Storytelling“Tell me a story, mommy” my five-year old said at bedtime last night.  “But make it be about aliens who live on the biggest, longest planet ever, and all they eat is dessert,” he instructed.  “Got it?  Ready, set, go!”  After asking him a few clarifying questions (Any particular kind of dessert?  Did the aliens have teeth or had they rotted out from all the sugar?), I thought for a moment and got rolling with the age-old “Once upon a time…”.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about storytelling these days, now that my boys (ages 3 and 5) can and do ask for stories with frequency.  They want imaginary stories of Vikings and Leprechauns living in a volcano in South Carolina, to be sure.  But they also want to hear stories about my own life and theirs.  Like the time I jumped off a moving train in Siberia.  Went to Chicago for work and bought them toy airplanes.  Or went to the hospital to give birth to them.  And, being children, they want to hear the same stories again, and again, and again.  Heaven forbid a detail change from one telling to the next!

Looking back, though, my storytelling didn’t begin when my kids were old enough to ask for stories.  Oh, no.  It started when they were in utero.  When we’d describe to the baby what kind of (wacky) family he was going to be born into, or how mommy was feeling really ready for him to come out.  And when each baby was born, I found myself telling them stories of my day – my metro commute, which hospitals I was helping at work (I’m a health care lawyer).  Even what I had for lunch.

As you transition into and travel down the road of working parenthood, try these storytelling strategies to help weave together your own past, daily present, and imagined future:

With Your Babies:  Tell them where you are headed when you leave in the morning, and tell them stories about your day when you get back.  Don’t worry that they don’t understand you yet; they will.  Also expose them to your workplace at an early age, so they can visualize where the story you are telling is taking place.

When my babies were tiny, I took them each to my office to meet my colleagues. I have fun photos of them laying on a changing mat on the floor next to what looks like a monster-sized desk compared to their little peanut bodies.  I incorporated these photos into their baby book.  They know the stories of how they came to see mommy’s work friends when they were babies.

I continue to take them to my office from time to time, so they can see where I work (and can play on my computer and draw on my white board!).  When your children get older, you can start a dinnertime tradition of asking each family member to complete the sentence “the best thing that happened to me today was…”, giving everyone a chance to tell a story and be heard.  My boys love doing this – so much so that they fight over who gets to tell his story first.

With Your Partner:  I first learned about the positive psychology principle of “capitalization” from a clinical psychologist friend.  The underlying premise is: if you don’t tell someone else about your own good news, you’re leaving on the table much of the benefit you could have gotten from that good news.  (Check out Hey Working Mamas: Don’t Lose the Benefit of Your Daily Wins for more on capitalization.)  On your way home from work, can you think about something good that happened to you that day?  And can you tell your partner a story about that thing when you get home?

Stories You Tell Yourself:  Consciously and unconsciously, we’re telling ourselves stories all day long.  Are the stories you tell yourself helping you weave together your work and home lives into a seamless and striking tapestry?  Or are they tearing you apart into shreds of guilt and anxiety?

When I went on work travel, I used to tell myself the story that I was abandoning my children and shirking my responsibilities as a wife and mother.  Not helpful, right?  Re-telling that story as one about a woman who is strong enough to: (1) step aside to let someone else grow that special bond with baby (and let that “someone else” strengthen his own parenting skills!), (2) set an example that women do travel for work, and (3) use the travel opportunity as a time to re-charge and clear her head, has changed entirely my own mindset about work travel.  (More about my thoughts on work travel here.)

What story are you telling yourself around childcare?  That it’s “not natural” for someone else to be caring for your baby?  Or the historical truth that so-called “alloparents” have been helping in the care of children for all of human history?  (Thank you, Brigid Schulte, for this revelation.)

One final piece of advice.  If the thought of telling a story on demand gives you hives, take a deep breath and know you CAN’T tell a wrong story.  If you live and breathe and think and talk and write, you already tell stories every day.  And if you find yourself saying “I’m not a good storyteller”, perhaps it’s time to re-think that story you’re telling yourself about what kind of storyteller you are.  Your stories are YOURS, mama.  And your family members will love them because they represent YOU.

Oral stories have existed as long as humans have been able to communicate.  They are how we learn, grow, and get to know ourselves and one another.  And if we start telling them to our little ones from birth – indeed before birth – they just may help us feel like our work and home lives are a bit more interwoven.

While I may not have thought it was anything special, my son loved the toothless dessert-eating alien story I told last night.  “It was good, but just not LONG enough!” he exclaimed, before snoring a moment later.

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