Working parents: How to dream big & manage expectations 

by Mindful Return
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How to realistically manage resolutions (including New Year’s resolutions) and expectations: advice for working parents

Lori Mihalich-Levin and Stormme Hobson

At the beginning of each year, the desire to grow and to set extraordinary goals is palpable. After all, its the time for “fresh starts” and “big dreams”.

However, as soon as our suitcases and flip flops are packed away, we tend to descend into the chaos of life. Checking emails, scheduling meetings, coordinating the school calendar, and generally over-stretching ourselves. A cycle that often continues until our next ‘break” – and it can leave us feeling deflated.

By the end of February, we often feel completely disheartened and burnt-out, having set unrealistic expectations and trying to pack waaaaaay too much into the start of the year… not forgetting trying to stick to new year’s resolutions for those who set them.

Setting expectations: for working parents

How often have you expected that you would feel a certain way after reaching a certain event or milestone, and then been completely disappointed when a different feeling showed up instead?

How we set our expectations for what will happen is tied closely to how we will feel in the aftermath of that situation (and particularly if we will feel okay). When it comes to big life shifts – whether it’s transitioning into a new school year for our kids, starting a new job, returning to work after parental leave, or moving to a new house – we have a tendency to chronically underestimate the length of the transition phase.

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We tend to think of all of these things as single events that are “over and done with” in a matter of days or even weeks. But, in reality, these events can sometimes take months and years to adjust to and feel “normal” about. And that’s both human and okay.

In our house, it’s back-to-school season, which we’ve redefined over the past few years to now encompass both the months of January and February. Knowing we won’t feel settled until long after Valentine’s Day, is a much more realistic (and much less stressful) expectation for us than thinking the “start of school” will be over before January ends.

Today, we share our advice on how to still “dream big” and set resolutions and goals, but still be able to realistically manage these.

How to ‘Dream big’

“Dream big!” That’s what they told us as kids, right? “If you can dream it, you can do it”, so declares all the motivational posters.

When we are young, we generally start off believing this. “One day I want to be a prima ballerina (said the girl with two left feet) and live in a mansion with a chocolate fountain and 12 horses.” But somewhere along the way, we tend to step back from these big dreams and give up on them.

Roll on a few decades to when we have kids of our own and we aren’t sleeping and feel like we are barely making it from one day to the next. In this stage of our lives, we often don’t ever bother to look up from what we’re doing and to sit and daydream. I mean who has the time for that or the bandwidth? Or perhaps we even assume that “THIS IS IT” and stop ourselves from daring to dreaming.

However, what is very strange, is that generally at the exact same time in another area of our brains, we often tell ourselves stories like: “I can go pick up my baby from day-care, make a healthy 5-course meal, wash all the bottles, respond to 20 e-mails, do some exercise and read a parenting book all before midnight!”
I mean talk about big dreams!

ALSO READ: How maternity leave can actually be GOOD for your career (according to experts)

In our day-to-day lives, we repeatedly delude ourselves about just how much we can actually get done in a relatively short period of time. And when that ridiculously long to-do list of things doesn’t get done by someone with superhuman powers or fairy dust, then we tend to feel completely disappointed and deflated. Or worse, we criticize ourselves for not getting “it all” done.

What a paradox! One part of us is actively telling us to stop thinking big, while another is simultaneously deluding ourselves into thinking we can do it all.

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Some food for thought

We’ve been thinking about paradoxes a lot lately, particularly after having started Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. She points out some daily practices that feel like paradoxes but if correctly applied can be leverage off for maximum gains. For example, she says:

  • People are Hard to Hate Close Up. So move In.
  • Speak Truth to Bullsh*t. Be Civil.
  • Hold Hands. Especially with Strangers.
  • Have a Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Based on this, we thought we’d proffer our own paradoxical instruction for working parents who don’t have enough time but still want to dream:


Dream Big. Be Realistic. But how do you practically apply this? We reconcile this paradox with the following instruction:

Dream Big for the LONG Term. Be Realistic for TODAY.

Some strategies to help you reach your goals

Start by imagining a world in which you can, over time, do something huge and amazing

Take Kelly McCann’s example in Stepping Back After Kids: A Working Mom’s Winding Path to the C-Suite. Our paths to those big jobs or goals need not be linear. And they certainly need not mimic the road someone else took. (Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.)

Our own BIG dream is that one day, every new parent who returns to work after parental leave will feel empowered to be a leader. Is that going to happen by tomorrow? Or next year? No. But it’s certainly worth orienting ourselves and all the little steps that we take day-to-day – in that direction.

Set realistic goals

Just for today, work on setting realistic goals about what you’re going to “accomplish”. (We put “accomplish” in quotes, because really, BEING with our children, and just BEING as ourselves, might not qualify in many books as an “accomplishment”, but it’s extremely worthy of our time.)

Can you cut down your “must do” list for today to just 3 things?

Write those 3 things on a post-it note, and put it on your computer monitor in the morning. YES, it’s true that we become prioritising ninjas as working parents.

Can your list of 3 things include at least one thing that points in the direction of that BIG dream you have? No matter what happens in our day or week (and believe us, there are weeks when nothing goes right), We make it a priority to take some sort of baby step in the direction of that big dream of ours.

Whether it’s writing a blog post, moderating a conversation among the new mamas in our e-course, or even simply reading an article on paid leave, we consciously try to move the ball daily.

We are talking about being intentional here. Actually taking time out of our day and year to see the big picture (hello, annual planning days!). And embracing the baby pace, even as we dream our big dreams.

After all, “all it takes is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust” (plus don’t forget some good strategies, a big dose of courage, some good delegation skills, open communication, some self-love and big dreams!).

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