My recent post on creating a child-like Ramadan generated a lot of attention on Twitter and Facebook — with many commenting about the frustrating balance between motherhood and the sometimes unfair expectations placed upon mothers during Ramadan — usually at the expense of their spirituality. I thought it might be productive to create spaces where people could share stories, commiserate, debate or come up with plans of action to address the issue. Especially now that we’ve entered the last 10 days of Ramadan.
I’ve teamed up with the amazing Asiah Kelley, to explore some of the problems in the discourse on motherhood and Ramadan — which we’ll look at over the next two posts. Asiah Kelley is a fantastic person and mother and I am honoured to share her work with all of you. Please join me in welcoming her as she shares her thoughts and reflections on the importance of recognizing motherhood spirituality.
Ramadan is supposed to be the month of mercy. But for many mothers and wives, it can feel merciless. The work is unrelenting — food preparation, child care, house work, and all the while trying to fit in any act of worship possible.
Muslims start mentally and physically preparing for Ramadan at least a month ahead of time. The excitement builds as people think of all the food they will eat, and all the events they will go to. Young girls shop and prepare their outfits for the different parties they will attend. Boys think of the fun they will have staying up late nights with their friends, while sleeping it off the next day. But mothers? They just might tell you that Ramadan is met with a sense of dread. All the expectations — their family’s and their own, are hard to live up to.
Something has to give, and that something is usually the mother.
Ramadan crept up on me this year. My husband came home from the store with $45 worth of Gatorade, and I was more than confused until he said “For Ramadan? It starts next week.” I guess I knew on some level that it was coming, but had been ignoring it. In fact, I was dreading it. Since having my daughter two years prior I had slowly sunk into an iman hole. My faith was shot.
Ramadan wasn’t a welcome friend, it was a reminder of how bad of a Muslim I considered myself to be.
When you have a baby, everyone tells you how your life will change: your relationship with your spouse, your family, your career and studies, your body, the amount of time you have to yourself. But what no one tells you, what is rarely talked about in Muslim circles, is that motherhood will change your relationship with God.
While I was eight months pregnant, I remember attending Tarawih prayers and needing to sit in a chair to pray. That’s when a voice in the back of my mind started up: “I already can’t fast, and now I’m sitting in a chair to pray?” Snippets of Qur’an and hadith flew through my thoughts; “it is better to fast, if only you knew” and “a prayer standing is better than a prayer sitting.”
I knew that having my baby and nourishing her with my body and my time was an act of worship. And yet, weren’t those other things true too? Wasn’t there more I could be doing?
This is the time when the ghost of The Ideal Muslimah™ begins to haunt new mothers.
Numerous books have been written about the “Mommy Myth” — the idea of the perfect wife and mother. But Muslim women have one up on that — they have to deal with the model of The Ideal Muslimah™. She prays her obligatory prayers on time, and then follows them up with the maximum amount of voluntary prayers. She finishes the Qur’an once every 30 days, fasts Mondays, Thursdays and the 13th, 14th, and 15th of every lunar month. She has perfect hijab and fashion, but nothing too tight or immodest. She wears makeup and dresses up for her husband every day, never giving the angels an excuse to curse her. She has a fresh home cooked meal ready at 5:30 pm sharp, with her 10+ kids lined up clean and ready to eat. She volunteers at the masjid, studies Islam in her free time, and works from home to be able to contribute money to the household, which she does of her own free will.
And of course in Ramadan, she is doing all that PLUS MORE! Because who would want to loose out on all the extra blessing that the month brings?
If that’s the ideal, then it’s no wonder the reality can make women feel so spiritually destitute: living in pajamas, getting less than four hours of sleep on average, having no time to even use the bathroom, sacrificing sleep and getting up for fajr only to miss it because the baby is crying. Showers are a luxury and you wear spit-up like perfume so that your husband asks “why do you smell like cheese?” The house is a mess and the good intentions of cooking meals causes food in the fridge to rot while you eat your third take-out of the week.
So many mothers blame themselves when they don’t measure up to the ideal. What’s worse is that no one talks about this. Perhaps we are afraid that all our fears about being bad mothers will be confirmed. Additionally, it’s such a source of pride when other women think we have it all together, that we often don’t want to correct them on what really happens at home. So the myth is perpetuated and mothers continue to suffer in silence.
It’s not being compared to The Ideal Muslimah™ by others that hurts — it’s that mothers internalize this model, believing this is the only way we should be living. If only we were able to do everything perfectly, we would be happy, spiritually fulfilled, and feel God’s pleasure with us for striving in His way. When we compare ourselves to the ideal and lower the positive value of our own mothering models, iman can sink.
Having a baby can be the most life changing event in a woman’s life. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, it can be a very trying time. And yet for many new mothers, this is when she recieves the least emotional and spiritual support.
Most masjids are not set up to accommodate women, let alone women with children. Those that do, may not provide women with easy access to the imam, or have qualified counselors or chaplains available to talk to. When turning to scholars or teachers, whether through books or lectures, women with children are not the target audience. Mothers are just not seen as spiritual beings, with their own connection with God to nurture and tend to.
Traditional Muslim scholarly discourse pertaining to women tends to simply extol the virtues of her staying in her home and serving her family, which only aids in distancing women further from the community and the religion. Imagine a woman who has a hard time leaving her house — struggling to be able to attend Friday prayer in order to feel a connection to community — only to be sat in a closed off room, glared at if her children dare make a sound, and told that it’s better for her to pray in her home anyway. This type of thinking is hurting our women, their faith, and in some cases even their Islam.
Mothers sometimes begin to fall into iman holes: isolation from the community, disruptions and distractions during attempts at worship, and less solitary time, can lead to questions of how any of this is fair. How could a Just God prescribe a way of life that is impossible to live up to? How can we be mothers and still good Muslims?
The answer we are given is that raising and serving our family are our acts of worship, and that we are creating the next generation of believers.The good deeds of our children, and all their future generations will count on our behalf, so there is no need to worry about our own faith. In reality, when the mother’s faith is not supported, and she feels distanced from God, the faith of her children will suffer as well. We must start supporting mothers as spiritual beings in their own right, otherwise future communities of Muslims will feel the repercussions.
Ramadan is the perfect time to focus on the issue of motherhood spirituality. It is a month which is meant to intensify our worship, test our spirits and increase our connection to God. Mothers are often left out of the festivities of the month. They become the support staff, the carnival workers tasked with operating the rides and watching while everyone else has fun.
Often Ramadan ends, and instead of feeling closer to God through all the cooking and cleaning “worship” that is has been done, the result is resentment, guilt and sadness. God’s Mercy seems further away than before the month began.
We need to start thinking of mothers as spiritual beings, having religious needs that must be fulfilled. Communities have to start giving support to women in general, with care taken to make sure that those with children are not overlooked. Scholars and teachers need to address mothers directly and come up with better advice than “patience, your sons will honor you when they do great things.” Much of their advice, while based on Qur’an and hadith, is really just imported patriarchy repackaged as piety.
Above all, women and mothers need to realize that they have just as much right to connect with God as their husbands, children, and other family members do. God tells us that He created us to worship Him. There is no footnote in the Qur’an stating “except for women, who He created to make samosas and clean bathrooms.”
Women also need to change approaches to motherhood. The Ideal Muslimah™ is not an attainable model. Thinking of all you should do, will limit what you actually can do. Start thinking of ways that you, as a believer distinct from your family, can draw nearer to God.
Serving our families might always be part of our roles as wives and mothers, however, it should never be at the expense of serving God. We need to find ways to honor our faith responsibilities just as we honor our family responsibilities.
Motherhood should not prevent us from rising to the highest heights our souls can reach.