The anatomy of a postpartum existential crisis

(This essay is a two-part series — part 1 of which explores certain adjectives a mother decides upon as an expression of her identity, and which compose the anatomy of my existential crisis during the second year postpartum.)

I read an article during the initial months after my son’s birth, something about how a new mother was privately important. But how lonely this private importance had the potential of making her feel, I have only come to understand over the past year.

My entire life, ever since I began to understand the apparent nature of the two roles, all I have ever wanted, ever dreamed of, ever fantasized right down to white-lace-curtained detail, is to have my own family — to be wife and mother.

Some sort of a professional career was always a given, and had certainly never been a gender-related issue growing up — I came from an educated family full of many a successful career woman. I was relatively intelligent, good in school (perhaps not so much at networking, but eager to learn and eventually acquired that knowledge as well), and had a comfortable enough time glorifying my meagre academic accolades during the interview process.

And despite the battered shape in which my domestically violent, abusive and traumatizing previous marriage had left me in, I still managed to carve out a decent career path, alongside and thereafter. Basically, I could care less about professional success in the long-term, and was unambitiously content making do, during my years in the workplace.

Wife and mother

My husband is a good, conscientious and thoughtful man, and my son is healthy, happy and as brilliantly slapstick as me — and this is all in the present, active sense. I have the best time every day, despite being gloriously mediocre at most of the things I am responsible for.

Having spent all these years in wretched persistence of a place called home, I am finally the sum of my biggest goal in life: I am wife (to a good man), and I am mother (to a healthy child). Learning every day and trying to proactively improve myself in those roles and all that, but — and I remember asking my reflection on the phone screen very clearly — how could this possibly be it?

Or rather, how could I possibly still be unfulfilled and so profoundly unsatisfied when everything I have ever wanted is all and entirely mine?

(Working professional) wife and mother

Previously, I have been quick to judge Muslim mothers going back to work in the early years of their child’s birth, especially when Islam places such particular emphasis on how psychologically and spiritually beneficial their presence is in both the short and long-term development of the child. Perhaps that all the favourite women in my comfortable and conventionally together life have been only the kindest and most loving mothers, alongside also staying at home, had something to do with it. But I understand now what could absolutely be one of the very many driving forces (besides obvious concerns such as financial instability and the like) behind the decision to go back to work however long after giving birth.

Did I want to go back to academic work from home? I tried it for a whirlwind six-month period and did not enjoy it — my pre-pregnancy efficiency was nowhere to be found, and everything from my relationship with my husband and child to my love for my home and my interests in my spare time to work-related deliverables all suffered unequivocally.

Did I want to go back to advertising work outside of home? Ugh. Just the thought of waking up for breakfast, packing lunch, dressing up, and commuting to a job I would have to small-talk a whole lot in order to enjoy maybe a little was enough to throw that thought out of the window. Let alone how much I would miss my son (I am missing him as I write this, despite there being between us only a pathetic dry wall separating my parents’ living room from the guest bedroom). And let further alone the logistics nightmare his care arrangements during my work hours would most definitely be.

(Self-aware) wife and mother

So, if I did not want to work in the traditional sense (besides my remote role in our family business), then what did I want to do?

I spoke to my mother. She was supportive and calming as per usual, and offered to take care of the little one as much and as many times as I needed to take time out for myself, so that I could figure this out. It was such a huge relief just getting the words out in the open, and hearing myself say them in the presence of another mother, I almost forgot that we never did find an answer to the question.

Then, I spoke to my husband. As in, cried my heart out in shaking sobs because I simply could not take the oblivion anymore. I told him — and I hope if our child ever reads this, he will feel comfortable enough to come and talk to me about it — that had I known how unfulfilled I would feel during this most wonderful phase in my life, I would perhaps never have gotten married or started a family for the sole reason that my thankfulness was not absolute. And as a result of which, I sincerely felt that I did not deserve the fulfillment of this lifelong dream, this most precious blessing, of mine.

With one arm wrapped around my shoulder, while our son slept soundly in the other room, he quite plainly laid out in front of us the sum of some things (life, marriage, and parenting) that he had come to a conclusion on.

Most married folks would do things differently, if given the opportunity, after coming to a similar realization. But does that mean that they should? Challenges come and go. We are, however, privileged to have our faith as a steadfast guide in the face of both trials and triumphs. And along the course of working through this and other life-changing insights (as life goes on, there are bound to be many more), our job is to do our job, to do our job as best we possibly, humanly, fallibly can — and to address, understand and take care of whatever needs taking care of in order to ensure that our job is done as best as we possibly, humanly, fallibly can.

Giving my self such a hard time in trying to figure out just what it was that needed taking care of was indicator enough that I was doing my job as best I possibly, humanly, fallibly could, even though my goal, the journey, and its destination were as yet unclear.

(Spiritually-inclined) wife and mother

Later that week, I sat down with a recent lecture series on motherhood by renowned Shi’i scholar Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar that had been on my list for a while — the most relevant takeaway from which, was this: understanding the value of raising children well, and the divine, unquantifiable terms in which their mother plays her most important role in doing so.

While I may have originally been seeking out the answer to a different question (which turned out to be rather uncomplicated, and which I will elaborate on in part 2 of this series), everything I learned in those a hundred something minutes helped restore my perspective almost in its entirety, on the efforts that I had been putting into nurturing our family life.

There was nothing actually missing — all I had needed this whole time was to recollect the reasons why I had chosen staying at home and caring for my child (and my family) as my life’s work.

(Existentially stable) wife and mother

I have been in an existential crisis for most of my adolescent and adult life — and never before, have I had an indisputable reason not to be. There was always something going on with the world, with the economy, with warfare, with civil rights, with healthcare, with encroachment, with discrimination and injustice, with the environment, with any number of endless systemic and individual issues, and of course, with me.

In this particular hour, the culprit is a virus that we have been unable to contain as of yet, and we are having to learn first-hand the challenges of isolation in a rapidly changing, apocalyptic-style environment. Kashmir and Palestine have been suffering the ruthless brunt of fascist state-sponsored isolation, paired unabashedly with violence, rape, enforced disappearances, curfew and communications clampdowns, for decades.

Amidst all this chaos and suffering and helplessness, however, when I look at my child, my heart is calmed, my breathing quietens, my worrying is subdued, and my existential crisis eventually fades away.

His sleeping two-year-old form is pure, unadulterated faith itself — faith in the divine, faith in the humane, and absolutely, faith in myself. It emanates hope and joy, warmth and care, love and blessing, sowing slowly and steadily the seeds of strength and conviction, clarity and steadfastness, gratitude and prayer in the budding garden of my once-parched soul.

Here I was, thinking that I had lost myself in the deceptively mundane trappings of everyday motherhood, only to remember (in good time) the long-awaited fruition of the self that those very (invaluable) trappings, in fact, had been all along. 

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