Infertility, parenting after adoption, growing up in an adoptive family, relinquishing a child—all give rise to complex emotions. Learn about the innovative Therapeutic Writing model that’s helping many lay bare and make sense of their innermost thoughts.
Six adoptive mothers sit in a circle of chairs, notebooks and pens in their laps, calling out emotions.
“How about some positive ones too, to round it out?” I suggest, scribbling the emotions on a dry erase board. A few chuckles around the circle.
Our lexicon of emotions established, I now ask the group to spend 20 minutes writing—in the present tense, for maximum immediacy—about a moment when they felt one or a combination of these emotions, but through its external manifestations. That is, what was happening in your body (palms sweating, heart racing, head throbbing)? Or how did you experience your environment, through your senses (shadowy or sunny, stuffy or breezy, sounds and smells)? By expressing our emotional state through vivid showing rather than mere telling, I explain, we’re able to delve into the heart of it. After the silent writing period, we have a discussion. I invite the mothers to share what the writing experience was like for them—what arose, what surprised them, what was challenging, clarifying—and to respond to one another, gleaning insights from the spectrum of perspectives in the room.
Welcome to Therapeutic Writing—a model that uses memoir prompts as a frame through which to examine our experiences, in an effort to encourage self-reflection, processing of issues, and discovery.
“When we write long-hand, as opposed to writing on the computer or speaking, we get in touch with some organic human process, like free association or a dream almost, and material comes up that surprises us. We let down our guard and go to a place that’s very personal and real,” says Joni Mantell, LCSW, a psychotherapist and the director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, who approached me in 2014 about creating the Therapeutic Writing model. Says one mother from Pennsylvania about Therapeutic Writing, “I am able to write in a way that is unrestricted and uncensored by others’ thoughts.”
Because the focus is introspective, rather than on craft—indeed, there’s no need for you to be a writer or an aspiring writer—participants don’t turn in their writing or read it aloud. Instead, the therapeutic benefits are two-fold: the private experience you have with your words on the page; and the communal experience of discussion. After a Therapeutic Writing workshop that we led together last year, Mantell observed that the participants “were more rapidly able to share on an intimate level, convey who they were and how they felt, than if they’d just gone around the room and introduced themselves. It was really powerful.” The Pennsylvanian mother agrees: “It’s more than a creative outlet—in our group there is camaraderie, empathy, and support for one another.”
Members of my Therapeutic Writing groups have used various prompts to:
Explore the spectrum of emotions caused by a failed match: For the Emotion Made External exercise, Christine C., a mother from New York City, chose the moment when an agency worker told her and her husband that the prospective birth mother had changed her mind, after they had spent two nights in the hospital with the newborn baby girl. “By focusing on the scene, and remembering the physical manifestations of my shock and pain, and the empathy shown to us by the hospital staff, I came to understand more fully how the event affected me as a person and a parent,” she explains. “I realized that not only was I incredibly sad, but also angry! Anger happens to be an emotion I’m not as comfortable with.”
Revisit the time surrounding their children’s adoptions: “When I write about events from this time, the emotions, sensations, and memories are so vivid,” says another mother about what Emotion Made External brought up for her. “My chest tightens, my eyes tear up, my heart is heavy. I am so thankful to have found this outlet to help me heal from my unique and wonderful, yet at times painful, journey to parenthood.”
Examine their identities as mothers: For another prompt called Five Important Things About You, you make a list of your qualities, experiences, aspects of your life, roles and labels—whatever comes quickly to mind that defines you, adoption-related or not. One New York City mother noted in discussion that she had first jotted down numbers from 1 to 5—even though I hadn’t asked them to prioritize—and put “mother” as item number 2. Then, she said, she couldn’t decide what to put as number 1—on the one hand, what could be more important than “mother,” but on the other hand, she had deliberately put “mother” second. This led to a conversation about the distinctions among how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we think others see us—all of which inform our sense of self—perhaps especially prevalent among members of the adoption constellation.
“Once I write the words on paper, I realize they are my truth. The stories no longer swirl around in my head; I can read them, re-read them, share them, and understand more about my perceptions and experiences.” —ELIZABETH, 43, an adoptee
Speculate on their children’s experiences before their adoptions: And for a somewhat more experimental prompt, Creative License, you write about an event that actually happened, but that you either weren’t present for or can’t remember—using what you do know to extrapolate the rest. For example, one mother wrote about her children’s pre-adoption lives, which helped her to access that sense of loss—theirs, and also hers, in missing some of their “firsts.”
In my Therapeutic Writing groups for the adoption constellation, I typically disclose from the onset that I’m an adoptee myself, and find that the common ground immediately starts establishing trust and safety in the room; participants see me not just as a therapist, but also as one of them, as someone who “gets it.” To prepare the group for the Creative License exercise, I share with them a chapter from Ithaka, my memoir about being found by my birth family. Titled “Origin,” the chapter describes my being in the womb and being born—an experience that actually happened, of course, but that I can’t remember. To write it, I explain to the group, I drew from the factual information that I did have—that my birth mother traveled in Europe before learning that she was pregnant with me, that there was a snowstorm soon before my birth, how her feelings about me evolved over the course of her pregnancy—to prompt my imagining and flesh out the entire experience, using creative license.
Confront infertility and difficult family relationships: Reading and discussing my chapter from Ithaka inspired one mother to respond to the prompt by writing about her own mother being pregnant with her; through this exercise, she was able to grapple with her complicated relationship with her mother, as well as her own inability to conceive.
Handling questions and comments: One pervasive theme among adoptive parents is how to handle insensitive, but often well-meaning,comments from relatives, friends and colleagues, even a stranger in the grocery store wondering aloud where the child of a black-haired, olive-complected mother got his blue eyes and fair skin. Through Therapeutic Writing, we can explore our reactions, both external (what we say or do in response) and internal (what emerges emotionally), in these moments. One Pennsylvanian mother used the Two Perspectives prompt—writing two versions of a past incident, first from your point of view, then from someone else’s, but both in the first person—to try to access the head and heart of a friend who had asked in hushed tones whether her daughter knew that she was adopted. While she found it initially challenging to enter into that other point of view, “I then realized that I need to be reminded that there is a difference—that my kids aren’t being raised by their birth mother, and that’s a loss of theirs that needs to be processed.”
Navigating open adoption: Open adoption can be bittersweet, because of the greater awareness of the birth mother’s loss; but on the plus side, it can make the parent more aware of and therefore sensitive to an adoptee’s experience of loss and conflict—empathy that is crucial in adoptive parenting.
For Kathleen, a parent from New York, the exercise of writing a Letter—expressing to someone what you truly think and feel but haven’t been able to communicate in real life—clarified her feelings about Mother’s Day, “which included great joy, but also a lot of worry about my child’s birth mother.” Kathleen credits Therapeutic Writing with helping her decide not to accept her son’s birth mother’s Facebook friend request, and suggest more meaningful direct communication instead: “Without the group, I would have accepted automatically and then regretted it”—due to concern that she was over-exposing her son, or that family photos and comments from relatives would make his birth mother feel excluded.
Life post-adoption: Another issue that comes up frequently in Therapeutic Writing is the concept of “the rest of your life,” once the adoption has been finalized, often after a long and arduous journey. How can we acknowledge the particular impact of adoption without makingeverything about adoption: What is fear of abandonment and what’s garden-variety homesickness? Which adolescent struggles are adoption-specific identity development, and which are typical, age-appropriate boundary testing?
One theme that arises in this post-adoption period is the evolution of your relationship with your partner. A New York City mother who had begun feeling distant from her husband addressed her Letter to him. Through this exercise, she realized that this distance was caused by the newfound absence of fertility treatments and adoption proceedings in their lives—as challenging as those experiences were, they had faced them together, as a team. “The new reality of not having a united front on complicated life issues, after being so much on the same page, is a shocker.”
A frequent comment after a writing prompt, and one of the most gratifying, is, “I didn’t know I would write about that!” That element of surprise and discovery is possible through the safety and freedom that Therapeutic Writing provides.
In the Past/Present exercise—writing two versions of the same incident, one in the past tense (remembering it from your current perspective), the other in the present tense (entering back into the immediate moment), to examine and learn from the differences—participants often find the present tense version to be more internally focused, and more honest around emotional complexity. It can also have a slower, and deeper, trajectory.
One mother wrote about her journey to Guatemala to adopt her son. Though she took 20 minutes for each version, the past tense got all the way from packing her suitcase, to traveling there, to meeting her son, while the present tense didn’t get past the packing scene. “I discovered thoughts and feelings I was having around his foster mother, who had been caring for him for six months,” she explained in discussion. “I realized that I was preparing to say hello, but she was preparing to say goodbye. My heightened awareness of her loss made my own emotions more conflicted—still joy and excitement, but also guilt.”
Another mother, from New York City, experienced “a huge A-ha! moment” when she switched gears in the midst of the Two Perspectives exercise. In writing about contemplating a second adoption, she first chose her husband as the other point of view, only to realize “we’re actually on the same page about it.” So she began again, this time from the point of view of her mother, who has expressed resistance. “By the end, it hit me that what my mother is feeling is, ‘I’m too old to be a grandmother again,’” she said tearfully. “And this helped me to feel greater compassion toward her than ever before.”
By thrusting us back into the immediacy of a past moment, highlighting physical and emotional details, granting us access into other perspectives, and offering us the safety and freedom to lay bare our honest internal lives on the page, Therapeutic Writing can be a means for growth, heightened awareness, and expanded understanding. “Sometimes the revelations that come out of the writing are pleasant surprises; other times, the writing is hard, challenging, even uncomfortable,” says the mother from Pennsylvania. “Yet the result is that I feel grounded and more able to take on new challenges with fresh eyes and renewed hope.”