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

 

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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!

 

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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

 

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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.