Carolyn Rathjen: Being is the Great Explainer

(for Nicola)

I found myself increasingly standing right at the edge of fruition, watching, supporting enthusiastically as someone else played it, said it, wrote it, or made it. And in the meantime, my focus on my relationships, my inclination to nurture, take care and support someone else frequently blocked my intention to create something other than what I’d hoped would eventually become a good relationship.

Beginning to write again didn’t happen without first having a few good arguments with my husband.

I’d mentioned to him some ideas I had involving writing a blog about being a psychotherapist living, working, and parenting abroad. He was more than enthusiastic about it. I, in all my uncertainty proceeded to fight him tooth and nail at the very mention of following through on my ideas.

Between work, taking care of two young kids and doing the bare minimum housekeeping required just to keep some semblance of order in our house, I’d repeatedly missed opportunities I couldn’t see because my mind was preoccupied with taking care of everything and everyone else.

“How can I find time to write?” I pleaded with my husband. “Have you seen the mess in the kitchen?

The laundry pile? Do you know the effort it takes to shop, cook and convince the girls to eat something more than Kinder chocolate for dinner? Do you know how many noses I wiped, diapers I changed and crises I solved today?”

“But you’re not trying!” he shouted. The words stung. He was right.

I began to recognize an old, familiar pattern. I think I somehow decided long ago that nurturing others should take precedence over creativity. Helping others, after all is the reason I decided to become a therapist in the first place. The fact that one must be creative in order to be successful in the work seemed like a major bonus to me.

And then, once I finally wrote that first piece, I had more than a few misgivings about hitting the “publish” button and announcing to my friends and colleagues I had started a new project. I was talking to a colleague a few days ago about how icky self-promotion often feels for many of us genuine, hard-working therapists who struggle to connect with clients who might otherwise benefit from our help.

In a New York Times piece about therapist branding, writer Lori Gottlieb comments on the reality that marketing oneself as a therapist is the antithesis of what we do: “the field is predicated on strict concepts of authenticity, privacy and therapist-patient boundaries.” Sharing information about my personal life, knowing that clients may read what I write does not exactly come easily to me. In graduate school we were trained to be purposeful in choosing what, when, and how to self-disclose if at all. I think being uncomfortable with self-disclosure and self-promotion can apply to other creative professions as well. We often set such high standards for creating authenticity that we become shortsighted in doing the work necessary to find an audience.

I had concocted a couple of good reasons why this writing thing would have to wait.

After all, I told myself, the most important thing in life right now is taking care of my two young daughters. I thought it would be okay to put creativity and self-promotion on hold for now.

I’ve always placed a great deal of importance in artistic creativity even if I struggle to name anyone in my family who would describe themselves as particularly artistic. Likewise, I’ve always sought the company of others whom I considered creative—especially those who are in some way artistic. My best friend in childhood was my artist companion. We’d sit for hours on my parents’ front porch in Connecticut and draw endlessly, sometimes barely speaking. My mother would check on us periodically because of the suspicious silence that was actually a sign of two introspective kids bringing to life our frenzied thoughts and ideas through vibrant colors on paper.

As I grew I morphed through a series of creative interests: dance, photography, oil painting, sculpture, water color, playing the guitar, clarinet, saxophone, graphic design, writing poetry, fiction and essays. In college, I savored working through the silence of the night in my little dorm room as I drafted fictional short stories inspired by Carver, Kafka, Chekov and O’Connor. The next morning I’d float through the Boston Common to the nearest print shop on a creative high to watch with great satisfaction the copy machine spit out the words I’d linked together the night before for review by professors and peers. And then the opportunity to sit in a small circle of classmates to accept and give feedback about each other’s writing was a privilege and luxury I considered to be among the highest I’d ever experienced as an 18-year-old freshman.

There were also the internships at The Atlantic Monthly, the literary journal, and the book publishing company in Boston where I met journalists, authors and essayists whom I greatly admired.

My proximity to creativity never waned but my involvement in the creative process increasingly took on a strikingly visible pattern as follows:

In high school, I found myself sneaking off to another town about 45 minutes away against the wishes of my parents to watch my then-boyfriend’s really creative and inspired punk band.

In college, I spent many evenings dutifully supporting another boyfriend’s well-attended slam poetry performances.

Then, as a young 20-something out of college, working as a graphic designer, yet another boyfriend sincerely included me in the acknowledgements of his new book for my supporting him while he worked so hard through finishing the book when it was in dissertation form. I’d always admired how he could lose himself in his writing—completely undistracted by the things that so often fragmented my creativity and productivity. While he worked diligently and with discipline, glued to a computer screen, I was wondering things like why he said what he said the day before and whether or not the relationship would work.

I found myself increasingly standing right at the edge of fruition, watching, supporting enthusiastically as someone else played it, said it, wrote it, or made it. And in the meantime, my focus on my relationships, my inclination to nurture, take care and support someone else frequently blocked my intention to create something other than what I’d hoped would eventually become a good relationship.

And now, recently, as a married, 30-something, with my husband’s urging, I began to see I was once again placing quite an unbalanced effort into being a caretaker, subverting other equally important values, dreams and hopes: to create, to write.

I thought about my eldest daughter’s instincts to comfort her younger sister when she is hurt or the way she put her little hand on my shoulder and told me to take deep breaths that time she saw me crying my eyes out. I recognize her innate ability to want to take care of and help others. I love this beautiful gift she possesses. I also want for her that she has something left for herself that drives courage, individuality, vulnerability, self-compassion and of course her own, unique ability to create something she can share with the world—whatever that might turn out to be.

In The Danish Way of Parenting, authors, Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl reinforce concepts of effective parenting influenced by Danish culture by noting that as parents, we must look at our own behaviors and change them first in order to promote the change we would like to see in our children. “Your children mirror you. You are their role model,” they remind us. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that we have little eyes on us all the time, watching, listening, learning, and copying us.

After their book was translated into Italian, I recently watched Jessica Alexander, one of the co-authors who is American and happens to live in Italy, gracefully discuss the book in Italian – a non-native language for her – on a major Italian news show. I thought to myself, now that definitely can’t be as easy as she’s making it look! I imagined her children taking all of this in: the process of their mom researching and writing while parenting them, the book being published first in English, then in Italian. And seeing her promoting her own work so gracefully in a language of which she is not a native speaker, I am convinced that she has taken her own advice about mirroring: she’s role modeling her own creative courage for her children.

In one of his many daily journal entries, the great writer and poet Henry David Thoreau wrote “What I am I am and say not. Being is the great explainer.” I imagine Alexander won’t need to explain to her children what creative courage is when one day one of them faces a glimmer of self-doubt; she’s already shown them and I imagine she will many times over.

As I finish writing this piece late into the night, while everyone else in the house is already asleep, my heart skips a beat at the thought of sharing this with others at the risk of being judged by someone else. But I know I will push myself to connect with an audience. How else can I teach my daughters to have the courage to create something they feel is important and then share that something with the rest of the world?



Carolyn Rathjen is an American clinical social worker living in Rome, Italy. She works as a psychotherapist and leads workshops for expat parents and college students studying abroad. She holds a BFA in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College and a Master of Social Work from Simmons College in Boston. Carolyn’s blog, Self-Disclosures of an Expat Therapist aims to combine her background as a psychotherapist and writer to inspire self-reflection, growth and healing and to normalize the human struggle through sharing relevant personal experiences.