Mothers, Daughters, and the Ritual of Writing

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.

Click on image to enlarge.

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.”

"57 Things" page 1. Click on image to enlarge.
"57 Things" page 2. Click on image to enlarge.

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.

I wore my Enlighten Education pink wristband bearing Cameron's and Paris's names as I wrote.

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.


4 thoughts on “Mothers, Daughters, and the Ritual of Writing

  1. Storm Greenhill-Brown says:

    What amazing words to have written by a daughter. Tricia and Cameron must have had an amazing relationship. So honest and open. What a treasure. I absolutely love this concept and you couldn’t get a better present for Mother’s Day / Christmas than getting words and wisdom from your kids. It’s even more significant that they are from a beautiful teenager right at the time when i know i stopped telling my mum how much i valued and loved her and started pushing her away. I agree that writing is such a powerful tool to understand and unpack what is happening in your own head and i have many journals full of poems written over 5 years from when i was 15 onward. I wrote all the time but never to my family and i never shared any of my work with them either. Imagine if i could have been connecting with my mum in this way. It’s non-confrontational and intimate without being embarrassingly face to face which is so often hard as a teen. With permission from Tricia i would love to show this to the St Hilda’s girls in year 10 when i work with them again at the very end of this year. I would love Cameron to inspire them to give this gift to their own mum’s for Christmas. I too will be wearing my beautiful Cameron and Paris armband. Thank you so much Tricia for sharing this with us. I feel very priviledged to have been allowed to read your precious family memories.xxxxx

  2. Diane Illingworth says:

    This was a truly touching story that you have both shared. I am so pleased that those written words will now live on forever.
    Cameron wanted to make a difference in this world and she has. She is touching so many peoples lives with the words she has written. Storm is right. It is a priviledge to have been allowed to read about these precious family memories. Thank you Tricia and thank you Enlighten Education x

  3. Lucy says:

    Oh, they are such beautiful letters! You’re right, though! Writing is an incredible way to be able to express how we’re feeling and to visually decipher the mess that can sometimes be a teenage girls mind. To see your thoughts and ideas down on paper or on the screen, it helps to connect what’s helpful and what’s not and usually you can come to a conclusion by yourself, just by taking the time to mull over your own words.

    I hope that this beautiful ritual that Tricia had with her girls will catch on – I also hope that the art of letter writing (and I mean putting pen to paper, putting it in an envelope with a stamp and sending it) will still be around when I have children – I’d love to be able to cherish their words and capture their individuality through their handwriting!

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