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.
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