Imperfect Equals - Notes from a daughter to her mother on Mother's Day

The mother stepped off the platform and onto the subway. She held hands with a young girl, presumably her daughter, who wore braided pigtails and a pair of thick bifocals. Each carried a flat expression, the reminder that morning commutes were among the most ordinary of activities.

“Would you like to sit down?” I asked.

It was one of those empty offerings because I really didn’t want to give up my seat. But something about the daughter’s expression—how serious and steady she gazed—hit me with a twinge of pity.

The girl in pigtails looked up at her mother. She said nothing but searched her mother’s face for instruction, as if to ask What should I do, Mom? The mother simply nodded, then looked back my way.

“No thank you,” said the daughter.

“You sure?” I pressed. (It was another empty gesture, but I wanted the mother—indeed, the packed car of passengers—to think I was the most generous human they’d ever met.)

“She can sit down,” said the mother. “Thank you.”

Begrudgingly I stood up, smiled my I’m-so-nice-smile, then grabbed hold of the subway pole (no doubt riddled with germs). The little girl seemed confused by this arrangement, still looking to her mother for permission to move. Her mother smiled and lifted the heavy backpack off her daughter’s back.

“Sit down,” she instructed.

Meanwhile, I balanced as best I could on heels, negotiating the abrupt start-and-stops of the train’s movement. I amused myself by entering the life of the mother and child, wondering what time they awoke and where they were headed. What did the mother do? Which school did the girl attend? Where was the father?

I watched as the subway cleared out and the mother took a seat beside her daughter. Instinctively, the girl tipped her head onto her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes. The mother whispered something (I couldn’t make out her words, her speech was so hushed), but I could tell they were comforting because the girl’s muscles relaxed. Together, they looked exhausted.

It occurred to me that this might be their only time together; perhaps this was their small pocket before the city consumed the day.

I cannot explain why but, in that moment, I thought of you, Mom.

I thought about

Gourmet Pride dinners;

Weekend visits to the museum;

Cabinet doors slamming;

Middle-of-the-night nursing calls;

Scrubbing the bathtub;

Silent treatments and piano lessons.

I recall one evening at the piano bench when I sat in miserable boredom. The incessant ticking of the metronome kept on. How many more minutes do I have to practice? How many times must I play these scales? When will dinner be ready?

You sensed my frustration and proceeded to sit down beside me for one of your classic lectures. It was something about the importance of practice and how if you don’t practice, something bad will happen—only the hazards of poor musicianship were still left unclear to me.

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”

You sat in silence. Then out of nowhere, an involuntary laugh erupted. “I don’t either.”

This is the earliest memory I have of you as an imperfect being. I realized that we each have roles to play in this mother-daughter relationship, and sometimes it’s exactly that: a role. Mothers speak, children listen. Mothers teach, children learn. I wondered how many other things you didn’t know but felt obligated to pretend to know. And what must that feel like?

The mysteries of motherhood remain a mystery because I have yet to birth my own. Maternal desires live in a box marked “Do not open until ready” and now at 36-years-old, I think maybe it’s time to open the box and peek inside.

So what can I say about your mothering, Mom? How can I explain that we’re mother and daughter, and also imperfect equals? You may not know everything just as I do not know everything.

But it’s starting to come together for me. It’s starting to feel like tenderness and joy and generosity.

It’s starting to feel like sacrificing my subway seat.

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Julia Djeke helps brands tell their stories and refine brand identity. She serves as Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Creative Women’s Lounge, a community designed to awaken the inner entrepreneur and creative self that’s universal to all.

She is the proud daughter of a Filipina nurse and gardener, and is still getting used to the common expression: “This is your mom?! She looks more like your sister!”

When together, Julia and her mom enjoy coffee, cooking, and conversation.

LifestyleKim Conant