The idea first came to me when Maggie was 15. We were in the midst of the struggle that many moms experience with their teenage daughters — trying to renegotiate our relationship, while attempting to let go. Though a single mom and teen, the Gilmore Girls we weren’t. And because Maggie and I were so close for so many years, her need to pull away and define herself apart from me was strong. The only way I knew to counteract the pain of my daughter’s withdrawal and her years of individuation — to keep us connected in some way — was to write about what was going on, by keeping parallel journals.
When I initially mentioned the project to her, she thought it was a good idea. “That’s cool,” she said. I was pleased and somewhat surprised. We spoke of purchasing special journals, something that would compel each of us to write. But with school work, friends, and drama club demanding much of her time, it was not surprising when she abandoned her initial enthusiasm for the venture. I decided to let it be.
Then in April of that year, after a major argument over Internet access, I thought some retail therapy might heal the angst we were feeling, so we headed to one our favorite bookstores. Without saying a word, while standing in the checkout line with me, Maggie walked over to the journal section of the store and picked out her favorite: a purple volume with one of Monet’s Water Lilies floating across the cover. She persuaded me to choose one with the Eiffel Tower adorning its jacket, and our journal project was born. After climbing into our beds that night, we made our first entries.
What started as a venture in journaling eventually became a book project. Its goal was to walk through the ordinary lives of a single mom and her teenage daughter, to peer over their shoulders and witness this deeply rooted, highly emotional relationship from their distinctive perspectives. A friend came up with SAME LANDSCAPE, DIFFERENT VIEWS: The Parallel Journals of a Teenager and Her Mom, which served as our working title through the third revision.
Carol: Monday, April 17, 10:55 p.m.
On Saturday, while I was trying to get online, a message appeared saying I couldn’t. One of Maggie’s screen names was in use. How could this be? This was my weekend for total web access and freedom. I called tech support. A guy named Thermon answered. “My daughter swindled the Master Screen name,” I said. I had my doubts he’d be any help.
“We can fix that,” he said. “Oh, Thermon.” His intoxicating words got me high. And in a moment’s time, I possessed the new password for the Master Screen name. I was the captain of our cyberspace. There was a major catch. Maggie would be really pissed. I’d have to deal with it.
She called me yesterday. “Mom, what the heck’s going on? I can’t check my email.” That’s when I spilled the beans.
“I’ve got the Master Screen name now.” She slammed the phone in my ear. I paced. Stuffed fistfuls of corn chips in my mouth. And tried to write as I waited for her to get home.
Maggie: Monday, April 17
I have decided that when the cards are down, my mother is a manipulative bitch. I love her. I have to. She gave birth to me. But she’s a bitch.
So now she has my password and can read my email if she wants to. It is a complete invasion of privacy. Like having the key to someone else’s journal.
I knew that if I wanted to make this work, I would need to be flexible. Maggie didn’t want me to influence her or try to control what or how she wrote, so I assured her she could chronicle whatever she wanted, no holds barred. Which of course she did. She agreed that I could oversee when we wrote in our journals. From time to time, we decided to write about specific events, like Maggie’s 16th birthday party and the infamous Bush/Gore election, or a particular disagreement or fight we had.
Carol: Monday, May 15, 10:20 p.m.
Today was a challenge. A backlash from Mother’s Day. When Mag got home from school, I made a big stink about not getting a card from her. Shit. Need more work at biting my tongue.
I took a much-needed walk. When I got home, I apologized. So did she, ’cause while I was gone, she made a beautiful card for me — a gesture that melted my heart.
Maggie: May 15
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Dad moved out 10 years ago on Mother’s Day! I still haven’t forgiven him for that.
Mom and I got into a fight about my planning to get her flowers, but in the end, changed my mind. She called and said she was going to the movies. So I didn’t get the flowers. Dad was the one who thought of it. Mom blamed me for pushing the idea out of his head. The way she said it, it sounded like she still loved him.
Get over him! It’s been like 10 years, and now he’s married to the bitch-monster of death. Who despises Mom. And doesn’t even know her. God, I hate Mother’s Day. I’ve been bruised for life. There’s 10 years of therapy.
Sometimes we agreed to write on a certain night, but by the time we crawled into our beds, which is when we did our journaling, one or both of us were too tired. Sometimes weeks went by without writing a word. But to get through this mission together, I knew I had to go with the flow, which wasn’t always easy for me. I had to let this journal project take on its own life and let it unfold the way it was intended.
There were certainly times, as my daughter would wholeheartedly attest, that I did not go with the flow. There were times I thought we’d never get through it, times we were so busy that writing in the journal became a chore. There were times I wanted to give up. On those days, the thought of writing seemed like torture, so I didn’t write. We agreed we wouldn’t let this venture control our lives, as our raging hormones often did, even when it seemed like that was precisely what the project wanted to do.
The most painful part of the endeavor was transcribing Maggie’s entries. I was brought to tears many times by what she wrote about me. It was bad enough living with her daily anger, her frequent loathing of my mere existence, and her constant reminders of my failings, yet reading it on paper, long after the event took place, was more distressing than I ever imagined it could be. And it was often just as painful to read my own entries.
Maggie: September 10
I think Mom and I played some version of brutal truth tonight, ’cause what I told her was the truth, and it was brutal. Hence the name. This entire year Mom has only been writing. Her only source of income was unemployment checks. I’ve pretty much ignored all this, but lately Mom has been mentioning that we are strapped for cash. A lot. And I really don’t want to think about this, ’cause then I’ll go back to where we were 5-6 years ago, when Mom used food stamps.
She’s been depending on unemployment checks and money from Dad. And her writing. Which pays shit. She says she wants this dreamed up part-time job with flexible hours, so she can write. And she hasn’t looked for anything else. I just think that is incredibly selfish. She has this Master’s degree that she won’t use, and she’s just sitting on her ass at home.
She told me she has put all herself into taking care of me the past ten years, like it’s this big sacrifice. She’s my goddamn Mother! She’s supposed to. Mom just needs to realize that until her stories start making some real money, she needs to look elsewhere. Grow up, Mom.
Carol: Monday, September 10, 9:57 p.m.
I hate everything about my life. I hate being a single mom, hate being a writer, hate being poor, hate my age, my looks, the aches and pains that have moved in to stay. List goes on ad nauseam. Not certain what set me off.
Probably the conversation I had with Mag. I’ve been uptight about money. She lectured me about getting a real job. “I mean, why bother having a Master’s in Education if you’re not going to use it?” she roared. This came directly from her father’s mouth. I made sure to mention it.
I continued to argue my case and said, “I’ve always been there for you.”
“Yeah, Mom, except when I had to be the parent all the times you cried.” The truth of her words like a dagger piercing my heart. I crawled to my room when we got home, crashing to my bed, sobbing. Maybe that’s why I hate everything about my life tonight.
As impatience with the project’s fruition nipped at my heels, I began submitting the manuscript too soon. Each rejection tore at my heart. Then in spring, 2004, while attending a birthday bash for a friend, I met Pat Stacey, a writer and former staff member of The Atlantic Monthly, who was enthralled with our concept. She asked to see the manuscript and recognized its need for repair. Working with her for almost a year, we trekked through four rounds of revisions, reliving the angst of that challenging time. She urged us to make the journal read more like a novel, developing story arcs as we went along — each drama having its own curve. She got us to go deeper.
I pushed my daughter through it, coercing her to get her portion done. She canvassed for the DNC that summer and wrote after midnight, when she got home. We often worked ’til 4:00 a.m., pushing the writer’s envelope as far as we could.
Towards mid-August, it was getting more difficult for Maggie to continue at the pace I set. Pat wanted more from her, knowing how her voice added to the project. I knew school would shift her focus, making it crucial to get as much done as possible while she was home. So, I stooped to bribery, offering her money for a flock of finished pages and doing more than my fair share of chores.
Frustration was our daily companion as controlling her process became my battle cry. The night I picked up a chair and hurled it across the room is one of those “literary moments” I’d like to forget. As her semester began, I e-mailed entries for her to revise, and upon completion, she faithfully sent them back to me. With Pat’s loving support and keen editorial eye, we got it done, completing the last revision over Maggie’s winter break. We are seeking an agent for the memoir we now call WAKE UP MAGGIE! GO AWAY MOM! A Memoir in Two Voices.
The last time I saw Maggie, she wore her confidence like a well-crafted cape. She’s in her final year at college. She came home with a bagful of laundry. I paused, sensing what might come next. But after settling in, she separated her dirty clothes and piled them into the washer.
We sat in the kitchen chatting, with a pot of our favorite chicken fricassee simmering on the burner, and she mentioned a paper that was looming. I couldn’t help myself. I rifled her with, What’s the topic, how many pages, when’s it due, have you started it yet?
“Mom. . . she said, as she quickly rose from her chair and marched upstairs to her room. I sighed; I’d asked too many questions — have you started it yet — being the worst. A question I posed far too often in her high school years. I sensed I might not see her for a while.
She surprised me and returned a short time later. “I’m sorry for taking off in the middle of our conversation,” she said, “but I hate when you ask me that.”
“I know,” I said, wrapping my arms around her gracious frame. “We all work better with encouragement, not pressure.” She returned the hug and asked if she could help me with the rest of supper.
On Sunday, with laundry carefully folded and packed (by her), she stood by the door, a soft blue scarf thrown loosely around her neck. She turned and hugged me tightly, whispering, “Thanks, Mom.” As I watched her smoothly maneuver her exit from our driveway, I thought about our journaling experience and the question I’d asked while doing dishes with her the night before. “Honey, I’m curious — do you think our project helped us stay connected?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I’m not sure if it did that for me.” Draping the dishtowel over my arm, I gazed into her eyes and realized she’s still too young for this kind of insight. That our bond is deeper than I ever dreamed it could be. And maybe the journal project was something I needed — to help me stay connected to my only child.