On Expectations

Someone posted this video on Facebook today, and it really affected me. It is a Ted talk by Barry Schwartz titled “The Paradox of Choice.” The basic premise is that the secret to happiness is low expectations, and this is something that has been true for me in the past few months.

As I wrote in my previous post, my life bottomed out after I left my husband. In truth, it bottomed out before I left my husband, which was why I left him. Still, while we were married, I had a fair amount of material comforts. We weren’t well off, but we owned a home and two cars. We had a kitchen we remodeled ourselves. We could afford to occasionally take vacations.

After I left him, things weren’t so comfortable. My son and I moved in with my sweet friend Rebecca and her partner, Evan, for a month, and we each slept on twin mattresses on the floor. I was injured and in a lot of physical pain. I was also in emotional pain, and I was in shock. I actually have holes in my memory from much of that time period. I couldn’t take any time off work, and so despite my physical and emotional limitations, I had to continue being responsible for the education of 88 students. I was adjusting to being a single mom. My husband, for all of his flaws, had been a fairly active father, and it was difficult to have to do everything myself. My son had snow days and 2-hour-delays, and I had to find people to watch him, so I could go to work. This caused me a great deal of stress. I had to unpack my house, put things away, and figure out how to fix problems in my 80-year-old house that I had never had to fix before. I had no idea what was going to happen in my future. Although I worked well over full-time hours, I was an adjunct instructor, so I was considered a part-time employee with no health insurance or benefits. I didn’t know if I would even have work in the summer or in the upcoming semester. I had to find a lawyer and figure out how to file for divorce without losing my healthcare. I could go on and on. It was just a terrible time.

It culminated in me calling my mother from the side of the freeway sobbing about 4 months after I had separated from my husband. After everything I had been through, the thing that nearly broke me was when my husband and I met to trade off our son in a nearby town, and I was hurt by the way his father had looked at me. It seems so silly in comparison to the other struggles that I had in my life at that time, but the hardest thing to go through was the grief of losing my husband and his family, or at least the dream of what I had thought we would have together. And that moment, by the side of the freeway, was the moment that I realized we were never going to have any of that. We were never going to have anything together again,  and I moved on then from the stage of denial and isolation.

When I look back at my life, I can identify that as the lowest point in my life, but honestly, things did start to look up after that. It’s a such a cliché, but they did. All of those problems I described previously, I resolved. I figured out how to get into a routine where I could manage the demands of being a single mom. I figured out what I was going to do for work. I figured out where I would get my health insurance. I figured out how to afford a lawyer (I found a lawyer who represented me for free). I won custody of my son. I sacrificed on certain financial matters with my husband, so that he wouldn’t drag our divorce into a long battle. I moved to another state.

I moved on with my life. And I did it with the help of my parents and many friends, but I did it without him. Part of our dynamic, and why I stayed long after he started abusing me, was because he said that I needed him, that I couldn’t do things on my own, and I believed him. But I have learned now that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to.

So, now, I live without a lot of material comforts. My son and I live in a tiny apartment. My teaching fellowship doesn’t stretch far enough for vacations or luxuries. I don’t have a washer and dryer or a dishwasher. None of that matters though. I am still much happier than I was a year ago.

I agree with Schwartz’s premise. Even though my life now is very stressful–I don’t think anyone would say that being a single mother and PhD student is easy–having low expectations has helped me manage that stress. Having low expectations doesn’t mean that I’ve settled. I don’t feel that way at all. Honestly, I am living my dream right now, and it is something I never could have done while I was still married, but I have lowered my expectations, and lowering my expectations has freed me.