Power of the Journal

journal by Calum MacAulay

Journals provide a reliable path to revisit childhood; they reinforce the relevance of family as our children grow into adults. In the past I’ve written about how a mother might carve out a creative life in the midst of the chaos of family life. Even amidst the mundane, creativity can be cultivated.  Most of my creativity has been born of writing, growing from ideas discovered as I write in journals. Even if you do not consider yourself a writer, journaling helps us as parents to figure out the path through difficult passages, but beyond that it creates a bridge between us and our children.

Memory serves the rememberer (Larson in The Memoir and the Memoirist), but the truth is, much of childhood will be forgotten. The journals I’ve created for my children are my personal account of their childhood with excerpts from other family members, but moreover these journals have become a record of our ongoing, ever changing relationship. For at least the first 18 of their lives, I was there just about every day, an important part of their early stories, and even though I have not written in their journals on a daily basis, I was  present on almost every page of their lives. Even when whole years have slipped by without being recorded in words, I’ve picked up the thread again, reviewing what went on, resuming the story as it unfolds, because I believe in the power of words written to that child at that time. In the teen years when they begin to pull away, as they must, this record will stand in as concrete evidence when they begin to think you don’t understand them.

JournalsWhen our oldest daughter to pulled away at age 15, saying, “you don’t understand me,” I gave her the journal. Here was a book, actually several books, written specifically about her and for her. Before she was born I kept a birth diary, speaking directly to my future daughter. Later I wrote down my early observations, what she said, my hopes, dreams and prayers for her. In early adolescence I cut out comics and pasted them into the journal along with anecdotal stories about her. Sometimes I wrote poems inspired by her phases. Other times I gave the journal to family members, and let them record their thoughts. Her father occasionally wrote down his experiences with her. Later, she wrote messages to her unborn  siblings in their journals. And more recently, when my daughter was pregnant and keeping her own birth diary, I gave her my birth diary to read and compare our journeys. Ironically, 25 years later, we were both pregnant together, but that too is a story for another time.

Writing about my children’s lives in many ways frees me to live my own life.  I am not only recording their lives, I am out living a life that will one day be separate from theirs, with interests beyond parenting. Because of this, there are sometimes long gaps in their journals. Writing helps me keep this in perspective, to see the importance in keeping my own journal, which in turn helps me figure out what is most important in my own life.  That knowledge and experience are then conveyed in their journals, which become a storehouse of what I hope will be part of them when they go.

In the last two weeks, two of our six children have left home. Our middle son, who  turns 21 this week, transferred to a University a few hours drive from where we live. We have been preparing for his impending launch for quite awhile, as he gained experience working and studying at the local community college. It was a tearful, but deeply satisfying send off. For now, I still have his journals. I can continue to add to them, and keep them safe until a later date when he chooses to revisit childhood.

Our youngest son turned 18 recently, and not long after told us he was moving in with his girlfriend. He is an independent soul, eager to strike out on his own. Journaling has helped me work through his decision without taking it personally. Writing out my feelings, then reviewing what it is that I need to say has enabled me to then have open, loving conversations with him that allow us to continue our relationship without conflict. And meanwhile, I still have his journals, can still write to his future self that will someday reflect on this period of his life, who he was within our family, and the effect it has on who he becomes. Without guilt, I want to convey how important he is to us, and our love for him, maintaining a healthy sense of connection.

I’ve encouraged my children to keep their own journals, but the journals I’ve kept for them are my reflections on their growth.  However, the journal is far more than a keepsake. It gives context to their lives and mine, and it makes us more relevant to each other in a time when our culture could make family life seem irrelevant rather than foundational. The journal becomes a bridge, fostering communication between us. Memories recorded in written form become a pathway to cross back to the formative years, a record of the foundation our lives were built upon. The journal is in some ways a momentary call back to childhood, a reminder of where they came from, who they are at the core. As they seek to work out issues in their adult lives, the journal offers a touchstone of early identity, especially in tense times.

Journals have helped reroute the direction of some tough moments in our lives as a family. As a teen, our oldest daughter, was strong-willed, difficult to reason with at times. At 17, she received a scholarship to study with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City for the summer. While there she met a modeling agent who wanted to send her to Japan. The opportunity represented a distraction from her chosen course. For several reasons I was not in favor of changing courses, but I knew I could not discuss it with her in a way she would listen. She already felt misunderstood and the distance between us was widening. Whatever I said would be the wrong thing, and it would be in the wrong tone of voice. Furthermore, she had just been in a car accident, totaling the Volvo we had helped her buy, rear-ending another car on the freeway as she put on make-up for a modeling job.

While she was on the phone with the agent  I wrote in her journal about all the strengths she brought to her love of dancing, and the possible downfall of allowing ourselves to be distracted by another’s agenda. I wrote out all the ways we could and could not support her as she went forward in her almost adult life. When she got off the phone I gave her the journal and left the room. Later, she sat on the arm of the sofa next to me and said, “Thank you.” Then her long body slid over onto my lap. This leggy seventeen year-old put her arms around my neck and said, “thank you for loving me this much.”

Sometimes love and wisdom compel us as parents to say “don’t do this,” or “can we think this through in light of who you are and where you’re heading,” but how that message is delivered may make all the difference. In writing, I can consider my words and my tone of voice, neutralizing some of the negative or didactic effects that seem inherent to my role as a parent. Writing allows for revision before delivery, unlike speaking, and yet, if you can speak, you can write.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, you can still write captions, short notes, and easy observations. You can cut out the words and quotes of others, responding to them, adding pictures or pieces of life.  In my first daughter’s journal are Luanne comics (when my daughter first began using hairspray) and the tag off of her first bra, along with the story of her begging me to buy it because all the other girls were already wearing them.

Even if you haven’t collected story filled memories in this way, you most likely have photos you can scroll through.  You can describe what you see, or remember. This is a form of ekphrasis– the more vivid you can be the more evocative the memory will become. And it is surprising how one memory links itself to a flood of other forgotten memories. When you write them out, you begin to understand things about your relationship that may have bypassed you in an earlier time.

Birthday celebrations are a great time to bring out the journal, reading excerpts around the table over birthday cake.  On these occasions, having a tangible record of our thoughts, not just photos of how we looked or what we were doing, gives new perspective to our origins and who we’ve become.  Perhaps Facebook or Instagram will take the place of photo albums, but the journal augments the public record; it is a private space where the heart and mind are unveiled, unmonitored by media.

As a parent I am the curator of my child’s life, providing each with their unique story.  If they become parents, their children will also have this view to who their parents were as children, beyond their physical appearance in photos. The journals imbue meaning to the many photos taken throughout the years and together they become a personal time capsule we revisit, strengthening the bond we share.

(a similar version of this article appears Motivation.com)