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 the patina can gently fade; how familiarity breeds contempt (or at least disdain); and how easy it is to feel disconnected, and further and further away, from the person who should be closest to you, physically and emotionally.

Despite this, there’s always been a part of me that’s admired those couples who stay together (in a relationship that’s worth saving); who understand it’s 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.

On love: For the odd couples and the free spirits and the ones who never thought they’d make it

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My husband and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary this month, after some four and a half years, and one child, together. To the average person, this isn’t a big deal. To a commitment-phobe like me, it’s a lifetime—and it’s also a milestone I never thought we’d reach.

I don’t write about us very often, partly because I think it’s tempting fate—I’ve seen too many couples express their undying love on social media only to break up a short while later—and partly because I still remember what it was like to be single and lonely, (which wasn’t all my singledom, but a good chunk of it), and how smug PDAs can seem when you’re in that place. But the fact we’ve survived for as long as we have—and grown closer together rather than apart—amazes me as much as it must amaze those around us.

The truth is this: My husband, though a wonderful, kind and very attractive human being, is probably the last person in the world I expected to celebrate this milestone with. We are, in every sense of the word, an odd couple. There is a considerable age difference to begin with—he is significantly younger (I won’t say how much, but it’s in the double digits). We come from different cultures—I am British Indian and he is Egyptian. We are different religions—I am a lapsed Catholic—he is Muslim. His first language is Arabic; mine is English.

And we are also vastly different human beings. He is a personal trainer (which is actually how we met, but that’s another story), a generally upbeat man-of-the-body who can’t stay still for long, who loves his action movies, a man of few words in social settings, who likes silly comedies and sweet cartoons, rarely reads a book, loves house music, will eat pretty much anything, and can’t handle what he would call ‘depressing’—and I would label ‘thought-provoking’—movies. (We once watched a relatively anodyne Hollywood flick at home, which ended on a bit of a downer; he had to go to his favourite club immediately after to dance, just to get it out of his system).

I, in stark contrast, am a coffee-drinking, wine-loving writer and editor, a former journalist and smoker (he has never enjoyed either wine, caffeine or nicotine), who has always loved reading and poetry and film of all kinds (I studied film and literature at university). I love a diverse selection of music (but not house), follow current affairs keenly, relish history and deep conversations with friends, would secretly consider myself a bit of a foodie, and am probably happiest, at this point in my life, curled up on the couch with a good book, or watching a film I love—in essence, being still. I also have a penchant for melancholy and a tendency to cry at sad stories and films.

These differences have been the source of much agony and soul-searching over the years—predominantly on my part, since I have a tendency to over-think everything—as well as long searching conversations with close friends. At particularly troubled times, when I’ve convinced myself that two such different people couldn’t possibly have a future together, I‘ve also done what every other angst-ridden person in love probably does these days and consulted Google: Can relationships with younger men from profoundly opposing backgrounds, and with almost comically varied tastes, actually work?

The answer has nearly always been a big fat resounding ‘no.’

But I’m here now to tell you otherwise. I’ve learnt a lot about love over the last few years. One of the things I’ve learnt, for example, is that what you long for on paper may not actually be right for you. When we met, I’d reached a point in my life where I was happy to be single. If you’d asked me what I was looking for in a possible partner, I was fairly sure I knew. It would have been an older man, smart and funny, perhaps an intellectual, not necessarily conventionally attractive but someone well travelled with plenty of life experience, who was also fairly settled in life in terms of his career and life choices, as I am.

For the longest time after my husband and I got together—after he’d wooed me, incidentally, in the sweetest, gentlest way—I still held on to that ideal. I looked with envy at other couples that seemed on paper to be perfectly matched, who talked of coup de foudres and undying love and the certainty of a lifetime together. They had joint friends and joint bank accounts and joint interests, so the practicalities of making a life together seemed simple. Choosing a film to watch on the couch together of an evening, for example, didn’t result in tense negotiations or stand-offs, and an inevitable compromise–usually by me, since I do actually like action movies, while my husband simply couldn’t stomach the latest depressing French art house flick.

(On the plus side, I have a whole new appreciation for The Fast and the Furious movies, Vin Diesel, and the Rock : )

We, on the other hand, had few things that held us together. I couldn’t share a favourite poem with him, or my more maudlin music, or a great cup of coffee, or my political musings, or my peculiarly British sense of irony—though I did it anyway. I didn’t always feel connected, or like he was my soul mate, or my other half, or all the other things you’re supposed to feel. What I did find, however, was that he made me laugh—a lot. He was remarkably easy to live with. We communicated about the things that bothered us. He came home every evening with the biggest smile on his face. And he gave me the best and sweetest cuddles.

I told myself—and him—one thing: I would stay in the relationship for as long as it made me happy, since I’d fought too hard to give up my freedom for anything less. And from the very beginning, he did make me happy—in ways I didn’t expect and that slowly melted my cynical, lovelorn heart. When I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, he’d pick me up and carry me gently to bed. When I had a pancake evening for friends, he spent most of the evening in the kitchen making the pancakes. When my freezer was iced up, he spent most of another evening diligently de-icing it. When we had a squabble, I came home to find a fruit salad in my fridge topped with yogurt and a heart shaped out of nuts. At other times, he’d say nothing but just lie next to me and squeeze me extra hard, as if he’d never let me go.

My husband didn’t over promise and under deliver. The biggest advantage of dating a non-verbal man, I discovered, is that it isn’t about what he says, but about what he does. We didn’t spend hours—much time at all, in fact—either dissecting our relationship or discussing our future. We just went with the flow. It helped too that my closest friends and family loved him straight away—and they loved him for me especially. They saw past our differences to the essence of our relationship—that we were good for each other, and that his solidity and kindness would temper me and curb my existential malaise.

What I’ve learnt now is that you can overcome any number of practical differences if you have the basics sorted. If you still like and fancy each other, after all the time you’ve spent together. If you can make each other laugh—which comes in handy when you’re wiping up your child’s explosive poops in the wee hours of the morning. If you respect each other and don’t try to change, diminish or possess the other. If, and this is especially important, you can fight fair. If you’re kind and respectful with each other’s friends and family. If he holds you when you’re sad and gives you one of his extra-special tight hugs when he senses you need it. If he can cope with you at your worst. And if the two of you make time for each other, so you continue to grow together, rather than apart.

Those are the things that count, not your income levels or ages or interests, or even that you speak the same language.

We are not a perfect couple but I’ve learnt that perfection—especially in relationships—doesn’t exist. Your feelings will ebb and flow, and that’s ok. You will never see eye to eye on everything. You will drive each other crazy at times. You will wonder what the hell you’re doing with each other at others. Longstanding issues will continue to rear their ugly head. Unexpected life events—like an unplanned pregnancy, for example—will test you to your core, and force you to redefine and renegotiate the parameters of your relationship and your future together. There will be tears and arguments and petty quarrels.

But you will also discover that love isn’t in the flowers and the poetry and the love songs and sweet nothings you whisper late at night. Love is in the cracks and the corners, in the places where the light doesn’t reach, in the things that aren’t said, the tiny gestures, the banality and mess of daily life, the pull of forces beyond your control that keep you together, despite the voices that tell you ‘this cannot work’ – ‘give up.’ It’s when you wake up one day and realise that you can’t imagine your life without the person lying next to you, and that this crazy, coincidental relationship—where both of you were just going with the flow—has suddenly become more serious and stronger than you ever imagined.

This is our love story, and I am grateful for it. Happy anniversary, my love.

Depending upon the kindness of strangers

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Noah and I made it to Cairo from London safely last night.

I travelled the world by myself some years ago. I went whitewater rafting down the Zambezi below Victoria Falls – with a lifejacket since I couldn’t swim. We also bush safaried on the Zambezi with lions and crocs and hippos around us and I was ok. I abseiled on some insane boot camp in Scotland a few years later, crying all the way – note to self, death-defying stunts rarely change your life or suddenly imbue you with the courage to fulfill your dreams – and I made it through somehow.

But travelling alone with an infant for the first time is, without doubt, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. The sheer logistics of it – packing for a five-month old, negotiating Heathrow’s complex liquids rules (how much milk?), going through security with your baby in a new stroller you’ve only just got the hang of while juggling his overstuffed changing bag and (stupidly) a carry-on case, all while trying to make it to your gate on time (parents travelling solo get no kind driver to whizz them there – I asked) is enough to drive the most measured of us to insanity.

Granted, I made several rookie mistakes (do travel light and make sure you understand how your stroller works beforehand) but I made it through, mainly – as Blanche Dubois says in Streetcar – because of the kindness of strangers. I’ve said this before but I’ve never felt more vulnerable than when I was pregnant and than I do now, as a still-new mother. Whether it’s a hormonal shift or the weight of caring for a precious little life or the endless daily challenges of new motherhood, I am raw and open and exposed like never before.

So, while thankfully my child was a trooper, I was a nervous wreck – if I could have taken a moment to sob quietly in the toilets, I would have. Crowded places like airports can be terrifying if you’re vulnerable for any reason. But for every person who rushed past us, there were others who stopped to help, and this is an ode to all those lovely people whose little acts of kindness made our lives easier yesterday.

To the wonderful woman in security in Heathrow Terminal 2 who held Noah for me and talked to him as I tried to close his stroller, and the woman on the other side who put all my things together as I tried to put him back in, thank you. To the man in Boots who let this harried mum buy his milk without making her delve for her boarding pass (‘because parents have enough to deal with”), thank you. These are not places where I expected kindness and your actions moved me to tears.

To the woman also travelling with her child on the same flight – but not encumbered by bags like me – who offered to go ahead and tell them I’d be late – and then helped me put his stroller away at the gate, thank you. To the lovely family I sat next to on board who gave me lots of tips and held Noah for me when we disembarked so I could gather our things, thank you. To the man on the other side who joked with Noah, the couple behind me who got my bag down from the overhead bin and carried it out, and then the Egypt Air steward who wheeled it to immigration for me, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I have struggled with vulnerability and asking for help my whole life but I now rarely have a choice, so these little acts of kindness mean more than you will ever know. Sometimes we hold back from offering help because we’re shy or embarrassed or don’t want to intrude (as a Brit, I get that). But kindness, in whatever form – whether it’s an encouraging smile or holding the door open for someone or letting them go ahead in a queue or helping a struggling mum find her feet – is one of the few things in life that costs nothing but can be absolutely transformative.

As the saying goes: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.