It wasn't until I had crossed the threshold into motherhood that I came to understand the healing potential of writing. I had heard rumors about it before, read research studies on the benefits of journal writing, and even conducted a study or two about it myself. It made sense to me that putting thoughts into words could help make sense out of things that made little sense, that writing could offer us some perspective on our predicament, or allow us to vent about our stressful day.
I was motivated to start writing in a journal when my kids were young. I needed all the coping strategies I could find to manage the overwhelming experience of new parenthood -- to adjust to the reality that my life, and my home, and my emotions were swirling in joyful, and yet sometimes wacky and untidy ways. This is when I discovered the gift of writing down and reading back what I had experienced.
One day, writing in my journal took the form of imagining that a narrator had been present to document the sequence of morning events that had led to my feelings of exhaustion:
In the kitchen:
- Child 1 gets placed in high chair (a sliced banana is introduced).
- Child 2 is offered a turkey patty and banana (never sliced, peeled back one-third of the way).
- Child 1 is offered sippy cup with water.
- Child 2 is offered water in a regular cup that will soon be spilled all over.
- Child 1 begins to squirm with a wet diaper (child is removed from chair and wet diaper is changed before returning to chair).
- Child 2 requests ketchup on turkey patty in the shape of a smiley face (ketchup will soon be smeared on a non-plate object that is hard to clean).
Scene changes to bathroom:
- Child 1 enters and pushes over child 2 for no apparent reason while parent is engaged on the toilet and unable to intervene.
- Child 2 finds his way back to standing, begins unraveling toilet paper while running away smiling.
- Parent desperately intercepts the last few squares of paper and begins praying for divine intervention.
Transition into minivan begins:
- Existential questions are posed: "Why do you work?" . . . "Why do we have to go?" . . . "What do you do all day?"
- Inarticulate answers are provided.
- Child 1 climbs into car seat carrying 2-5 objects that are identified as companions for daycare.
- Parent begins plotting strategy for removal of objects, none of which are allowed at daycare.
- Child 1 and 2 are delivered with moderate success.
- Parent arrives at work, feeling ready to go to bed, but realizing that it's only 8:30 a.m. and the day has barely begun.
What I loved about writing this list is that it allowed my stressful morning to feel tolerable and humorous -- it made me recognize that I had earned the circles of sweat under my arms, and that I was participating in something much larger than myself. So many mothers had lived out similar beginnings to their days.
I'm often struck by the similarity between writing and photography -- how both offer lenses through which to see things from different angles and viewpoints, how those lenses invite us to re-insert ourselves in what's occurring around us. Whether or not we can control these things, we can highlight and hold up certain elements to the light, and, in so doing, allow a breeze to blow through the density of our expectations and disappointments and feelings of being overwhelmed.
I see a different version of how words heal in my counseling office each day, as I listen to clients describe what they're feeling. Often, I'll suggest a certain metaphor or image, in hopes that it might pull together the different aspects of what they're experiencing. I've come to recognize the medicinal effects of this offering -- how having something named, whether by ourselves or by another, has the power to settle our unrest, and make things feel okay... or at least a little better.
In these moments, I'm truly amazed by the gift of words. I feel touched by their capacity to heal, awestruck to a degree that often leaves me speechless.
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