“But It’s Not Like Last Time!”: Finding Joy in Unmet Expectations and Change

Remember this?

Her face was red and wet with tears. Her fists were clenched and she was shaking her head spastically making her blonde hair flail around her head. She continued to whine and complain, but I could barely understand her words through her deep sobs. She was having a full-fledged meltdown.

Baggage was to blame.

No, not figurative baggage, as in difficult life circumstances that travel with us from our pasts into our future, I mean baggage, as in, our suitcases.

My 9-year-old daughter, Kenzie, was sitting in the one back row seat of our van that we had not folded down so as to have more room for our luggage. The van was still snuggly parked in our garage, and we were testing out the seating arrangements for our twenty-hour drive to Florida. This would be our second year taking a Spring Break vacation as a family of five. There was a lot of stuff shoved into our minivan: golf clubs, suitcases, beach chairs, snacks. Kenzie was surrounded by all of it in this trial run of making sure we could get everything in the van, including the kids.

Kenzie wasn’t crying because she was crowded or uncomfortable, she was crying because the suitcases were not close enough to her.

Sob. “Last year when I sat here the suitcases were right up against me!” Sob. “That was one of my favorite parts of the drive.” Sob. “I want it to be just like last year!” Wail.

There are moments in parenthood where you lose your cool. There are also moments when you’re overjoyed with your child. Then there are moments like this one when you’re just plain confused.

“So you’re telling me that you’re throwing a fit right now because the golf clubs are closer to you than the suitcases?” I said with a bit of a growl in voice.

Sob. “Yes! I want the suitcases to be closer to me so it’s just like last year!”

And thus began year two’s vacation where we frequently heard the phrase, “but last year we ___________ (fill in the blank).

My kids are huge fans of tradition. They savor life and enjoy each season and activity that comes with it. Each fall, they want to make a trip to the same apple orchard. Each Christmas, they want to hang the garland on the banister just like we did the year before. They love each tradition and have big hopes, expectations, and emotions involved in each one.

Speaking of apple orchards… the apple has not fallen very far from the tree. I wish I could say my husband was the tradition-lover who has thus modeled big feelings toward repeating expectations, but he ain’t that tree, folks.

I’m going to have to take the blame on this one. This baggage comes with me.

I love tradition, and I have a lot of hopes riding on expectations. And for many reasons, I’m going to say that’s a fine way to live. We tradition-lovers are also big on noticing and appreciating things, and we are often full of gratitude. If I do say so myself, we can be really lovely people to be around when traditions and plans go as scheduled.

But hitching our hopes to tradition and expectations can sometimes lead to a bumpy ride when plans come unhinged.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to recalibrate when it comes to traditions and expectations. Just as an infant is trained to self-soothe when she cries in her crib and no one comes to pick her up immediately, I’ve learned to self-soothe when expectations turn into disappointments. I’ve come to understand that joy can still be found in the changes, even if joy seems to be wearing a disguise.

Our first year in Florida, we went to a beach on a beautiful intercostal waterway where we found about a dozen whole sand dollars. It was amazing, and the kids loved these fragile sea treasures. But on our second trip, when we returned to the same beach, the wind was strong and the choppy water churned in a way that made it impossible to find any sand dollars. The kids were super disappointed.

But, as we walked along a different beach, we found some really cool shark teeth, a treasure we hadn’t found the year before. I capitalized on this and starting saying a five-word phrase each time one of the kids, or myself, would let disappointment creep in over a failed expectation or change.

Sand dollars and shark teeth.

Guys! Think about it! Both are treasures! So we didn’t find sand dollars this year, kids. But, we found shark teeth! How cool is that? It doesn’t have to be just like last time to be good.

“But last year ate at that one restaurant that had the popcorn shrimp!”

Sand dollars and shark teeth.

“But last year we made those apple pies!”

Sand dollars and shark teeth.

“But it’s our tradition to have cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning!”

Sand dollars and shark teeth.

And this doesn’t just help my kids deal with changes and unmet expectations. It helps me!

When my second book launched and it didn’t go the same as the first book had, I repeated “sand dollars and shark teeth” in my mind often. It was a mantra to remind myself that it didn’t have to be just like last time to be successful or good.

When my child’s schoolteacher didn’t run their classroom the same way my older child’s classroom was operated when they were in that same grade, I had to recalibrate. Wait, I thought I knew what to expect and how this was going to work! But it’s okay. Sand dollars and shark teeth.

When holiday plans changed last minute due to illnesses or activities beyond my control my gut reaction was, “this won’t be as good as last year.” But maybe it was. We made new memories! Sand dollars and shark teeth.

I’m going to be honest, Kenzie’s meltdown over not sitting close enough to the suitcases was a little over the top for me. I did not initially understand her response and I got pretty upset with her.

But after a week of finding zero sand dollars and realizing that unmet expectations and change were the reason for her tears, I understood a little more. I didn’t let her off the hook for behaving like she did, but I file the realization away in my mind.

“But, it’s not like last time!” can be baggage that travels with each of us. I get it. I’m a frequent flier in this club. But just because it’s different, changed, or not what we expected doesn’t mean it can’t still be good.

Sand dollars and shark teeth.

Tuck that phrase away in your baggage.

Cheers.

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My turn signal pinged its rhythmic song. I heard it, but wasn’t really listening. I watched the oncoming traffic, and waited for my chance to make a right turn.

My thoughts were ringing in my head, playing the harmony to the accompanying noise around me. I was trying to give my thoughts my full attention in hopes I could corral them into orderly conduct.

“You, over there. Yes, I know I have laundry in the washer that’s been sitting there wet for three days. I’ll run that load again when we get home. And yes, I’ll add detergent again. I know it stinks.”

“Excuse me, what? I have to write two checks to the school when I get home? One for a lunch account and then I have to order that sports gear. Oh, and the photograph form. Got it. I’ll try to get that done before picking up Karson from practice. Wait, is his jersey in the washer? What time is his game Sunday afternoon?”

“What’s that, Mr. Stomach? I haven’t made dinner plans yet for this evening? Give me a break. I’ve barely even been home this afternoon. You’ll just have to wait.”

My own mental conversation was not the only one echoing in my ears. In the backseat of the van, my daughters, ages seven and nine, were having one of their own.

I could hear them, but I wasn’t really listening.

“Let’s make up our own cheers, Kenzie.” My oldest daughter was saying.

“Okay. Let’s use letters and then think of words that they stand for,” Kenzie replied.

I tuned them out again.

Where did I put the checkbook?

“I know. For the letter ‘O’ we can make it stand for ‘Honesty!’ ‘O’ says ‘Ahh’ so honesty is a good word! I like honesty!”

“Yeah! ‘O’ for ‘Honesty’. Good idea Kenzie!” Karly responded to her little sister.

“Honesty actually starts with an ‘H,’” I chimed in. “How about ‘Octopus,’ instead?”

“No way, Mom!” Kenzie said. “I like ‘honesty’ better.”

I looked back at the road. I never was a cheerleader. What do I know?

“Okay, now for the letter ‘C.’ Kenzie continued, “Let’s use the word “Kind!” I looked in the rearview mirror. She was smiling and enthusiastic.

Once again I broke in to the conversation.

“Kind actually starts with a ‘K’ not a ‘C.’” I informed.

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does.”

“No, it’ doesn’t”

“Yes, it does.”

The turn signal kept the beat.

“Well, we don’t really care. We like honesty and kindness so we’re going to use them.” Kenzie said.

I thought about it.

Whose team mascot is an Octopus, anyway?

“You know what?” I said in my best Mom Authority voice. “I like honesty and kindness too. Go for it!”

And they did. They completed their homemade cheer and happily chatted the rest of the drive home.

They may not be winning the spelling bee anytime soon. But, I’ll tell you what, I don’t really care.

Honesty and kindness trump winning in my book, anyway.

Hip. Hip. Hooray! You go girls! Let honesty and kindness be traits you always cheer about.

And who knows. Maybe I could have been a cheerleader, after all.