Mothering in Ramadan can be difficult without support. And it’s not just the demands of children, work, cooking, family or guests that can effect a mother’s participation — but also the immense personal pressure to find and create time for worship. Especially during the last 10 days when moments of solitude are at a premium for people to really focus on prayer, Qur’an and dhikr.
In our second post in this ongoing series on motherhood and Ramadan, I offer some thoughts on the larger social and religious constructions that can prevent mothers from enjoying a more fulsome spiritual experience and look at the benefits of empowered mothering.
Three dessert spoons break into a molten chocolate lava cake — satiny, near-black cocoa ganache spills out, mixing with raspberry coulis swirls and vanilla ice cream. Savouring the moment and sighing into our coffee cups, we soon start laughing over a shared love of decadent sweets.
I’m sitting with two other mothers — one from Yemen, the other from Kenya — reuniting after a long time at a cafe in Kuwait. We have seven children (and one on the way) between the three of us. In a rare moment we’re finally alone together without our kids to distract us (except for a new sleeping baby and Ivy who is occupying herself quietly with a snack). After getting caught up on each other’s lives, I direct the conversation toward experiencing Ramadan and the delicate balance between the demands of motherhood, family and personal spirituality.
A pregnant Samiya complains that she barely has time to read the Qur’an. She’s feeling divorced from Ramadan this year because she is not fasting — and with a house full of visiting relatives, she often finds herself in the kitchen. Today her back and sciatic nerve pain is especially bad and she wishes someone would simply offer her a seat so she can relax and focus on herself, her prayers and the growing baby. She’s really hoping to attend Qiyaam-al-Layl, the night prayers, with the other adults in her favourite mosque during the last 10 days of Ramadan, but will probably end up praying at home. That is, if the kids cooperate and go to bed on time. “Alhamdulillah, caring for children is a form of worship,” she sighs.
Bushra has a slightly different outlook and experience this Ramadan. She has somehow found the strength to fast, despite breastfeeding her new son and running after her two other children. And while God has blessed her in this regard so she can enjoy the act of fasting — she is especially looking forward to what comes next, when her children are old enough to look after themselves. Right now, she’s trying not to stress too much about doing any extras and is just concentrating on her children. But she won’t be caring for little ones forever and needs a plan for the future. When I ask her about what she intends to do when that time comes, she says simply, “Ibadah.” Worship.
Then she reminds us with a serious intensity:
O you who believe, let not your wealth and your children divert you from remembrance of Allah. (The Qur’an 63:9)
There is so much emphasis on the elevated position that mothers hold in Islam, that we’ve created a culture taking the institution of motherhood for granted.
“Heaven is at the feet of the mother” and “obeying your mother is a form of worship,” are beautiful messages that are frequently drilled into every child and used as soundbites, selling a positive image of women-as-mothers in Islam. The Qur’an extols all believers to honour their parents, specifically mentioning mothers with regards to the struggles of pregnancy and early child care. In fact, the Qur’an makes a point to spell out that both parents should be treated well because birth and weaning are difficult for women.
But when it comes to the discourse on women’s participation at the mosque, performing supererogatory acts of worship during Ramadan, or simply being able to pray her required prayers, the verse quoted above is often overlooked. Mothers are told that they worship through the care and upbringing of their children. And while yes, caring and nurturing children is a form of worship, so is smiling and sleeping. In fact, any wholesome act is an act of worship with the right intention.
Willingly or not, women often sacrifice aspects of their spirituality in order to support the family. A sacrifice that in turn, is supported by a religious culture based on patriarchal standards. Most likely created by a conflation of several concepts, including the innate role of women-as-mothers, men-as-maintainers, and the elevated status of mothers, the discourse teaches that if a mother simply “mothers,” it should be enough worship for her. That even if her soul longs to pray in congregation on Laylatul Qadr, she should be patient and happy that her reward is in wiping spaghetti-stained faces.
Many mothers and their children are banished from the main prayer spaces — only to pray in loud and hot “children’s rooms.” Women are targeted as the sole caretakers of children in the mosque. Mosques hold special Ramadan events during times when mothers will probably be busy with their infants or are cleaning up after iftar. Pregnant or nursing mothers who choose not to fast may feel isolated from Ramadan festivities and may be relied upon to prepare elaborate meals while caring for multiple children — and then “mother” even longer to allow fasters the extra time to worship late into the evening. As if not fasting somehow absolves women from participating in any other rituals and community events during Ramadan. Women’s “double duty” then requires them to make up these fasts alone — again, while mothering.
Socially, the value of “the mother” can become burdensome. Single women are pressured to marry before they are “past their prime.” Once married, guilt trips are readily arranged for those who cannot or choose not to have children. Community pressures include body policing those who wish to nurse their child over two years. Women are made to feel like they are defying God by working outside the home. While some find reward and community in the kitchen, others do not — finding the hours spent in the kitchen to be time wasted. Women also enable others to become spiritually greedy — sacrificing and martyring their own spiritual needs.
The entire, complicated discourse surrounding the elevated image of “the mother” and her spirituality overlooks the reality of blended and interfaith families, stay-at-home-dads, working mothers, single parenting and intentionally or not, works to prevent the full spiritual participation of women. If the task of mothering was valued as highly as the ideal we place upon the image of “the mother” — then perhaps we would have a stronger infrastructure that supported mothers without question.
Having an infrastructure that values and empowers mothering means that everyone shares the burden of child-rearing to help promote “spiritual equality.” It means that the acts of nurturing and family responsibilities aren’t easily deflected, devalued or put only on one person to maintain. It means removing psychological and cultural barriers that stereotype mothers, women and family norms. It means positively supporting mothers in breastfeeding, pregnancy, education and work-life balance.
It means holding Taraweeh at home if that’s what helps everyone in the family experience the rewards of communal prayer. It means live streaming events from the mosque if that’s what helps more people benefit from traditional knowledge. It means including families in the Ramadan schedule, like organizing a special parent-child i’tikaaf. It means removing barriers so fathers can enjoy and instruct their children. It means means establishing and promoting “family friendly” and “child friendly” mosques. It means changing the geography of the mosque to include spaces for those who want solitary worship and shared family experiences. It means so very much to the women and mothers who crave community and access to spiritual development.
Not everyone has the benefit of relying on an extended family. Not everyone wants to find solace or support in their community. Many feel positively that strict divisions of labour along gender lines is what works best for them, their family, and their spirituality. Husbands, uncles, brothers, sons and grandfathers work hard to support their families monetarily, socially and spiritually. Individuals approach God in unique and beautiful ways. But as we saw in the reaction to Asiah Kelley’s amazing post on Mothering Spirituality, women and mothers are feeling spiritually alienated and isolated.
Recognizing this issue cannot simply be solved by guilting mothers into accepting a status quo that isn’t supporting their faith. We need to learn how to negotiate family responsibilities, create truly inclusive spaces for women and mothers in mosques, and develop patience to find self-worth in the small actions of motherhood that can bring us closer to God. Because everyone can benefit from empowered mothering.