Recently, I have been thinking about my journey through motherhood. With spring comes Mother’s Day and both of my kids’ birthdays, so the opportunity to reflect on milestones presents itself frequently during this season. As I thought about motherhood, it struck me how harshly I frequently judge myself. I once saw an image on the internet that encapsulated my experience. The image was of a mother and a young daughter, with a thought bubble of the mom’s thoughts, “I could have been a better mom today,” and the daughter’s thought bubble, “I have the best mommy in the whole world.” Two people lived the same day, exchanged the same interactions, yet experienced it, or at least remembered it, differently.
Thinking about how people can have different perspectives on the same situation reminded me of a social work training I attended several years ago. The trainer held up a white sheet of paper with a black dot on it. She explained that oftentimes when working with a child that is struggling with intense behaviors it is easy to focus on the black dot. She then challenged us to flip our perspective and our energy to focus on the bigger picture, the remainder of the white paper. The dot is representative of a small amount of time in a 24 hour day. However, it is eye-catching, it draws our attention, and if we let it, it consumes our thoughts. I do not remember everything about the training, but I remember this paper and dot analogy so clearly, because I found it applicable to my own life. I have often returned home from work, focused on my “terrible day,” yet when I sit down and think through the day, it was really just a tough hour. Or, I think of conversations I have had with a friend or family member and how one of my words or phrases came out wrong. After the conversation, I will fixate on how rude or insensitive I was with the one word or phrase, despite a majority of the conversation being pleasant. The dot of a misspoken word on the full page of pleasant conversation.
The black dot analogy connects to many of my life experiences. This is why it applied seamlessly into the reality that parents and kids often remember experiences differently. It seems that moms are often harder on ourselves than our kids are on us. It makes me wonder, are kids somehow able to keep their focus on the whole page while parents struggle to see beyond the dot?
For example, my kids and I have been anticipating planting our garden for a month. Ever since we started the seeds inside our house, we have been looking forward to the day we got to plant them in our backyard garden. This year, we expanded our garden plot to twice last year’s size, so we were extra excited to fill it up! The day finally arrived and we spent hours digging, planting, and putting up a garden fence. I absolutely loved the first hour: my hands were covered with dirt and my children eagerly helped, digging in the dirt and then taking turns chasing each other with the garden hose. However, by the third hour, as I awkwardly struggled with the fence, afraid to take a break because the rabbits might eat my plants, I was over it. I was exhausted and sun burned and no longer loving the fact that my previously little garden was now huge. Later that evening, I was still stuck “in the black dot” of the experience, fixating on the exhaustion and frustration. We started supper and my son shared his “high” (the best part) of his day, exclaiming, “We planted the garden!” He then excitedly told his dad about digging in the dirt, finding worms, and transplanting the seedlings he had started indoors weeks earlier. I smiled recalling all the fun we had. Three hours of outdoor work and this kid had nothing but excitement to share.
Another example of a recent experience occurred on my daughter’s birthday.She really wanted a party this year and while we were still hesitant due to COVID, we decided to do a small gathering with a couple of friends at a frequently unoccupied outdoor playground. She could not wait! The day arrived, the sun was shining and everything was set to be ideal. Then about 30 minutes before the start of the party, the wind picked up. Not just a little wind, A LOT of wind. We arrived at the park with decorations in hand and they promptly all blew away. After chasing them around the field and duct taping them to anything that was bolted down, we welcomed our guests. However, then the grill couldn’t keep a flame and we were unable to cook the hotdogs. We had to open birthday presents in a bag in order to prevent the paper from instantly blowing away. The kids took turns chasing personalized birthday cards across the field as each immediately blew away when lifted merely an inch out of the bag. At one point, my daughter was laying flat on the table, her arms and feet reaching as far as they would go so that nothing would blow away, shouting “I’ve got this!” Throughout the party, my husband and I exchanged approximately 100 panicked looks and after a few hours we all left with wind burned cheeks. We arrived home completely spent, flopping down onto the couch. The wind had been a solid black dot of the party and I was stuck, fixating on how nothing had gone according to plan.Then my daughter began to skip around the living room singing, “This was the best day ever! I love my birthday! I love my party! Best day everrrrrr.”
Both of these recent experiences left me wondering, when do we flip from the “that was the best day ever” to “that experience was one black dot”? When do life experiences move from “we dug in the dirt and found worms and planted a garden!” to “gardening is exhausting”? Does the very transition from parenting cause someone to move from “I have the best mommy” to “I could have done better”? At what point in life do we start finding ourselves stuck in the black dot of frustrating and disappointing unexpecteds instead of capturing the unexpected moments of joy flowing out of the rest of the white paper?
I wish I could answer these questions with a clear, simple answer, because that would imply a clear, simple solution. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the answer is simple. I think it involves a significant perspective change, one that I am still navigating day-to-day. I have found that developing an awareness of the trap of fixating on the negative seems to be the first step. When I find myself stuck on the dot, I intentionally remember the rest of the page. For example, recently throughout a particularly challenging season at my job, at the end of every day I wrote down one thing I loved about my job. Focusing on the one thing at the end of each day acted as a lifeline away from the dot of frustration and back to the rest of the page of contentment. As another example, on days when I feel I could have done better as a mom, I try to recall one thing that my son or daughter did that made me smile. And, if I am unable to recall a moment, I ask my kids. With my son, I may say, “We had a tough day today, huh? But let’s share our highs.” He ALWAYS has a high. Then I excitedly join in on his high and we talk about it, expand on it, replay it in our minds together. Hello, lifeline back out of the dot.
What works for me may not work for you; I think that we all navigate our way out of our black dots differently. However, my wish for myself is that I will be next to my daughter and her thought bubble will say, “I have the best mommy in the world” and mine will say, “I love being a mom.” And, memories of the fun day that we shared will outweigh the frustrating moments I would otherwise typically find myself stuck replaying. My wish for all of you is that you too will find a way each day to step out of the dot of frustration or disappointment and focus on the joy in the moments on the rest of the paper.
Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.