THE BLOG
08/19/2013 01:48 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Throwing Your 'Hopeless Chest' Overboard: How to Get Rid of Expectations That Diminish Your Quality of Life

Raise your hand if you remember hope chests -- you know, the trunks that were issued to young girls of yesteryear. Girls were supposed to fill their trunks with "must-have" items for use once they got married. Things like dishes, linens and anti-depressants. In other words, your everyday basics.

The fact that I am having to explain this makes me very happy. That tells me that at least one of the ways in which society historically conditioned young girls to be singularly focused on marriage has fallen by the wayside. Now, if we could just get the hopeless chest to follow suit...

The hopeless chest is downloaded into girls' psyche at an early age. It contains list of skills that girls are expected to master by the time they are fully grown. The skills include housekeeping, cooking, mistake-free parenting, arts and crafts, scrapbooking, photo library science, greeting card communication, in-law diplomacy and the ability to look stunning at all times. Girls are raised to believe that mastery of these skills is necessary in order to be a worthy wife and mother. And women who don't master all of them often end up feeling hopeless. (And that's where the anti-depressants come in handy.)

While I have my own set of talents, I have no real aptitude for many of the skills contained in a typical hopeless chest. For decades, I struggled with feeling like a substandard wife and mother. I was spotty at greeting card communication. I chronically underperformed when it came to maintaining the family photo albums. And my scrapbooking capabilities were non-existent.

But I did plenty of other things that weren't on the list. I made up stories involving my kids' favorite imaginary characters. I took them block walking for a political candidate so they could experience grass roots democracy first-hand. I brought them to local theater productions and other community events. We spent tons of time together doing many interesting things. And it wasn't that I thought these things didn't count at all; but I felt they did little to help me meet the minimum standard for being a good wife and mom.

After countless cycles of trying, failing and beating myself up, I eventually realized I was never going to master these skills. And it wasn't a question of time and effort, it was a question of basic ability. And that prompted a long-overdue examination of their actual importance. Were personalized scrapbooks and up-to-date photo albums really necessary for my kids to have a happy childhood?

I finally saw how absurd it was to put so much emphasis on these specific skills. It's not that there is anything wrong with the skills in the hopeless chest; it's just that there is nothing essential about any of them. A kid could easily have a rich and loving childhood with mom who possessed an entirely different set of skills than the ones in the hopeless chest.

Like mismatched Tupperware in your kitchen cabinet, your hopeless chest is worse than useless to you. It actually gets in your way. The sooner you toss this chest and all of its contents overboard, the better off you'll be. In realistic terms, that means identifying the skills you always assumed you should be able to do well simply because you're a woman. The list of skills can vary from person to person because the contents of hopeless chests have regional and cultural differences. For example, because I'm Italian-American, my hopeless chest contained the expectation that I would master the art of making an amazing marinara sauce from scratch. Luckily for both my family and my self-esteem, that is one skill I possess.

Figure out what tasks have always caused you to feel inadequate as a woman, and stop letting these outdated notions and unrealistic expectations diminish the satisfaction you get out of all the things you do well. Appreciate the talents you do possess and rather than sweating the skills you lack, admire them when you find them in others instead.

Getting rid of your hopeless chest once and for all will not only benefit you, it will benefit your entire family. You'll break the cycle of passing this garbage down from generation to generation, which will do your kids and future grandkids a huge favor. And green-lighting your family members to celebrate the strengths and skills they have rather than fretting over the ones they don't will lead to higher quality of life and lower therapy bills for everyone.

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