We posed some question for Laura about her new book Swimming Upstream. Here is what she had to say.
What sparked your interest in writing the book; was there a pivotal moment that set something off in you?
In 2013 I had just finished a book, Adolescent Girls in Distress: a Guide to Mental Health Prevention and Treatment (Springer Press), and it was geared to counselors so that they could better understand cultural influences directed towards girls, girls’ development and mental health, and how to treat comment mental health problems in girls. After it was published I had a lightbulb moment when I realized that while counselors need these types of resources, it is parents who are in need of information about today’s culture, how it can affect their daughters, and about what they can do to help their daughters stay resilient in the face of cultural influences. So I decided to write a new book specifically geared towards parents, and that’s how this book came to be.
What was hardest part of writing the book?
The hardest part was learning how to write for a new audience: parents. I have spent my entire career writing for academic journals geared towards mental health professionals. My last three books were written for mental health professionals to guide their work with girls, but since this book is directed to parents, I had to develop a new style of writing, using a lot less academic jargon. Instead I provide summaries of research with easy-to-understand applications, use personal examples, and include self-awareness exercises. After I got the hang of it, it was very freeing to write in a more personal, less academic style.
What was the greatest challenge in bringing Swimming Upstream to market? Oxford University Press handled everything for me. Once I submitted the initial book prospectus to them, my editor handled the entire process, including sending the manuscript out to external reviewers, providing me with feedback, working with me on a deadline, assigning a copyeditor, working with me in selecting a cover, and developing a marketing plan. Now I am working closely with their public relations team to get the word out about the book. They handled everything so I could keep my focus on writing the book.
Explain the toxic culture that you describe in your book, and why it proves especially toxic to young women/girls?
First, I am a parent of two children, a son and a preteen daughter, and I have long been alarmed by the messages that current culture aims towards girls. I look around and am concerned at current trends—the pressure for girls to look hot and sexy at a young age, to get as much attention as possible both on-line and in real life, and the unrelenting pressure for them to be highly accomplished in school and in their extracurricular activities. This is a lot of pressure for girls to manage, and it can be damaging to girls’ development and mental health. Some girls push themselves too hard to achieve and meet these expectations, while others girl up and stop trying altogether. It is no wonder that some girls begin to struggle in early adolescence. Such pressure and change can create a ripe environment for serious mental disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and self-injury, all of which are on the rise in today’s girls.
What do you want readers to take away after reading Swimming Upstream?
One takeaway is that parents will learn that they have more choices than they have realized. Maybe they haven’t taken the time to stop and reflect on current cultural trends, their parenting values, what they want for their daughter’s futures. The book provides a space for parents to begin to have these conversations. I also hope they learn many practical parenting strategies for helping their daughters develop positive body image, healthy relationships, a balanced perspective on academics and accomplishments, and active problem solving and coping skills.
Another take away that permeates the book is unconditional love. Our daughters need to know that they are accepted and truly loved just for who they are, not who the culture expects them to be, not based on how they look, and not based on their performance. If they know we accept them fully, they won’t have to seek out validation from other people who might not have their best interests at heart the way we do. We have to let our daughters know that we love them, we like them, we approve of them just for who they are. This is a resounding theme throughout the book.
How do you balance motherhood and writing?
I am so fortunate because as a professor, I am paid to write and to teach. I am also fortunate now because currently both of my children are in school from 7:45-3. This has not always been the case during their younger years so I am very appreciative of the 7 hours of time I have each day to get my writing done. When in the middle of writing a book I am very disciplined with my time during the day while my children are at school so essentially when I am not teaching or doing committee work, I am alone and I am writing. Whether it is alone in my office at LSU, a cubby in the library, or alone in my home, I force myself to clear my calendar to have long stretches for writing. When I am at home, I try to ignore all of the housework and other things I could be doing, I just stay focused on getting as much done as possible before the kids come home. I don’t ever write once my kids get home from school because I am committed to being there for them in the afternoons and evenings. Because of this commitment, I have to make the most of every moment during the day. This has meant saying no to many opportunities over the years, but it is important to me to be present for my kids in the afternoons and evenings.
What is your advice to mother-writers?
My advice is to remember that life has its seasons. When my children were infants (they were born 2 years apart) I stayed home with them as much as possible. I had no long stretches of time to write, I just grabbed the moments when I could. I tried to stay as prepared as possible so that when the moments came I could take full advantage of them. I remember when my son was a baby he would sleep in the car but then wake up as soon as I tried to take him out of the carseat and bring him inside for a proper nap. So when he fell asleep in the car, there were many times that I pulled into a parking lot and pulled out my laptop to write for an hour while he slept, knowing that the peace would end as soon as I got home. But I learned early on that it was unfair to me and especially to my children to try to write and also take care of them at the same time. This caused me to be frustrated with them if they cried or interrupted me, and I was never productive anyway. I tried my best to be fully present as a mother when I was with them. To be fully “on” as a parent and then to be fully “on” as a writer and teacher when I had childcare or when they were asleep. It was not easy! Now that they are 10 and 12, it is much easier for me to find time to write while they are at home or at school.
So my advice would be to stay patient during seasons of life when mothering requires more of your physical presence; this season only lasts for a few years and it is over quickly; try to enjoy each season as it comes to you.
Read an excerpt from Swimming Upstream.
A guide to help parents teach their daughters to resist negative cultural messages.
Never before have adolescent girls faced so many confusing and contradictory expectations. From a young age, popular culture teaches girls that their worth is based on their appearance, their ability to gain attention, and an ever-increasing accrual of accomplishments. With such unattainable standards, it is no wonder that many girls experience stress, self-doubt, and even mental health problems. Girls struggle to develop an authentic sense of self, even as they attempt to meet a set of impossible cultural expectations.
Many parents feel helpless against the onslaught of negative influences targeting their daughters, but in Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, Laura Choate offers a message of reassurance. This book provides parents with a set of straightforward tools they can use to help their daughters navigate the trials and demands of contemporary girlhood. Choate draws upon years of research and counseling literature to teach parents how to instill the power of resilience in their daughters, including developing a positive body image, maintaining healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, and navigating high-pressure academic environments. Based on cutting-edge research, this book contains the strategies that parents need to prepare their daughters with the life skills they need to resist destructive cultural influences.
Though the journey through modern girlhood may be complicated – and even treacherous – this guide offers a user-friendly way for parents to help their daughters thrive in the midst of the negative pressures of modern culture. Practical and engaging, Swimming Upstream is a must-read for parents of girls of all ages.