How we battle the burden of expectations

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Welcome to “Couldn’t be me”, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me @_Zeets.

This past weekend, 27-year-old midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo scored two sublime goals with one assist during his MLS debut with Toronto FC. In one game, he went from being seen as a hopeful prospect to perhaps an already special player. Now, he has to bear the burden of expectations that come from replacing the departed Sebastian Giovinco as the club’s face and creative force.

That sudden shift, from being just another member of the team to being seen as a leader, seemed like a good occasion to explore how we respond to sudden expectations. I took two responses this week, but as you’ll see there was one that was particularly near to my heart.

Alejandro: “I recently made my debut for a new team in the United States, and though I was nervous and not much was expected of me going in, I scored two goals and had an assist. One of those goals was a deft chip over the keeper from just inside the box. It was wonderful. But now I worry that I will be expected to perform like that in every game, and that I might not be able to live up to the standard that I set.”

CBM: The good thing, Alejandro, is that regardless of what comes after, you have at least made your way into the history books. No one can forget a debut like that. The worry is understandable; as weird as it is to say, sometimes a great first impression can become a burden. But it’s also worth remembering that while most sports fans are fickle, many are understanding.

Your career at this new team will hopefully be long. You’ve shown that you have great talent. As long as you perform your best and fight for the team, fans will adore you. Even if you fail to live up to the standards of the first game, they won’t turn on you. At worst, you’ll become a story of what could have been, which would hardly make you a pariah. But I think you will do just fine. This performance is just the beginning of a great story, not the exceptional highlight of a mediocre one.

Chris: “Becoming financial head of family when it was a period of time I should have been free to figure life out. In hindsight, it taught a lot, but [I] was still a kid … same old boring story. Folks lost job, I had two. So I had to keep up with my awesome Jetta at the time, but also rent for a place, and take care of groceries, etc. My mind spent more time worried about [overtime] than honing a craft, learning about myself. My own mental health. You learn to deal over time.”

CBM: Your situation is something that I, and I think a lot of young children from poor families, relate to. Sometimes you don’t get a childhood because it’s taken from you by the obligations of your circumstances. You mature quickly and take on roles that are beyond you because your family needs you.

I sometimes feel envious when I hear friends talk about the reckless and carefree fun that they had as teenagers. Going to wild house parties, and summer camps. Young love. Joyrides in cars. Sneaking into forbidden places. Having listless days with no obligations other than to be a kid who gets to explore the world. All simple things, but it breaks my heart to think about how I missed those memories.

For me, carefree fun and exploration didn’t exist in the same way it does for others. It’s not that life was without joy. My childhood was filled with wonderful times. I’m sure yours was, too. Humans find happiness anywhere and in any situation.

But all of that wonderful is diminished and constricted by the world around it. I couldn’t sneak into forbidden places because if the police arrived, I was likely to be jailed. Or worse. Poverty doesn’t strip life of happiness or exploration, it just limits their potential, and punishes you for any missteps.

I remember how some of my media friends were shocked when I told them how many fights I had been in as a kid. Most of them could count the number of fights they had been in on one hand. Some had never been in a real fistfight. Yet for me and so many of my childhood friends, fighting was a natural part of growing up.

And then there is the family-specific stress that comes from situations like ours. In my case, my family has six kids, and when we moved to the United States, my parents, who had been professors in Nigeria, had to go to school to get their certifications again. That meant that they had to work menial jobs to provide for us at the same time they were going to school at night.

In those days, rather than hanging out with friends, I would go home, do my homework (OK, many times I didn’t), and then go with my parents to their classes. They couldn’t understand a lot of what their professors were saying and were unfamiliar with computers, so I had to translate, ask questions, and help with their work. I always joke with them that I did my Masters in High School.

Even after they became teachers, my dad and mom sold ice cream in the summer to supplement their incomes. Rather than using time off during the summers to explore, I was selling ice cream with my dad from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., and then playing soccer in the free time that I had.

My parents eventually stopped selling ice cream, but they still worked after-school programs to supplement their teacher salaries. I went to a university close to home to be able to drop my little brothers and sisters off at school, pick them up, take them to their own individual activities, pick them up from those, and then deputize the house until my parents returned from work. All this, while also playing soccer and chasing a dream of playing at a professional level.

I once had an emotional explosion at my mom when she asked me to pick up one of my siblings at the same time that I had practice. I was angry because I had never asked for that burden. I told her that I hadn’t lived my life; all I had done was take care of people so that they could go live theirs. At the same time, I was watching my friends go on adventures and expand their horizons.

She was sympathetic, but she asked me, “What else can we do?” It was frustrating, but giving up that burden would have been disastrous for the family. She also said that it was a miracle for a family to have someone who could act as an extra caretaker.

She was right, there’s nobility in being the person who helps everyone. It’s probably the greatest responsibility that you can have. While your ego wants you to be selfish, sometimes rightfully so, being in a position to help your family, to keep them safe and stable, is a gift.

The problem is, once everyone is in a better and more stable place, you are left with that life that you didn’t get to live. You’re older, and you realize just how much you missed. And though you still have space to try new things, you find that opportunities have been closed off as you got older. You have fewer possible lives, and that knowledge can make you feel bitter towards the world and your own family.

There’s no fix for that feeling of loss and bitterness. Or if there is, I haven’t found it. As Jay-Z said, “In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets.”

But it is important to remember the role you played in helping your family. It would have been better if the family had been more stable, but there’s greatness in doing what has to be done to make sure everyone else survives.

And of course, just because some lives are no longer available doesn’t mean that you don’t have a great number of possible selves ahead of you. You might not have had the same number of experiences as others who were more fortunate, but I would argue that you probably understand the world better than most. You can go forward with that knowledge and explore the things that are still out there.

The world is still before you. As Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations:

”We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.”

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