Guilt seems to be an integral part of modern motherhood. It sometimes seems that no matter what you do, you are not good enough as a mother. Stay at home mothers sometimes feel they miss out on things they want to do and are accused of living through their children, going into overkill mode with every birthday party and milestone, turning their children into spoilt, selfish little monsters. Working mothers feel stretched between so many roles and are accused of not committing enough time and attention to their children, leaving them psychologically damaged in some way.
Of course most of the above are generalisations and point to extreme examples which seem to have become popular stereotypes. It appears we allow ourselves to make mistakes as human beings, we accept that we are flawed. Yet as mothers we don’t give ourselves that permission. Perhaps because we believe that the stakes are so high — we believe that any mistakes in the way we raise our children will impact the rest of their lives. Perhaps because we believe that we only get the one chance; time moves so fast and they are soon grown.
These anxieties and others mean that for all mothers, but perhaps particularly working mothers, a feeling of guilt far too often rears its head. Add to this a third factor of faith. Islam gives women the right to educate themselves, to work to conduct business, to own their own property and to manage their own money. To modern women these would seem like rights we should have anyway — why should we have to resort to a religion to justify these? However, think of the lives of women in most of the world outside of the west and throughout history and you might get an idea of how valuable it can be for women to have these rights enshrined clearly in religious law. Even today, Muslim women have to remind themselves of these rights when faced with criticism of the way they choose to live, especially where they contrast with community norms.
I consider myself a religious Muslim. Most of the women I know from the same community — whether Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali or English, do not work. Many are educated women who have made the choice either not to work or leave their jobs. Islam emphasises that a woman’s most important role is that of a mother. She can work and study, but her children are her first priority (much the same as non-Muslim mums I guess). For some people in my community, a Muslim woman that works is sometimes seen in a very negative light.
I had a friend once ask whether it was difficult to work with children. I said yes and no and explained my arrangements — making sure my kids are well taken care of in my absence by other family members, working hours that mean I can see more of them and turning down many career and development opportunities to dedicate more of my time and effort to them (and happily so). My friend insisted that this was terrible for my children and looked at me pityingly. I had to consciously stop myself from feeling like a villain when I explained the kids were fine and actually when I spent a whole day with them I was usually much more exhausted, and often a bit more irritable than when I was at work for part of the day. The way we are organised, both my husband and I spend part of the day with them. She wasn’t convinced. Despite being educated and modern, she still believed as a Muslim that it’s shameful for the father to be doing things like changing nappies. She is not the only one. Family and friends have made snide comments about my husband pushing prams, which I found beyond pathetic as I am so proud of the fact that he is so involved in his children’s lives.
Some time ago I had a conversation with my neighbour, who could not understand the idea of a woman working if she could at all afford to stay at home — it’s just sheer greed isn’t it? I recall meeting a lady during hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia) who asked me about myself: how many children did I have? What did I do? When I told her she slapped her wrist and said, “You have your priorities sorted then.” I spent half of my hajj moping and feeling terrible, thinking I must leave my job. Later during the hajj, I met an amazing businesswoman from my home town. I talked with her about what was bothering me and she gave me a telling off. She had five daughters, a doctor, a lawyer and three at university, all lovely girls (three were in our group). She had worked since she came to the UK doing tough market work and had made her daughters work with her, even rebuilding her business following bankruptcy. Her lawyer daughter had faced the same dilemma as me and left her job after the birth of her first child, only to realise she couldn’t sit at home. She found employment again, but not at the same level she had left. The love and respect her daughters had for her and their good manners were enough to convince me that there was nothing wrong in working.
Funnily enough, I have always got the most support from older women like my grandmother who warned me against leaving work. To rural women like her, raising children was not the intensive, focussed endeavour we have made it, it was something that just happened alongside everything else that had to be done — bringing in the harvest, taking care of the livestock, taking care of the community. In her youth, women worked alongside the men and took care of the “women’s work” as well and this earned them the respect of the men-folk.
To my mother and grandmother, the idea of staying at home as a mother is something that was not envisaged. Even my mother, whom my dad discouraged from working outside the home, spent 20 years working at home as a machinist.
This is not to denigrate those women who stay at home with their children at all; itâ€™s just an affirmation for those who chose to take care of their children and work, whether by necessity or choice. Even many of those who do term themselves stay-at-home mothers are busy with home-businesses, studies, community work or halaqas (Islamic study circles), after all our brains don’t suddenly switch off when we have children. Our creativity and talents remain and our faith doesn’t say that we must lock them away. Nor do I intend to live through my children. I have my dreams and they have the right to theirs.
So when the guilt starts sneaking back, I think about this: my grandmother and her spinning wheel and sickle, my mother bent over her sewing machine to ensure her children didn’t miss out on the good things and my faith’s emphasis on a woman’s right to retain her independence alongside the child’s right to have his or her needs satisfied.