Woman holding child
Alifa Chowdhury/ MiC

“You know, if you didn’t tell people, they wouldn’t guess you have a 19-year-old daughter,” I said to my mother as I put on my coat. We were going to pick up my brothers from school, and my mother looked beautiful. She had her hair down, styled to perfection, and a bright pink dress on. She looked exquisite, put together, capable of taking on anything. This wasn’t new. My mother always had the ability to both grab and hold the attention of any room she stepped into — a true beauty, impeccable with her words. 

 “I know, but I like telling them I do. I like telling people that I’m a mom,” my mother replied as she closed the front door. 

My mother and I were reflecting on a conversation she’d had with a new friend and how they hadn’t expected her to have a daughter in college.

As I walked up to my car, I drifted off into a whirlpool of thoughts.

My mother was 18 when she got married, and she had me the same year. It was a decision that changed the course of her life, and it’s something she was never keen on talking about. She went through the joys and agonies of being a new mother, a new bride and a new daughter-in-law, all in the span of a year. And my mother, if and when she talks about her first year of adulthood, speaks about how different it was and how it was a new experience for her every day. 

In retrospect, if I had to take on even a little bit of what she had to at such an age, I don’t think I would be able to carry myself as gracefully as she had. 

My mother juggled college and raising three children. Education was an important virtue instilled in her, and nothing would stop her from getting her degree — not a long-distance marriage that proved to be much harder than she anticipated or three kids all under the age of 10. Her dreams for herself always included being educated, whether that was through institutions or through self-teaching. She would tuck my siblings and me into bed at night, and I would fall asleep watching her study for a test the next day. If one of my school projects was due the same morning as a project she had, she would help me finish mine before staying awake to work on hers. If she had a weekend class, she would let me tag along. 

Her days started at dawn, hours before mine and from the outside, it looked like she balanced everything perfectly. 

I remember asking her if it ever got hard and if she’d prefer not to do it. 

“Yeah, of course it was hard. It was a lot of energy and time and strength and focus, but no, I don’t regret it. There were times when I’d be like, ‘Why do I have to do so many things at the same time? Why me?’ I had to do things for myself and for you guys, but I’m glad I did it.” There was no second thought in her statement. Her take was overwhelmingly positive, and it left me feeling inept. In fact, the act of comparing myself to my mother grew to become second nature to me. She was poised, unapologetically took up space and warmed rooms with her laugh. When she spoke, people would make sure to listen. I wanted to be like her, in every way. And this feeling of inadequacy seemed to intensify every time my mom would be brought up in conversations. Comments such as “She’s so young!” “I can’t believe she’s your mom” or “Your mom is an inspiration,” were ones I’d internalize. Was I less than because I was pursuing something different than she had? In terms of the propriety of women in Bengali society, my mother lived up to standards, she thrived under them. She got married, had kids and stayed determined to her goals for herself. She took on the responsibility of a lifetime, and though it was not always easy, she made it look as such. 

It’s a hard act to follow. 

I pride myself on being a hard worker with big dreams to go through law school and pursue a legal career, but the responsibilities my mother had to take on always seem much larger than my pursuits. On days I am incredibly overwhelmed with my course load, extracurricular activities or future grad school applications, it is easy for me to dismiss my struggles by convincing myself that nothing will ever compare to my mother’s sacrifices. Even if it did, I question if I look as put together as my mother always did. 

All of this produced a layered, complex and nuanced relationship with my mother. We are different, and we have different dreams for ourselves. 

It took time, and there was no singular moment that allowed me to realize that though different, our struggles were both valid. I had to grow up, dedicate myself to pursuing my own passions, not recreate my mother’s legacy, but to make myself content and immerse myself in experiences unique from my mother’s to realize that we were allowed to be different people. 

“Alifa, get in the car!” 

As I recollected my thoughts, I smiled. 

My mother continues to be an example of a headstrong woman. And even though it took drowning in her dreams for me to learn that I will stride through life differently than she did, we share the same strength. It’s how I know I’ll be okay. 

MiC Columnist Alifa Chowdhury can be reached at alifac@umich.edu.