Biography Challenge

One of the best relationship exercises I’ve known came out of a support group many years ago. It can be used by anyone – so I offer it here. For many people their relationship with a parent is difficult. This piece is written as if for a mother and child, but can be used for any relationship.

In this we will tell our mother’s story as if we didn’t know her or as if she were someone else’s mother. It may sound strange, but telling it from a distance, we can view her life differently. If you have photos or other props, use them to illustrate times in her life. When you refer to her, call her by her first name or Mrs. Whatever – for this exercise, she is not ‘Mom.’ And of course, add any information that suits you. There are many prompts because only a few questions may apply or resonate for you. They are there just to jog your memory. We told our stories in the group, but writing them out is beneficial too.

Tell us:
1.  When and where was she born? Was there anything significant happening in the world then? Wars, economic troubles, political problems, epidemics?
2.  What kind of family was she born into? Rural, urban? Economic status? Older siblings? How many siblings were born after her?
3.  What was her childhood like? Did she live with any extended family? What were her feelings about her mother and father?
4.  How were her teen years? Did she have boyfriends or girlfriends? Did she work? Where?
5.  How far did she go in school? Did she like school? What did she dream of doing with her life?
6.  Did she want to get married? When did she get married? Tell the circumstances as well as you can. What attracted her to her partner?
7.  How many times was she pregnant? How old was she when each child was born? Was she pregnant before she married? Were there any special circumstances: difficult birth, multiple births, illness, death of a child?
8.  How did her family feel about her marriage and pregnancy? What did her husband’s family feel about it? How many children did she want?
9.  Was she especially close to any of her siblings? Her parents? Her in-laws? Describe their relationships. Was she gay or were any of her siblings or friends?
10. Did she work? What were her interests? What were her passions? Did she have hobbies or craft skills?
11. Did she join the military? Was anyone in her family in the military? How did this affect her?
12. What were the major events in her life?
13. What problems with her children did she have to face? How old was she at the time? What support did she have? What were her fears and where did they come from?
14. Have her parents or any siblings died? If so, how old was she when it happened? How do you think it affected her?
15. Did her marriage last? If not, did she marry again? Describe.
16. Did she suffer from any major illnesses, injuries, or addictions?
17. How was her self-confidence?  How did she show this?
18. What were her favorite things (color, food, flower, movie, song)?
19. What were her pet peeves?
20. Who were her best friends? Did her friendships last? How diverse was her world?
21. Did she move a lot or stay in her hometown? Did she want to travel?

Add anything that comes to you about this person. There are many circumstances that I haven’t listed – immigrant families, blended families, racial or gender issues. You will know the right questions to ask. If you find that you don’t know much about her life, that may be a part of why it’s difficult to understand why she does things that upset you.


Present your report with photos if possible to a friend. Better yet, this exercise is very powerful when done in a group. Even alone telling her story aloud helps you understand her and gain perspective. Pay attention to the parts of the story that are difficult to tell or cause you tears. They are all insights into your relationship with her.

After preparing and presenting this story, do you see her differently? What, if anything, has changed for you?

This project can be done using your father, sibling, or friend – anyone that you issues with. It allows you see them from a different perspective.

Perhaps more importantly, this exercise can be done as a story of YOUR life. Tell us about the person who is you, but tell about this person in the third person as if you just read their biography. Describe their life using the prompts above – as if you never met her, didn’t know her. You might find that you are kinder to this ‘stranger’ than you are to yourself.

What can you tell us about this person?


Oh, Donna

When I was young, Donna was a quite fashionable name.  “Acceptable” – that was the lofty standard my parents were aiming for.  There were several Donnas in my class and my best friend then was a Donna.

But now the name is rarely given to babies now.

From government statistics I found the rise and fall of the name.  It first appeared in the 1920s ranking #104 for girls.  When I was born in the 1940s, it was up to #17.  Ritchie Valens sang “Donna”  in 1958.  The name peaked in the 1960s at #8.  It sunk to #64 in the 1970s and was never ranked again in the top 200.

So now I have an old fashioned name, like Bertha or Edith or Agatha would have been in my youth.  I hadn’t thought of myself as a Bertha, but that’s what others must hear when I say ‘Donna.’

I’m not at all upset.  I feel it puts me in a group of tough old women, like Flossie Beadle was when I was young.  She was a staunch defender of local history in my little town – I thought she was wonderful.  I’m happy to be in the ranks of Bertha and Flossie.