Faces of Latter-day Saint Women: A Conversation with Dr. Christina Hibbert

On Monday, we featured a book review of Dr. Christina Hibbert’s memoir, This is How We Grow, the story of how she and her family adapted and changed after her sister and brother-in-law died and the Hibberts adopted their two sons. Today, we’re resurrecting a feature we used to have in the print journal, the “Faces of Latter-day Saint Women” interviews, and I was delighted to be able to have this conversation with Dr. Hibbert:

Talk a little bit about the process of writing the memoir. When you were writing in your journal while you were going through the process, did you think that you might eventually turn this experience into a book?

I had wanted to write a book for many years prior to the experiences I share in This is How We Grow. I’d even begun writing a book about my little sister, McLean, who died when she was 8 years old from cancer. But then, my sister Shannon died just two months after her husband had died. I suddenly had six kids, and my life changed completely; I thought, “I’ll never be able to write a book now.” 

A few months later, as I was journaling (I’ve been an avid journaler for as long as I can remember), I had a feeling, Someday, you will write this story. I didn’t tell anyone about it, but it was in the back of my mind with every journal entry from that point on. Even though life was too full to add any career pursuits, including writing a book, I soon figured I could at least write a little each day. Each night I’d write in a notebook (not my journal) for 10 minutes about whatever topic was on my mind at the time. 

Eventually, those “essays” and my journal entries became This Is How We Grow, but it was a long process—four years. It honestly felt insane to start writing a book when I was so completely overwhelmed by my kids and the new life we’d been handed. I prayed and prayed about it, asking Heavenly Father, “Are you SURE I’m supposed to do this? It makes absolutely no sense right now.” Each time the answer was the same, “Yes, this is what you need to do.” So, I spent months reading through all the writing and entries, selecting those that were most relevant, and transcribing them. I then worked to put them together like a great puzzle, rearranging for over two years until I finally found the format and organization that felt right. 

For me, it took great courage to admit “I am writing this story,” and at first I said I was only doing it for myself or for my family to have. Really, I wasn’t confident I could make it as an author, and especially as an author sharing our very personal experiences. It took me over two years, and an enormous amount of courage and support to finally publicly admit, “I’m writing and publishing this memoir for real.” 

You write very honestly and openly about struggles with your extended family in the memoir (particularly with your parents and your adoptive sons’ grandparents). Was this a challenge for you? How did you balance your need for representing the story honestly with being sensitive to the feelings of your family members?

From the moment I knew I wanted to write This Is How We Grow, I feared exposing too much of my family’s “stuff.” At first, I tried to just leave those parts out of the story, but it became clear that wasn’t possible. Their stories were too much intertwined with mine. I came across some excellent advice soon after at a writing conference. “First, write the truth. You can reevaluate and worry about the consequences later.” Absolutely correct. I couldn’t write anything but the truth, and I sought to write my truth, unfiltered. I worked to keep the focus on my own experiences of the situation and no one else’s, and to this day, I still openly admit that others may have a different take on things. This is my story and mine alone. 

As I went to publish, however, I was determined to protect others as much as possible. I changed the names of people to protect them, and I did remove some details from the story if they were personal to others, especially my kids, and not essential to my telling of the story. It’s still difficult with some family members, namely my mother. We still haven’t talked about the book. Or rather, she hasn’t yet been ready to talk with me. I don’t know if the boys’ grandparents know about it. I hope they don’t. 

With other family members and friends it has been incredibly healing, bringing to light events and feelings we would otherwise never have discussed. Even my oldest son, Braxton, read the book, without me knowing it. He later told me it helped him 1) understand and respect what I had been through, as his mother, and 2) understand what his adopted brothers had been through. He said it made him want to be a better brother, and that was probably the best thing this book has done so far.

How has going through the experience of grieving your sister while adding her sons to your family helped you as a mental health professional?

Life experiences like those we have been through create immense compassion and understanding for others and their struggles. I may have learned about grief/loss, depression, anxiety, postpartum, motherhood, parenting, relationships, and marriage from my doctoral classes and learning as a psychologist, but my experiences are my greatest education. I see others’ struggles more clearly and without judgment now. I have had to put “what I preach into practice,” and that helps me relate to those with whom I work in a way I couldn’t otherwise have done. The “Dr. Hibbert” side of me has become incalculably better at what she does because of all I’ve been through.

You write openly about your struggles with depression in the memoir. Was this something that was difficult for you to talk about? 

It’s much easier for me to talk about once I’m through it. When I’m in the midst of depression (and I’ve had several episodes throughout my life, including postpartum depression four times), I feel the need to isolate. I feel like no one gets it, like I’m all alone. I also feel embarrassed and like I wish I were “stronger.” Even though, logically, I know depression is not weakness, in those moments, I feel that way. 

Once I’m through it, I don’t have trouble sharing my experiences. For one, I think I feel “strong” again; I feel like I have “overcome” it, so it’s easier to share. But also, I highly value helping others feel “normal,” helping them see they are not alone. I hate thinking so many others have to feel what I have felt in my times of despair, and if sharing my experiences can in any way bring them comfort, peace, or a little light or love, then I am more than willing to expose every single vulnerability I face.

Several years have passed since the events in the memoir. What have been some of the continuing challenges for your blended family? Do you feel that your family has achieved a state of equilibrium? What have been some of your joyful moments?

Mostly, we feel like a “normal” family now, six and a half years later, or at least our version of “normal.” We still have challenges, for sure. The kids have been through a lot of death and loss and heartache over the years. Growing up with grief is tough, and we’ve been back to counseling to work through new feelings and understandings over the years.

Also, recently a close friend of our family’s took her life after leaving her daughter to play at our house for the day. Her three children are best friends with my children, and it’s been a devastating blow to us all. (I wrote about it here.) It’s felt like, “We were finally through the major grief of our past and starting to feel ‘normal,’ and here we are, thrown right back into the pain of intense loss.” We’re working through it again, though. We certainly know how to work through it.

For me, our most joyful moments include simple things, like seeing the kids’ successes and cheering each other on—in sports, drama, art, and with friends or at school. I feel especially joyful seeing how they’ve handled all they’ve been through, how we all have. We’ve all felt immense joy hearing the responses and reviews and messages from readers of This is How We Grow and knowing this book has made a real difference in so many lives. It gives an extra special credibility and validation to all we’ve been through, and it reminds me how Heavenly Father gives us exactly what we need to propel us to new and incredible levels of learning, growth, service, and love.

How do you balance your professional career, the writing you do, and being a mother to six?

It’s something I struggled with even before I became a mom of six kids, but now that I have such a huge family, it’s a constant focus. At first, I had to quit my professional activities altogether. There was simply too much to do at home, helping us all adjust and grieve, and building this family. Over time, I was able to implement some writing, and then see a few clients each week, and finally, work on writing the book for increasing lengths of time. 

As I teach in my This Is How We Grow Personal Growth Group (which is a free, online, group you should definitely check out), some seasons of life are just not conducive to our professional goals. It’s hard for me to not have time for my professional talents, but ultimately, it’s been okay because I could see that someday when my kids were older it would be possible to reach my professional goals and develop and share my talents. That’s where I am now.

At this point, all my kids are in school, so during the school year I use those hours wisely, doing my book writing each day, posting on my blog once a week, and seeing clients only one morning. I also try to take a nap or rest every weekday afternoon, because let’s face it, the mornings and after school/evenings at my house are completely crazy and not “mine” at all. I still feel like a stay-at-home mom because really, I’m almost always there unless I’m traveling to speak. I even see clients online many times! I know everything I do will take four times longer because I have so much responsibility at home, but I also know my small efforts, over time, can produce great things.

I’ve come to learn that “balance” is actually a feeling, a state of being that comes from the choices we make. If we want to feel balance, we have to examine our choices, and our priorities. I prioritize my role as a wife and mother and my own self-care, including my relationship with God, above all else. When things get too busy or overwhelming, I’ve learned to let the work-related stuff go for a while and slow down. It will always be waiting for me when I feel ready. I definitely get frustrated (especially when hormones kick in!) and I’m constantly trying to find a “better way,” but I am good at paying attention to what I do and do not say “yes” to and whether it leads toward these top priorities or not. 

The most important things choose to do each day that bring me a sense of balance are: 1) get plenty of sleep (always a battle, but one worth fighting!), including taking a nap & going to bed early when I can; 2) exercise each morning; 3) scripture study, prayer and meditation. I do an “hour of power with 30 min exercise and 30 min for these other things, and without it, I am always out of balance; and 4) quiet time, so I can reconnect spiritually and emotionally and feel like “me” again and not always “mom,” “wife,” “psychologist,” “author,” “speaker.”

Can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming book? How was the experience writing it different from writing your memoir?

As I was finishing writing and publishing This Is How We Grow, I was contacted by New Harbinger Publications, a well-respected mental health publisher, and asked if I’d be willing to write a book on self-esteem for them. It’s a topic that’s become a specialty of mine, and they’d actually found me through my blog/website and the articles I’d already written on it. (Lesson: If you want to be a published author, start your own blog!) Eventually, they wanted me to focus on “self-esteem after a breakup,” and even though it was a new spin for my writing, it was a perfect match since I’m an expert on grief/loss, self-esteem/self-worth, relationships, and women’s mental health. This second book, titled, Who Am I Without You? will be released March 2015.

Writing this book was much easier than my memoir because it wasn’t my personal story. I didn’t have to break down crying every time I started writing, like I did pretty much the entire four years of writing This Is How We Grow. However, nothing will probably ever be as powerful as the healing I experienced through writing This is How We Grow. I feel like that story is “out of me” now and into the book. My story is free to help others learn and grow. It’s there to remind us all, “When life throws you in the mud, plant yourself and grow.” 

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

4 thoughts on “Faces of Latter-day Saint Women: A Conversation with Dr. Christina Hibbert

  1. Thanks for this fantastic interview, Shelah and Christina. This was such a beautiful, honest piece and made me fall in love with Christina. Now I can’t wait to read her book!

  2. Yes, thank you for introducing me to Christina. I have read some of her other things on her blog and now I want to read her book. Her upcoming book looks like it would be really relevant for my life too.

  3. Thank you, Jessie and Michelle, for your thoughtful words, for reading the interview, for perusing my blog/website, and for wanting to read my book (and maybe the next one, too). I can’t usually put into words how grateful I am to all who take the time to read my material and learn with me. So happy to be connected. Keep in touch! xo Christi

Comments are closed.