Things No-one but Your Baby Teaches You

Waiting in sympathy as an old friend wonders if today will be the day she gives birth, I am reminded of what a steep learning curve first-time motherhood is. We learn about Henry XIII, cirrus clouds and sodding xylem and phloem at school, but anything related to womanhood, birth, or anything icky like that is woefully absent.

I remember one time at secondary school, a girl who’d dropped out to have a baby with a local squaddie came to talk to the female students, obviously under the pretext that she would deter us from doing the same thing. All I remember is her saying birth really hurt. That, a few textbook references to puberty in biology class, and our exuberant gym teacher’s ‘little chat’ with us around age 13 about our ‘P days’, was the sum total of education about our incipient womanhood.

So, when you decide you have finally outgrown your solitude and wouldn’t mind a wee bairn in your life, you have decades of programming to overcome, usually without any wise old women (except your mum, and she might give you the worst traumas of all) to advise, teach and reassure you. What do you do? Go online, to Mothering.com, or Mumsnet, or more radical places like natural birth forums (get thee to Google and the scales shall fall from your eyes). For so many women, the first baby they hold in their arms is their own.

There are so many new dexterities that you must learn when you become a parent, especially a mother: birthing; breast/bottle feeding; burping; lowering a sleeping baby into a cot without waking them up; calming a fractious baby when you haven’t slept for months and are pretty fractious yourself; wheeling buggies up and down stairs or hills, especially with heavy bags of shopping; cooking with a clingy baby in a sling or on a hip; having sex with your partner with a baby anywhere in a ten-metre radius; changing nappies in cars; removing snot without incurring loud screams; getting two or more kids ready for school with a baby to look after also; reading a book without falling asleep after half a page; putting a child into a car seat when they don’t feel like it; what to do about fevers, coughs, kids that don’t eat; finding ANY time to do yoga like you’re supposed to spend your maternity leave doing; preventing crawling babies from climbing up stairs or finding paints/cleaning products/that one nail in the corner under the sofa that you didn’t know existed…

…and then there’s also the subtle, invisible learning, like how to deal with tantrums, challenging behaviour and disrespect without taking it personally or turning into a fire-breathing dragon…

…not to mention the psychological issues dredged up from our own upbringing…

…and bang in the middle this practical PhD-cum-SAS training-cum-twenty year long meditation retreat, you’re meant to go back to full-time paid work?! What does it look like we’ve been doing, lying on a beach in the Bahamas having our cellulite wrapped in algae?!?!

Mothering is given minimal or no value in industrialised society. Women are just men with boob – which are meant for entertainment, not nutrition. We’re supposed to do everything men do, for two-thirds of the pay, and not complain that we also have a whole other job going on – the ‘Second Shift’ – which is far more personally important to us than the paid work, though impossible without the salary. And since nobody but other mothers will nod and commiserate, we sigh, label our complaints as ‘moaning’, and shut up and get on with it.

Nothing ever changed without people making a stink about it needing to be changed (a particularly a propos metaphor for people who have to change nappies on a regular basis). But we now have the financial necessity of having two incomes in order to maintain roofs that we rarely have time to spend under. Mothers already feel guilty that they’re not doing enough – how have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea of proving ourselves to be ‘as good as the guys’, fighting above our weight on an uneven playing field, and placing on ourselves this massive extra burden?

The female brain is far more complex, responsive, and therefore prone to frazzlement than the male brain. We have a smaller, lighter brain, but with a more convoluted cerebral cortex, meaning more surface area, meaning more neurones, meaning more thinking. Hence we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and often have a harder time falling asleep (especially annoying when your husband is snoring within seconds) even though the extra sleep does us a world of good. We need to make an effort to disconnect and relax our minds. Now those flower arranging classes don’t seem so superfluous, right?

Women have always worked, inside and outside of the home. I was once walking around Leh in Ladakh, the culturally Tibetan Himalayan region of India, when I saw a woman walking back from her allotment, bent double with a basket of produce on her back, while also knitting a complex patterned jumper for a small child. Multi-tasking is our (slightly clichéd) hallmark.

But when the work involved becomes very complex and stressful, in highly stimulating environments, and when your kids can’t just run about the village but are hyperactive, overstimulated creatures who need to be kept safe from cars, internet predators, and a whole host of constantly changing dangers, let alone all our own troubles that we have to process, our minds are under strain that we often don’t allow ourselves to recognise.

I don’t know how to end this optimistically except to urge anyone reading to recognise the effort, time, and thought that goes into parenting at large, to shed the patriarchal lens that edits out the female experience – as richly varied as it is – and start accommodating women who are raising small kids, often against huge odds. Yes, it makes us tough, but we don’t want to turn to armadillos. Early childhood is the beginning of a person’s life; we don’t need to burden it with unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Most of all, if we can deal with our own anxiety, embed rest, joy and simplicity into our lives, we model it for our children. This is one thing we can handle in a future that has always been uncertain and always will be. Godspeed and rest well!

More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

Buttons and Mirrors: Seeking a Cure for Firstworlditis

Despite the (not especially ironic) name of this blog, I haven’t written about parenting for a good long while, mainly because I’m usually to be found flailing my arms and tearing my hair out about it myself, and not sure I’d have anything constructive to say.

However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my buttons: the things I am exceptionally sensitive to when it comes to my kids’ behaviour (obviously their essence is wonderful, as I try to remind myself when handling yet another crisis in the house involving fists, Nerf bullets, or pitch battles over the Latin name for avocados – I kid you not).

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Dusk over some avocado trees. It’s Persea americana, in case you’re interested.

Mainly, what bothers me is ingratitude. Actually, all the multitudinous things that bother me can all be boiled down to ingratitude. To wit: expecting someone else to deal with your dirty work (ingratitude towards people who really are cleaning up after you); grasping, demanding attitudes, without thanks or reciprocation (ingratitude towards gifts and help from others); wasteful, careless, destructive behaviour (ingratitude for the space and resources being enjoyed), etc. etc.

But as the psychologists would say, every conflict is a great big flashing LED arrow pointing to an opportunity to grow. So, not wanting to be a great big screaming Hollywood bratlet myself, I’ve decided the only way out of this thing is to go into it, and pray I come out the other side alive.

Affluenza

This disease of ‘firstworlditis’, or affluenza as some call it, has been noted by many people, and not all old fogeys harping on about the good old days of kids selling newspapers in blizzards to pay for their baby siblings’ tuberculosis medicine. (They did have to walk sixteen miles through minefields carrying their desks on their heads to school every day, eat mouse cassoulet for dinner and sleep in cardboard boxes by the side of the M1 in their day, but they’re not the only ones who can make comparisons.)

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Photo of my street about 60 years ago, when kids had to go to school in wheelbarrows.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine took a trip to the US right after a journey to Iran. In Iran she had visited an all-girls school where her friend was teaching English. The students had been given the task to write an essay about anything they wanted, and the results were very revealing: the essays were on subjects like love, faith, poetry, death, family…all very thoughtful and questioning.

When she later went to the US, my friend visited another friend (there are a lot of friends in these paragraphs, stay with me) who also worked at a high school, in Texas. He had also recently set an essay, in which the students had to write about whatever they liked. The essays were universally on topics such as ‘My New Trainers’, ‘My Motorbike’…

Clearly this isn’t exclusively a child-parent issue. In fact, adults can be the snottiest brats of the lot. Think about the gifts we have enjoyed for millions of years, the simplest things like rain, fertile soil, trees…and think of how much respect we used to have for the forces of nature, in the knowledge that we had to live in balance with it or its could crush us like so many cockroaches under its massive, environmental shoe. How the desire for more, bigger, now, has led to the wholesale destruction of life-giving forest, the desertification of once-rich soil by surface mining, a fatberg under London, and not one but TWO plastic waste islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, each roughly the size of Texas.

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Some local destruction. Kind of picturesque though.

Mirror Mirror

So this nerve that ingratitude hits in me is really just a small reflection of a much vaster problem, one that I’m an intrinsic part of, as a First World Baby who struggles to show gratitude due for all the gifts I enjoy all the time. There is a line in the Qur’an that says: ‘If We had willed it, We could have made rain salty.’ And elsewhere, the repeated refrain in Surat Ar-Rahman: ‘And which of Our favours do you deny?’

When the Sheikh of the Jerrahi Sufi Order, Tosun Bayrak, visited my hometown, I asked him about gratitude; I was going through a painful divorce (are any divorces painless?) and having trouble finding gratitude in myself. He was astounded, and simply explained all that I have to be thankful for – beginning with life itself. Tosun Baba passed away a few days ago, the same day as a family friend – reminders to treasure this gift while there’s time.

The mirror metaphor has a lot of meterage: part of ‘affluenza’ is the problem of surrounding a small, self-centred life with mirrors, cutting off the long view, both in space and time (the view of others, of the perspective of years…) and obsessing over small details, the lint collecting in our collective navels. How do I look, how do people see me…self-consciousness is like taking your perspective out of your own head and turning its floodlights, by turns critical and fawning, on your own figure as it goes about its business. If you have a hard time breaking through sadness to gratitude, try looking at what comes to you before you’ve even asked for it, and see how your heart bursts its banks.

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A local mirror. Also rather more tasteful than I had meant to portray.

Here’s another metaphor: the examples we are exposed to, both in real life and in fiction (TV, film, vlogs…) are a kind of artificial mirror that creates the same behaviour in us – if we aren’t alert to this tendency. Just seeing how we as a family start interacting after watching a mere hour of Disney tween sitcoms, in which every other line is a wisecrack and everyone is basically snapping each other’s heads off to canned laughter (watch Friends with the sound turned off and you’ll see what I mean), I am astonished how quickly we all start imitating them – including me.

By contrast, yesterday at Jum’ah, I noticed a woman there I hadn’t seen before, with the most beautifully serene, slightly bashful aura. I thought: this is what humility looks like – not humiliation, as so many people would have us believe humility is, arguing for brashness and swagger as a way of protecting our vulnerability. It made me see that humble does not mean having the air of a whipped dog – humiliated, broken, fearful.

In actual fact, real humility (not acted, ersatz humility, aka spiritual vanity), is the best kind of noble. A truly humble person is so because they are big enough to be aware of their own faults, brave enough to bring them into the presence of the Most High, and strong enough to work on them without losing hope for every mistake they know they’ll continue to make. And it’s beautiful to see; if only we saw it enough, all around, maybe we would start to mirror it too. Imagine a ring of mirrors like that.

Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

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Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

Jobs for the Boys

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From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

A Sip of Sainthood (Women Can be in Two Places at Once)

Women can be in two places at once
hurrying down a high street with
a ten kilo sack of potatoes in each hand
and sitting on the porch of a bamboo hut
standing on stilts over the Indian Ocean

We can wait in line for churros with a baby on one hip
and drink tea with the mothers of future saints
as they give them a sip of sainthood from their breast

We might be writing shopping lists for
flip-flops, sellotape and fish
while clumsily walking a tightrope across a
busy street in downtown New York
for a whim or for charity
either way, no one will know but ourselves

We keep so much invisible
not just crumpled receipts and
crumby lipsticks but
food wished onto struggling sisters’ doorsteps
paperless PhDs in child psychology and
queenless OBEs for conflict resolution
blueprints for villages that would
bring the lonely ones back to the whole
theories on suffering and money,
love and class war
that race against laundry mountains
and school sports days for our attention
and always come in last place

But we can still be in two places at once
What’s more, we can be two places at once
a wall for children to bounce their frustrations off
and an orchard of every fruit your mouth can invent
a hive of everyday usefulness
and a well of rosewater too deep to plumb
a warren for loved ones to nestle in
when fanged beasts snarl outside
and the space between two nebulas
that statically explode in clouds of dust
so rich in minerals they could be
diamond blossoms

Fires of Regret and Relief

You sleep curled in a hungry embrace
filling the space your father left

her lips pressed to your forehead
eclipse the absence of his kiss

she strokes your hair and forgets
the hand that would sting if it touched hers now

your warm weight on her belly
almost replaces

her need to be encircled

You must have drunk in
her panic too

exposed like a mother cat
on a coverless plain

but you don’t see her
as she sees herself

scarred and tired
and less than lovable

You sleep in bliss
while she weighs her options

will stumbling and kindling
fires of regret and relief

Sleep. You are the sea she gained
when her spring ran dry

and while her cheeks sparkle with thanks
she prays she hasn’t given you

a taste for disaster

Like Gardener’s Hands on Silk

I am all elbows
leaning on ledges
strangers’ shoulders
eyelids falling involuntarily
after nights fractured
by screams as gums are
lacerated slowly by
a knife tip tooth

My corners catch on everyone
like gardener’s hands on silk
bunions build up on my edges
myelin thickens to muffle nerves
and stiffens my walk to a
peg doll pace
so I cease to bend
and instead
start to
cr
ack

How can a woman come apart
– limbs popped out like a doll
in the inquisitive hands of a 5 year old –
and drag the pieces along by
fibres of some unearthly substance
below the threshold of her vision
whereby lunches occur in spite of her
beans falling out of the ceiling
into pans that manoeuvre themselves
onto the stove
loo roll replenishes itself
the baby picks up crumbs and helpfully eats them
crayons roll off the edges of the floor
into holes that return them to their place
like balls under a pool table
bread grows back from crusts
rugs stretch out like a man in bed
teabags multiply in hollow boxes
the emptiness inside cupboards
solidifies into the shapes of
jam jars and pasta twirls

If children can meet on Minecraft
and throw ocelots at zombies
while being safe
in their pyjamas on the sofa
surely I can
make magic too.

Afterbirth

image

The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
cannibalism:
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.