Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: On Lockdowns, Endings, and New Beginnings

It was a year alright. An intense, crazy, unprecedented rollercoaster of a year. Thousands of words have been written about 2020 and many more will be written for years to come, including strange new ones—social distancing, lockdown, pandemic. When I look back, certain images come to mind. I remember March particularly, just before the impending lockdown—more and more people in masks, longer and longer queues in the supermarket, a sense of foreboding/anticipation that reminded me of another country a decade ago, a revolution of sorts, and the same collective inkling that life would never be quite the same again.

The lockdown, when it happened, unleashed a tsunami of emotions—a personal reckoning—as it must have for so many of us. Ironic because my life, in its essence , changed very little. (Perhaps when a global pandemic and lockdown don’t actually impact your life very much, it’s a sign there are things that need to be addressed : ) My social life, for reasons too complicated to explain, was non-existent anyway. But in the absence of choice, life was now condensed to its bare essentials—eat, sleep, and repeat, with a walk in between if you were lucky.

Something about this reckoning prompted great waves of grief, of mourning what could have been, or should have been, or would have been. For the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping—and the wee small hours of the morning are a terrible time to be awake. But gradually life settled into its new rhythm, as it always does, and that new normal highlighted my privilege, even as it laid bare all the terrible inequalities of our world. Never let it be said that the pandemic was a great equaliser: There were those for whom it offered a chance for a quiet reset, and those whose lives were brutally torn apart, and I fell squarely in the former category.

For the first time in my life, I was grateful for suburbia and grateful that we had moved back home to be with my mother so she would not be alone, now of all times. I learnt a new appreciation for quiet deserted streets, for stillness, for simple routines and old-fashioned pastimes, like jigsaw puzzles with a child. I discovered a love for walks in sunny fields and tree-laden woods. In spring and summer, we took Noah to ones we discovered near us; him on his little red bike, me usually striding ahead, Sherif taking up the rear; stumbling as I tried to name the trees and the flowers and convey the beauty of nature to my son.

(On one gorgeous late spring afternoon, we stumbled upon fields of rapeseed and I remember feeling a glimmer of what journeyers of old must have felt when they discovered new land. Fields of gold—bright yellow, vibrant, the stuff of life itself. And just beyond this, a stark simple cedar tree, bisecting the field like a painting, which became known as Mama’s tree by Noah. Once we passed two men on our way there, skirting past them to allow them the required social distance, except for Noah who strode up to them with all the exuberant confidence of a 3-year-old. “This is my Mama,” he said. ‘We’re going to see Mama’s tree.” )

I discovered a new love for my husband, or perhaps I simply rediscovered the love I’d had for him, which had become frayed after a few intense years of traversing continents and child-rearing and lives being lived largely apart, of the simmering resentments of raising a child together but feeling like the burden is largely yours. Suddenly, thrust together again, we learned to be together again and that we still—largely—liked each other; the prelude to rediscovering love, tempered by life and babies and house moves and bills, but love, nonetheless.

So, I cannot claim, all in all, that 2020 was a terrible year for me. There have been worse, more traumatic, more intense, even more dramatic years—the year I lost my sister, or the year I lost my father, when I discovered I was pregnant unexpectedly, the year of revolutions I lived through in an ancient land. I came through this year largely unscathed, still with things to celebrate. Even as we Brexited, the world could finally say goodbye to Trump. Even as the headlines remained grim, I could finally have a conversation with my child, after months of worrying about his ‘late’ development.

I know the world has changed—is changing—and if you are one of those who has suffered this year, who has experienced loss—of a loved one or love itself, of a job, a home, a dream, a friend—my heart goes out to you. Know that you are not alone and that perhaps these changes will contribute to a better world, now that we have been unable to hide from the often-grim reality of our present one. In truth I have learned—as the saying goes—that the more things change, the more they remain the same. But still, I hope—for a better world, a slimmer waist, more joy, more happiness, more equality, less suffering. I hope, I hope, I hope.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer, said Zora Neale Hurston. I hope 2021 is a year that provides answers and some balm for our weary souls, that is less challenging, less demanding, and that allows us all to reset – better, stronger, wiser.

Happy new year to you all – with love ❤️

So long. Goodbye. Adios.

I didn’t allow myself to think about the election too much until almost right before it happened – because the thought of a Trump victory, along with the lockdown and all the other crap going on in the world right now, would have been too much to bear. Four years of unleashed hatred, divisiveness, cruelty, cronyism, nepotism, racism, partisanship were bad enough. Four more felt like our world would move in a direction it would be impossible to return from. Despite the polls and predictions for Biden, we’d learned that with this president anything was possible. Those of us who disagreed with him and his crass shoddy world view had learnt to tamp down our hopes and dreams, to expect the worst rather than the best from our fellow humans, and to forego our dreams for a better world, because they seemed impossible at best, naïve at worst.

So, like so many of you, I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief at the result – almost as if we were collectively holding our breath over the last few days – because what happens in America inevitably trickles down to the rest of the world and because really nothing more than the future of our collective morality was at stake. Basic decency, kindness, compassion, fairness, grace – these should never seem like old school values, least of all in our political systems. Whatever you think of Biden, he was exactly the candidate that America – and the world – needed over the last three days. His measured calls for patience and unity eased a terrible, volatile situation, even as Trump did his absolute best to incite civil war.

I know there’s a lot to be done and there are divisions now that will take a very long time to heal – if ever – and that too many people were still prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Trump may have unleashed forces that will have a lasting impact on the fabric of our society for years to come. But for now, I’m savouring the moment and hoping the last four years will soon feel like the aberration they were – a collective nightmare that fewer and fewer of us will want to return to, because we know we can do better and be better, and we know our children deserve better too.

Adios Donnie. The world’s a better place without you.

A big (and slightly belated) Happy New Year!

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

– Neil Gaiman


2019 took me to the edge and back; parts of it were among the toughest of my life: Caring for an elderly parent and a feisty toddler simultaneously; adjusting to a new life after a decade away; trying to find adequate care for a child also struggling to adapt; attempting to find myself again amid the chaos.

Somehow, it got better—a much-needed holiday in India, a renewed fitness drive, a child gradually coming into his own, and the chance to welcome in the new year here in Holland with some of my dearest friends.

So I’m going into 2020 renewed—with the same resolutions I always make (and that I mostly failed at again this year)—to eat better, exercise more, write more—but also to give more, to ‘be the change I want to see in the world.’

I’m raising a glass in the meantime to all of you—to the challenges and experiences—and setbacks—that keep us alive, and the friends and family—and colleagues—that make it all worthwhile. To another year and all the opportunities it brings with it—may it be a good one.

Happy 2020 to you all! 

To My Son, On His Third Birthday




And today, just like that, you are 3.

To be a mother—to be your mother—is to feel a love that is visceral and tangible and infinite, that consumes me and terrifies me and worries me, but also humbles me, delights me, and makes my heart soar. You are my greatest challenge, my greatest fear, my greatest gift, my greatest joy, and my greatest love.

Our journey hasn’t been easy. You have a will and a personality all of your own. You are determined and stubborn beyond belief, eccentric, already marching to the beat of your own drum. For the longest time, you called me Noah—as if we were still one person. You didn’t start speaking in sentences until just over a month ago, which meant many, many tantrums as you struggled to express yourself, and some serious concerns. The last few months have pushed me to the edge and back—they don’t call it the terrible twos for nothing.

But today, as we reach your third birthday, you are coming into your own again and you are nothing short of a delight—though as strong-willed and stubborn as ever. You chatter incessantly now—my heart still leaps every time you call me ‘mama’.  You dance a happy dance when you’re excited, say hello to everyone, are fearless and wondrous and excited at the world around you. You give hugs freely, have a smile that lights up the universe, and more than enough energy to fuel it for a day or two. You tire me out and give me purpose, all at once.

When I wrote about your first year, I wrote about the paradox of motherhood and it is the paradoxes that still fascinate me. I am on the cusp of my 50th birthday now, 30 pounds heavier than before my pregnancy, with a sheaf of new white hairs and tell-tale circles around my eyes. My life revolves around you. I haven’t read a book since you were born, because I used to read mostly at night and our bed has been invaded by you. I struggle to write. My spare time is spent thinking about what you need to eat or do or learn. When I go out shopping, I shop for you, first and foremost.

And yet, for all of the rawness and exhaustion of these early years, for all that I have lost in myself, there is so much to enjoy in witnessing your growth and seeing the world anew through your eyes. In being able to comfort you, and kiss your hurts away, and advocate for you, and protect you. One day you will be easier to manage, I know, but growing up will also mean growing away from me. One day, I won’t be able to shield you from pain or fulfil all your needs or make decisions for you, and that will be a necessary part of your growing up.

But you will always have my love. A writer I love once said: There are places in the heart you don’t know exist until you have a child. Thank you for illuminating this heart of mine, for extending its boundaries to places I was unaware of, for making it swell with unbridled love and tenderness, even if that process has made me more vulnerable than ever before. Thank you for making me laugh always and for allowing me to be silly, even at my ripe old age. Thank you, most of all, for being you. To be your mother is a privilege and a joy.

Happy birthday, my dearest Noah 

Happy 2019!




I make pretty much the same resolutions every year: Eat better. Exercise more. Write more. I failed miserably at all of them in 2018. I did, however, survive two of the most stressful experiences known to (wo)man – applying for a UK spouse visa for my husband (for those of you who worry about ‘migrants’, rest assured the process of securing such visa is insanely complicated, intrusive and expensive and it’s a bloody miracle anyone survives) and a house/continent move, from Cairo to England after a decade away.

Coming home, which I’d feared, has been surprisingly… right. It’s a cliché, I know, but sometimes it takes going away to really appreciate what you have, or at least to see it in new ways, plus it’s been a joy to be near my family. And this year I also embraced motherhood – or perhaps it’s embraced me – so much so that I can actually say I’m enjoying the heinous toddler years. My crazy kid makes me love and laugh a little more every day.

With all that in mind, I’m looking forward to 2019 – it’s a clean slate for new resolutions, mistakes, challenges, and friendships, and for consolidating old ones. To all of you who reach out, send messages, comment on posts – thank you. I’m not always great at responding but I appreciate it more than you know, because motherhood and working from home can make for quite an insular experience. Most of all, I wish you a wonderful and fulfilling new year. May you be more successful than me at keeping your resolutions (if you make them), may it be challenging in all the right ways, and may there be many, many opportunities for love, laughter and joy 

The brutal truth about relationships…

… is that they’re hard. I think I may have subconsciously avoided long-term relationships for this reason for most of my life. I used to tell people I couldn’t imagine anything worse than domesticity or the proverbial white picket fence, or the banality and routine—the grind!—of a long-term relationship or marriage.

Having been in one now for a good few years, I can tell you that parts of me still feel the same. In the first warm glow of love, you may think such feelings are impossible, but you’ll understand over time how that glow can gradually fade; how familiarity can breed contempt (or at least disdain); and how easy it can be to feel disconnected, and further and further removed, from the person who should be closest to you, physically and emotionally.

Despite all this, there’s always been a part of me that’s admired those couples who stay together (in a relationship that’s worth saving, of course); who understand the peaks and troughs are part of the natural order—the ebb and flow of all things; and who know it’s possible to find your way back, no matter how lost you may feel, if you both care enough and fight hard enough.

No one’s expressed this better for me than William Himes at Quora, whose answer  I wanted to share here:

What is the brutal truth about relationships?

You like somebody, you get to know them, you decide you’re compatible. This takes a different amount of time for everyone, but it’s usually not years. Then come the good days. You finish each other’s sentences. You judge your friends’ relationships for not being as healthy as yours. You promise to love each other forever.

Then one day you wake up and the infatuation is gone. You look at the person lying next to you and you don’t feel butterflies. You don’t want to jump their bones. You’d kind of like a day or two to yourself. And you pull away. You wonder if maybe you’re not compatible after all. You notice the way he always leaves his shoes right in the doorway and you’ve tripped over them eighty-five times. Or how she sometimes puts garbage on the counter above the garbage can. Just throw it in the can, damn it! It’s eight inches away!

You think, “Duty is an awful reason to stay with somebody. Just because I made a promise in the midst of infatuation doesn’t mean I need to keep it. She’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we don’t work together anymore.” And you break up. It’s the natural life cycle of a relationship. After going through it a few times, you come to a conclusion: humans, or at least you, aren’t meant to be eternally monogamous. Attraction dies after a while and relationships have this natural life cycle for a reason. Don’t stick with a relationship after the “love” is gone. It’s not right.

But another couple doesn’t break up. Another man says to his partner, “things aren’t working right now. Do you feel like we’re in a rut?” And she says “Yes.” And they say, “well, we promised to stick it out. Let’s try to do it.” And they go through the motions, even though the “love” is gone. He’s not feeling like planning a romantic date tonight. He’s tired and he wants to go to bed. But he cooks her favorite meal and goes on a walk in the local park. As they sit on a bench in the cool evening, she lies her head on his shoulder. He feels a single butterfly.

She’s thinking, “It’s sweet he made my favorite meal, I can try to be an attentive and affectionate date.” She puts away her smartphone. She knows he likes to watch the birds, and so even though she thinks it’s kind of dumb, she points out a hawk while she lies up against him. He smiles. She feels a single butterfly.

The idea of having sex, at least with each other, has been out of both of their minds for weeks, maybe months. After all, they fell out of “love.” But she figures, what the hell, it’s been a nice evening. We’ll see where things go. And he does too. And they have an even nicer evening.

He forces himself to listen to her work stories. She listens patiently while he tries to explain the problem he’s having with his program. They watch reality TV together even though she doesn’t like it, and then they decide to read a book at the same time and talk about it. He reads the damn thing, even though it’s one of those infuriating books with no plot. He admits he’s not into it, but he finds a couple nice things to say. She leaves a gift on his bedside when she gets up in the morning. They’re just going through the motions, even though they fell out of “love.”

And after a few months of this, they’re both happy. The butterflies, the infatuation, it comes and goes. Sometimes they’re just two people who live with each other and depend on each other. They do things they enjoy together, and things they don’t love together. They do things apart too, but always with the knowledge that somebody they care about is waiting when they get home.

And one day, he realizes the secret. They never “fell out of love.” “Falling out of love” is a dumb story people tell themselves to feel better about themselves. Sure, sometimes people reveal an entire personality they kept hidden during the opening stages of a relationship. Sure, some relationships turn abusive, or cold, or unendurable. But he was going to throw all of this away for a candy bar wrapper in the wrong place. She was going to throw all of this away for a second’s pause before entering her bedroom.

They were never out of love, because love isn’t something you fall into. It’s something you do.

A brief reflection on English, privilege, and power

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For all of my rich heritage – my parents come from a land which has 22 languages and more than 700 dialects, after all – I speak only one language, English, fluently. Arundathi Roy’s wonderful essay–What is the morally appropriate language in which to think and write? —has got me thinking about languages and their histories; the stories they tell and the maps they chart of our lives.

I’ve always called myself a native speaker of English, but my very first language was actually Malayalam – from Kerala in southern India, where I was born and spent the first two or so years of my life. I’d probably still be able to speak Malayalam if it hadn’t been immediately  subsumed by English when we returned to the UK (because my parents were told to speak to us only in English or they’d confuse us,  which was the thinking at the time). I’m wondering how different my relationships would have been with my home state, my extended family there–perhaps even my parents–if I’d been able to think and converse in their language.

I’m thinking that even after a decade in Egypt and an Egyptian husband, my Arabic could still sadly best be described as ‘functional’, and there’s so much I miss out on here  because of this (especially the humour, because the Egyptian sense of humour is priceless). I’m also thinking of the many layers of snobbery around English in Egypt (and probably many developing countries) – the casual mockery of those whose English is heavily accented; how, as a brown-skinned native English speaker, I can still confuse people; how I sat in a posh Cairo family club last week where every announcement was made in English, when everyone was speaking Arabic and I was probably the only native English speaker for miles.

And I think also of how different my life would have been if I weren’t a fluent English speaker – of how learning (good) English if you’re poor or disadvantaged or from a developing country can be an arduous, costly battle but is still vital to open doors. And how you can still distinguish the elite of almost any country by the quality of the English they speak (usually American- rather than British-tinged these days, sadly : )

The language(s) we speak, especially if you’re an immigrant/expat/third culture kid or in a developing country, carries so much political, socio-economic, cultural and also religious baggage – and sometimes so much privilege. It’s good to be reminded of this sometimes.

When you ask me what motherhood is like




When you ask me what motherhood is like, I wonder how I can ever convey it.

– I could tell you about the tiredness – the bone-crushing weariness that comes from too many nights of interrupted sleep and scrolling through your phone at 4 am while your baby feeds hungrily beside you. And of long days at the mercy of this sweet new tyrant, whose needs now surpass any of your own.

– I could tell you about the loneliness – a singular loneliness that comes from feeling trapped by the sheer logistics of moving with an infant; how it’s impossible to meet a friend for a coffee, or pop to the shops, or pay an impromptu visit to the cinema, as you once did. And that venturing outside now must be choreographed and planned with military precision.

– I could tell you that you will find yourself arguing with your significant other, or your mother, or anyone else close to you who participates in your care for your child.

– I could tell you that you will understand the fight for equality in whole new ways, and that no matter how good your man is and how hard he tries, the bulk of the emotional labour – and the care for your child, the running of your household while you juggle your job – will fall on you. Take this with a grain of salt – there are full-time and single fathers out there too.

– I could tell you that your body will feel different – whether you still have reserves of fat on your hips, or your breasts have changed in size or volume, or your stomach feels strangely squishy. But when you look at it, remember this body of yours grew and nourished another human being – it deserves kindness too.

– I could tell you about the guilt – perpetual, lingering – from all the different factions of this new tribe you now belong to (and beyond) – because you opted for a C-section, or you’re unable to breastfeed, or you’re the wrong age for your child, or you have to return to work, or there are things you are doing or not doing that will surely leave indelible scars for years to come.

– I could tell you about the loss – of your old life, your old self, of old friends, of time, of opportunities you are no longer able to grasp, because you are no longer – and perhaps never again will be – the priority in your life.

– I will tell you, though, about the joy – the pure, unfiltered, extraordinary joy (the privilege!) of watching a tiny human you helped create advance before your eyes, coo, babble, giggle, play with you, crawl, take their first faltering steps, reach for you with slow, chubby arms.

– And I will tell you about the love – the enormous bottomless pit of love you now feel that terrifies you in its infinity, that will enable you to cross deserts and slay dragons, that has broken your heart into a thousand pieces and stitched it back together in the finest softest yarn, shrouded in gossamer, so your heart, and how you love, and how you see the world, will never feel the same again.

Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself? 

Very well then, I contradict myself.

I am vast.

I contain multitudes.


This is motherhood.




On matters of life and death and dignity


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When my father was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumour eight years ago and admitted to a hospital in Barnet, I flew back from Cairo to see him, anxious and nervous. He was just about walking and talking at this stage, but clearly with more and more difficulty. We visited him every day, grateful for the wonderful team of nurses who fed and cared for him and the harried doctors who tried to keep up updated. When he continued to deteriorate, they told us it was time to move him to a hospice. He spent the last two weeks of his life in this beautiful space, a tiny oasis in the suburbs of North London, where the staff did everything possible to make him – and us – comfortable.

When I found myself pregnant with my first child two years ago, I flew back home to England once again and moved back in with my mum. Thus began a seemingly endless cycle of trips to my GP and midwife, and the hospital in Enfield (where my mother had worked as a nurse for many years, and my sister gave birth to my beautiful nieces two decades ago), for all of the routine scans, and a few extra ones. Once again, I was nervous and anxious, but once again, the quality of care and support I received saw me through. I had a complication-free pregnancy and delivery in the end, and I will always remember the amazing team of medical staff – so many people of all colours and ethnicities and religions – who made that possible.

I say all this because we celebrated 70 years of the National Health Service in the UK this week and I wanted to express my love and gratitude for this incredible service. It’s not a perfect system – I don’t think it can ever be – but what it represents, and what it offers its citizens, is truly remarkable. Because of the NHS, we are able to go through the most challenging parts of our lives – the stuff of life itself – births, deaths and everything in between – without having to worry about how much each stage costs, or the bill at the end. When you visit hospitals in the developing world and see the vast divide between poorly funded government hospitals and the few private ones offering decent care, or hear your American friends worry constantly about their health care options, you appreciate this fact even more.

For all of its much-publicised problems, I think the principles on which the NHS was based – the creation of a welfare state to provide healthcare, education, and support for all of its citizens, from cradle to grave – remain more, rather than less valid today. In our increasingly divided world, they seek to level the playing field, so that every child can grow up assured of the right to be looked after, if they need it. They remain the thing that binds us as a society and remind us of our common humanity – we are all born, we will all die, and we all deserve to live our lives with dignity.

I’ve seen too many people in other countries deprived of this right, and too many politicians now who try and argue this is a conditional right that needs to be earned. It isn’t, and it should never be. The right to live and die with dignity is perhaps the most fundamental right there is, which is something the NHS – with all of its complicated and occasionally cumbersome bulk – still strives to deliver. I, for one, will always be grateful. I hope, one day, this is a right that’s afforded to all.

Notes from the Motherhood Trenches: The First Year


Everything we did was a first: first bath, first walk, first drive in the car. It was like we walked into an alternate universe that looked just like the old one, but all the rules were different and we had to relearn how to live.

– Soleil Moon Frye


It is sometime in February in England and I am skipping—yes, skipping— to the cinema, cappuccino in hand, like a prisoner on day release, or a teenager skiving off school. I am off to see La La Land, on my first afternoon off after giving birth to my son in October. My sister is looking after Noah and I am giddy with excitement—at reconnecting with my old (first?) love—the cinema—and at having a few hours to myself, after weeks of focusing on a tiny new being.

Another memory: A frosty early morning in December, around 4 a.m., and I am sitting up in bed, bottle-feeding my son with one hand and editing an urgent brief for work on my laptop with the other, wondering sleepily how my life has come to this. I’m learning to do a lot of things one-handed these days. A sunny November afternoon a few weeks earlier, and I’m preparing to take my son out in his stroller for the first time. I’m terrified, almost as much as when I went to the hospital to give birth to him. I’ve tried to avoid using a stroller in favour of an eco-style wrap, but Noah’s a heavy bub and my body simply isn’t built for it. I am frightened both by the sheer logistics of taking my son out, and the fact that his pram symbolises to the world that I am now, officially, a mum.

Right back to the beginning: I am lying in a hospital theatre in North London, woozy from a spinal block, and the world is swaying slightly. It is around midday on October 24, 2016 and my son is about to be born—by an elective C-section—on the same date, incredibly, as my best friend’s son, in a hospital in Cairo, exactly seven years earlier. After months of trying to come to terms with this pregnancy and wondering whether, given my advanced years and despite a battery of tests, my child will be healthy, the moment of truth is here. Within what feels like minutes, I hear the wails of my son— loud, angry, determined. There is so much life in this cry. Relief overwhelms me and I feel my eyes welling up.


This is what I learn about motherhood—that like many of the biggest life events, it is both intensely profound and intensely banal at the same time. My son is a constant source of wonder. I still haven’t grasped the fact that I ‘grew’ this child in my tummy, that he is a product of my husband and myself and all our forebears, that he bears our genetic blueprint and yet is his own little person, that he evolves every day before our eyes. And yet this process of evolution, though miraculous, can also be profoundly tedious, involving long relentless days of nappy changes and feeds and bottle washing and baths and naps and drool, on what feels like a constant loop.

Intense is the word I use most often, when people ask me what it’s like. Every emotion is heightened. I spend the first few weeks of Noah’s life in a hazy, slightly surreal, but deliriously happy blur. Everything has gone better than I expected—I am lucky with my C-section recovery; my child, who is perfect, spends most of his time sleeping; and I am in awe every time I look at him. I read somewhere that having a child releases similar hormones to falling in love—for women anyway. Despite the bone-wrenching tiredness, I feel like I’m floating on air; my heart flutters every time I see him; love songs take on a whole new meaning; and there is a smile on my face and a softening in my heart that can only compare to being utterly, and completely, in love.

But when I try to write about my experiences of motherhood, I hit a block. I find I’m still struggling to comprehend the enormity of it all, to describe exactly how it feels. I feel an obligation to be completely honest, to ‘keep it real.” I want to avoid the cult of motherhood—the dreamy, idealised version of beautiful young mums; bodies already back in shape, beatifically breastfeeding cherubic infants. The reality is, of course, more complex. You may not be able to breastfeed, like me. Your stomach will feel like a lump of dough for the longest time. There will be poop—lots of it, explosive at times—and spit-up and projectile vomiting and frantic attempts to burp him at ungodly hours. Your bub will cry at times for no discernible reason, as will you. You will argue with your partner, also for no discernible reason. Sleepless nights and rioting hormones will play havoc with your emotions.

When I ponder later why it’s so important to me to write about the bad stuff as well as the good, I realise a big part of me feels guilty. I think about my friends and people I know who desperately want a child, but can’t have one. I didn’t seek to be a mother and I didn’t invest any time and energy in becoming one, and yet I have become one, despite myself. And so I hold back from celebrating my new status too much—it seems unfair. When I finally write a brief piece that I think is relatively light and send it to my sister for feedback, her response, after a long pause—and for the first time with my writing—is negative.

“It’s so dark,” she says, carefully. “Perhaps you could try and inject some humour in it?”


In late April in Cairo, as the season turns from spring to summer and the shadow of Ramadan looms, depression strikes. I am exhausted, from too many interrupted nights and a sleep deficit I wonder if I will ever remedy. My usually moderate workload has tripled because of a forthcoming event, and I’ve barely left the house in days. Most of my closest friends have long since left Cairo and I haven’t had the time to make new ones. Friends contact me from abroad but I never find the time to write or initiate a call. My husband, though supportive, works long hours, and it is exhausting to constantly renegotiate our relationship as new parents. I am lonely and tired and I miss my old life. One night, after I put my son to bed, I drink half a bottle of wine and listen to my favourite (maudlin) songs, and find tears rolling down my face.

I spend a few days like this but throughout it all, my love for my son, and my happiness when I see him, never dissipates. This is another truth about motherhood, I learn—it is a paradox. It is possible to feel intensely lonely, while realising that you will never be on your own again. It is possible to grieve your old life, your old body, the old you, and all the freedoms you took for granted, while taking absolute delight in your child and loving him like you’ve never loved before. The truth is that there is no greater change in a woman’s life—hormonally, practically, physically and emotionally—than giving birth. There is such a profound shift in your circumstances, and such a huge sense of responsibility for the tiny creature now dependent on you, that it is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed.

I read somewhere that the first year of motherhood is the loneliest, and the most crippling for your self-esteem, and I understand this. In my son, I have gained the world; yet as a new mother, I am more vulnerable, more emotional, less confident, less myself perhaps, than at any other point in my life. I suspect exhaustion has a lot to do with this. But I am also an accidental mother, singularly unprepared for this experience, a woman who has carved out her whole life on twin poles of freedom and independence. In this year, I often feel like I have neither.


But as much as the lows cripple me sometimes, the highs sweep me away also, on great clouds of sweet fluffy baby goodness. There is so much sheer joy in a child, of a different kind than I’ve ever experienced before. How do I explain the beauty of a baby’s babble to someone who has never heard it, the delight I take in the very first sounds he has decided to make? Or the rapture of every milestone we experience together—his first bath, his first smile, his first tooth, the first time he puts his hand in mine, or reaches for a hug, the first time he rolls over, the first time he says ma-ma, his first attempts to crawl or stand up. And most of all, his giggle—the ecstasy of a child’s uninhibited chortling, which is now my favourite sound on earth.

As much as I’ve cried in this first year—not just in my own life but at every terrible, sad story I hear or read about, because the process of giving birth also seems to loosen your tear ducts and leave your heart permanently exposed, so my already empathetic self is now so sensitive it hurts—I have laughed too. Because it is impossible to feel anything but joy when I see my son. Impossible not to try and make him giggle, as I go through my daily repertoire of silly sounds and made-up words and games of peek-a-boo. And impossible not to feel a new sense of contentment when I am alone with my husband and son—after years of struggle to imbue meaning into my life, there is a singular peace in reverting once again to a family unit.

As the seasons shift, and my son grows stronger and more resilient—as he literally begins to feel more solid in my arms—so, ironically, do I. It isn’t until Noah’s eighth month or so that I stop worrying that I will drop him every time I take him out of his car seat or carry him down the stairs (I always imagine the headlines in the paper the next day)—something I refrain from vocalising because I fear it will make me sound slightly crazed. And it is probably around the same time that I—mostly—stop checking to see if he is still breathing, if he hasn’t stirred for a while in his cot; the terror of SIDS haunts me. A friend jokes that if I manage to keep him alive his first year, I’ve done well. Another lesson I learn this year: Babies are much more resilient than we give them credit for.

And though I wish I could fit into my old jeans—I also rediscover chocolate this year, which means my love handles have yet to shift—and there are days when I have no time to shower, and my nails are a mess, and I stop wearing my favourite dangle ear rings and thank the universe daily for dry shampoo, my predominant emotion this year is actually gratitude. I am profoundly and incredibly grateful for my beautiful, funny, magnoon child with his cute Stevie Wonder head shake, and the fact that I get to share my delight in him daily with my husband and family. I am grateful that I have lived enough to not regret the things I can no longer do because of my child, because motherhood is all-consuming, to say the least. And I’m grateful that I’m old enough to be largely impervious to the judgments of others, though mum guilt is impossible to avoid completely, because there are so many opinions from every corner on everything.

But most of all, I am grateful that we have the resources to raise our son in the way we want—to feed him, and clothe him, and put a roof above his head, and give him as much love and security and as many cuddles as we possibly can. I cannot imagine having a child that I cannot make happy—the instinct to protect and love and nurture them is so overwhelmingly strong. In our increasingly fragile world, this seems like the greatest privilege of all.


Yet as this year of my son’s birth—the most profound of my life—draws to a close, I know I am no closer to coming to terms with the concept of motherhood itself. It is a word I still find incredibly loaded. There are mums and moms and mommies and yummy mummies and that very English fear of looking ‘mumsy’ (translation: frumpy—god forbid you actually look like a mum) and the fetishisation of MILFs, versus the sickly sweetness of Mother’s Day, or the various prescriptive cultural and religious tropes to wrestle with. I think sometimes that feminism has failed mothers; failed to reclaim and redefine motherhood for those of us who don’t want to be categorised, or defined by it; failed to convey just how much strength and resolve is necessary for the average mother to survive.

The process of becoming a mother this past year has been a baptism of fire—alternately terrifying and joyful, a privilege but also a burden, and searingly lonely at times, even if I’ve had to interact with society at large more than ever. Nothing has shaken my sense of self more, or tested my physical, emotional and mental health so profoundly. It has distanced me from some friends but brought me closer to others. I have always tried to avoid becoming hard but it has softened me even more, and increased my compassion and empathy. At the same time, I have discovered reserves of strength—both physical and emotional—that I didn’t know I possessed. As one of my favourite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, says, “Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”

And I am barely there yet—I have just one year and one child under my belt, and there are mothers all over the world who struggle with much more and survive and flourish. Or simply persevere, through the exhaustion, and the aches and pains, and the long days and nights, because they know something fundamental has shifted, and that for the rest of their life now they’ll be wearing their heart on the outside, hoping and praying and pleading with the powers-that-be to always keep their child healthy, happy and loved.

To all the mums out there—this one’s for you.