By Furqan Mohamed Art by Grace Young Edited by Poala Duran
Growing up the way I did, you begin to understand that your mother is the man of the house. Nothing goes on without her knowing, and things stop moving when she does. There is no question, from the moment you enter to smells of spices and good intentions, to when you leave, with smiles and prayers, you are there because she wants you to be. My mother, like many women we know, is a force to be reckoned with. And she intends to pass this power on to me as the eldest of her children.
In my house, the matriarch is everything. Women in various positions of power run life around the house. The oldest daughter is the acting matriarch, with all the expectations, but none of the years of real experience. No one remembers the second part though, as you are given the expectations as if you have lived the years you need to meet them.
The role of the oldest daughter is one that immediately ages the girl who carries it. Years pass, as we serve as blueprints and background noise for the lives of men who are not our partners, and children who are not ours. To be the eldest daughter of immigrant parents is to be the hope for the future while somehow abiding by rules created by the fears our parents acquired through past experiences.
The labour required by the eldest daughter is pervasive. A lot of heavy lifting -- not of cargo, but emotions. It's demanded everywhere -- at home, the workplace, in schools, and academia. It's unfair, but it's the reality, and this reality encourages girls to carry the emotional weight of the people around them before they are even old enough to process their individual feelings. Being emotionally present is the difference between being honourable or being difficult. It begins with family, but ultimately you find yourself doing things like forcibly smiling widely and performing for strangers because that's what you're supposed to do. You move. You stretch. There are social consequences for not being your mother's daughter.
I am in awe of the strong women in my family, but I often find myself wondering when exactly they became strong, or if they even qualified as women when they did. They were girls who earned wrinkles and the status of womanhood by putting others before themselves. How old was my mother when she learned to swallow her feelings whole, to make room for others? How old was my aunt when she became a soundboard for the insecurities of the men in her life?
My spine was not even fully formed when I learned to carry the reputation of my family on my back. And while my bones ache from time to time, I do not reject my title as the eldest daughter, regardless of how many years older I feel now.
There is an aspect of being the eldest daughter of my family that I will admit is enjoyable. I love being my mother's confidant, sharing a conspiratorial laugh with women decades older as if we were the same age and being in the loop when it comes to family secrets.
The dynamic of having one foot inside the matriarchy and one foot out is an interesting one, but it isn't free. There is the tax of bearing the discomfort that women in my family forced me to exist in two different worlds: my elders' and this one. I age twice. The title I hold as the eldest daughter will always be a heavy one, but I would like to imagine it won't be heavy for long. I dare to save some pieces of myself, for myself.