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        illustration of a mother attempting to put a puzzle together. The puzzle pieces represent different areas of her life.

        Ask Lauren

        Great Expectations

        As our work, home and school lives collide, managing expectations—of ourselves and others—has never been harder. Here columnist Lauren Smith Brody offers her best advice for keeping bosses, toddlers and colleagues in check.

        Written By
        Lauren Smith Brody
        Maria-Ines Gul
        Here’s something so dorky I don’t think I’ve ever shared it publicly: When I was a kid, if I needed a push to try something scary, I would whisper to myself: “Just do your Lauren-est best.” I was a late bloomer -- at things like first kisses and driving tests -- and it was a mantra that was meant to make me feel okay about catching up. Then...well, I caught up. But the definition of what counted as “Lauren-est” kept climbing higher and higher.

        “I’ve never believed in lowering my expectations,” I’d tell my colleagues at work. “I’m an optimist by nature!” You’d think I might have gotten the message when my boss spent my entire annual review telling me that I needed to be better at managing up, at not over-promising on things like deadlines and workload capacity. New motherhood was the same. I was born to be a mother, I was sure of that, so why on earth was I so bad at breastfeeding? I loved my babies, but where was the joy? I was told there’d be euphoric joy! Even at 3am! Still, I clung to my optimism and high expectations and figured I just needed to try harder. At everything.

        Then, March 12, 2020 happened. And it was a reckoning of expectations unmet. Birthday parties and grandparent vacations canceled. Second-grade Zoom calls that dropped mid-answer. A stove that got comically filthy. Jeans that didn’t fit anymore. My two biggest work contracts dissolved. Fear and sirens. A sick husband (he’s fine, thank God). There were a thousand losses. And one big gain.

        Now, when I give webinars, I ask all of those faces in the boxes on my screen: What do you want to keep from this time? Yes, keep. My own reset is that I’m finally okay with doing less, achieving less, with letting go not just of my own outsized expectations of myself...but of mine of other people...and of theirs of me. I’m finding big meaning in little moments. But, I’ll admit that that’s a privilege. What if you’re dealing with family and colleagues whose expectations nip at your wellbeing? Here are the dilemmas you shared, and my best (Lauren-est) advice:

        Q: When is it okay to ask for more time or to move a meeting, and when is it disrespectful to a coworker who expects me to be available?

        A: It’s all in how you ask. You could ask someone for a kidney and not have it be disrespectful if you go about it the right way. Moving a meeting? In a pandemic? This should be possible. The key is to give a little of yourself in the context you provide, the alternate solution you offer, and a promise of reciprocity.

        The catch here is that many of us have, for many legitimate reasons (cough, cough, the gender wage gap, the motherhood penalty) raised our colleagues’ and bosses’ expectations of us higher than we can now possibly maintain. So course correcting might feel uncomfortable. But that doesn’t make it wrong. And in fact asking for what you need is a strength, not a weakness.

        Ask like this: “Hi, colleague/boss’ boss, like all of us, I’m juggling a lot during both the traditional workday and evening hours. Could we please move this call (slash: deadline) to TIME? I save these asks for when they’re really vital, and if moving the meeting (slash: deadline) isn’t possible for you because you’re up against your own packed day, I can get a recap from such-and-such (slash: deliver this preliminary rough draft that I’ll be able to improve upon at time X). Thanks for understanding, and I’ll gladly repay the favor.”

        Q: I'm having a hard time not being fully present for my toddler like she is used to getting from me. Help, please.

        A: Here’s the fascinating thing about kids’ expectations of us as parents: For better and for worse, we set them. My husband asked me recently why our two boys expect dessert every night. Well, probably because I’ve been letting them have it every night since they were old enough for sugar? Maybe that’s why?

        I realize that it may sound ridiculous to suggest that you sit down and have a meeting with your sweet girl to explain Mommy’s current availability challenges and reset her expectations. So what’s the toddler version of that? Well, we know that little kids thrive with three things 1) predictable structure, 2) one-on-one play time, 3) steady, unstressed parents. I’ll start with item #3 because “unstressed” is probably unrealistic right now, but I’ll bet I can help you feel better. I fully believe that children as young as two can understand that your work is additive, not just something that pulls you away. If you act torn and conflicted or apologetic about working (certainly understandable feelings), she’s going to think something is wrong. If you act like work is rewarding and good for your family and often hard but also worth it, she will take in a message that serves her for life. While you reset her expectations, you may need to adjust your own as well to go a little easier on yourself.

        So what should you actually do? I suggest making a chart of your daughter’s day for her and putting it at eye level on your fridge. Time is an anathema to toddlers (um, and to parents in a pandemic), so block it out, preschool style, with symbols of the order of what will happen and then go through it together every morning. Meals, getting dressed, going potty, and yes, even big chunks of Paw Patrol time. Once a day, if you can, put in “15 minutes of special time with Mom” (and/or your partner!) and make that special time entirely child-led play, filling her bucket, and yours. I also recommend putting in chores time if you know that you’re going to be cooking or cleaning during the day. That’s not to say that she’s going to saute the asparagus with you, but she can play on the floor of the kitchen, and if that time is built into her day, it’s expected for both of you, not something that feels half-present. None of this is perfect. No day will go exactly as planned but I’ll bet, like so much right now, it’ll be good enough for both of you.

        Q: How can I be a good, steady mentor for the junior members of my team? So short on time right now, but I know they're expecting it of me.

        A: This is such a great question. I see a lot of companies and organizations leaning hard on their mentoring and affinity groups right now with all best intentions gone wrong. I coached one woman who had three of those meetings in one day (one for colleagues at her job level, one for employees of her race, and one for parents). It’s too much! So, resist the urge to schedule weekly happy hours and lunches together. We’ve all got Zoom fatigue and need to be able to save some social time for our friends and families, particularly at meal times. Instead, I would try two things: 1) Invite them, one by one, to level-up and partner with you on projects that may be out of the scope of their skill set right now. They’ll thrive on the personal attention and the investment in their future. 2) Role model the heck out of being personal and vulnerable. Talk about your kids. Share your current challenges. Show them that it’s okay to be a little more open than they may have realized. When they see you succeed in *spite* of the visible challenges, they’ll know they can do it one day too. That’s mentorship that counts.

        Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.