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Center for Enlightened Leadership

The Expectation Express

  Maybeth Conway
  Maybeth Conway
Senior Associate

“So, you’re expecting!”

With those three little words that foreshadow a birth, lives are changed forever. Much like the time-honored railroad call of “All Aboard!” “So, you’re expecting!” beckons passengers onto the Expectation Express, the miraculous train that transports each of us through life’s journey. And what a ride it is!

While there are certainly many situations in which “So, you’re expecting!” triggers a panicked or unhappy response, let’s focus on the times when this phrase is met with joyful anticipation. As eager parents-to-be await the birth of a child, they excitedly jump on the train and begin the inevitable expectation process. With loving, optimistic hearts, they envision a new life that will be beautiful, healthy, smart, charming, obedient, energetic, and successful. They plan a long and happy shared journey on the Expectation Express.

Once that new traveler is born, the train immediately leaves the station. In endless ways—some overt, some covert—parents begin to transfer all of their prenatal expectations onto their child. Like a baby’s blanket, messages about desirable behaviors, personality traits, beliefs, gender roles, and dispositions are wrapped snugly around the infant. Often without even knowing it, brand-new parents are busy telling their newborn children who they should and should not be. Those well-intended messages generally continue throughout life’s ride as parents are joined by grandparents, teachers, clergy, employers, friends, and the media, who all add their contributions to the travel plan.

As I reflect on my own life’s journey, I am immeasurably grateful for so many of the travel tips that my dear parents gave me. Individually and together, through word and deed, they let me know what they expected in no uncertain terms.

My parents each had their own personal list of expectations to add to my travel plans. My dad, who was a well-respected civil engineer, mapped my academic and career path. He expected lots of reading, cogent thinking, mathematical acumen, and very good grades in school. He assured me that I could pursue any career path that called me as long as I set my sights on the most challenging destination that my abilities would sustain. I can still hear him saying, “Any job worth doing is worth doing well.”

In traditional Fifties fashion, my mother focused on my social and emotional journey. With boundless effort and patience, she reminded me daily of what it meant to be a lady. She taught me table manners, graceful penmanship, grooming tips, and the tenets of polite conversation. Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette rested next to the Bible on the bookshelf in our living room. It was expected that I would become very familiar with both texts. To this day, I keep a pair of white gloves and a cloth handkerchief in my top dresser drawer in her memory.

Together, my parents taught me the importance of a safe and loving family with everyone contributing to the well-being of others. I had little chores to do before I reached kindergarten. My mom and dad espoused strong religious values, and then demonstrated what they looked like as we welcomed my challenging elderly grandfather into our home. They modeled civic responsibility by participating in innumerable community organizations and encouraging me to become a good little Girl Scout. They promoted true hospitality by welcoming extended family and friends to share our inviting home and its bounty. Most of all, they embodied and fostered the virtues of kindness and compassion.

While my parents created a very pleasant and memorable childhood ride for me and my brother on the Expectation Express, our trip was not without its challenges. As admirable as their directives may have been, they never quite showed me how to do it all. As I responded to Dad’s academic and career messages, I often felt that I was shortchanging my social and family responsibilities. Conversely, when I was busy planning my next party or holiday celebration and striving to meet Mum’s standards, I constantly worried that I was falling behind in my professional work. To this day, I struggle to find a thoroughly comfortable seat on the Expectation Express.

Perhaps, and more important, my idyllic childhood train ride did little to prepare me for the inevitability and the pain of unmet expectations of myself and others. With very high standards as my guide, I’m certain that my life’s ride has been far more productive and exciting than it would have been without those guiding principles. And yet, like many well-meaning parents, mine did little to promote any appreciation of disappointment and even occasional failure as unavoidable side trips on life’s journey. As a result, I’m told that my standards for myself and others are sometimes unrealistically demanding. It’s hard for me to relax with any job that’s not very well done.

Finally, my unconditionally warm and loving childhood left me somewhat ill-prepared for the inevitable bumps and bruises given by those who shared my ride. When I expected others to operate with the same travel tips that I’d been given, I was often disappointed. When my staff resisted my efforts and refused to come along for my latest professional ride, I often grew impatient. When my friends occasionally ignored my spoken or unspoken expectations, I would feel sad and unappreciated. In the rare instances when those whom I loved betrayed that love, my train nearly derailed. I don’t think I was ever warned to beware of the effects of my expectations, particularly when I impose them on others.

Now, as I travel the senior leg of my life’s journey, I can’t help but look back, a little enviously, to those who are about to welcome a new child onto the Expectation Express. With at least a measure of humility, I encourage those eager parents to reflect tenderly on the expectations that they will convey to the new passenger whom they’ll escort onto the train. I hope that they will strike a balance. I invite them to set expectations that are high enough to encourage their child to seek the most wonder-filled itinerary that life can offer. I hope they will also provide the cautionary guidance that will protect that child from at least some of the pain of unrealistic or misplaced expectations. Then I expect Mom, Dad, and child to treasure the ride. All Aboard the Expectation Express!

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