A busy mom makes time for a daughter, in longhand

My daughter Catherine is a middle kid. She will never revel in the lone early years of an oldest. Nor will she gloat in the lone later years of a youngest. She will only know a family in which just about everything, from pets to the last Pop Tart in the pantry, is shared.

Unfortunately, for a middle kid who loves to chat, that includes her mom's ears.

I've always understood the importance of giving kids time alone with parents. And I know that on an adolescent girl's list of why she keeps her mom around, "to talk to" usually ranks somewhere below "to take me to the orthodontist." So I'm grateful for a child who talks openly and often to me, as Catherine loves to do.

But in our frantic household, mother-daughter moments often fall by the wayside - especially during the school year when the one-on-one window of opportunity draws its drapes. Take that 3:30-8:30 p.m. time slot, divide it by four kids, throw in Scouts, sax lessons, soccer, and science projects, and one-on-one time is as hard to find as a week free of fast food.

You might wonder why this wasn't an issue for my other middle kid, a boy in his teens. Extensive dialogue with a parent is not what he holds dear.

But Catherine is different. She needs those "heart to hearts." And I found out just how much, one chaotic afternoon.

She was having friend problems. When she tried to talk to me, the spaghetti sauce on the stove started sputtering, my oldest called with car troubles, and the Cub Scout from down the block demanded my popcorn order, pronto. I probably gave Catherine sage advice, "You'll be fine," and then dismissed her, but I honestly don't remember much of the scene.

That night she called her little sister a "puke" and slammed her bedroom door. Later, she complained of a headache. And finally, long after I had sent her to bed, she appeared at my bedside complaining that she couldn't sleep. After I drowsily muttered, "Try a little harder," I caught a just-loud-enough "No one listens to me" trailing out the door.

We clearly needed a way to chat.

I had read once about a mother and daughter who started an interactive journal. They began it when the daughter was young and continued through her college years. They called it a "bonding tool." I hoped for a "communication crutch."

I bought a purple spiral journal with a lime-green daisy on the cover. Inside, I wrote the date and the first entry, starting with "Surprise!" I went on to explain that the journal was a place where we could write back and forth to each other. A place where we could tell each other how we're feeling, what we've been doing, and what we think about stuff - whatever is on our minds. I stressed that the journal was just between the two of us - not because it was a secret, but because it was special and private. When we were done with an entry we would leave it on the other's nightstand to read and respond. I also included some rules:

1. Start with the date.

2. Don't worry about how much you write.

3. Be honest.

4. Don't bug the other person if she hasn't written in a while.

5. Always write back.

6. Don't take it out of the house.

7. Don't try to make others (namely little sister) jealous with it.

When Catherine found the journal that night, she wrote back right away. She loved the idea and listed suggestions of her own: using colored pens and accepting imperfect spelling. Her first entry to me was four pages long.

Catherine and I have now been journaling back and forth for two years. Do we write every day? No way. And with homework by the bushel and deadlines to boot, we're both thankful for the "no pressure" rules.

However, we've found that with the pressure off, writing is easy. The longest "no journaling" spell we've had was last summer when back-to-back camp and family vacation left our newest,notebook in striped denim untouched for several weeks. When Catherine found the journal under a pile of dirty camp clothes, she realized how much she missed "chatting" and composed a three-pager complete with illustrations.

The journal has seen both silly scribblings and sensitive subjects. Sometimes we jot down a joke or draw a cartoon. Sometimes we fill the pages with surprises, such as flaps to open and perfumed spots to sniff. We've covered body changes and boyfriends, friendships and sister struggles, hockey and test scores, and more.

I usually write to her before bed, when the house is quiet and my thoughts are free from overzealous Scouts and spaghetti sauce. That's when I can give her my most thoughtful advice, answers ... or just a healthy dose of doting.

No, a spiral notebook can't bring perfect peace to Catherine's sometimes turbulent world. But it can reassure her that someone is listening. And while her questions and worries are still many, she knows that when I can't answer them face to face, I'm just a notebook away.

After watching our communication, each of my other three kids has, little by little, established a method of talking to me on the sly. For my youngest, it's a shoebox mailbox that sits outside her bedroom door where we exchange notes. For my oldest, it's the 11 p.m. chat over a cold slice of leftover pizza. And for that other middle kid, it's e-mail.

But for Catherine, it's our journal, and on those pages the middle kid gets her mom all to herself.

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