It felt illicit, like I imagine you would feel looking at Internet porn on your iPhone in the middle of a crowd of children. I was surrounded by kids, straddling the bleachers of a girls’ basketball game at the rec center, waiting for my daughters come out of their dance classes. But I wasn’t porn surfing, I was doing something that felt far worse, made me feel dirty, drenched with guilt yet gleefully delighted. I was reading my daughters’ emails.
David and I set them up with those KOL accounts which have all the bells and whistles in the security department – people can’t email my kids unless my kids have emailed them first, websites are blocked based on keywords, we get weekly activity reports showing us what websites they visit and how often they email. It seemed fun and safe for them. But of late, Nicole would rush in from school and before doing anything else, log onto the computer to check her email. I discovered that even my six year old, Natalie, had been having an extensive email conversation about puppies with an old friend of mine for over a week before I learned about it. I realized that my children were having email lives of their own and I was suddenly mortified. They were having interactions with other people three thousand miles away and I couldn’t control it. But the idea of surreptitiously logging onto their computer and reading their emails felt wrong. It is something I would never do. It seemed like the 21st century version of breaking into your child’s diary to check up on them.
So why now did I find myself going through their emails, checking to see who they were from and what the content was? Because it was on my phone!!! Several weeks into their email infatuation, they begged me to add their accounts on my iPhone so they could check email while they were out, “Just like you do,” they said. Knowing that I am addicted to checking email, with my iPhone serving as a major enabler of my problem, it didn’t seem unreasonable. Before running off into her dance class, Nicole pried the phone out of my hand in one last desperate effort to check her emails (because she couldn’t wait 45 minutes to find out if someone might have written to tell her that a Jonas Brother had a new gal pal or Taylor Swift had dumped and written a semi-revenge love song about another ex-boyfriend). As Nicole handed the phone back to me and dashed off, I realized she hadn’t changed it back over to my account. Instead, all her email conversations were in the palm of my hand. I knew it was bad. I knew I should have clicked off. But instead, I started reading.
Over coffee, I confessed what I had done to two mothers. The first bolstered my belief that I was just being a good mom, that I was keeping my daughter safe online. I liked that. It absolved me of the guilt I felt, particularly at the pleasure of being able to look so deeply into Nicole’s world with the touch of my finger on my phone. I savored my mocha latte like a glass of well aged wine, congratulating myself on my fine parenting instincts. But then the second mother ripped into me like a hyena devouring a fresh kill. She ranted at me, tossing out phrases like invasion of privacy and breaking a sacred trust. Email, sacred? She said I had destroyed any possibility of a future relationship with my daughter based on mutual respect. Wonder what she would have said if I had been looking at Internet porn?
I scrolled through Nicole’s emails, all of which she keeps as “new” in her inbox. There are hundreds of them, going as far back as 2008. There were emails from classmates, girls she’d met at camp, grandma and grandpa, a family friend of two. I looked at the preview lines to see what they were writing about. Clothes, music, school drama, movies. For all the guilt I felt about invading her privacy, the titillation at looking at the confidences she’s shared with her friends, I was both relieved and amused that what I discovered reading her emails was that her exchanges were harmless, age appropriate, and honestly, really just a little bit boring.