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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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I don’t want my kids to read my diaries when I die but I don’t want to throw them away either.

I was cleaning out my closet and found the box filled with all my old diaries from childhood to young adulthood. Of course I couldn’t resist leafing through them. Some three hours later I was emotionally drained with sore cheeks from laughing and smeared mascara from crying. I felt like I had relived every traumatic incident from puberty through my 20s. This material is not for the faint of heart and definitely not for my children’s eyes. Or is it?

My diary was always sacred to me, and I have been recording my life on paper since I was 9 years old. It was where I could express any thought or fantasy without embarrassment or fear. My diaries are filled with a young girl’s innocent hopes and dreams and with a self-conscious teenager’s secret crushes. They are filled with the optimism of first love and the heartbreak of lost love. They are filled with lessons, for sure, but are those lessons just for me or could they benefit my children as well?

Are there lies we tell our kids out of pure love?

Writing, to me, has always been cathartic so, even as a child, I wrote about what was bothering me. Most of it is pretty benign aside from a few entries like the one where I make a list of things I will never do to my children. (FYI, I have already done most of them!)

Should my children read these diaries, they might learn that I, too, had problems in my relationships with my siblings, and that I, too, did not get everything I wanted from my parents. They could gain some insight into why I parented them the way I did. Or not.

The teenage diaries aren’t really that bad either. Not really. There are a lot of details about partying….the who, what, when and where (never why…I was a teenager, that’s why!) Do my children need to know about the night I woke my father at 3 a.m. because I thought I was having a heart attack from too much partying? Do they need to know how much my parents hated my first boyfriend and threw him out of the house one day?

But there are also a lot of questions. I’m not sure who I was expecting to answer them: who liked me; what will I do?; where will I live?; who will I remember when I became famous?

When I read my diaries over, I know the context. I had a pretty great childhood. The diary entries reflect the worst of it. Would my children think less of their grandparents, or their aunts and uncle if they read what I wrote when I was mad at them?

Then there are the series of diaries from several backpacking trips I took to Europe in my late teens and early 20s that I think would make a great movie, but I am not so sure I would even let my kids watch it. These are the ones that I wonder if I need to burn but these are the diaries I love to read over and over. Sometimes I call my best friend, who travelled with me, and read her entries over the phone. We laugh till we cry and remember things we haven’t thought about in ages. They are highly detailed and personal accounts of the activities of a young, single woman abroad…if you get my drift. What benefit could my kids get from reading this except to think that maybe their mom was a bit…adventurous?

Part of me thinks they would learn some practical lessons, or at least realize how cool a mom I really am, and gain some insight into their mother as a person. But another part of me doesn’t want to risk the exposure.

Your 20s are such an exciting time in your life. You are working on getting a career going, you are dating and working out relationships, and you are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to be. I did that and recorded most of it on paper. It was a time of ups and downs, highs and lows, heartbreak (I kissed a lot of frogs before I found my prince) and navigating major life decisions. The writing is pretty raw. Even reading it some 30 years later was hard. I even began to feel mad at an old ex-boyfriend after reading about how devastated I was at the breakup.

It is satisfying to know that I have learned a lesson or two along the way and ended up in a happy marriage with two wonderful children. I have the answers to a lot of the questions I posed to myself so many years ago, except maybe why that aforementioned boyfriend broke up with me.

As a writer, it is hard to throw out anything I have written, but as a mother, I’m not so sure. What do I do with all this personal, highly sensitive material? Will it benefit my children to know that I struggled and second-guessed myself?

I have talked to my best friend about the diaries, telling her where they are so that in the event of my death, she can find them and destroy them. Now I am not so sure. Another friend has told me that she threw all her old diaries and letters away and that she felt fantastic…free.

Why can’t I figure this out? Maybe it’s time to crack open another journal.

Dear Diary…..

Elyse Tytel lives in Toronto.