Friday, May 25, 2007

Re-imagining Your Life Story

Here's a true-life parenting tale that happened to me just yesterday. I'm going for a walk in the park with my daughter when she starts writhing in her stroller. Soon she has worked her way out of her seatbelt and is climbing out the back, causing the stroller to nearly tip over backwards. People on bikes, rollerblades and foot are watching our commotion. I start to yell, "No, that's not okay. You're going to get hurt! Sit down! Sit down!" My daughter looks up at me and starts to cry.

So that's the movie-script version of what-happened. So what's my life-script version of the story? Two competing versions come to mind...

In the first, I am a bad mother. I should know better. My daughter is writhing around because she knows her Cheerios are in the bag behind her seat. Lunchtime was over a while ago, so she's probably ready for her snack. It's also hot, and she might be thirsty, thinking there's a bottle of water in there too. There are all these people watching us as she nearly falls out the back of her stroller. I could have prevented this if I had only correctly anticipated her needs.

In the second, my daughter and I are victims of a few missteps and bad circumstances. She had a huge lunch, and she's non-verbal, so I just missed her cues that she could be hungry again. It's hot out, and people are watching, so embarrassment and fatigue caused me to react more forcefully than usual. I'm also taking this walk with her in the hopes she might fall asleep. She needs a nap, and my plan to help her meet this need doesn't seem to be working. I really just want to help, and it's frustrating when I can't make things work out for her. I know I over-reacted in the moment, but once I figured out she just wanted the Cheerios, she sat back contentedly in her seat, and my outburst was seemingly forgotten. She never did fall asleep on the walk, but she did go down easily once we were home and she could rest in her bed. We had an otherwise lovely afternoon together.

So, which version is "true"? Well, they both are, depending on how you look at it (or at least how I'm feeling when I look at it). In the first, my bad parenting moment is a result of being a "bad mother", an inherent character flaw that leaves me little hope of parenting more mindfully in the future. In the second, my bad parenting "moment" is just that, in what is an otherwise fulfilling parenting relationship with my daughter. Some bad circumstances and unmet needs conspired against us, but with this knowledge, I have hope of being more patient, intuitive, and prepared in the future. In the second story, I have a sense of my own agency in being able to overcome parenting obstacles. In the first version, I blame myself: "I should know better." I don't know anyone who improves at "knowing better", so to "know better" seems like a lost cause. In the "story" of my parenting life, the second version feels more like the interpretation I can live with. I had my "bad moment", I got through it, I have a sense of what I'd do differently next time, and the "bad moment" didn't take away all the good moments that preceded or followed it.

In any of our challenging life roles, it's possible to re-imagine the "character flaw version" of our life stories as "overcoming adversity" narratives. Our personalities are not our destinies. In every true-life tale, there is the potential for multiple interpretations. The versions that highlight our agency to overcome adversity enable us to live the best life we can imagine.

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