In Praise of Daughterhood
Words by Nina Hanz
It is difficult to know the end of childhood, of daughterhood. In adolescence and through the bewilderment of puberty, there are so many physical and emotional markers that disguise themselves as growth. Through the thrust of adolescence, adulthood begins to feel like driving your first car, earning your first pay check, falling in love. And for most of us, it is. Maybe. I can only speak from my own experiences – and it was not nearly as romantic as I had expected.
I wish I could look back on my childhood and see the moments with my family that I know my parents cherished. The RV trip we took to the Grand Canyon, the first time we (as an immigrant family) celebrated Thanksgiving, that one time I stopped my brother from accidentally setting his hair on fire at Christmas Eve. But instead, these memories have fallen secondary to losing my father, the abrupt initiation into adulthood nobody saw coming – not even the doctors.
Over the summer break leading up to my senior year, my parents and I had planned a route for me to look at universities. They were meant to be mere glimpses of the adulthood I imagined for myself. But after the second campus tour, the unthinkable happened. My dad began to feel weak and then – suddenly – we saw him fall into an irreversible coma as we rushed to the hospital. I can still feel the vertigo of the emergency room, over four years later.
I think the exact moment of my adulthood began when my mother asked me when we should take my father off the machine. I know now that it wasn’t really much of a question, there was nothing more we could do. Even in intensive care, he was not predicted to live more than a few hours. Still, the moment I was asked that question, I immediately notice the fundamental change that transformed my 17-year-old body suddenly into an adult. And so, the last moments of my childhood were filled with trauma, ones that I still find hard to accept at the age of 22. At the time, the transition into adulthood was difficult, but it was also a relief to bring an end to my now tainted childhood. There is no guideline for families who have been through trauma, no checklist. In the months that followed, my relationship with my mother had to adapt.
My mother and I continued to support each other, to help each other through the difficult months that followed. With her life-long partner missing, my mother continued to seek solace in asking for advice from my older brother and me. Where should we live? Which of his suits should we keep? How would we afford upcoming university fees? In part, I chose these responsibilities, but now I see it allowed me to avoid the helplessness I felt, the vulnerabilities I conflated with daughterhood. Centralized around my father’s death, my mother and I spun along an axis propelling us through mourning. With this momentum, gravity pulled on our family differently than before; the result being that it somehow leveled us to be equals. The hierarchies of our family dynamics changed, but I slowly began to feel strong.
But strength, like maturity, seems to be relative. It depends on the individual, the circumstances, and in how far suffering has become synonymous with strength. Like the transformation from childhood into adulthood, strength might quickly turn. This shift recently became apparent – when it was me who was in the emergency room.
I had been suffering with chronic pains for many years, but upon visiting my mother, was taken to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. An ultrasound revealed an abnormal cyst and was quickly slotted in to have laparoscopic surgery. I was shocked. Previously, I had believed doctors when they simply reduced my pains to something psychosomatic. But the diagnosis still had its challenges. I had over two weeks to wait until I’d be taken in, but the experience was enough for me to relive the helplessness of losing my father. I felt very isolated and didn’t want to share my fears with my mother. I felt a sense of duty to be strong for her, but the pressures were beginning to make me crumble. I thought we were a progressive example of what a mother-daughter relationship should be, but my physical and emotional situation no longer allowed me to protect her.
In the months leading up to this, I began to feel more secrets emerge. From both my mother and me. Instead of supporting each other, we hid things from each other, hid our vulnerabilities. Neither one of us wanting to burden the other. At the time, I thought it was the situation that was wrong – not our relationship. Our relationship was no longer symbiotic, but strained by my own designation of duty. Going into my surgery I felt weak, reckless, and dependent. But dependent on whom? The doctors? My mother? I couldn’t help but feel like a child.
Luckily everything went well. My experience in the hospital this time was positive. My mother was there for me every step of the way and, looking back, I can see that her support never went away. Maybe it was me who had turned away from her, from daughterhood. I felt so lucky to still have her in my life. I had fallen too deeply into my role as my mother’s friend that I forgot what it was like to be her daughter and after a few long conversations, we were able to work through this new phase. My mother still treats me like an adult, but now I see that she will always see her daughter in me too.
Motherhood carries a woman through the rest of her life; it knows no end, no timeline, no expiration. But daughterhood is more mysterious, more fragile, and more tangled. In part it is something we choose, but also something that is gifted to us. The mother-daughter relationship can often take many forms and finding a healthy balance is difficult. Even into early adulthood, the scale between a mother and her daughter might not be equal, but the weight of a mother’s care is something you can always try to redirect yourself to. Daughterhood does not mean a lack of independence, but a solidarity and sacrifice that is rare to find outside one’s own family.
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About the Author:
Nina Hanz is a fashion journalist and writer based in London. Originally from Germany, Nina spent most of her childhood in the USA before moving to Singapore and the Netherlands. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree at the Royal College of Art.