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My daughter's private diary—and my own
At a certain point, children crave privacy.
There are few things more alluring than a secret, a hiding place.
A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old daughter asked for permission to tie a sheet horizontally to the bars at the base of her loft bed, letting it hang to the ground, concealing her desk and pillowed reading nook from view. She used a blanket for the other side, a second wall, creating another room within her room. It’s adorable, though I admit I took some offense at first. Why does she want to shut me out? I wondered, then laughed a little, letting it go. (I have to duck inside of it, anyway, to turn off her lamp after she’s fallen asleep–which she knows.)
I had a secret notebook when I was in middle school.
It was like a journal, but better, because I shared it with five or six of my best friends. This was the era of the burn book. It wasn’t solely for shady purposes, though. The truth is, I can’t remember the specific details of most of what we wrote about, a mix of pre-adolescent musings, disjointed conversations, lists (remember MASH?), crush dissections, what have you. What was more important than its actual contents was the fact that it existed, as a collective secret, one we jealously guarded for all of the intimacy it contained. It was ours.
A good friend of mine bought a journal for my daughter, to take on her first international trip. She has quite a few journals scattered around her room, many of them only housing a few pages of scribbles and doodles. Not yet a consistent diarist. Her newest journal is leather bound and sturdy, with a lock, but not the kind with a key. My daughter called it a “spell book” when she opened the packaging, overcome with joy. “Can I write YAY in big letters?” she asked me, during a few quiet minutes after I’d tasked her with filling the first three pages. I bribed her with McDonald’s breakfast as an incentive, I’m a little ashamed to say. Motherhood is full of these little games, petty indulgences. I told her that she can write whatever she wants; it’s her journal. Just make it three pages. I began writing this essay while she worked, though it turned out much differently by the end.
Okay, I wasn’t entirely truthful. I do remember the stories we wrote. I’m not sure how they started. We were young, heads in the clouds, in love with love, and gloriously silly. We were boy crazy at the time, pretty boy crazy, to be specific: the longer the hair and sadder the eyes, the better–so we wrote love stories between us and these boys. We all had our favorites, and we were obsessed. We used the pages of our private notebook to feed our obsessions. If I had to guess the progression, I’d say that idle rankings became short ramblings which morphed into multi-paragraph fantasies. And now, the risk of our precious notebook falling into the wrong hands was compounded; the danger exponential. Thrilling, in other words. We attended a private Christian school in a small town, wore modest uniforms, pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible every day, and attended chapel weekly. I remember our notebook feeling like an illegal substance, ferried between our backpacks in the hallways and bathrooms like a suitcase of freshly laundered money. I remember feeling reckless and a little bit powerful. At a certain point, children crave rebellion.
Rebellion or reclamation? Growing up is a slow, awkward grapple for autonomy, isn’t it? I can understand wanting to construct walls, however permeable. The purpose being not just to shut out, but also to keep in.
But we also needed to shut out.
We did not succeed in that endeavor.
The inevitable occurred. I was too careless with the notebook, and my parents found it. I’m sure they remember that night, when they sat me down and informed me, disappointed and somber, what they’d discovered. I wonder if they had imagined the shame and fear and rage that crashed through me at the sight of our notebook in their hands, or if they were reeling too much from their own shame, fear, rage. Or whatever it was they felt. Pity?
Every single Bow Wow poster had to come off of my wall. My devastation, my humiliation, it was total. I never got it back, and we never spoke about it again. I don’t even remember what the notebook looked like anymore.
I think one of my biggest fears, as an adult in general but specifically as a parent, is forgetting. It’s already begun. Sometimes, when my daughter frustrates me, I reach for personal affront before empathy. (Empathy isn’t too far off from memory.) Because then I wonder, what will she remember from that interaction twenty years from now? And after that I think, why am I torturing myself with a question like that? I want to learn from what I’ve done, as much as I want to learn from what my parents have done. But children have to make their mistakes and skin their knees, cry through their hurts. And the hurts I’ve forgotten, I may perpetuate.
I didn’t say this was a rational fear. Or perhaps it’s my response to it that isn’t rational.
The grapple for autonomy, that doesn’t end, of course. It morphs. It takes on the faces and hopes and frailties of the ones we love. A better love, a better home, a better community, a better world. The rooms we create within rooms. I want her to understand that seeking commonality, even if it’s within an empty room, is welcome. I want her to feel secure in the spaces she wants to claim.
One page into writing in her new journal, my daughter asked, “Do you want me to read to you what I’ve written so far?”
I hastily answered, “No, keep going, and I’ll read it all when you’re done.” I said this partly because I suspected she was losing steam and wanted a distraction, and partly because I’d hit a groove in my own writing and didn’t want to be interrupted. She bent over her pages again without complaint. And when she finished, and finally had my full attention, she told me I’d lost the opportunity to hear what she’d written.
Carla Bruce is the Director of Publicity at One World and Roc Lit 101, and is based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Guernica, Real Simple, and elsewhere. You can find her online @carlawaslike.
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