Reflections on being a mother again

Originally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/reflections-on-being-a-mother-again-1.1376023

Published August 2014

She gazes at me with rapt attention, her coal black eyes fixed on me. Her brow is furrowed, as though she is trying to figure out what this strange new place is. It’s a beautiful moment of bonding with her in my arms, her tiny body curled up against me. I can smell her wonderful newborn smell, and as she rubs her face against my cheek there are no words necessary between the two of us. It is love, a love so powerful, so profound that I can feel it within me.

This infant owns my heart, my soul. The tough nine months of pregnancy are long-forgotten, and the labour feels like a distant dream. I have her to hold, her to call my own. A little friend, someone I need as much as she needs me. I put her down and examine her face, trying to memorise every single thing about her. She begins to cry and I let her. For a few moments, I listen to the sound of her crying, mesmerised, before I lift her into my arms again. I feel blessed, so blessed to have become a mother again.

No one said it was going to be easy, and it isn’t. Being a parent is a beautiful, bittersweet journey, and no juncture in it is free of concern and worry. It is governed by an overwhelming feeling of love and affection, and it is something just about all the people in the world understand and experience, either as parents, or as children, or even as favourite caregivers. We do everything we can for our children, and nothing makes us happier than to see them safe, happy and thriving. Their wellbeing — it goes without saying becomes our number one priority in life. And all those years ago, when I was born, it must have been my mother’s too.

I must have become the centre of my mother’s life as soon as I was born, in fact even before it. My timings of eating and sleeping would have dictated hers, and every time I cried helplessly she would have been there for me. And just as I am the most important figure in my daughter’s life right now, my mother would have been in mine.

Lingering memory

As I grew older, her appreciation, advice and guidance meant everything to me. But now as I am busy playing the role of a mother myself, I wonder about my own mother, forgotten, gone to a better place. She doesn’t feature in my life except as a lingering memory, or through an occasional dream. The woman who did everything for me and loved me only as a mother can — I can now do little more for her than pray for her. It is only after becoming parents ourselves that we realise just what our parents did for us. My father too, did everything he could to shape me into the person I am today. The man who celebrated my first steps, snapped photos of me when I smiled in my sleep as a baby and was generally just a great father — why is it that I don’t visit or call him more often? Am I so busy being a parent that I’ve forgotten my own?

How I wish I could hold my mother’s hands one more time, hug her and tell her I love her. What wouldn’t I give to see the expression on her face when she met the baby? And my Dad? I feel fortunate that he’s around. It’s time to call home.

On being the only one who doesn’t fast

Originally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/on-being-the-only-one-who-doesn-t-fast-1.1359213

Published July 2014

Like a lot of people who observe and celebrate Ramadan, I generally anticipate its arrival way before the month actually begins. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I plan my entire year around it, look forward to its arrival and feel saddened when it bids us farewell.

This attachment to the month could be for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that for me, on a personal level, Ramadan has always brought forth positivity. Be it major changes within my own mental makeup or minor ones on the bathroom scales, Ramadan has been, for me, a bringer of glad tidings. Not surprisingly, it has witnessed some of the best moments in my life. At the very essence of it all, there is of course, the act of fasting and in general an increase in worship, the kind that generates from the heart and brings lasting peace and tranquillity to it.

What then, am I to make of this particular Ramadan, when I am for medical reasons (pregnancy, to be specific) not able to fast? Before the month began, I was secretly happy that I wouldn’t have to brave the heat and discomfort during the long day from dawn to dusk without food and water, but when the moon was sighted and everyone around me began to fast, I felt — well, there has to be only one for it — deprived.

The blessed meal of suhour has a charm about it that has to be experienced to be understood. You eat what you can (sometimes half-asleep) and as soon as you realise it’s time, you stop eating and drinking for the sake of your Creator alone. And then when, hours later, after a demanding day, you take your first gulp of water at iftar, you just want to praise the Lord for the sheer pleasure it brings. You suddenly feel content and there’s no emotion in the world that can parallel that.

Vague sensation

I didn’t realise how much I would miss all that. I didn’t realise just how much fasting does for you on a spiritual level — indeed, this time it doesn’t even feel like it’s Ramadan. I have the vague sensation of something extremely precious flowing away without being able to catch it, taste it or experience it. It’s as though everyone around me is taking full advantage of something special while I am on the sidelines, observing them, twiddling my thumbs even as I waddle around the house, with my tummy entering every room a few seconds before I do!

One could of course argue that if I can’t fast, I can surely pray the night prayer, ortaraweeh — the prayer specific to the nights of Ramadan. Certainly, if I can get past my swollen feet and larger-than-life ankles, the (unlimited) restroom runs that just seem to be around the corner and that lovely, calming sensation of perpetual heartburn — and oh, did I mention the mood swings that even I can’t explain?

And it is not entirely easy to feel enthusiastic about standing in prayer for long hours at night, when you’ve played mom and homemaker for the better part of the day, slogging away resolutely, mustering up just about enough strength to carry along all of those extra pounds your body currently sports.

I do perhaps sound a little more frustrated (disappointed?) than I should be, because my situation brings with it a joy that is extremely precious and life-changing and truly makes everything worthwhile. As always, there is a strong case of looking at the glass half-full and finding ways of making this Ramadan wonderful and memorable too.

After all, doesn’t Allah look at your intentions and is it not the heart that is made content, regardless of whether you are able to fast or not? Isn’t it about connecting with your almighty on a profound spiritual level? Then I, for one, should know that exhausted, frustrated and inadequate as I feel, it takes only a moment of earnest seeking to find that which I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just that one evasive tear that refuses to fall from my eye or that one suppressed supplication that hasn’t yet escaped my lips that will make this Ramadan even better than the last. Here’s hoping that I too, will be able to partake in the blessings of this special month and it won’t go by without transforming the negatives into positives and somehow bringing about yet another new beginning.

Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelancer.

Staring at the brand new mom

Orginally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/staring-at-the-brand-new-mum-1.1350633

Published June 2014

Wham! The milk bottle lands squarely on the floor right between the two isles. The person who threw it with such perfect aim looks only a few months (weeks?) old, and at the moment, appears to be in quite a temper. The woman that is holding the baby speaks in her best soothing voice and attempts to console her little one, but the baby throws her head back and begins a full-fledged, ear-splitting wailing.

The poor mum looks dangerously close to tears herself. Her shopping cart is now a few feet away from her, and I have a feeling she’s forgotten all about groceries.

I shoot a sidelong glance at the duo and with that I look at my own burgeoning tummy. With my youngest one now all of five years old I have completely forgotten what a brand new mother goes through. I’m used to the luxury of my children sleeping through the night, and I do groceries with gay abandon while they are at school. When I say gay abandon, it is of course a relative term. In my last trimester of pregnancy, when discomfort is a constant companion, groceries aren’t exactly fun, but at least I don’t have to deal with people yelling and hurling milk bottles.

I’m glad people don’t sue for staring because I am constantly watching this harried-looking new mother and wondering about when, only a few weeks from now, I will be in her shoes. She places a burp cloth carefully on her shoulder, which she extracts from a big, pink diaper bag — (yikes! Diaper bags! I had forgotten all about lugging around those unsexy enormous things along with a stroller). Then she attempts to burp the (slightly calmer) baby on her shoulder.

The baby, it has to be said, is gorgeous. She has beautiful pink lips, and lovely sandy brown hair that just about covers her scalp and tiny eyes that are lost in the layers of cheek.

She is still crying and I am still observing, riveted. (Incidentally, as a side note, when I do have the baby and if I end up doing groceries on a particularly rough day I would report you to the police for staring at me and my baby). But I digress. Ah yes, the burping. The crying baby manages to burp. I’m not standing close enough to hear the burp but I know it did happen because the baby just threw up all over the burp cloth, and of course the mother. Bless her — her top is soiled too. Typical.

I force myself to turn my grocery cart and look the other way. But as I do so, I can’t help stealing a last look at the mother’s tummy. She is wearing what appears to be a maternity top, and well, let’s just say she’s looking nothing like Kim Kardashian. I’m glad to report that she is perfectly normal and looks every bit a new mum, right to the circles under her eyes. I finally make the U-turn that I should have made a long time ago, but groceries are the last thing on my mind.

Hope, fear and dread

I can’t quite describe my feeling of excitement, hope, fear and dread all rolled into one. How is it going to be? Will the baby and I make it? Am I going to be a good mother? Do I (and we, as a family) have the emotional and physical strength to handle another child? Who will she resemble? Will my other kids get jealous? And most worryingly — will I ever fit into my pre-pregnancy jeans again? I probably sound a bit like a first-time mum, and would you believe I feel that way. Nothing — not even having children previously prepares you for the all-important event of having a baby, which brings with it a brand new rush of emotions (and hormones) every single time.

I finish my groceries in a bit of a daze, and when I finally get to the cash counter, right before me is a certain new mother, looking visibly more relaxed, this time accompanied by the baby’s father, who is pushing a stroller. Inside the stroller is an adorable baby sleeping calmly, without a care in the world.

The woman appears to be having a normal conversation with her spouse and I’m trying not to eavesdrop. Honestly. I look away and wait patiently (read uncomfortably) in line. Err… pun intended!

Of trust and truthfulness

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/of-trust-and-truthfulness-1.1327018

Published May 2014

“Mom, I promise,” she says solemnly, looking into my eyes. Our discussion is about who pulled out my precious new plant right out of the soil, and obviously the two only possible culprits (who by the way, have fingernails full of soil) refuse to own up. The expression that adorns the two faces is the classic ‘hurt bunny’ one and their eyes are so full of innocence that I feel like a mean adult in spite of myself.

I sigh in exasperation and try once more. “Alright, I’m asking one last time. Who pulled out the new plant and then tracked the dirt all the way inside the house?” I’m hoping against hope that someone will nod and own up but the ‘hurt bunny’ expressions are as resolute as ever. The older one carefully makes a fist with both her hands and discreetly puts them behind her back, and the younger one, unaware, leaves her hands (and dirty nails) by her side.

There is obviously something wrong. As far as children’s misdemeanours go, this isn’t a particularly horrible one. God knows, children today are capable of much more. Why do my children not say they are in fact guilty? What am I going to do if they tell me the truth? At the most, I will get a little angry and then get them to clean up everything and replant the poor plant as best as they can. But their attitude confounds me and I wonder where I might have erred as a parent.

Do we make our children pay too heavy a price for telling the truth? Have I (perhaps unconsciously) cornered them on a previous occasion where they did come clean and made them feel small? There is no question about it — we can’t treat our children the way our parents treated us. Times have changed and children are very sensitive to the amount of respect a parent gives them. Has there been an occasion on which I have spoken to them in a way which made telling the truth seem like the worst decision they ever made?

The introspection is embarrassing as it is painful. What worries me is that this isn’t a mere childish incident; it is probably a precedent for life, for later decisions. My children, the people I am responsible for, are far more malleable than I realise and a flippant temper tantrum I may have had — and that I attach little importance to — may have done lasting damage. The thought scares me.

I pull the girls closer to myself and take a deep breath. “Right,” I say gently. “So you girls didn’t do it.” They shake their heads mechanically. Then I do the unthinkable. “Fine. I trust you. And here’s 20 minutes on the iPad for telling the truth!” They pump their fists and cheer, but the celebration is a little muted. They exchange dubious looks, but the lure of the iPad is too great. For the next 20 minutes, Temple Run, Fruit Ninja and Co are the sole object of attention and you can hear little except “No, it was MY turn,” and the sound effects of the games. I take the tablet away promptly when the clock says I must and in a very deliberate fashion I begin cleaning up the soil that has spilled indoors.

Of course I add a bit of drama and complain about my aching back to no one in particular, and look at them from the corner of my eye. Strangely enough, they are watching me, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say the faces wear guilty expressions. “But I didn’t do it!” the older one suddenly blurts out. Aha! I smile to myself at the moral victory. “Of course sweetheart. It must have been the wind,” I say matter-of-factly and continue with my task.

“But SHE started it! It was her idea!” the confession finally comes tumbling forth, with the predictable dumping of blame on the other sibling. I breathe easier. The situation demands wisdom and diplomacy. I do my best not to erupt as I might have on another occasion and pretty soon there are two young ladies wearing rubber gloves trying to re-pot an almost wasted plant.

I don’t know if my children have learnt anything by this, but I most certainly have. There is obviously lots of work that I need to do to create a relationship of mutual trust and as they pot the plant, I too pot an indispensable thought inside my head: Appreciate the times they tell the truth and if I do punish them — as a mother must sometimes — I must ensure that I tread carefully.

What are my children reading?

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/what-are-my-children-reading-1.1318829

Published April 2014

As a child, the image of a fairy godmother, in all her Disney glory was etched firmly inside my head. When I looked at my metal mouth (and the food that got stuck in the braces) in the mirror, I wondered if a kindly fairy godmother could just come, wave a wand and poof! I’d have a set of perfect pearly whites. I wondered if the same one could please, please come to school to help with the Math (whisper the answers in my ear) and deal with all those who bullied me. She never came. Obviously.

The image eventually faded away, and I was jolted out of my world of fantasy tales and magical beings into harsh, practical reality. Why did a fairly logical young person ever even harbour such thoughts? If only books played a better role! Fairy tales were loaded with the ‘feel-good’ factor, and felt so complete that my vivid imagination ran away to the moon with them. As my girls grow and discover Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I want to have a close look at the pros and cons of fairy tales. Should I willingly let my girls accept fairy princesses, magic wands, fairy godmothers and witches as a fact of life? My little one has woken up in the night (terrified) a few times dreaming about the ugly and scary witch. The images get stuck in the mind, and I’m not sure I want the valuable real estate of her little developing brain to be occupied by some stupid horrifying sorceress that doesn’t even exist. Then there is the worrying matter of the ‘damsel in distress’. I am unconsciously providing a role model when I show them the beautiful princess with her blond hair, perfect skin, lovely gowns and her big blue eyes. She appears to be perfection personified. Yet she is seldom able to fend for herself, she rarely ever does something daring or intelligent, and is almost always rescued by this wonderful, amazing Prince Charming.

Extremely questionable

Isn’t there more to this seemingly innocent (and ever-repeated) plot that meets the eye? Am I unintentionally telling my girls that women are nothing if they are not gorgeous and that they invariably need a handsome man to rescue them? Is love really so simple, and is life all about ending up in the arms of Mr Right? One might argue that I am being obsessive about what is essentially harmless but I beg to differ. The entire plot upon which these fairy tales stand is extremely questionable. I can’t help feeling that I am either filling my children’s heads with a bunch of lies, or a lot of confusion. Imagine, telling a little girl to ‘enjoy the story’ but at the same time saying — no the witch isn’t real and neither is the fairy!

I do want them to devour modern day classics like Harry Potter after they have crossed a certain age and can distinguish between reality and fantasy and can appreciate someone like J.K Rowling for her simple yet eloquent style of writing, without worrying if wands are for real.

The power of stories is unique and unparalleled. There is a reason why all the religious scriptures in the world talk about past nations. Because stories affect the human psyche in a way that little else does. Imagine if we were to harness this power to build rather than confuse the thinking of our children, how much that would help in providing them with a sound upbringing! As for me, I fully intend to let my children discover fairy tales, but at the same time I want to make sure they know it’s fantasy, and that way better books that are just waiting to be discovered (including some selected ones by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl) line their bookshelf. And I want to ensure that the bedtime stories I read to them are real, believable and leave them with some kind of lasting benefit.

 

Hello? Hello!? Anybody still here?

Hello, Assalamualykum and Bonjour!

My dear readers,

You are super nice and very kind. Thanks for your comments, likes and emails wondering I’ve been. My posts (after this one) if you care to read them will make things clear :D

I’ll keep the suspense but let me just say things have been busy ;)

Sending good wishes your way,

M

Life lessons after nine years of marriage

Originally written for: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/life-lessons-after-nine-years-of-marriage-1.1294813

Life lessons, every step of the way

Life lessons, every step of the way

So it’s been nine years since we tied the knot. It seems like only yesterday I stumbled awkwardly towards the stage in impossibly high heels, struggling with the dress and wondering why you couldn’t get married in jeans. As a kid I had always told my family, “I will get married in jeans and a T-shirt!” Needless to say, things don’t always go according to plan, and if I were to say that the last nine years have been anything I could have imagined or planned out, I would be lying.

I will take this opportunity to reflect on some of the most valuable lessons that I hope to have absorbed over the past few years. It should be noted that this article is not in any way marriage advice, simply because the person writing it is still a work in progress and is in no way qualified to give it. It is in fact a mere contemplation of my own understanding of relationships.

Easily the most important lesson that comes to mind is: it’s not always about me. Once you get that abnormally large obstruction called ‘ego’ out of the way, you are open to admitting your own misgivings, learning and moving on. And when you look beyond yourself, you begin to understand the other person. It takes a lot of emotional depth to not judge a person who behaves badly. There are days when arguments spiral out of control, times when it appears that people are picking on you without a reason. On days like those, for a moment stop thinking about how unbearably wronged you feel. The other person might have had a disastrous day, try putting yourself in their place. And oh – if you learn to forgive, you’d save yourself a lot of unnecessary stress and probably a few white hairs too.

Living in the same space with another person requires a tremendous amount of adjustment. You both need your space, and the freedom to pursue your hobbies without the interference or involvement of your spouse. Adjustment also means putting up with your partners quirks – there comes a point when you stop complaining about your partner’s habits simply because you have realised the importance of having a harmonious household. You stop making those snide comments about the unmade bed not because you’ve stopped caring about it but mostly because you don’t want your children to see you bickering over little things. You let the little matter of him not putting the sugar bowl back slide, too. You’re not always quiet though – you’re just more choosy about when your open your mouth. You pick your battles. You can certainly make yourself heard when it really matters, and with good effect too!

If I were to take this discussion further and enter the realm of that inexplicable feeling called love, my input on that would be far too sarcastic and cynical to be palatable. Suffice it to say that in a relationship, what you give is what you get, and especially when you start out, invest in your bond in a positive way. By invest I mean learn to tolerate the other person, be decent, try to get along – and brownie points if you smile when you do that! 

Possibly the single greatest factor in making me positive when things have looked bleak is learning to be thankful for my blessings. It’s easy to overlook blessings such as eyesight and a warm bed, and it’s easy to forget that you are better off than millions of others. Life is full of ups and downs and when you hit rock bottom, remember that it could have been worse. That realisation gives you the strength to go on, and it helps you stop wallowing in that pit of ugly comfort called self-pity. Learning to be happy, staying happy and letting your contagious feeling of positivity spill over others is a win-win for everyone.

I’d like to conclude with the thought that it’s still early days and I am learning. With every day, I discover new reasons to be happy and hopeful and conversely, I stumble upon reasons to be the opposite.

The road ahead seems anything but simple and I fall frequently and embarrass myself with painful regularity. It’s nice to have a hand to lift you up when you do fall, and it’s nice to know that there is someone you can count on. Life, despite its overwhelming (scary?) sense of responsibility is infused with meaning and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Here’s to many more happy, meaningful, and satisfying years together.

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