Letters As Legacy: Why Writing Our Children Matters

As a mother, each month I write a letter to my almost 2-year-old daughter Lucinda, a practice I began nine months before her arrival. I am terrible at keeping her baby book up to date, but I am very good at writing Luci her monthly letter. I learned this letter-writing practice from my own mother, who kept journals, plural, of the letters she wrote to me during my childhood and adolescence. My mom tried to give me these journals when I graduated from college, but I refused to take them. I see my mother’s letters as an inheritance which continues to gain interest until her passing (and well after).

My clueless hunch is I will need my mother’s written words so much more when she dies, when I cannot call her and hear her voice. My mother’s letters will be her final consolation, much as Katherine Mansfield wrote to a friend: “This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment.” I will need my mother’s embrace more than I will ever know when she dies.

I am not alone in writing my child, and if you Google “parent child journals” you will find a flourishing online market, from “My Life Story—So Far” to “My Prudent Advice: Lessons for My Daughter.” Keepsake journals, while nice, are not necessary, though. You can buy an unassuming or elaborate little journal and just begin writing or use prompts such as these to get started. Honestly, the hardest part of the whole process is finding the time to do it. Once I sit down, though, the words usually pour out. My biggest fear during the whole writing process, quite frankly, is mild—will my daughter be able to read my cursive handwriting?

John Dickerson, journalist and “CBS This Morning” co-host, has the letters, journals, and archives of his mother, Nancy Dickerson, a pioneer in the field of American broadcast journalism and the first female correspondent for CBS News. In fact, Ms. Dickinson was fired from CBS not long after he was a born. The matriarch was undeterred and became a documentary filmmaker.

As the younger Dickerson wrote for Slate, after reading his mother’s letters, he became keenly aware that, “People are always more complicated than they seem. Your guesses about what motivates them are often wrong.” Parents and children, of course, get (sometimes many) things wrong about one another and, hopefully, a lot more right than misunderstood. Yet, what Dickerson encourages other parents and relatives to do is to write children now, in the holy kairotic moment. Help them see what your thoughts were at 30, 40, 50, and beyond. Share with children the joys and struggles and life experiences which are uniquely yours. It is a gift beyond comparison, and one I hope my own daughter feels comforted by when I am no longer there with arms wide open.