Graduation season is upon us. Lately, every time I log onto Facebook, I see my friends updating their statuses saying that their final projects and theses have been submitted and they just picked up their caps and gowns. B’s work schedule has changed a bit to accommodate the exams, and in a couple weeks he will have a really long day at work when he attends the students’ graduation.

I finished graduate school in 2005. I indeed graduated, but it wasn’t with the acclaim and excitement that I had always thought it would be. When I was a college student, I loved studying and I fancied myself an incredibly serious student, which I was to a degree, face-stuffing and all (see “About” page). At that time I fashioned my identity to be pretty one-dimensional, with my role as a student and a smartypants at its core. It was academic achievement or nothing for me. Even my decision to date B, who was also a really dedicated student and generally bright person, was partially self-flattering because being with him meant that I was a really good student who only surrounded herself with people who confirmed that image I believed in so much.

So there was no question that I would go to grad school directly after college to get my MA, and do so with the gusto and success that I had received my BA. I saw this as an absolute fact, and I never once questioned it. My decision to go to grad school was as simple as black and white. When I got there and struggled to keep up and to maintain the same enthusiasm that I had when I was in college, you can imagine how befuddled I was. All of a sudden, things weren’t as obvious to me about who I was. Surrounded by people who I saw as smarter than me, I was forced to admit that the “obviousness” of me as an academic wasn’t panning out. I finished the degree, but I hated every second of it, and I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony.

I have until recently tended to see most things in black and white, just like I did graduate school. Things were either right or wrong, I was either smart or stupid, things were going entirely well or incredibly badly. I rested on the perceived polarities in my life for direction when I couldn’t find any elsewhere and I went through years gauging situations based on my extreme perceptions.

Now, I would say that there are quite a few problems with seeing all things in terms of black and white. Having gotten to know a lot of the readers of my blog through your own blogs and through your comments, I have a feeling many of you would agree with me on the pitfalls, and there are plenty. Whether you agree with me or not, I’d love for you to tell me your opinions in the comments.

But the one downside to approaching life with an all-or-nothing attitude that has caused me the most trouble is that when you see things in these absolute terms, you have to be incredibly convicted of your thoughts. There really is no room for doubting yourself. And obviously, if you have any vulnerability or insecurity about what you’re doing, you’re going to have some major problems.

To be sure, I have a lot of insecurities. A LOT. I doubt myself every single day. Even when I   think I’m making the right choices, I am still fraught with anxiety that I’m going to screw up because I wasn’t 100% sure from the get-go of my plans. I also have a hard time self-gauging how I’m generally doing in life, so I’ve relied on seeing things in black and white to give me some sort of false confirmation that I’m doing OK.

I’m really glad that as I’ve matured, my inclination to see things in black and white has diminished. It’s extremely difficult to be a good partner to your spouse if you’re adamantly reluctant to deviate from some arbitrary set of perceptions you’ve set out for yourself. Most of the problems I had with B during the first years of our marriage were based in me having some black and white expectation of what our relationship should look like. And now that I’m a parent, I’m learning that it’s altogether impossible to be happy if you can’t bend and curve with your family or allow yourself to see the colors of life beyond black and white. You just have to open your eyes, see the colors, and recognize that they make each day a whole lot more interesting.

Van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun (1888)

Miss C responds well to things that are black and white. She’s only about five weeks old, so those two opposites give her some meaning to the wholly new and foreign-to-her world.  She needs those polarities. As her parent, though, I am happy to see the colors of life. I make decisions now based not on the way I want to see things but on the complexities of the places that are in between opposites. And right now, that is something I will stand by. I may not wholly subscribe to any one philosophy of parenting, but that’s what’s right for us. I am a parent who lets the colors of the world inform the way I bring up my daughter.

It’s a lot more beautiful that way.


  1. krugthethinker · · Reply

    What a beautiful post! I can definitely relate to what you are saying, as someone who has a real black-and-white tendency. It really made things difficult for me, I think, in college and early grad school, and I’m so grateful for the grace that eventually led to embrace colors. I think it’s awesome that you are able to embrace whatever works for you and celebrate that. You are an inspiration! Love you!

    1. I remember back then we both kind of struggled with that together. The cool thing is that we were friends then and we are friends now, despite the fact that we were totally different people. I like us now :) Love you!

  2. Yup, yup and amen. Interesting note about the baby and the black and white. When my son was little, you could keep him quite for as much as 15 minutes by holding a Boston Market flyer in front of him. I still remember my husband reading the Sunday paper holding a Boston Market flyer in front of the boy’s face while the boy sat in his bouncy seat nearby.

    1. That is awesome! Although not nearly as interesting, C LOVES the contrast of her brown changing table against the white wall in her room. Just goes to prove that you can buy them all kinds of expensive toys and then they end up being fascinated with the most mundane things.

  3. Beautifully writing! Sounds like you are figuring it out on your path,just like the rest of us!

    1. Thank you! I certainly am trying :)

  4. I tend to see things in more of a muted gray. But that might have something to do with my sunglasses.

    1. LOL You are too funny! : D Sorry if my posts are boring these days. I feel like my humor depletes the more I nurse the babe.

      1. I guess that’s part of the “letdown”

        1. Aaaaand rimshot :)

  5. A couple years back, I was miserable in a job. I had a boss that I clashed with. Our perspectives were so different that we were failing to communicate. I hired an executive coach to get through this and sort through my next steps. The big thing I learned was about gradations and degrees of actions. I wanted a simple, black and white world, and needed to learn that a lot of life is actually in a dimmer switch. I still struggle, since my strengths lie more with understanding processes than people. Parenting has also helped to open me up to more flexible approaches. I am still a recovering smarty pants. Admission is the first step :)

    1. I wish I had done that back when I had my first job. My immediate boss at the firm I worked at right when I finished school could not have possibly been more opposite of me, and I always took it incredibly personally when his interactions with me were so unpleasant. I eventually quit and I still sort of regret it to this day because it was a fantastic job otherwise.

  6. Rose…that’s my color…..Beautiful post….We all need wiggle room ~~~

    1. We sure do! Truer words were never spoken.

  7. When I think back on college I know I loved to learn but was always comparing myself to other people. I found it distracting because I couldn’t just concentrate on what I was doing and what I was accomplishing. I’m not a competitive person by nature but for some reason it always felt like a competition and it really turned me off to even showing up. My black and white was also that if I wasn’t the best at everything I did then why bother, definitely all or nothing, so on those points I was nodding my head reading this post.

    1. I think one of the reasons why we’ve always gotten along so well is that neither of us are competitive; we just hold ourselves to high standards. But those standards are a biotch, right?! Good thing we’re awesome so even if we half-arse it we’ll still be ok :)

  8. I love the rich content of this post, and much of it resonated with me and my pursuit of higher education, among other things. Without black and white, there would be limited zeal and compulsion to reach goals we set. However, we must always have a self-righting mechanism which offers a plan B, when our black and white runs into grey. The gift of consoling ourselves with knowing we gave it our all and being okay with that, and then shifting our goals to doing our best at Plan B, is crucial..because life WILL throw us curve balls, such as disability, terminal disease, untimely death, etc.

    I think some of my most profound wisdom and development occurred in the hazy days of postpartum – post on, sister! Just like the grey area, sometimes we need the grey to dislodge us from black and white. Yet there is value to either/or. Balance is an ongoing process with no absolutes. Wonderful post!

    1. I just love reading your comments :) Sometimes you say exactly what I tried to say in the post, only way more succinctly and beautifully. Such is the case above.

      1. Gosh, thanks! I thought you communicated it all very well. :)

  9. Curly Carly · · Reply

    Holy smokes, I can’t begin to tell you how much I relate to this. I have the curse of the black-and-white thought process and wish so badly that I didn’t. I’m constantly trying to draw conclusions about life and as soon as I finally think I’ve figured out the answer. I realize that it’s wrong. It’s taken me years to force myself to adapt and understand that things aren’t always “yes,” “no,” “right,” or “wrong.” The self-doubt creeps up so easily, especially for those of us who think this way. It’s like we’re deciding ahead of time that we’re going to be wrong about something, because our solution is too narrow-minded to possibly be right. Ok, I’m getting lobg-winded, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one!

    1. You certainly aren’t the only one :) But the great thing about knowing this about ourselves is that we can move forward from there, acknowledgement being half the battle and whatnot.

  10. Well said. Black and white have their place but life is so much more than that. I have also struggled with this, with smoothing things out and allowing the colors to flow and merge. I also have to say that that Van Gogh painting was perfect for this post.

    1. Thanks! I’ve started to really love Van Gogh in the past few years.

  11. When I was younger I saw things that way as well. I do not know how, or when, but one day I woke up seeing color. And what a beautiful colorful world it is.

    1. Completely agree! I think I’ve started to see a whole new range of colors since I had C, and they are gorgeous.

  12. Daisy · · Reply

    At the beginning of my degree I completely wanted a First, last year I had a 2:1 average…and now, as I’m completing my last exams, I just want to get the bloody thing over and done with. I have enjoyed it in some respects but I also realise that the classification I get is not the be all and end all. I’ve worked hard, I’ve completed three years of full-time studying whilst working part-time and, most recently, full-time. My degree will have no bearing on my work, I study Italian and, as I live out here, the only foreign language I use is my native tongue, English. It will be more useful for me to learn other languages when this is over. But I’m trying to be ok with the thought that a degree is a degree and that’s a lot to appreciate in itself. Put that with the other commitments and it’s really something that I’m already here, nearly finished. I want to be proud of myself no matter what marks I get and I have until results time in August to get into that mindset. You never know, I may be pleasantly surprised. Although going on yesterday’s exam I’m not altogether convinced they’ll even pass me on it! We shall see.


    1. Getting the degree itself is indeed a huge accomplishment, and I’m still so glad that I did it (even though, like you, getting it didn’t affect my professional prospects in the slightest.) I often wish I had waited to get my grad degree. If I were to go back to school now, I’d certainly be a lot more forgiving of myself if I didn’t have impeccable grades or had trouble grasping some concept. I just have so much more perspective now.

      Hope your exams went really well!

  13. I always say I was the perfect parent until I had kids. That’s when I learned that I know nothing.

    The thing about seeing everything in black in white is that you miss all the interesting elements in life, which reside in that gray area in between. Even though “they” teach us to be absolute in school, NOTHING ever works out that way. That’s the difference between academia and the real world.

    Your best teacher of flexibility and compassion will be Miss C. As time goes on she will make you see that flying by the seat of your pants opens your eyes in ways you never thought possible. She’ll turn your journey into a wild ride. Just buckle up and enjoy it, learning what you can along the way. I promise, in the end, you’ll be a much better person because of it. :-)

    1. Such a sweet comment! My mom keeps telling me the same thing, that even though things are relatively “boring” now, Miss C will have us flying on the roller coaster of parenthood before we know it. I look at her little sleeping face now and can’t imagine her ever wrecking havoc on our lives, but I know it’s coming. But I say,bring it on :)

  14. “It’s extremely difficult to be a good partner to your spouse if you’re adamantly reluctant to deviate from some arbitrary set of perceptions you’ve set out for yourself.”

    True. That.

    Ugh, did I just say that? I hate it when people say that.

    1. Just changing to to “tru dat” instantly makes it more palatable. Or nerdier ;)

  15. unfetteredbs · · Reply

    For some reason Emily this showed up in my google reader as “new” I started reading it and then realized at the end it was old. I enjoyed this very much– nice to catch an archived piece. Fast year eh?
    Your last two sentences are absolutely perfect. This post is a year old– are you still living on the rainbow? I hope so :)
    Motherhood is fantastical kaleidoscope ride

    1. I am so sorry I spammed you with a bunch of old posts, Audra! Last night I was going through old posts and cleaning up tags and I guess I did something inadvertently to republish them. It won’t happen again! I am glad, however, that you found this one because it is one of my favorites (ie, I don’t spiral into a tizzy of self-loathing when I read it a year later.) There are a lot of things I write that I don’t really feel stand true for more than I week, but a year later, I stand behind every word I said here. Motherhood is indeed showing me more idiosyncrasies of the rainbow than I ever knew existed. It’s beautiful.

      1. unfetteredbs · · Reply

        Please don’t apologize. I’m glad it happened

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