Not Just a Mother


http://www.flickr.com/photos/saileshpanchal/2573143083/By Marwa Abdalla

I remember the joy I felt when my first-born daughter was born. The joy I felt when I saw her first smile, heard her first laugh, and watched her learn to crawl and then walk. Indescribable joy. However, I also remember sitting up in bed after putting her to sleep with a knot in my throat and tears streaming down my cheeks. My husband looked puzzled. “I just hate feeling like I’m not doing anything,” I said.  Not doing anything? He looked at me, even more puzzled, and said, “But you do so much, masha’Allah!” However, I wasn’t referring to the number of stories I had read or the spoonfuls of baby food I had offered. I was referring to the void I had inside because as a full-time mother, I felt unaccomplished, like I was selling myself short, because my contributions were not in the areas of life that society had taught me truly mattered.

I had chosen to stay home from work with my daughter because I sincerely felt that was what was best for her and for me. It was not an easy decision. Actually, it may have been the most difficult decision I had made in my life up until that point. And though I won’t go into the various factors my husband and I looked at in making the decision, I will say that many options were considered. After praying much istikhara (a specific prayer asking for guidance), I decided that not only did I prefer to be with my daughter, but that this was, in my situation, the way I could best serve Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) at that time. Days, weeks, and months passed, and I valued greatly the moments I had with my baby girl. As she grew, I felt very thankful to be able to witness her amazing progress masha’Allah. In my mind, I knew I had made the right decision.

But in my heart, I still often had these overwhelming feelings of sadness, shame, and guilt. Not “post-baby blues,” as some call it. No, this was something else. Until I had my daughter, I was a young woman who had, by the Grace of Allah, excelled both academically and in various leadership activities. In high school I had been voted “Most Likely to Change the World.”  Why did I feel now as a mother that I wasn’t doing anything as compared to when I was earning a professional degree or a paycheck?

I initially thought this was my own neurotic problem. However, I was surprised to find other mothers, those who stayed home and even those who went back to work or school, sharing the same feelings with the regards to the time they spent taking care of their children. “Oh, I’m just a mom,” one young mother said, almost embarrassed, when someone asked her if she was working. Just a mom? That’s when I knew something really was wrong—and it wasn’t just with me. Why did it seem so many mothers were struggling with their own self-worth and the need to feel “accomplished” in other areas of life as they raised their young children?

Allah Almighty tells us in the Qur’an,

“For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts.” (Qur’an, 22:46)

It seemed my heart had become blinded from celebrating motherhood, understanding its value and being proud of my role as a mother. I had become convinced (though I wasn’t sure what that conviction was based on) that my self-worth and value came primarily from my abilities to work outside the sphere of domesticity.  But how? I considered myself a well-educated woman, well-versed in American popular culture who, as a young adult, became a student of Islam. I certainly had not expected to have this battle waging inside of me. Moreover, I was surprised to find this was a battle fought in the hearts of many other mothers.

And so I pressed on, obsessed with understanding feelings I couldn’t always explain but determined not to see myself as just a mom. I wanted to celebrate being a mom and thank Allah (swt) for that blessing, not feel burdened, resentful and unappreciative. And so I read as much as I could on the topic, talked with other mothers, and I prayed to Allah for guidance, for I knew that only He could give my heart the comfort it needed. Then, only slowly, was the proverbial wool lifted—from both my eyes and my heart.

As human beings, we have many basic needs and one of those is the need for validation—the feeling that we are appreciated and are contributing somehow to those around us. Allah (swt) has given us countless ways of filling this need—through contributions to family, community and work, just to name a few. However, in the last hundred and fifty years, somewhere along the way between industrialization and the women’s rights movement, the contributions made by a mother to her family took the back seat to those made in other areas of life—the job of creating a home for a child and developing his or her capabilities became equated with “doing nothing” (Crittenden 2001). I realized I had been trained by society—even by many Muslims in society—to see the act of mothering, this noble act that has benefited humanity for centuries, as something trivial that I should be doing on the side, along the way, as an extra, and that my real importance was in how successful I was at other things—work, professional life, and community involvement.

British author, George Orwell, once said, “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  As true as this may have been during Orwell’s lifetime—he died in 1950—it seems even more so in our contemporary discussions about motherhood. We need to re-train ourselves to see the obvious. Because it seems that hidden in all the political correctness that dictates our conversations about motherhood (after all, who in their right mind would dare say that women should be proud of taking care of their children!), a simple truth has been observed: A baby or young child needs a to be loved, cared for and nurtured by a person who is as invested in him or her as a mother would be. They need it as much as they need food, exercise and sunshine. It’s not just good for them, but vital. Whether or not people other than the child’s mother can fulfill this role is up to each family to decide, but I would argue that few true “replacements” are readily available for mothers. This relationship, more than any other, teaches humans the very care, empathy, and love that make us, well, human. Without it, we all suffer. That doesn’t mean that mothers cannot work. It doesn’t mean that fathers cannot be involved in a very real way in their babies’ and children’s care. Those are decisions each family must make for itself after evaluating its own unique circumstances. What it does mean, however, is that a mother who chooses to stay home shouldn’t feel guilty, as if she has given up her ability to make positive contributions to society. She shouldn’t feel like she is just a mother.

And so the end of this story is really the beginning: I now have three daughters, alhamdulilLah (praise be to God), and I am still re-training myself, despite what society may tell me, to see that I am a good woman, a successful woman when being a mother to my children. I am re-training myself to see that motherhood is not some oppressive job that I should necessarily leave to someone else. It is, in fact, a very commendable job for any woman who chooses it, and should be celebrated as much as any other role I take on in life. I am re-training myself to see the trials and tribulations I face as a mother not as effort wasted, but as opportunities through which to gain reward and draw closer to Allah (swt). And though I try my best to continue to grow at a personal level, and do hope to continue my career once my children are grown, I am re-training myself to live in the moment, to appreciate that the sometimes selfless things I do now to take care of my children are not going unnoticed or unacknowledged, for Allah (swt) sees and records all things. And lest I forget, I have simply to turn to the Qur’an and Sunnah, my compass and guide, which contain countless ayat (verses) and ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, peace be upon him) about the importance of mothers, and then simply pray that my heart continue to see the beautiful truth that exists there.

 


Bibliography:

Cook, Peter. Mothering Denied: How Our Culture Harms Women, Infants, and Society. Cook, 2009. 

Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood.  Henry Holt and Co. New York, 2001.

Muehlenberg, Bill. The Importance of Mothers, Accessed Online at http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/05/05/the-importance-of-motherhood/, Jan. 2012

 

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14 Comments

  1. Lets Really Value our Mothers says:

    Alhamdhulillah, what a great article, Sr. Marwa.

    May Allah continue to bless you and your family, and give you joy and ease in your difficult but noble task of being a full time mother.

    Its not only young women who decide to become fulltime mothers who need this ‘re-training’ but society as a whole, including (and perhaps especially) Muslim society.

    We Muslims (including me) like to think we treat our mothers better than Westerners, but I would argue that this is not really the case. We constantly speak of the noble hadiths of the Prophet (s) about the value of motherhood, but then leave it there: its all just words. In actions, we do very little, often less than our Western counterparts.

    How much do we really help our mothers? Lift their burdens? Help take the little ones out, help with the cleaning and cooking and childrearing so they can take a break and recharge?

    On the contrary, it seems to me the opposite maybe true: the words of the Prophet (s) are used to induce guilt in mothers and excuse laziness on the part of others. Oh, she is exhausted from sleepless nights and all the noise and commotion and lack of adult contact? Well, she’ll get rewarded in Jannah for all of that!

    Many Muslim Brothers (not all, but many) are raised to believe that they should have nothing to do with child rearing or helping out with the home. ‘Real men’ don’t do that. Real men bring home the income; their responsibilities end there. After work is free time where they can watch the news, sports, hang out with buddies, or surf the net. Maybe a half hour or so is spent playing with the kids…if the kids are happy. If the kids are having a tantrum, forget it…

    This of course, is not what the Prophet (s) was like…

  2. afia salmana says:

    I’m chosen to stay home for my child. but like other mothers, I too often feel anxiety and unaccomplished due to societal image of ‘housewife’ but reading this article has brought some calmness into my heart and especially the quoting of the ayat about the blindness of the hearts made me realize the blinded-ness of my own heart in accepting the societal norms even though I don’t believe in them.
    Jazakallaho khair for such beautiful article.

  3. Razan says:

    Assalamu alaikum!

    I liked how the author talked about how society teaches us that we need to validate ourselves by what others do – it’s a powerful force that brought up this ‘battle in the heart’. It’s a strange part of society that convinces us that we need to run very specific cut-and-dried career paths, when in truth life is much more complicated and flexible than school-college-jobs. I would suggest that you should feel happy that you don’t need to run this ‘rat-race’ and can focus on growing and contributing to society in other, non-paid ways!

    I think that perhaps your struggle with feeling that you’re ‘only’ a mother could come from more than our society’s push for constant validation of self, though. Perhaps you feel restless because you feel that before choosing to stay at home, you contributed directly (rather than more indirectly) to others in your work and studies, and you feel dismayed at losing that immediate contribution. If so, try involving yourself in something that doesn’t involve you ‘working’ but lets you contribute in another way – for example, writing articles like these! :)

  4. Ummsarah says:

    When my daughter was born I felt the same way. Now she is eight and she has so much understanding of Islam for her age, and I feel any work I could able to put forth produced many fold results by Allah’s blessing.

  5. Hamza says:

    Masha’ Allah. Beautiful!

  6. Zaheer says:

    As-salaamu ‘alaykum

    Great article. It comes from a viewpoint and voice which is slowly, but surely, being silenced the world round. This article provides deep insight into why many young Muslim women choose not to be mothers, or, in most cases, to see it as a ‘side-activity’, as the author points out.

    Alhamdulillah, the author has recognized the ideological traps present in our current societal environment, and moved beyond it.

    Insha-Allah the sacred role of full-time motherhood, and parenthood in general, will become/return to being a majority viewpoint, and not one which is looked-down upon, or treated as of secondary (or lower) importance. As mentioned, this is unfortunately the current view in many places.

  7. hassanS says:

    Reading your article stirred something in me, not because I can relate to your situation, but because I am in the exact opposite situation as you. I went back to work when my son turned one. My husband was in a new and unstable job, and we could not function on a single income and so I always knew I had to go back. It was so hard leaving my baby boy and I cried for days before I had to go back. Alhamdulillah though, I was fortunate enough to have my parents look after him, and they do an amazing job.

    It’s hard. When I am home with my son I try and focus on him and spend as much time as I can with him, and keep the weekends for family time. But I can’t help feeling guilty that it’s not enough sometimes, that I should be spending more time with him. I remember when he was very young, another Muslim mother who I had just met at a playgroup told me my son was probably behind in talking because I wasn’t at home so I couldn’t spend the right amount of time with him. I was so incredibly upset at that time, but I wish she could see him now, he’s way ahead of his milestones and he can talk a mile a minute, Masha’Allah!

    At the end of an 8 hour work day, I still come home and feed, bathe, play with and teach my son, and by the grace of Allah am fortunate to have a very flexible job where I can stay home if my son isn’t well or if I just want a day with him. In my heart I know that this is the path that Allah has put me on and I have to believe that what I am doing is for my son’s benefit. And Alhamdulillah, my son is flourishing and is turning out to be a smart, loving and fun little Muslim man who I am very proud of and love very much.

    I hope Allah continues to bless him with the very best, and He blesses you and all mothers- working or not- with righteous and happy children who will lead us into Jannah Insha’Allah.

    • umm rayhan says:

      salam yes umm Sarah, this is so hard, I had to go back to work after one year too and give Rayhan to daycare and some days he is being looked after by Abu Rayhan. But although I have a good job and well paid, my heart breaks every morning I have to leave him. It’s just something that Allah swt has ordained for me, if I feel grudge that my husband hasn’t got a good job etc then the situation just feels worse. What are we compared to Umm Musa who had to leave her son with FIRAWN, subhanallah…

  8. Haq says:

    A refreshing voice at last! And a deep introspective look at this ever so important topic. I love the Orwell quote, I always felt and thought this yet never was able to express myself as eloquently as Orwell.

    May Allah reward you abundantly and help you grow as a person to best serve His cause, and make your children leaders of the righious.

    Your brother in Islam,

    Haq

    PS: Jzk for the bibliography

  9. Simeen says:

    My dear sister, I used to and still struggle with the same doubts. I chanced upon this interview that set my heart at rest, at least most of the time and made a transcript of it. I hope it will be beneficial to you and others sisters reading it as well.

    Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu,

    This is a partial transcript of a Productive Muslim interview with Imam Zaid Shakir. Edited for readability.

    What beautiful advice Ma sha Allah! May Allah ta’ala bless Imam Zaid, sister Aminah who asked the question, the PM team and us, ameen.

    Q. Do you have any tips or advice for sisters and/or housewives on how to balance between their kids, housework and pursuing activities for dawah?

    A. First of all by understanding that a sister who has decided to stay at home with her children is doing the best thing she can possibly do by sacrificing time to ensure that the coming generation is nurtured. And nurturing is more important than education: that they’re safe, that their health, that they’re hugged, that they’re fed with love, doing that is critically important so understand that what you’re doing has great ajr (reward).

    So yours is not a situation where your life is worthless where you think you could be getting so much more ajr if you were studying or doing something outside of the home.

    So realize the importance of what you’re doing and then THANK Allah ta’ala for that opportunity, which is tasleem, i.e. to submit to Allah: “You’ve blessed me with children and I’m going to take care of them in the best ways [possible]”

    And then, when one devotes himself to study when the children are napping or at the end of the day, when the children are in bed, then one devotes an hour or two, reads Qur’an, reads Seerah of the Prophet, then that time will be blessed, it will have barakah in it and that person will get more out of that time than if they had spent their whole day studying.

    The time that was spent away from studying is appreciated also as it is a manifestation of what Allah ta’ala has decreed to happen during that time that you’re busy with the home or that you’re busy with the children. It’s this tasleem that opens up the door for Allah ta’ala to put barakah in the remaining time. So when a sister turns to her books or her mushaf, then she’ll get more out of it than she would have got out of it if she had studied all day because it is accompanied with pleasure with Allah’s decree, “Allah you’ve decreed that I have a family, you’ve blessed me with beautiful children, you’ve blessed me with the inclination to serve them”

    Because of this pleasure with Allah ta’ala, Allah ta’ala blesses that person and He gives them far more benefit in the time that remains to be devoted to things such as studying, or reading, or reciting or memorizing something.

    /end transcript

    And when your Lord proclaimed: “If you give thanks , I will give you more, but if you are thankless, verily! My Punishment is indeed severe.” [Surah Ibrahim 14:7]

  10. S.Zainab Sheikh says:

    We need to retrain the mindset of the society. I am a big advocate of what great a job Motherhood is.. All mums who can make a difference to the society outsides the realms of home must understand that priorities change with time. They can go back to work later. I suggest reading ‘What Mothers Do when is seems like nothing ‘ by Naomi Stalden. This book helped me enormously when I just had my baby..falling in loving in love with Motherhood.

    • Zaheer says:

      As-salaamu ‘alaykum

      Changing the societal view on a major issue like this is not something which can easily be done.

      However, I think the fact that such articles are still being written expressing these views, and also that the comments indicate that this view is not (yet) completely alien, is a good thing.

      I think it bodes well as it indicates that at least a sample of the current ‘online Muslim generation’ has a positive view towards this. Unless the naysayers are staying silent (which would be strange as this is usually not the case).

  11. Kirana says:

    I am a woman who, even though I’m inclined to settle down and have a family, Allah has not yet permitted it for me. So instead, I have all those things that you think you would be doing “instead of” being a mother. Yes, I am very successful, and contribute a lot to a niche field of practical science – mainly teaching and advocacy. It is a discipline that touches the lives and rights of people, in a region lacking in teachers and experts in this field. I am also one of the incredibly few practicing Muslims among my global peers in this field, so I know I carry that fardh kifayah responsibility as well. So it is fulfilling work. In short, I am called to many other things but I have not been called to motherhood.

    I still hope that one day Allah will choose for me a spouse, and I will be honoured as a mother. Maybe it just goes the other way around for me in terms of life order. My point is, similarly maybe for those of you who chose to suspend public contribution to devote time to motherhood, it does not mean forever after that is all that defines you. There is a long road ahead, insya-Allah. When the children grow up you may want to re-enter active public participation. In fact, it probably makes you a better mother to do so (after the children are out of the most dependent infancy stage). A parent must raise children for the world *they* have to cope with, and to do so she must be aware of what that is, herself.

    So I think the mindset change is not that one choice should actually be better than the other. But that there should be such a choice at all. All through human history, yes women have been primarily mothers, but invariably motherhood (and fatherhood) inseparably included inducting the children into the wider world that the adults live in. It’s just that in today’s complex world, that induction now requires a lot more keeping up with world developments than was ever necessary for previous generations.

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