When Motherhood Is Nothing Like What You Expected

by Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco
A newborn baby kissing his mother's nose while the mom is holding him and smiling
Halfpoint / Shutterstock

My children, Jenny, Jamie and Tracy, are currently lying face up in a box in my closet.

Perhaps I should clarify. These three children are part of my vast and beloved doll collection, which I started when I was 4 years old and got my first Cabbage Patch Doll (Tracy Jill. Her head falls off occasionally, but otherwise she looks fabulous for 34). I truly believed that I was the mother of all of these dolls.

Why am I keeping these precious children in a closet, you might ask? Because of my actual children. I have a 5-year-old boy who literally stuck his tongue out when first introduced to Tracy and a 2-year-old boy who would love nothing more than to rip Tracy’s head off and throw it in the washing machine.

I maintained my dolls lovingly, eagerly anticipating my own daughter playing with them. My mother promised to buy me a beautiful trunk for my dolls, so that they’d be well-preserved for my own little girl.

I always expected to have a daughter. I have a sister, and we are very close to each other and to our mother (I should add that I have a brother too, to whom I am also very close, even though when we were kids he put Tracy in the oven). As a teenager and young adult, when I imagined being a mother, I saw myself with girls. More specifically, I had an image of a “mini-me” playing with my old dolls and belting out musical theater songs (my other childhood pastime).

Don’t get me wrong — I love my boys more than I can ever express, and I wouldn’t trade them for any other kids, male or female. But I have to say, when I learned that my second kid was a boy, I had to completely readjust my expectations for what it would be like for me to be a mother. I would never have a little girl running around who looked and acted like me. I thought, perhaps, that my sons might dig my dolls — I fully support the idea of boys playing with toys that are traditionally marketed to girls, and vice versa — but like I said, my kids want no part of them. I gave my son Tracy, and he gave her a raspberry.

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I talk with moms constantly about adjusting their expectations. I specialize in cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety and stress, so I often hear about the anxiety that can ensue when the kids you end up with are not at all like the kids you thought you’d have. In my experience, for every mom who identifies her kid as a mini-me, there are 10 moms wondering, “Where the heck did this kid come from?”

Moms also have expectations about what the experience of motherhood will be like. Many of these expectations are of the “sunshine-and-flowers” variety, like, “Bliss all the time! Cuddles! Nesting!” But if my patients’ experiences and my own experience are any indication, motherhood rarely turns out as you expect it will. Maybe you expected that you’d want to work and ended up wanting to stay home with the kids, or vice versa. Maybe you thought your partner would be more, or less, of a co-parent than they actually are. Or maybe you went from wanting tons of kids to wanting one once you realized just how hard it was to be a parent.

I often talk to my patients about casting aside idealized notions of motherhood and embracing what’s actually happening. Moms need to adjust their expectations to meet the realities facing them — be they the realities of who your kid actually is, or the realities of your work or living situation, or the realities of your relationship with your partner. You can’t parent your kid — or care for yourself — effectively if you are clinging desperately to an idea of what motherhood should be that is not based in reality.

As for me, I’ve traded in my intimate knowledge of the American Girl catalog for intimate knowledge of the Bruder truck catalog. I can spot a front loader a mile away, and can name pretty much every resident of Sodor. I guess you can say that I’ve adjusted. Jenny, Tracy, and Jamie remain in their boxes, except when a fellow doll enthusiast comes to my house, in which case they make a cameo appearance.

I should also mention that my older son knows virtually every line of the Broadway musical Hamilton and runs around the house singing it.

He may be a boy, but I’m clearly in there somewhere.