How Telling Stories to My Daughter Got Me Through the Darkest Times

I was nursing a 4-month-old baby when Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election in 2018. It was a disaster, and I knew it right away. My daughter — let’s call her Potato — kept on sucking while I shed tears over her head. Then I changed her into a rainbow onesie to indicate my displeasure with our future president, who once said he was “proud to be homophobic.”

There was not much else I could do in my state of exhaustion and despair. But then, on one of those lonely nights of breastfeeding, I started to tell Potato random stories, just to feel less alone and to divert my sad thoughts. Little did I know that this, the simple act of telling tales, would see us through an unhinged far-right presidency and a devastating pandemic. In the toughest of times, it was a lifeline.

I remember the story that started everything: It was the tale of Damon and Pythias, which I had read somewhere and wanted to pass along. According to the myth, they were best friends who traveled to Syracuse, where Pythias did something unpleasant to King Dionysus and was sentenced to death. Pythias wanted to say goodbye to his family, so Damon offered himself as a hostage while Pythias settled his affairs. The king agreed. Nobody expected Pythias to return, but he did. Dionysus was so moved by the demonstration of friendship that he revoked the death sentence.

When I relayed the story’s ending, I swear that my baby stopped feeding for a second, her big brown eyes looking at me inquiringly. After that, I decided to tell her any anecdote that came to mind and sounded even remotely child appropriate. This helped me a lot during late-night diaper changes, especially when I also needed to change Potato’s soaked bed linens while distracting a cold, outraged baby.

She paid attention — first to my intonations and then to the narrative, as she began to understand our language. I told her stories of the day I slipped off a boat, the day my bus broke down, the day I mistook apples for tomatoes, the day two buckets flew away through our window, whatever. She loved the story of a friend who was stung by a bee and continued to play a recreational volleyball match with a swollen foot; it’s graphic, it’s heroic, it’s fun.

A little more than a year later, when Potato was a toddler learning to walk and talk, Covid-19 reached the country. By then, I was telling her stories about the environment, Indigenous tribes, the Amazon rainforest and the soaring deforestation rates under Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch. Then we began to chat about pathogens, masks, vaccines and science denialists — like the leader of our country, who aimed for herd immunity and worked against vaccines.

Sharing stories was our way of getting through the long days and nights of social isolation. She showed a special interest in the plot of a novel by Ivan Goncharov, the 19th-century Russian novelist, she picked up from my bedside table. The protagonist, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, refused to leave his bedroom; for him to move from his bed to a chair takes dozens of pages. (He complied with quarantine before it was cool.)

As she developed her language skills, Potato started to ask difficult questions — about why the rich could continue to drain our natural resources and why Mr. Bolsonaro hadn’t been arrested yet. I tried to convey a hopeful message about the future, but sometimes my despondency was hard to hide. On the other hand, I learned that telling stories to her was a way of thinking out loud and calming my anxieties. This was good for both of us: I got a therapeutic break from my neurosis, and she got a story.

Since Potato didn’t have many true stories of her own to share and the outside world was a mess, we often resorted to fiction. All the time, she asked me to tell “wrong things” (fictional stories) that were “long and difficult to understand” (meaning many characters and plot twists). Sometimes she interrupted me to say: “No, another one! A story without people.”

She intervened in everything — the plot, the genre, the dialogue, the characters. She demanded certain props and scenarios. “Now I want a sad story with Chico Bento,” she asked one day, referring to a character from a Brazilian comic strip. “And he sings!” Recurring cast members in her stories included Greta Thunberg, Oblomov, the sisters Bingo and Bluey (from the Australian animated series “Bluey”), Mario and Luigi (from the “Super Mario” franchise) and Luna (from the Brazilian animated series “Earth to Luna!”).

In late 2022, Mr. Bolsonaro was voted out of office, defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. I told my daughter about Mr. Lula’s imprisonment, his release, the annulment of his convictions and his comeback as president. Now that’s a story. I told her about Mr. Lula’s dog, a female black mutt named Resistance who went from living on the streets outside Mr. Lula’s prison to the presidential palace. Potato loved that part.

Last year, with Mr. Bolsonaro and Covid-19 out of our lives — well, sort of — we could finally concentrate more on experiencing new stories rather than just telling them. Depression, my own faithful black mutt, still follows me around, but I have found more ways to keep it at a certain distance. A good night’s sleep is a nice way to start. Things seem lighter.

Potato is now a 5-year-old who knows how to read, write and craft a compelling narrative. A while ago, we were coming home from school when she decided to perform a story inside the crowded bus. (I told her to lower her voice, to little avail.) At one point we were all “in a very deep cave with a giant, a chicken and a huge ice cream.” The lady next to us couldn’t stop laughing, especially when the plot twist came. We got off at the penultimate stop, so most passengers didn’t hear the end, sadly.

Our storytelling has developed in tandem, each of us encouraged by the other. In the past year, I drafted a novel about depression, motherhood, Greek myths and creative writing. Potato wrote and illustrated five books before getting bored:“Things I Like,” “Things I Don’t Like,” “The Long Dress,” “The Crazy Birthday Book” and “The Pineapple Singer.” Life is fuller for both of us: She’s been learning to swim and I’ve been playing beach volleyball, risking the occasional bee sting.

She’s been teaching me how to finish a complex narrative when you are despairing and clueless about how to move on: She just appears, flying, as a plot resolution device. It’s called a Potato ex machina. It works every time.

Vanessa Barbara (@vmbarbara_) is a journalist and the author of three novels in Portuguese, including the forthcoming “Três Camadas de Noite.”

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