Two little lips make fish kisses against my left cheek and a chubby fist reaches around to grab my right.

Allahu Akbar!

Looking down at Ivy’s delicious leg rolls, I can barely control the smile that breaks out on my face. She gooes in reply.

Allahu Akbar!

I’m back down in prostration to God, again receiving fish kisses against my cheek.

It’s the first time I’ve been able to pray in congregation all Ramadan — and it’s amazingly fulfilling to join everyone in the sunset worship.

But soon Eryn is running around us — pulling on headscarves and climbing on baba’s back. Our short dua’ after prayer is made even shorter to instruct Eryn on a better way to behave when the family prays together, and before I can even get into the rhythm of dhikr, I have to attend to a screaming Ivy who’s demanding her third meal of the evening.

If the fasters are disturbed by the noise of children, I don’t care. I spent the first week of Ramadan desperately trying to keep the babies quiet so the fasters could eat their date and pray the sunset prayer in peace. Then I’d pray after everyone started their iftaar — trying to concentrate on whatever peacefulness I could muster while attending to both girls. It was terribly isolating.

It’s hard feeling like you’re actually praying and not just going through the motions when you constantly have to keep your hyper toddler from smothering the baby. It’s hard practicing Ramadan when you’re not actually fasting.

Ramadan is special and festive. Not only is it challenging and rewarding to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, but the month itself is sacred and an opportunity to learn self-restraint, make spiritual goals, give in charity and celebrate with friends and family. The community bonds between Muslims seem strongest during this time.

I’ve always loved the austerity of the fast. There is more time to concentrate on prayer. There is more time to read the Qur’an. In fact, it’s played around the clock, and people make a greater effort to recite, read and memorize God’s word. The fast is not only restraint of one’s desire for food or drink, but also restraint of one’s speech, thoughts and actions.

Even if you’re busy with work, there is still more time to do any sacred, devotional act that speaks to your heart and soul — simply because there’s less time spent thinking about food and other mundane matters.

So choosing not to fast this year is actually making this the hardest Ramadan I’ve ever faced.

Remembering the smell of incense, feeling the presence of hundreds around me and hearing the Qur’an from my favourite reciter burns me with such an intense longing that I sigh audibly every time I think of attending taraweeh prayers. I yearn to break the sweetness of the fast by biting into a cool and intense date. The Qur’an is calling me — but I barely have the time to shower, let alone read or memorize. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother setting spiritual goals, especially when I can’t pray on time, or have the opportunity to pray with others.

Without the goal of the fast itself, this Ramadan looms over me like a massive mountain because I just don’t have the time for anything else.

Caring for the girls is eating up every spare moment I want to reserve for God. There is only so much Qur’an Eryn can take before she’s suddenly singing “Old MacDonald” while Mishary Rashed Alafasy regales us with my favourite surahs.

When I’m not feeding one, I’m putting the other to sleep. When I’m not changing diapers, I’m organising trips to the park, craft activities, cleaning and preparing meals. My shift starts at 5:30am and ends at 11:30pm — whatever break I get is usually reserved to pee, shower, brush my teeth, and squeeze in a rushed prayer. And Ivy has a particularly brilliant knack of wanting to cluster feed around the sunset prayer (my favourite).

It’s exhausting. Just as exhausting as fasting for 18 hours.

I know it won’t last forever. I chose not to fast *right now* because Ivy is only two months old — and as a breastfeeding mother I have the right to postpone my fast. As for prayer, eventually Eryn will outgrow this stage of theatrics and I can confidently take her to the mosque without fear of being shunned by members of the congregation. (Evening prayers are really, really late. Trust me. You don’t want me to bring my overtired, hyper almost-three-year-old to midnight prayers.) And when that day comes, I can stop sighing and longing.

Alhamdulillah I have a lot of help from family who are willing to hold or entertain the girls so I can pray — but praying in my room surrounded by baby toys and diapers is a completely different experience from incense and Turkish tiles.

So I’ve had to re-frame how I approach Ramadan.

I may not be participating in the physical fast, but there are plenty of things I can do to encourage the Ramadan spirit. This year I’m:

  • fasting from ill-mannered speech and thoughts
  • fasting from bad attitudes
  • trying to keep my anger in check
  • trying to be more patient
  • abstaining from True Blood
  • eating a date at sunset and loving it
  • making up Qur’anic stories to tell to Eryn
  • teaching Eryn how to give the call to prayer
  • negotiating child care so I can pray in peace (and on time) as much as possible
  • spending any sweet moment I can engaged in dhikr or reading the Qur’an
  • burning more incense.

I may not be able to make it to the mosque or experience the cleansing of the fast this year — but I can at least find peace, blessings and thankfulness to God in little, baby fish kisses.

Fasting or not, what are you doing to engage the Ramadan spirit this year?