I Read My Daughter’s Diary: How could I? How could I not?

I give my daughter a diary, and she offers to share her entries with me. The first few pages ask her to list favorite friends, books, TV shows, sports. “My best friend is Monica and I love hanging out at her house.” There are few surprises from the pen of an eight-year-old.

Suddenly, Amy says I can’t read her diary anymore. Just like that – off limits. It’s the first time she’s ever restricted me. Usually she begs me to participate in everything, from completing jigsaw puzzles to awaiting bowel movements. We share her whole life, from hot fudge sundaes on summer afternoons to tearful recounts of a schoolmate who’s hurt her feelings.

“Promise you won’t read it,” she says.

“Of course I won’t,” I tell her. “Grandma used to read my diary in high school. She punished me for things I wrote in it. How I hated that:.When you’re ready to share your diary with me again, let me know.”

Each morning Amy locks her diary with the key, which she keeps attached to the diary on a string, rather than hiding it somewhere. She leaves it around, key and all, for me to open if I wish. But I don’t. One morning Amy leaves the diary completely unlocked in the middle of the living room on a bare coffee table.

After she goes to school and before I leave for work, I stare at it longingly, unable to get used to our new forced phase of privacy, even though it is a healthy sign for my daughter’s growth. How does a mother break free from the intertwined relationship she’s had with her children since they were born? Amy still loves to sit in my lap (even when I’m not in the mood), and she’ll touch her foot to my leg under the dinner table or wind her arm around mine as I eat. My little girl yearns to gain independence, but she is still tied to me, as clearly I still am to her.

And I like it that way. Like most working mothers, I always feel conflicted that I don’t spend enough time with her, that I miss out on aspects of her everyday life.

So I sit near the diary, wondering what to do. Didn’t Freud say that people who left things out really wanted you to look? Amy will never know. I am terribly curious. I am breaking a promise if I read it, but unlike my mother, I’ll never use the information against her – only to help her. Amy is the type of child who doesn’t always reveal her feelings, and I have to pry things out of her – “What did you do in school today?” …”I forgot.” I worry that she keeps too much inside.

Breathing deeply, I open the diary quickly…almost as if it is beyond my control. CRUSHES I HAVE. She lists Alex first. I met him in preschool. He has blue eyes and blonde hair. Her next crush: Jill, Alex’s mother, who has been a big sister/aunt figure to Amy. I met Jill at school. Blonde hair and blue eyes. FIRST KISS? Whenever I see her.

How delectably innocent and naive. I smile. And with a twinge of guilt, I read on.

MY FAVORITE SUBJECTS. Math and science.

How could that be? Last week she cried, “I hate math!” and didn’t want to tackle her homework. I even talked to the teacher about her worrisome frustrations.

HABITS I WANT TO BREAK. Picking my nose and biting my fingernails. LITTLE WHITE LIES I HAVE TOLD. That I did not wash my hands with soap she asked me did you use soap and I said yes but I did not.

Not even this surprises me. I know how quickly Amy washes her hands and have always suspected she skips the soap part. I often ask if she has used soap; she always says yes. Was this small but defiant behavior satisfying to her? Did it make her feel powerful? So Amy doesn’t use soap. Now we both have our white lies: hers about hand-washing, mine about reading her diary. Yet I find myself turning the page again.

MY SECRET SUCCESS. Playing the piano with my eyes closed. MY WISHES AND DREAMS. My wish is to become a great piano player and I dream of marrying someone like my dad. MY SECRET THOUGHTS ABOUT MY MOTHER. She wants to know evything [sic].

Finally, a sting. Do I really want to know everything? Is that how she views me? (Of course it dawns on me that I am reading her diary…) Why does she want to marry someone like her father but defy me by not using soap? Why doesn’t she dream of growing up to replicate my strong points?

These worries seem foolish. I know Amy admires me, and now I feel even worse about my surreptitious prying. I shouldn’t be here. We each deserve our own space. Reluctantly, I close her diary.

Even worse, this is just the beginning. Amy’s secrets will become much grander than not using soap. Will I be able to resist temptation the next time her diary is left out? And how will I ever acclimate to the larger gulf that must come between us?

It’s both exciting and sad to watch your daughter grow up and away from you. Friends with older children tell me their kids leave and come back many times before they’re truly independent. I will have to cherish the times when Amy returns and learn to live with the moments when she is away.

In the meantime, I will try to get her to straighten her room, use soap, and put that diary of hers away in a safer place: as far from my line of sight as possible.

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