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On family expectations

A member of my family is expecting a baby: cue applause, coos, expressions of delight, and the sound of excited aunties scrabbling at wallets to go and pick up the cutest, tiniest booties from a nearby branch of Mothercare.

Exciting though it is for some (the pregnant couple are clearly ecstatic about it), there are others who are tempering their squeals of joy with mutterings: “when’s the wedding?” they ask, with pursed lips and a sour expression.

The answer, in this case, is that there isn’t one.

Traditional family expectations

Perhaps it’s the season: a couple of weeks of touring relatives can give one an unnecessary burden of expectations. Where’s your boyfriend/girlfriend? When are you getting married? Where are the grandchildren with which you’re obliged to provide me?

There are some things we’re expected to do that are fair enough: respond to a nice gift with a thank you letter, help with the washing up so the cook doesn’t have to do it, smile at the Jeremy Clarkson book that Gran thought you’d like even though any decent human would rather eat it than read it. Sometimes we’re expected to do things because they’re just decent things to do, which is fine. But there’s more that sneaks over the line, laying expectations on individuals that are either impossible or undesirable to carry out.

Perhaps it’s families: older relatives are so used to passing on their wisdom that when advice turns to expectation we barely notice the difference. “You’re a lovely girl, you can find a great partner” easily melts into “you’ve got a lovely partner, you should marry him” and onward to “where’s the baby?” fairly naturally. There isn’t an obvious stopping point, at which relatives prompt themselves to step back.

We all do it

I understand why grandparents think a wedding should happen before a birth: it’s how it was in their day, and it’s what they’re used to. Luckily, though, not everyone shares the opinions of those born eight decades ago: we get less prescriptive, society becomes more liberal… it’s how progress happens.

But it happens much more slowly because so many of us stick to the status quo – we expect things of others because it’s the easy thing to do. Far simpler to join in with teasing loved-up friends about marriage and babies than to leave well alone and let them make up their own minds. Far easier to frown at people who choose something different than to celebrate their choice and show interest.

I’m sick of these unnecessary expectations. Not just the ones about marriage and babies, but the other ones too. Losing weight, going on dates, earning money, buying a house, having exactly the right amount of fun but not so much you appear out of control. Have the right kind of sex (fun, varied, but not too kinky) with exactly the right people (ones you love, ideally one at a time). We expect people to be bright and eager, but not desperate. To have a plan, but not too much ambition. To make money, but in ways we approve of. To live, achieve, then die to order.

The rebellious ones

Perhaps worse is that even when people reject these things we still paint them into a corner. As the one who rejects stuff. The one who isn’t traditional. The one who’s rebellious. So-and-so will never get married because she’s always been the odd one out. That boy will always sleep around because he always has. Rejecting the traditional trajectory doesn’t send you on a whole new journey, without any expectations at all, it just lumbers you with a new set.

So while the pregnant couple grimace through questions about weddings, others are expected to never get married, or at least to do something wild and reckless before they don a ring and a dress. Still others have to grin and bear a grilling on why they haven’t got a boyfriend yet, when the answer may well be ‘I just don’t want one‘.

I’m guilty of this too. For all the ‘live and let live’ ranting on this blog, Christmas with relatives has led me to deduce that although when pressed I’ll tell you I have no expectations, my default position is to assume everyone’s similar. That we all want more or less the same things, and that my own route to happiness is the best one for us all to take.

My resolution for 2014: expect nothing.