Dr. Claire Nicogossian, author of Mama, You are Enough, shares her experience writing a self-help book for moms. This interview covers her vision, understanding of what her readers are going through, insights, process, structure, publishing challenges and more.
The Inspiration to Write a Self-help Book for Moms
Olivia Edwards: What initially inspired you to write a self-help book for moms?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: So many experiences inspired this book! Personally, my entrance to motherhood was very stressful. I call the emotions that are challenging or “negative” per se, shadow emotions. I think framing these emotions—such as sadness, guilt, anxiety, overwhelm, disgust, anger or ineffectiveness—as shadow emotions rather than negative, helps us to open up and embrace these feelings as part of motherhood.
I saw there was a lot of taboo talking about the struggles and challenges in motherhood. As a mom to premature twin girls, with two advanced degrees, I had so many moments in the first year of motherhood feeling shadow emotions. Information and research on maternal mental health has made a lot of progress in the past few decades, but there is so much more work we need to do!
The first year of motherhood for me, as it is for many moms, was incredibly transformative. And in caring for and raising my twins, then my third daughter, and fourth, I experienced many emotions in motherhood. I never quite found a book that helped me understand the emotional journey of motherhood.
There are books about becoming a mom, or caring for your baby or toddler, but there is a gap in the books out there to help mamas grow into the role, be prepared for the emotional journey of motherhood and cope with motherhood beyond the first year. I’ve witnessed and experienced myself how motherhood changes you as a person, not just with your first child, but if you have additional children, and throughout motherhood, there so many opportunities to grow as a mama as you nurture and care for your child.
Professionally, I support a lot of moms in the therapy hour. After the birth of my third daughter, I would be at work and see a theme: session after session, so many emotions—the guilt, overwhelm, anger, sadness and exhaustion. Moms would share with me and we’d work to come up with a plan to help reduce her frustration, increase her coping or delegate to her sweetie.
Sometimes there would be no plan other than to listen and be compassionate and supportive—to remind her how important she is, that she matters, and doesn’t need to be perfect or measure herself every day against a standard or ideal.
When I started seeing trends and parallels in my clients’ lives, my life, and my friend’s lives, I thought there had to be a way to turn this into a book to reach more moms than I ever could in one session at a time. And that is what inspired this book—personally and professionally.
Steps to Writing a Self-Help Book Tweet This
Olivia Edwards: You share that writing books has been a dream since you were in elementary school. What steps did you take to turn that dream into a reality and what did you learn along the way?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: Since I was young I wanted to write, but I received many messages throughout school that I wasn’t smart enough or a good enough writer, or more recently, my ideas weren’t what the market wanted. As a child, I wanted to write children’s books. When you receive these messages—that you’re not good at something—you can fall into the trap of believing the messages, like I did. I believed and internalized that I wasn’t meant to be a writer and chose another career path—to be a teacher.
I took a psychology class my freshman year of college and was encouraged by several professors to change my major to psychology. They saw in me something I couldn’t see for myself—that I would make a great psychologist. So in my sophomore year I changed majors, minored in early childhood education and majored in psychology, then continued for my masters and doctorate. While it was challenging, I loved everything about it. I see it as a calling, something I was meant to do.
Writing came back into my life when my youngest daughter turned one. I was a year away from turning forty and I wanted to embrace my fortieth year, so I asked myself:
How do you want to greet this birthday?
What is something that is missing you’d like to pursue just for you, not for work or the kids, just for you?
I picked up the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and did this course, which helped me to reconnect with writing. From there I started writing, learning the craft, editing, fine-tuning my voice and one thing led to another.
I created a website, a podcast, submitted articles on parenting media sites, and came back to writing the book I wish was out there when I first became a mom.
On the Topic of Shadow Emotions
Olivia Edwards: You use the term “shadow emotions” to refer to emotions like sadness, anxiety, anger, shame and disgust — emotions that mothers may feel uncomfortable talking about. What was your inspiration for this term? What was it like to write about topics that many people shy away from?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: Shadow is a term made popular by Carl Jung and other notable psychologists, psychiatrists and healers who I have studied and connect with in their work.
My inspiration for the term ‘shadow emotion’ is to create a term that evokes curiosity and interest versus judgment and fear. I prefer the use of ‘shadow emotion’ instead of calling emotions negative, because once we hear something is negative, it’s natural to close ourselves off to it and be scared to look at it.
We all have a shadow side—the part of ourselves we may not be dealing with, which can include past pain, trauma, shame and experiences that need to be brought into our awareness, looked at, understood. Once we bring our ‘shadow emotions’ into awareness, we can receive and accept these emotions with compassion and a willingness to understand ourselves and our experiences, all in an effort to heal and release suffering, which in turn, opens us up to being our authentic selves. I believe this is the path to thriving and creating happiness, joy, purpose, meaning and contentment.
Writing about these uncomfortable topics was a natural progression with what I’ve been doing for decades in the therapy room. The biggest challenge was staying true to my voice, my message, my goal to give parents information I knew they needed. But to bring a book to market that is real, raw and so honest, well, that was a challenge!
I had many publishing houses reject my manuscript because they didn’t think the parenting world was ready for this message. They wanted more funny or light or indignant ways of portraying motherhood. Many editors would decline my proposal but then added they couldn’t wait to buy the book. Or editors would say, “best of luck, we love her voice and honesty, but we can’t take a chance on her.”
Thankfully, I have an agent, Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency, who believed in me and my message and a publishing house, Page Street Publishing, a talented and supportive group, especially my editor, Sarah Monroe, who also believed in me and my message and helped me bring my book to market.
Being a Psychologist and a Mom Writing a Self-help Book
Olivia Edwards: What do your two different perspectives — the professional perspective as a clinical psychologist and the personal one as a mother — bring to this self-help book for moms?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: I am in the midst of raising a family, working, taking care of my home and managing to spend time with my husband, friends and family, as well as taking time to care for myself. Several years ago, I spoke with another author in the parenting field, and their advice was to wait until my girls were older and grown to write the book.
I had this moment in my head where I said, This book can’t wait for that! I appreciate the advice, but it wasn’t for me.
I am grateful to have completed this book in the midst of raising my daughters, because I experience motherhood in a raw, honest, vulnerable moment in similar ways as my readers do, instead of writing about motherhood through a retrospective lens when the children are older and more autonomous.
How Can Self-Care Help Mom Writers?Tweet This
Olivia Edwards: I appreciated how you dispel common myths about self-care, such as the belief that it’s selfish or indulgent. How is self-care important to moms? How can self-care help writers?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: Self-Care is a skill for every person to develop. Knowing yourself, what you need to feel healthy, happy and have meaning and purpose in your life, often comes through small acts of self-care that add up over time to make a big impact.
There is no one-size-fits-all model with self-care. Knowing yourself and what you need is the first step.
From a broader perspective, self-care for many moms is another thing to add to their never ending to-do list, which can add more stress to a mom’s life. I believe we need some systemic changes for moms, starting with work benefits, extended and flexible parental leave, flexible schedules when a child is ill, or proactive mental health days, as well as working within a culture and organization that supports parents.
One problem I see with technology and smartphones is the workplace no longer has boundaries—even when you’re ‘off’ you’re still ‘on’— checking emails, responding to them, preparing for work, this adds up and creates a lot of stress and competing demands for mothers. I think COVID has brought to light the invisible mental load of motherhood; whether a mom is at home or in the work force she does so much for her family that often no one ever sees.
Another important aspect of self-care for moms is advocating for time with her partner to restore and take care of herself. I see a problem in our society where there is pressure to be productive at all times, not have good boundaries, not keeping work at work, and not prioritizing the importance of having fun, creating joyful moments, and resting to replenish and restore.
Mindful of Diversity
Olivia Edwards: What did you do to ensure that in writing a self-help book for moms, you captured diverse experiences of motherhood?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: First, I conceptualize motherhood as a universal role.
Second, child development is also a universal experience, we all go through it.
Third, emotions are also universal—to be human means we experience feelings, thoughts and emotional reactions. And yet, while there is a foundation of universal connectedness to be human and have these experiences, there are layers and layers of differences. This theme is mentioned throughout the book.
As a writer, I intentionally chose pronouns, such as their/they/them, instead of he/his/she/hers. I did this for a number of reasons: in the work I do as a psychologist, and as a person and mother, I wanted my writing to reflect gender neutral and be gender inclusive.
I also predominately used sweetie or partner, to reference husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend to be inclusive and not have assumptions in my writing, that everyone is married, or in a relationship, or parenting in partnership.
And I referenced how there are many ways to become a mother—how children come to us in a variety of ways—born in our hearts (adoption/fostering/surrogacy) or from our body (when we carry a child in pregnancy). I wrote from a perspective of inclusivity where I wanted the reader to connect to the content in a way that they could see themselves in the words, the story, the suggestions.
The suggestions, skills and strategies in the book do not cost a lot of money. Instead, the investment to learn skills is being able to have the resource of time and energy. Which leads into the way I structured the book—to be accessible for moms short on time, but needing a few words of encouragement or ideas on how to begin taking care of emotional health and well-being in small, actionable steps.
Metaphors as Writing Tools Tweet This
Olivia Edwards: Mama, You are Enough contains many metaphors, such as impressionist art as a metaphor for motherhood. How can metaphors help readers understand challenging concepts? What advice do you have for other authors on writing a self-help book and using metaphors?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: What I love about metaphors is the symbolic way of capturing experiences, emotions, awareness, relationships, you name it, in novel ways, often unexpected, that allow an understanding to happen more powerfully than simply describing through words. Metaphors are often universal, so there is a way to convey to others what is being observed.
Writing Personal Experiences as a Mom and Therapist
Olivia Edwards: Mama, You are Enough includes personal stories of your own motherhood as well as fictitious stories illustrating examples of other mothers. What did sharing your own personal stories feel like? Do you have any tips on writing from personal experience?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: When I write personal stories about motherhood I want it to be for a purpose, for a mother to see herself, or parts of her experiences, in my story. I want to put myself out there because I can give my consent to share my perspective—and in my vulnerability, I hope this inspires sharing and opening up of a mama’s experience.
I disclose with intention. I also am mindful of what I share regarding my children. I intentionally do not share things my children would not want out in the world, respect their experiences and boundaries and make sure to always write from my point of view, not from theirs or to write or share their stories.
That is the ingrained boundary I have as a psychologist, to be mindful and honor the sacredness of boundaries, whether it be with clients, my children, my husband or my family.
Sharing personal stories is a vulnerable yet cathartic process. What I can suggest for writers, is to honor and respect boundaries, sit with the how and why of disclosing, and don’t be afraid to share your point of view, speaking from the I: what you observe, how things impacted you. There is freedom in storytelling this way, because it is so authentic when it comes from the I.
How to Organize a Self Help Book for Moms Tweet This
Olivia Edwards: Many of our readers struggle with how to organize a self-help book. How did you go about organizing all of the information in Mama, You are Enough? What advice on organization do you have for other self-help book authors?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: Oh that’s a big question—so many things. A lot of what is in the book is what I share with clients and have shared for two decades. What goes on in session is very private, so I was taking a framework of how I support clients in the therapy hour, as well as what I say to myself and do to take care of myself as a mother, and put it to paper.
And then the practical things: Outlines, edits, more edits and being OK with letting things go. Not all my words or thoughts or ideas made it into the book, so I had to be comfortable with letting it go. But what I did do was create a separate document where I placed the cut material, so I could go back to it and use it in other ways.
Preparing to Write a Self-Help Book for Moms
Olivia Edwards: How did the writing you’ve done for your website MomsWellBeing and your podcast In-Session with Dr. Claire prepare you to write a self-help book for moms?
Dr. Claire Nicogossian: All of these experiences helped me get comfortable with expressing myself and the messages or information I believe moms most need to hear or be reminded of. And I think another part is taking what is my clinical knowledge and experience and translating that into language that can be easily digested and understood. Which is what we do as moms—we translate and share information and teach children in ways they can understand. All of these professional and personal experiences helped me find a voice that felt authentic to me, which then, in turn, helped me to find a comfortable way of expressing myself.
The Habits and Routines of Writing a Self-Help Book for Moms
Olivia Edwards: Can you please talk about the habits and routines you used when writing the book? How did you balance writing with your roles as a mom, clinical psychologist and instructor at Brown University? What advice do you have for other authors?
Claire Nicogossian: Sure, well, this is not new. I’m sure readers have heard this time and time again: writing is a skill and practice that is most effective when you bring it into your life through habit. As a writer, I live in my thoughts and then there are times I need to be in the world—following through with my responsibilities, connecting and spending time with my family, friends and taking care of myself.
I’ve learned to be disciplined and show up for writing. I create the space to write, often early in the morning, or later at night. For me, working with an editor was super helpful—having someone to collaborate and talk out ideas, edit things out, which encouraged my creativity.
I also work really well with goals and deadlines and being accountable to myself and others. I keep a running list of ideas or things to write about, so when I do have the space to create I can be focused and disciplined to write.
Writing Mama, You Are Enough took a lot of time, discipline, sacrifice, vulnerability and being OK with uncertainty. There were months when I was working on developmental edits and revisions where I couldn’t go out and do certain activities because I had a deadline.
During this time, my life became streamlined—focusing on my clinical practice, writing, my husband and children. I saw friends when I could, and made time for connection with family, but truly I lost sleep and had to put a hold on certain activities because of the book. I have no regrets about that—working with an editor and publishing house was incredibly rewarding and energizing because, as you know, being a writer can be lonely—a lot of the work is done in isolation.
As far as balancing the roles, I love all parts of my life and feel very fortunate for the opportunities and experiences. I don’t really know what balance is or means, but what I do know is I am showing up in my life in a meaningful way that is not a sense of pressure or obligation, but a choice.
Setting boundaries with my time, showing up and committing to what is important and meaningful, is what being a mother has taught me. It’s OK to say “no” to an opportunity or event that isn’t something I can do, have the time to do, or takes away from what is meaningful in my life.
Wisdom comes with age, and showing up in places where you realize you’ve outgrown can add more stress to your life than enhance it.
Writing in a State of Flow Tweet This
Olivia Edwards: How do you get into a state of flow when writing?
Claire Nicogossian: I listen a lot to my thoughts. I make efforts to be still, to pay attention to phrases or sentences that will pop into my mind.
I get a lot of great ideas and inspiration to write when I’m in the water, whether it be the shower, an Epsom salt bath, swimming, washing my face. I’ve learned that water is when I hear and receive inspiration.
I can’t always write when I want to and what I’ve learned to do is to jot down phrases, sentences, concepts, ideas—either I send myself a text, or write it in a journal or open a word document.
I’ve learned to let inspiration flow, catch it, make space and come back to it.
When I have trouble with a concept or words or something I want to write about I get quiet, meditate, ask for guidance through prayer and then write. Always works for me.
Olivia Edwards: What influenced your decision to go on the traditional publishing route for Mama, You are Enough? What has your experience of working with a publisher been like?
Claire Nicogossian: Every author has a different and unique path bringing their book to market. For me, I was interested in going the traditional publishing route for a few reasons:
- I had an agent early on who was interested in my concept and manuscript that I connected with at a writers conference.
- I wanted to go through the process of working with an editor and publishing house because I couldn’t do all of the things required for self-publishing based on my stage of life right now as a mom to four daughters (ages 10-17 at the time of this interview) and continue with my clinical practice and teaching. Self-publishing felt overwhelming to me and I wanted the experience of working with a team, being open to developmental feedback, understanding how to create a book the market would receive and then have the support to help share and distribute the message in the book.
Many books take anywhere from a year to upwards of two years to be published. Mama, You Are Enough was acquired in August 2019 by Page Street Publishing and out on the bookshelf June 2020! Because so much of the book had been framed out and written, this time-frame was doable.
Working with my editor, Sarah Monroe, was probably one of the most amazing and impactful experiences as a writer. Sarah understood my goal, could see what I was trying to say, and helped me to express myself more clearly. She has an incredible gift of taking the perspective of the reader, and in my book, the reader is mamas.
Sarah was able to think through this perspective and help me craft the book in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own. She didn’t give me the answers, but she pointed me in the right direction and helped me see things in different ways.
One of the most amazing parts of writing this book is that my voice was never censored and I was encouraged to find ways to express what needed to be said in a super creative way. The team at Page Street was incredibly collaborative—from the content, to adding resources for mamas that I can share on my website, and for the cover design of the book. They truly worked in a collaborative way that continues to be incredibly supportive.
Olivia Edwards: What do you hope readers will take away from Mama, You are Enough?
Claire Nicogossian: Oh, there are so many, but broadly speaking, my hope is three things:
- Readers feel supported, understood and encouraged to take care of their emotional health and well-being.
- Readers will come away from reading this book with more compassion for themselves and be less judgmental or perfectionist towards themselves, which then can be shared and taught to their children and loved ones.
- For Mama, You Are Enough to change the dialogue and the way we communicate about our emotions, take care of our mental and emotional health and well-being and serve as a shift in our culture, normalizing mental health and taking away the stigma of talking about emotional health.
Dr. Claire Is passionate about well-being and self-care for individuals with a focus on parental well-being. She writes about these topics at MomsWellBeing.com, mothering.com, the Today Show Community Parenting Team and at her self-help column, Ask Dr. Claire. You can listen to her podcast, In-Session with Dr. Claire.
Love that you didn’t listen to the advice to wait, Claire, and that you trusted your own voice within.