The Doc Project

This computer scientist created her own secret code for motherhood

Ilona Posner kept very detailed journals of her three children’s lives. Now she’s sharing them with her eldest daughter, Ada. 

Ilona Posner kept meticulous baby journals, written in a complex symbolic language

Ilona Posner with her oldest daughter, Ada. Ilona's journalling started as a way to track the progress of her first pregnancy, but took on a whole new meaning once Ada was born. (Submitted by Ilona Posner)

Not many people have detailed records of their first moments of life — so detailed that you know exactly when you were eating, sleeping and crying — but that's not the case for Ada Posner.

Ada's mother, Ilona Posner, kept incredibly analytical journals of Ada's life, not only as a newborn, but for years into her childhood.

These notebooks covered major life events such as birthdays and graduations, but Ilona also recorded mundane things like eating and sleeping cycles, trips to the bank, and hair appointments. She went on to do this not only for Ada, but her two younger siblings when they came along.

For decades, Ilona maintained these journals without her family really knowing — that is, until her eldest, Ada, was in medical school. At the time, Ada was doing her rounds in obstetrics and pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto — the hospital where she was born.

For Ilona, this was the perfect moment to pass on the journal. Ada was 27, the age Ilona was when she first became a mother.  

Ilona Posner chose spiral-bound books so she could write in them easily in the bathroom, "because literally, that's how they were written, mostly." (TK Matunda/CBC)

Making sense of motherhood 

Ilona says the journals started as a way for her to track her weight gain during her first pregnancy.  

"The week number, this is my weight. And this is measurements from my waistline," Ilona explained as she cracked open the first pages of the notebook. 

Ilona Posner's methodical records of Ada's babyhood. (TK Matunda/CBC)

Each week she diligently recorded her progress — rows of numbers written in blue ink fill the beginning of the journal. But once she had Ada, the journals had transformed into a way to find order in the chaotic new world of motherhood. 

During Ilona's first pregnancy, she was in school finishing her masters in computer science. Every day she was surrounded by smart, curious people her own age. But parenting a colicky baby 24/7 changed all that. 

"To go from a full adult in the functioning, working world to at home with baby is huge. It was a transition that was really hard," Ilona said. 

To make sense of it all, Ilona treated motherhood like she would a school assignment — she started graphing baby Ada's behaviours. She came up with a system of symbols, in which smooth lines marked unbroken sleep while stars marked tantrums and crying fits.

Ilona recorded everything — sleep cycles, bowel movements. She even used a little 'L' and 'R' to note what breast she fed from. 

For Ilona Posner, motherhood was worthy of a whole new language. (TK Matunda/CBC)

Hour by hour was documented, and before long, Ilona had developed her own shorthand — one keeping with her computer science expertise.

"She has her own notation. She has a legend," said Ada. "It's completely indecipherable if you don't have the legend. It just looks like, I don't know — it looks like a like a graph. Like a computer would have printed out."

But as Ada got older and Ilona grew into motherhood, the journal changed, too. The graph entries melted away, replaced with paragraphs of observations scribbled in blue ink. Soon the journal was filled with these lovingly written vignettes of her little ones. 

Ilona found herself writing more about the quirkier things, like Ada staunchly refusing to dance in a fashion show at camp.

"You know, there were some really funny interesting moments," said Ilona. "I think it's fun to have them to be reminded of them later."

Like mother, like daughter

What Ilona didn't know was that Ada also keeps a journal of sorts, and has been for years. It's not a physical book — it's more of a long document on her phone where she records funny moments with her friends.

Ada doesn't write the date or the time, but her notes paint a strikingly similar picture.

"I just really wanted to remember funny things that my friend said," Ada mused, as we scrolled through the seemingly infinite list. 

Ilona with Ada as a baby. (Submitted by Ilona Posner)

Like her mother, Ada started keeping her journal during a time of great change. She was a freshman in university and everything was new, exciting and also a bit terrifying. There were a lot of new freedoms and responsibilities, and Ada had the impulse, like Ilona, to start recording her new world. 

"Our friendships [were] forming, like [it was] an important time of our life."

Deeper roots

It turns out that Ada's digital journal and Ilona's baby books were all part of a larger legacy. 

"My father has diaries, very detailed diaries. And he just — at the age of 70 — started publishing books," revealed Ilona.

To date, Ilona's father Vladimir Rott has published four books: Father's Letters from Siberian Prison; In Defiance of Fate: Book 1 — Joy from Sadness; In Defiance of Fate: Book 2 Joy of Discovery; and Mysovaya Station

Vladimir Rott, Ilona's father, has been an avid journal-keeper his whole life. (TK Matunda/CBC)

They start with letters from Vladimir's father Ferenc Roth, written from inside a Siberian prison during WWII, and go on to cover Vladimir's life all the way up to the birth of his first grandchild in Canada. The books are very detailed and rely on family diaries, letters and journals.

"I don't remember anything, but it's in here," Ilona said. "I think it's just interesting to know what happens in your life."

No matter what language it's written in.

Ada and Ilona Posner. (Submitted by Ilona Posner)

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 

About the Producer

TK Matunda is a Toronto-based writer and producer. Her work has been featured on APM, BuzzFeed's Thirst Aid Kit, Canadaland, Commons, Racist Sandwich, Heavy Flow, SleepTalker, HuffPo Canada, CBC Radio One and CBC Music. 

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.


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