For most girls, writing holds enormous power. It can be the key that unlocks pent-up feelings and thoughts they’re struggling to say out loud. It can be their chance to explore ideas about who they are and who they want to be. The blank page or screen becomes the space where they can think things through, create something beautiful or just plain vent.
Many of you reading this no doubt spent hours poring over diaries and writing poems and impassioned letters as a teen. Remember the cathartic feeling you got once a big tangle of ideas and emotions suddenly became a whole lot clearer on the page? Or that high you got when you felt you’d got your point across at last (even if you would never, ever actually send that letter to the person)?
I meet a lot of parents who worry that the connection they have with their daughter is weakening as she grows up. Often they feel that they don’t know what’s going on inside her head any more. Tapping into this natural love girls have for writing can be an incredibly powerful way to deepen our connection with them.
Over the past few months, I’ve been in touch with Tricia O’Neill, the mother of 16-year-old Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, who along with her friend Paris Wilson took part in an Enlighten workshop just a few weeks before a ski-tubing accident claimed their lives. Paris’s sister, Bianca, wrote the most beautiful, touching eulogy for Paris. And writing was a big part of Tricia and Cameron’s relationship as mother and daughter.
Four years ago, Tricia convinced Cameron and her older daughter, Kylie, to stop buying her gifts for special occasions and instead write her letters. After a while, the girls didn’t always find it easy to come up with an idea to write about, so she would give them a suggestion. This had a side benefit: “It gave me a chance to see what was going on inside their heads about a specific topic,” says Tricia.
This past Christmas, Tricia asked Cameron to write down what Kylie leaving home to go to university had made Cameron realize about her family. Cameron was funny and loving and clever when she wrote about “the rabbit” (Tricia’s husband, who likes to eat salad), “the iPad” (her metaphor for Kylie’s new university friends) and “the teddy bear” (Cameron and Tricia, because a teddy bear is always there for you when you need comfort). And she opened up about so much more than just the topic she’d been given — she delved into her strengths, her gifts, how she dealt with other people’s perceptions and her gratitude for her parents.
On Mother’s Day last year, Cameron wrote Tricia a list: “57 Things I Have Learned from My Mother”, ranging from life lessons (“How to love” and “How to manage what I want and what I need”), through to funny things (“How to burp” and “How to buy really great tickets”). It blows me away how heartfelt and real and full of wisdom the list is.
“It brought me great joy that day, and now — what can I say? I cry when I think about it but they are both tears of sorrow and tears of joy,” says Tricia. “She knew herself and she knew she was loved and she knew how to love.”
Cameron and Paris were both wearing their Enlighten Education pink wristbands at the time of the accident. Tricia had some made up for family and friends with the girls’ names on them. I wore one of those bands bearing their names while I was writing my second book, which is for teen girls and is coming out early next year. As I was writing, I had the feeling that Cameron and Paris were both with me on the project, my muses, helping to guide me to write well so that I might help to heal and empower many girls.
Tricia treasures all of the letters written by her daughters, Cameron and Kylie. And she also treasures what Cameron wrote during her Enlighten workshop when our Queensland Program Manager, Storm Greenhill-Brown, asked the girls to envision their future.
I would like to follow my dreams, passions and instincts; make a difference for people; and make an impact on the world. I would find what makes me happy and stick with it; not be afraid of changes; and let myself get caught up in what I love.
Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, March 2011
I think Cameron is making a difference for people and making an impact on the world, because the writing ritual that she and her sister, Kylie, had with their mother shows us all a pathway to building strong, loving relationships with our daughters. I hope that this simple but powerful act of asking our daughters to write will catch on! We might just be amazed by what comes out when we ask our girls to put their thoughts and feelings on the page for us.