Coping with uncertainty and managing expectations

The transition to parenthood is often full of ambiguity and uncertainty, which can sometime make feelings of anxiety worse. For example, when you have a baby, you might be surrounded by people who offer you advice (either off or online). However, this advice is often conflicting, making it difficult to know which route to take and what the right thing to do is. And this can lead to feelings of significant confusion, pressure and overwhelm, and worries about whether you are making the right choice.

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Those who are more tolerant to uncertainty are less likely to experience anxiety. Poor tolerance to uncertainty can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some people may feel paralysed by uncertainty – not wanting to make a decision about something, in case it’s the wrong one. Some may repeatedly go over and worry about all of the possible outcomes of an event, in the hope that this will prepare them for all possible eventualities. Others may constantly check things, or repeatedly seek out reassurance from others to try to alleviate the uncertainty they feel. And these behaviours can often be anxiety provoking in of themselves.

Unfortunately, pregnancy and parenthood are full of unknown quantities; whether they are small things (like not knowing how many muslin cloths to buy) or large (not knowing how to look after a baby). And as there is almost nothing in life that we can really be 100% certain about, the best ways to cope with this is by accepting uncertainty, and building our tolerance it.

Acceptance

One way of dealing with the negative impact that uncertainty can have on your mental health is to change the way you think about it. Rather than trying to fight against it, and minimise uncertainty in any way you can think of… it can be more helpful to try to just accept that uncertainty is a part of life, and start to let go of trying to control and understand everything.

We know this is easier said that done, but one way to try to do this is to use a technique similar to thought distancing. Let’s look at an example.

When you notice that a thought about uncertainty pops into your head, rather than chasing it, and worrying about it… try to take a step back from it, and just observe it. Try to notice how it makes you feel, without judging, and without reacting to it in any way.

For example, you could say to yourself something like:

“I notice that I’m having a thought about uncertainty, and that a lack of certainly makes me feel anxious. I feel agitated, my heart rate is speeding up, and I feel tense in my shoulders and jaw. I feel like I need to do something to stop this discomfort. But I’m just going to sit and watch these feelings for a while …”

When you have a worry like this, take a step back and ask yourself – is this something I can control, or not? In most cases, there is no way of knowing the outcome of our situation… and there is no way of being able to guarantee a specific outcome. Worrying about things you can’t know or control isn’t productive, and will only make your symptoms worse. So the best thing you can do is try to accept the uncertainty, and let it go from your mind.

You could try saying something like this to yourself “Being uncertain about something does not mean something bad will happen. Uncertainty is part of life, and I need to accept this, and let my need for certainty go.”

Have faith in yourself

Recognising how you feel about uncertainty is important. We know that not knowing how things will turn out, and not knowing what will happen in the future can cause some people significant anxiety. Another method that might help you to begin to accept uncertainty is to have faith in your ability to cope with the unknown.

Take a moment to think about how you coped with a situation in the past when things didn’t go exactly according to plan (in either a big way, or a small way). How did you feel the last time life threw you a curve ball… or when something unexpected happened? Maybe you felt stressed because things didn’t go according to plan. Maybe you felt ok with it; or maybe it didn’t really bother you at all. And as well as thinking about how it made you feel, think about what you did. Were you able to cope with this unexpected event?

Often our anxieties about uncertainty are linked to the fact that we underestimate our ability to cope in unexpected (and/or negative) situations. So sometimes it can help to remind ourselves that unexpected things happen all of the time; and most of the time we are able to cope with what is thrown at us.

Building tolerance

One way to become more comfortable with uncertainly is through practice and exposure. You can start to do this by changing your behaviour, and acting as if you are comfortable with uncertainty. Remember, anxiety is made up of thoughts, feelings and behaviours… and if you can change one of those things, the others will often follow. Here are a few things you could try:

  • Many people who are intolerant of uncertainty will try to do everything themselves, because they cannot be certain it will be done properly if they let others do it. To help build up your tolerance of uncertainly, try to challenge this. Instead of doing everything yourself – let your partner, or a family member help out with the baby, or with the day-to-day chores.
  • When you feel uncertain, it can be tempting to constantly seek reassurance from others (this might be friends, family, healthcare providers, or online). If you can, try to resist this and try to build up trust in your own decisions.
  • Avoid spending lots of time online, searching for answers and information about parenting and infant wellbeing. While some information is helpful, there is a lot of conflicting and extreme information available online, which is unlikely to be helpful and may even make your anxiety worse.

Unrealistic Expectations

Our research has found that holding unrealistic expectations about parenthood can be a significant trigger for anxiety in the perinatal period. High expectations for motherhood and rigid ideas about parenting can lead to unnecessary anxiety when things don’t go as planned; and can leave you feeling anxious and as if you have done something wrong – when you haven’t!

The transition to parenthood is full of uncertainty and unpredictability, making it difficult for events to unfold in the exact manner that you might be hoping for or expecting. And unfortunately, many of us are really hard on ourselves when our reality does not match up to what we were expecting… and this can lead to feelings of anxiety.

There are two key ways in which we can tackle this issue:

  • Adjust our expectations
  • Be kinder to ourselves when things don’t go according to plan

Adjusting unrealistic expectations

Let’s start by having a look at your expectations and asking yourself whether or not they are likely to be helpful or reasonable.

 

If any of these expectation patterns look familiar, it might be time to consider adjusting your expectations to allow room for more flexibility. Try to be realistic in your expectations; or keep your expectations more open. This can really impact your wellbeing, as research suggests that people with these types of expectations may be more likely to feel irritable and anxious, even after doing what they can to try to meet their expectations (which can often be stressful in of itself).

Be kind to yourself

Whatever your expectations are, it is difficult (if not impossible) to be fully prepared for how unpredictable parenthood can be… so it is important to try to be pragmatic and realistic when possible. And if your experience doesn’t quite match up to the expectations that you help, remember to be kind to yourself.

Parenthood is challenging; and most of us are just muddling through the best we can. We all have our ups and down, and sometimes things go to plan, but often they don’t. So if things don’t go as you hoped – try to practice some self-compassion.

People who feel anxious can often be quite self-critical. And we are usually much harder on ourselves than we would ever be with anyone else. So next time you find yourself berating yourself for something, try to turn that critical self-talk around. Imagine what you might say to someone else who was in your shoes, and turn that comment back on yourself. It will almost certainly be more compassionate.

Let’s look at some examples of how we can turn self-criticism into self-compassion.

Critical Talk Compassionate Talk
I’m useless. I feel hugely underprepared… there are so many things I don’t know about how to raise child. This is normal – you can never know everything about parenting.  Being a mum is a constant learning experience.
I’m so pathetic for feeling overwhelmed about becoming a parent. Being a parent is a lot of responsibility, it’s perfectly normal to feel daunted about it all.
I’ve done a lot of stupid and irresponsible things in the past.  I’ll never be a good mum. Everyone has a past, and everyone has weaknesses. I need to remember that I also have a lot of really good qualities. There is no such thing as a perfect mum.
I’m such an idiot.  I keep getting things wrong. Everyone makes mistakes; what counts is what I take away from this experience. Making mistakes has nothing to do with my intelligence, or ability as a mother.

Myth busting

Unrealistic expectations can come from a variety of different places, and our research shows that women feel under significant pressure to live up to idealised notions of motherhood that are often portrayed by both mainstream and social media. However, these idealised notions are just that – idealised. In other words, they do not represent reality!

So let’s finish this section by taking a moment to debunk some of the often seen motherhood myths that can contribute to unrealistic expectations, and contribute to feels of anxiety and inadequacy.

Myth Reality
You must only breastfeed your baby. There is no consistent evidence to suggest that bottle feeding babies causes them harm or reduces their health or wellbeing.
Breastfeeding should be easy and come naturally. For some women, this might be true… but for many women this is simply not the case.  Breastfeeding can often be painful and difficult, which can leave women feeling like they have failed in some way. This simply isn’t true. The good news is that there is a huge amount of information and support available for you if you want to breastfeed, but are finding it difficult.  Look for your local breastfeeding clinics or cafes, as our research shows that many women find them invaluable. And if you decide that breastfeeding isn’t for you, please know that that is totally fine too.   The most important thing is that your baby is getting fed!
Good mothers don’t have negative thoughts and feelings, or mental health issues. All mothers experience worries during the perinatal period – it is totally normal.  And anyone can experience perinatal mental health problems.  It has no bearing on your ability to be a good parent.
Motherhood is easy – you can do everything you did before, and simultaneously look after a baby single-handed. They will just fit into my life.

 

Ummm… no.  They may be small and cute, but they can significantly impact all areas of your life: how often you go out, how much time you have to do housework, your energy levels, your finances, etc… it might be a good idea to get a more realistic impression of what having a/another baby is likely to be like. Talking to other mums, or hearing their stories might be able to better prepare you for what is to come.

Research has repeatedly shown that mothers can find parenthood challenging, particularly in the early days when you are recovering from the birth and adjusting to your new life as a family.  So please be kind to yourself, give yourself a break and make use of any support network that you have (e.g. friends, family, etc…) to help you.

My baby will sleep all of the time… and if they don’t, I can just train them to sleep through the night While some parents may have babies that sleep well from the get go, most don’t. Like adults, babies vary wildly in their temprements, and while some might be good sleepers, others may not.  Furthermore, some babies may have health conditions (like reflux) that may negatively impact their ability to sleep.

In terms of training, while there are a number of baby books that offer sleep solutions for infants, there is often no evidence to back them up.  Furthermore, a recent study suggests that using these types of books may be linked to an increased likelihood of symptoms of depression and anxiety.

If I don’t do everything perfectly, I’ll be letting down my child. There is such thing as a perfect parent, and most experts agree that there is no single “correct” way to bring up a child.  As long as the basics are there (i.e. you child is fed and clothed), you are doing just fine!
Babies shouldn’t cry or be fussy. Babies cry.  It’s just their way of telling you that they want or need something.  Research shows that they tend to cry more in the late afternoon/evening than earlier in the day.  Furthermore, some babies cry more than others, because (just like adults) they are people who have different temperaments.

Look after yourself and seek help, if you need it.