In that time – I became a mom to now 1 year old twin girls – Kimiya and Ethar. Their names perfectly capture what being a mother requires – transformation and selflessness.
The last year has been the most challenging in my life so far – becoming a mother changes everything. Free time and sleep are a faraway dream, replaced by the constant neediness of two infants. Their dependence on me is so primal and so primordial. It reaches out to the very core of my being and forces me to ask questions on what it means to really be a human being.
Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding – all very biological and embodied experiences – have also richly colored my understanding of what it means to be a woman. I don’t buy into the binary division of women as fundamentally being caregivers and men as being solely providers; this deprives women of greater social and political participation and robs men of the very intimate and special experience of nurturing children. As is everything – balance is key. Mothering however, is significantly different from fathering – mostly due to biology, and some might argue – wiring. This year has challenged me to face issues regarding my gender which go beyond equality - what does bearing, birthing, suckling and raising children mean for and to women? For me it has meant embracing and celebrating womanhood, not being confined by it (despite feeling completely inadequate when faced with two crying babies, and wondering if I am really cut of the mummy-cloth). It has renewed my commitment to gender justice, beyond notions of “rights” to what essentially constitutes us ontologically. Mothering children requires immense amounts of patience, tolerance and self-sacrifice. These qualities have somehow come to be seen as essentially feminine, when in fact, they are totalitarian in applying to all human beings.
Becoming a mother offers the realization that there are so many ways to exist. Fitting into someone else’s mold of how we should parent our children only drives us further and further away from our true selves. One of the biggest obstacles in this regard has been breastfeeding. I have found the least support in my obstinacy to breastfeed my girls. Being a gender activist at heart, the lack of support for such a natural and beautiful process is alarming. Whilst many Muslim women do breastfeed, I have been faced in my community with an increasing move away from breastfeeding, for various reasons, some of them very valid. I have myself combined bottle and breastfeeding when I had to, due to exhaustion or the ability to have my husband and family take care of the girls when I was otherwise committed, still I have remained true to my instincts to nurse my babies until now, but when I am regularly told that “breast-milk is not filling”, “babies grow faster and better on formula” and “you will never produce enough milk for two” or asked ‘when are you going to stop?” – the lactivist in me ignites, despite the difficulty of interrupted sleep and the understanding of how a cow must feel. In a society bombarded by images of naked and semi-naked women, cleavage is not an uncommon sight – yet the discomfort people feel when a woman modestly and subtly breastfeeds is so palpable. One of the greatest injustices to my gender (perpetuated by men and women) has been the misappropriation of the female body from its natural state to a hypersexualized ideal. It has become OK to allow children to become attached to bottles, dummies, blankies, dolls and other security objects, but concepts like co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding and self-weaning are seen as “inconvenient”, “disgusting” and “gross”. On the flip side – other elements of my community view child-rearing and child-bearing as the sole purpose of womanhood – a notion against which I vehemently rebel.
I don’t see any contradiction in being immersed in the embodied experience of mothering and at the same time being an intellectually and socially active person and in this regard I have been very blessed in the immense support from my family, especially my husband, who has been completely absorbed in raising these girls from the day they were born, and the invaluable help of a wonderful nanny, which has allowed me to continue my academic pursuits – this in turn, has made me a more willing mother. As with many first time mothers, the depression djinn threatens to possess, what with all the sleepless nights and ensuing chaos of bringing and grounding two new human beings into the world. Retaining my sense of self and pursuing my passion for Islamic academia, as well remaining a contributing member of my community went a long way in exorcising that dark dragon of despair. Here again – I see the gendered forces at work – where issues like post-natal depression are taboo in the Muslim community, as it is believed that becoming a mother should bring only joy and elation at having fulfilled a primary womanly duty. I can only imagine the number of women who suffer silently in the aftermath of the severe physical and hormonal upheaval that is birth.
From the pregnancy to labor and beyond – I have witnessed how the most beautiful and miraculous process of life has been commercialized. Women are poked and prodded throughout pregnancy, babies churned out like fast-food under glaring lights, submitted to an invasive examination to be declared “normal”, fed artificial milk, expected to fall asleep on their own, stay asleep through the night from as young as 6 weeks and then fit into a perfect routine which leaves parents free to continue life as before. It is in this cold and clinical environment that I wished a different path for myself and found a deep appreciation for the traditional customs which give women time and space to heal and bond after child-birth.
I have been blessed with two daughters – and I only pray that I can bring them up with a sense of deep commitment to the ideals of justice, tolerance and modesty, made so challenging in a world filled with bigotry, prejudice and obscenity.
We do not only try to live the Quran, but the Quran too lives through us and our experiences, and so I have come to a deeper understanding of the words of God which say,
“We have enjoined on human beings kindness to his parents; in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth” (46:15).
and the profound nature of the Quranic prayer,
“And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small” (17:24).
Motherhood is at once a banal everyday chore and a sublime spiritual state.