Maternal confession: Why I read my daughter’s diary
Rebecca Westcott and her six-year-old daughter often ended up fighting. Then she found Georgia's diary. Reading it and leaving messages inside helped them to understand each other better
I am a diarist and so is my daughter. I am also a hypocrite because while there's no way on this earth that I would allow someone unfettered access to my diary entries, I am more than happy to read hers. And a sneaky glimpse into the mind of my daughter has aided our relationship on more than one occasion.
Why does anyone bother to write a diary? When I first began to keep one, aged eight, I started because Santa Claus gave me a book called My Secret File in which I was encouraged to describe myself, so I did. I detailed my height, weight and number of toes. I was called upon to provide a fingerprint and a lip print, which as I wasn't allowed lipstick had to be created with felt tips. I listed the reasons I loved my mum and the things that I was good at doing, and by the end of the book I was hooked. A whole book — just about me. Intoxicating.
I kept a diary until I was 21 and then stopped. I didn't think about diaries again for years, until I was tidying my daughter's bedroom one day while she was at school and discovered a notebook. Opening it, I realised that she was writing her own diary, aged six-and-a-half. A better parent would have walked away.
I am not a better parent. I sat down and started reading.
Georgia is our second child, sandwiched between two brothers. I was 27 when she was born and naively thought that parenting a daughter would be a piece of cake. Her father is always dragging us off on family canoe trips and I envisaged the years ahead a bit like one of our outings on our local river, with me and my girl floating placidly along, navigating challenges with ease. I was wrong.
Being a parent to Georgia is definitely a white-water ride. It's fun and exciting and exhilarating — and terrifying. At the time I discovered her diary, I was struggling to understand her. I agonised for hours each day about why I couldn't communicate with her without it escalating into a major argument. I thought I should know her — that I should be able to read her every thought. When I couldn't, it felt like I was failing as her mother.
So I couldn't read her mind but I could read her diary. Sitting on her bed, looking at the first few entries, was a revelation. She'd started writing it a week or so before, at the time I had returned to my teaching job in a prison, after maternity leave. The day before I'd been cross with her because she'd been difficult. Her diary entry, written in pink felt tip, was all about the horrible day she'd had at school, recounting in painful detail the mean things another girl had said to her.
I remembered my reaction when she told me about it the previous evening. I was tired after work, busy with Zach and Reuben, who were eight and one, and had dismissed it as a “girl” thing.
My shame was huge. I'd been so busy talking at Georgia that I hadn't stopped to listen to her. This is my Achilles heel as a parent. I talk a lot — recently my children asked me if I could just give them a smack when they have done something wrong, instead of a lecture that lasts for hours.
Without thinking about it, I picked up a pen and started writing to Georgia at the bottom of the page. I wrote that I was proud of her and was looking forward to spending some time together. Then I left the diary on her pillow.
When I went to bed the following night, I was surprised to see Georgia's diary on my pillow. She had written in her entry that she liked me leaving her a message. And so began a new way of talking to my daughter. We never discussed it and I only wrote in the diary when she left it on my pillow. We explored subjects she didn't want to talk about face to face and it gave me a chance to address her worries in a way that she could access.
Having looked into it a bit more, I have discovered that there are books for just this purpose. They have titles such as Mother-Daughter Journals and Just Between Us. I'm glad I didn't know this when we started our diary — it began almost as a mistake.
As time went by, Georgia wrote with less and less self-consciousness, almost as if she'd forgotten that I was reading her entries. These passages were particularly enlightening and made me feel lucky to have the diary in my arsenal of parenting tools. Her plan to run away from home, aged eight, because her brothers were too annoying was thwarted before she got as far as the front door.
One of the biggest difficulties I encountered with Georgia when she was younger was her talent for evading the truth. She was surprisingly skilled in this area and could fool me in ways that her brothers never could. This caused a lot of confrontation between us and, at times, it felt as if she had zero respect for me as her mother. One of her (typically dramatic) entries, when she was nine, addresses this:
“I take back every word the world has ever heard. I am never going to tell a lie again. I can't believe I have told almost 10,000 lies and only, like, 50 of them were white lies.”
This was one of the entries that we went on to discuss face to face, with me struggling not to quiz her about the exact nature of the 50 white lies. Was one of them telling me that I looked OK in my new dress? Or that my cooking was improving?
It was also when Georgia was nine that she did something that took me by surprise. I was at work early one morning when I received a phone call from a friend, wanting to know where Georgia was. The school bus was waiting for her — full of her class, all dressed up for a day out.
I had no idea what she was talking about. It emerged that a letter had been sent home and the plans had been organised for weeks. I hadn't received a letter and when I'd left Georgia with her granny that morning she had made no mention of a school trip.
The reason became clear once I got home at the end |of the day. She hadn't wanted to go.
So she left the letter at school and didn't tell us. Her plan (because she did have a plan) was to go and sit in the empty classroom for a while and then trot along to the school office, where she intended to ask them to ring me and get me to collect her.
I was beyond furious. I was also a bit scared because this endeavour had taken an awful lot of forethought and premeditation. I couldn't believe that she had lied to me about something so big. And that was the problem. Georgia was repentant about making the rest of the class late but wasn't sorry for lying because she didn't believe that she had.
I shouted at her for a long time. I made her sit there and listen while I went over and over the multiple offences she had committed. But neither of us could really hear what the other was saying.
The diary entry for that night made it easier to understand. She wrote that she couldn't see why I was accusing her of lying because she had worked hard not to lie. She expected me to hear about the trip and when I didn't mention it, well, neither did she. I wrote back and explained the whole concept of lying by omission.
When I stopped to think about it honestly, I could see that I was most hurt that she hadn't confided in me rather than because of what she had done. I could explain that in writing with far less emotional blackmail than when I'd been talking to her.
The entries were certainly not all deep and meaningful. Very often the diary entries
were funny — not that this was Georgia's intention. She started to use them in an attempt to gain control of a situation — to remind me and prompt me into doing the things she thought a mother should do.
My favourite entry, when she was seven, reminds me that, even though she is now 12, in some ways she hasn't really changed at all. She still can never find her hairbrush.
I cannot wait until E's birthday party. I love you. Have you seen my hairbrush? Daddy says he yoosed it. But he dosen't no were it is now. I need it for the party. But if I carn't find it will you let me boro yours? Fanks. By the way I don't have nitts. I rilly don't. You are the best ever. Love from Georgia xxxxxxxxxxxx
My reply was as follows:
Of course you can borrow my hairbrush (I don't have nits either …!!).
I love you too, gorgeous girl.
Love Mummy xxxxx
The last entry in Georgia's diary was written on July 31, 2011. By that point we had really stopped using it, but Georgia had discovered it on her shelf and wanted to write to me one last time. She wrote:
Dear Mummy, I was just having a look through this book when I realised how much I have moved on.
Reading it now makes me wish that I could have those few years with her again, this time with a proper understanding of what a little girl she was. I feel very lucky to have such a fantastic memento of that part of Georgia's childhood.
Using a diary as a method of communication didn't solve all our problems.
We're still on a white-water ride and I suspect, as we enter her teenage years, I am going to have to work even harder on learning to listen more and talk less.
It did teach me the most valuable thing I have ever learned as a mother.
I'm not supposed to be able to read my children's minds. They exist separately to me and that's OK. If push comes to shove, I can always attempt to track down Georgia's current diary.
- Rebecca Westcott’s novel for children, Dandelion Clocks, is published by Puffin