Therapeutic Journaling for New Mothers

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Becoming a mother can be a huge transition. Sometimes, that transition is a little bumpy. Hell, sometimes, it’s a full-blown rollercoaster ride between physical changes to your body; shifts in daily activities, expectations, and boundaries; new sources of stress or unknowns; and adjustments in how you see yourself and relate to the world. While some new mothers embrace this transition easily, others can experience a wide range of mixed emotions about adding a baby into their lives.

Even if you have overwhelmingly positive feelings about your baby (and not everyone does), you may still experience mourning for aspects of your pre-baby life or doubts about what the future holds. The world tends to assume mothers are in love with every minute they spend with their babies, which can make it difficult to fully feel or say that some aspects of mothering are hard or unfulfilling or not what you expected. As you navigate this intense period of adjustment, I suggest making some time to express the full range of your experience through therapeutic journaling.

James Pennebaker, a researcher at the University of Texas who studies expressive writing, has found that self-expressive writing, or writing with the goal to self-disclose personal experience, can yield significant long-term physical and emotional benefits. He and his colleagues have conducted multiple studies using a basic writing experiment: a group of people are directed to write for a short period of time (usually about twenty minutes) for a handful of consecutive days (often four) about traumatic events and experiences that are emotional for them.

In one such study, a group of people who had been laid off from their jobs five months prior were divided into three groups. One group was asked to do the writing experiment, focusing on their feelings about being laid off. This group wrote about anger and embarrassment, feelings of rejection, problems within personal relationships, and finance-related stress, for example. A second group was told to do the same amount of writing but to focus on neutral topics like their plans without delving into opinions or feelings. A third group was not directed to write at all.

The writing lasted only those four days, but the study followed up with the three groups for several months after. At eight months, not only had 52% of the expressive writing group accepted full-time jobs compared to 23% of those who wrote about their plans rather than emotions and 18% of those who didn’t write at all, but they also reported less alcohol use than the other two groups. Pennebaker surmised that confronting the emotional upheaval associated with job loss may have helped the expressive writing group process negative feelings and attain closure, aiding them in the process of searching for and finding a new job.

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Pennebaker and other researchers in this field have identified correlations between expressive writing, even for as brief a time as four days as in the job loss study, and long-term physical health improvements evidenced by fewer doctor visits, markers of improved immune systems, and lower blood pressure. Despite initial reports of distress from those asked to write about traumatic events or negative feelings – often subjects report a negative mood at the initial completion of the final writing day, suggesting that confronting their emotional baggage stirs up distress – those same subjects often report increased feelings of happiness at a greater rate than the other non-expressive-writing subjects at follow ups, such as at six weeks or three months after.

They have also found that those who, prior to the experiment, had held back or felt inhibited from sharing about the subject of their distress saw greater benefits in disclosing them in writing; similarly, those whose writing was more disclosing and less inhibited also saw greater benefits. While research varies on exact specifics – how long should one write for, for how many consecutive days, and how directed should the writing be, etc. – the general consensus is that writing openly about emotional upheaval, distress, trauma, and discomfort can yield numerous physical and emotional benefits and can be used as a preventative measure against stress and illness.

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Maybe you wouldn’t classify your early motherhood as a traumatic time or an experience of loss and stress like losing one’s job. Do you still need to write about it? My thought is that it can’t hurt. Even those who take to motherhood smoothly are likely to experience at least some situational stress and subtle shifts in identity, some of which can be difficult to understand and pin down. Sometimes, becoming a mother also stirs up feelings about one’s own parents or one’s childhood, even if the day-to-day of mothering is going well. Writing offers a private space for navigating these feelings, processing them, and moving through them.

For those who do experience significant upheaval and distress upon becoming a mother, journaling about that experience can be a useful way to cope. While writing alone likely will not prevent or fully address postpartum mood issues like depression and anxiety, it can be used in tandem with other forms of treatment to supplement recovery. Writing to process the range of feelings that come up in early motherhood can help one let go of taxing emotions, thoughts, and behaviors; to better understand the source of these patterns; to reframe and change one’s perspective on distressing events or situations; and to “assimilate” or let go of emotional baggage.

Considering that negative or unhappy experiences of motherhood are widely censored and policed in our society, there’s a good chance that, at some point, it will be hard to fully disclose some aspect of your mothering. Refrains like “cherish every moment” and “one day you’ll miss this” are used, however inadvertently, to silence maternal ambivalence, reinforcing that motherhood is to be enjoyed and revered – not something to complain about. Yet, as Pennebaker and others have found, “the inhibition or active holding back of thoughts, emotions, or behaviors is associated with physical work that, over time, can become manifested in disease.” In other words, silencing your experiences is detrimental to your health. Writing to disclose your personal experience can be a low stakes way to confront emotional turmoil without fearing judgment or shame.

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So, where do you start? Ideally, you would set a small block of time to write, without censoring yourself, each day – if not as an on-going practice, then for a short consecutive stretch of days to be repeated periodically. This writing would be focused on your feelings, not so much on plans or a neutral accounting of the day’s events. You wouldn’t worry about spelling or grammar or what anyone else might say about what you’ve written because this isn’t meant to be shown to others. (Keep in mind that some writing about trauma and deeply upsetting events may stir up intense feelings, and if you feel that you are unable to cope with confronting these subjects, it may be best to focus your writing on other less intense topics and seek guidance from a trained care provider.)

In addition to doing free writing each day, sometimes you might benefit from prompted writing that is more focused but still engaged with your feelings. Here are three prompts to try that may help you dig further into the emotional experience of early motherhood.

1.      Write an open letter to a body part. This letter can be serious or satirical. It can be an airing of grievance, a thank you, a serious of questions or requests. You can write to your shoulders, your uterus, your hair, the mole behind your left knee, your skin, your lungs. Choose one body part, knowing that it cannot respond to anything you have to say, and let loose whatever you need to get out.

2.      Make a list of everything you cannot control, from the weather and bad traffic to the deliver guy who rings the doorbell during the baby’s nap. Pause after making your list to write about how it makes you feel. Now make a list of everything you can control, such as whether you wash your face each night or putting your car keys in a designated spot so you don’t lose them. Follow up this list as well by writing about how it makes you feel.

3.      Think of a mother figure in your life – your own mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, or a close friend’s mother, etc. Write about what you learned, good or bad, from this mother and how you have followed or avoided their example.

Whether you are able to write every day or just once in awhile, remember, there are many long-term benefits to expressing yourself through writing. It’s also a low-cost, low-time-commitment way to focus on yourself while those around you may be more focused on your baby. It just might help you ease through the transition of early motherhood and remain a touchstone for coping throughout your life. Happy writing!