker with each child we bring into the world (and all the responsibilities that come with it)….that the laundry might need to wait until my son is asleep to get folded… but that sometimes for the sake of sanity and sleep, that it might just have to wait another day, week… month, year.. hahaha jk! I think the trick is to find that balance where we are still accomplishing stuff and not being too hard on ourselves for not finishing what we might have been able to do sans kids because it’s hard! Just like you said… we can’t throw up our hands and completely give up, but we can set proper expectations because it always helps us manage defeats and successes.

  4. says

    I went to see a counselor during a very difficult time in my life, and she asked me what my goals were. One that I mentioned was to jog six days a week. She immediately stopped me and said, “NO. We are changing that goal to three days a week.” She went on to explain that if my goal is six days a week and I end up jogging five, I will be disappointed in myself. If my goal is three days a week and I end up jogging five, I will feel awesome. SO true!!!!

  5. Amy says

    I LOVE the housecleaning philosophy! I’ve always told my friends that there is a difference between dirty and messy. I don’t want a dirty house but a messy one is just fine. The lower expectations help me immensely. Also a little bit of mess can eliminate some time spent on chores. Sometimes, just sometimes, our laundry magically takes care of itself after a week of sitting on the couch and us grabbing what we need, shaking out the wrinkles and using it! And that’s okay for us. Sometimes.

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