The Mother On The Train With Bruises On Her Neck
A brief encounter with a woman on the subway this morning reminded me why International Women’s Day has to be about more than just a hashtag
I woke up this morning feeling conflicted. As I was getting ready for work, I reached for my favorite grey t-shirt (I don’t own any red clothing), and had every intention on purchasing soup from the same deli franchise I always get lunch from (it’s a short 3 minute walk from my office). I questioned my solidarity, feeling much like I did the day of the Women’s March when I chose to stay home and build Legos with my son. Despite my reasons and regardless of my personal life structure — I felt perhaps that I owed more to my community of women. That I was somehow failing those in active protest today.
I walked the 6 minutes to the train, hurried through the turnstiles, stepped onto a seatless train and stood in that nook by the door that’s almost as good as sitting down (but isn’t). I surveyed the train car’s landscape. Everyone in morning-mode. Tired, glazed-over faces, passively moving aside as new passengers filed on. I took note of the men — able bodied and well-dressed, sitting down as the women who boarded (some carrying heavy bags) propped themselves against poles or near doors, like me. I scoffed a little, remembering those months of pregnancy before my belly showed when no one knew how much I needed to sit down on the subway. At the Atlantic Barclays stop, a woman got on and stood near me, instructing her daughter to hold onto the pole, which she struggled to do. The girl was no more than 5 years old, with thick rosey cheeks and long disheveled braids. I wondered why she wasn’t in school. I wondered why her hair was so unkempt. I wondered why no one was offering their seat to the woman, so her ill-balanced child could sit down. Finally, someone did and this provided me a strange relief.
At a certain point during the 40 minute ride to work she and I ended up sitting across from each other. It was then, that for the first time I could actually take in the full scope of her, of her daughter. She had on pajama bottoms and a stained t-shirt, her hair was in a messy ponytail, her daughter laid her head on her lap and immediately went to sleep, unraveling braids falling to the wayside. Between the mother’s legs on the floor was a plastic bag containing what looked like clothes. Her face was bare, tired and her neck was decorated with bruises that could have only been made by a large, tightly gripped hand.
Suddenly it made sense what I was looking at. I had been her daughter before. I had been her before. I knew they had been up for a while, that she hadn’t slept, that her daughter had possibly witnessed something she shouldn’t have. I caught eyes with her and offered a sincere smile. She received it, returned it, lingering her eyes more than most people do on trains.
“Are you ok?” I mouthed.
She nodded, closing her eyes, her smile slightly faded now.
I felt powerless. I didn’t know if I should offer her the $15 in my pocket, or an uber ride to where she needed to go. I didn’t know if my assumption was correct or if I was reflecting my own life experiences on to a woman who had simply had a rough morning and a failed encounter with a curling iron. I wondered if I would offend her with my offer, or if she might ask for more than I could provide. I searched my mind, recalling the contents of my purse. Maybe I had a shelter card or someone’s number in my phone I could give her. I had to do more than just ask that dumb, stupid question.
I folded into myself, and into my childhood memories for a moment. Then the irony hit me. Here I was, just moments ago tweeting my thoughts on International Women’s Day, reading articles and messages of solidarity that were supposed to make us feel empowered. But what’s a march to a woman with a grocery bag of clothes between her feet, her child’s tired head in her lap?
This humbling moment hit me so hard that my eyes welled with tears and I put my head down in shame. I had no right to cry. My son’s father had sent a photo of morning drop-off to me minutes before. Our son was happy, healthy and secure. Neither of his parents were in danger or stressed (at the moment). I wasn’t seeking shelter, I wasn’t hungry or cold or desperate for assistance. My eyes weren’t worn and red from being rubbed awake. I was wearing red lipstick in solidarity of a movement that was supposed to rally around this very woman in front of me. And yet, I could do nothing. I was paralyzed by my own sense of helplessness.
Today, women around the world filled streets in protest. Women wore bandanas and painted signs and called out from work and made statements and wrote poetry and sang songs.
But to this woman sitting across from me this morning on the train, it was just a Wednesday.
My conclusion is simple. Please, feel empowered today, but also understand that this movement does not make us immune to the requirement of doing more. There are millions of women who filed into work today because losing a day’s pay would be devastating to them. There are millions of women who would look up at you while going from one job to the next, having not seen their own children all day and have no idea what International Women’s Day is.
I won’t be unprepared should another moment like this arise again. I’ll be putting essentials — including helpline and shelter information and a little cash into a ziplock bag so that the next time I see a woman in need I can hand her more than a smile. It’s small, and it won’t change the world but it could make a difference to someone who might be experiencing the worst morning of their life. In crisis or in contentment — we have to do better for each other.