The Beautiful Dilemma

My daughter Lily has hair that goes down past her waist, and each day my wife Robin must comb and braid it. As I watch them, I recognize that their ritual captures the beautiful dilemma of the mother and daughter bond. I am on the outside looking in, and their small ceremony captures everything that has happened, is happening, or will happen between them.

A mother combing and braiding her daughter’s hair captures the bond of love. They are like a moving painting, echoing dozens of paintings of mothers braiding their daughters’ hair throughout history. Robin and Lily whisper, laugh, or say nothing, but they are always touching. Knee against knee, the mother’s hand grazes the daughter’s neck, stroking, soothing, pulling, and tying, the movements bringing them closer together.

The moment captures the drudgery of motherhood. Each day, the mother must do the daughter’s hair. Sometimes twice a day. Sometimes, after swimming, the detangling will take an hour, and there will be yanking and pulling and pain. Robin will tell Lily she should have listened and got out of the pool earlier, and that it’s a long painful process for both of them. There are tears and reprimands. It’s a chore that will always be there, and only the mother can do it well.

The moment captures the helplessness of childhood. When Lily was younger, Lily couldn’t handle her hair at all. She was born with a full head of hair, and she has the atopic gene, which means her hair would grow to her heels if we didn’t cut it sometimes. She can do some detangling and braiding herself now, but her mother still must help her clean, detangle and braid it, and she is always teaching her how to keep it under control. When there is a problem with her hair she must go to her mother and ask for her help. It is a daily reminder that she is still a child.

Lily and Robin are at a hotel this week, and a young college student they met at the pool fell in love with Lily and her hair and offered to give her a french braid...but she tugged and pulled it too tight and brought tears to Lily’s eyes. A less painful tug at home will make Lily shout, but for strangers she holds it in -- but then admits to her mother that she still does it best.     

The moment captures Lily’s growing independence. Sometimes she has a different idea for her hair that day. She may want a side braid, or one big braid in the back, or she might want to keep her hair down. But what Lily wants may not work for her mother -- there may not be time for a complicated new attempt, or leaving her hair unbraided may create a Medusa. It’s always bad if it’s hot day, or there’s P.E. class, or she’s going to a party where her hair will become a play toy for dozens of kids. 

“No,” the mother says, “the hair can’t be down, otherwise it’ll be a disaster of knots.” I see them negotiate and sometimes battle, and the ritual becomes a testing ground for further conflicts:

    “But it’s my hair. That’s not what I want.”

    “Trust me, I know, that’s not the right choice. You’re going to regret it.”

    Now just swap the word “hair” for “life.”

    “But it’s my life. That’s not what I want.”

    “Trust me, I know, that’s not the right choice. You’re going to regret it.”


The daughter knows that if she wants independence, she’s going to have to do it herself one day.  The mother accepts this, but the mother also knows that the first few times that the daughter attempts to detangle and then braid her own hair, it will go badly. and it will take hours to fix it. But she must let her try. Lily will fail, and then she will resent that she must go to her mother to solve the problem. The mother will find the extra time to fix it, because that’s what mothers do. She will also secretly be glad, and will fight to keep from saying “I told you so.”

It is their beautiful dilemma, the pearl that holds their world within it. Each day they bond, and then they test the bond.  

I asked them if I should learn the ritual, but neither of them want me to participate. It belongs to them, and Lily would rather learn it herself now than to have another parent join in. So I watch their ritual from the outside and wish it could last forever, although I know it won’t.

Some day Lily will do it all herself. She will come home after dance class and shower and wash and comb her hair, and braid it herself while sitting before a mirror alone in her room, and then the daily ritual will be over. She must, because it is her hair, and it is her life.

The shrine, in the sitting room, with it’s two small chairs and a desk full of hair products will disappear. She may still sometimes ask her mother to do her hair, or her mother will ask if she can do it for a special occasion, but it won’t be out of need any longer. It will be out of loving memory.

Mono No Aware.  That’s the Japanese phrase for the transitory beauty of life. It’s the wonderful awareness that life is happening right in front of you, yet as it happens you know it’s also slipping away. It’s a joy and a hurt at the same time, yet you know you’re  alive. That’s what I feel that as I watch them, my own moving Vermeer painting.