Every mother has two birthing tales:
One, that of giving birth to her child, is shared. The other, of giving birth to herself, of becoming a mother and all the ways that smashes into and fractures everything else she is, of being broken open and made anew, is one that takes a lifetime to understand.
My mother has a story she tells about my birth, her firstborn: 36 hours of unmedicated labor, an absent husband, and, finally, a C-section that left her torn, body and soul. As I was growing up, she told me this story as many times as she told me about her hot tears of love streaming onto my face, of writing on a tissue-thin blue aerogram to her own mother continents away to say, I finally understand the way you love me.
I’m still unraveling all the ways becoming a mother has affected and enriched me as a woman, wife, and writer. What I do know: Through giving birth, one that replicated my mother’s uncooperative body, I began to accept our similarities after decades of trying to differentiate myself from her.
I let her in. I came to depend on her again.
She stayed with me after the birth of my son. In the way that newborns do, he kept us all dancing with his perpetual needs. But my mother did what no one else thought to do: She fed her own child, making sure I never went hungry.
As I sat famished while nursing, she spoon-fed me yakhni and char maghz, traditional strengthening postnatal foods. Without her bulwarking presence I might have been ripped into a thousand shreds under the round-the-clock onslaught of hormones and infant demands.
Imagine, then, the shock I felt when she disowned me.
She and I had grown so close that I couldn’t comprehend the words: I pray that I never see you or hear your voice again.
It happened after I sent her an advance copy of my book, a nonfiction anthology of Muslim women’s search for love. My mother had been one of my strongest supporters over the five years from conception to publication.
Women should have the guts to tell their truth. But there’s a difference between an idea and a tangible book, of knowing your daughter’s love story and of reading details that you don’t want confirmed for yourself or your religious community, which considers any type of premarital relationship haram, forbidden.
Your story has no moral or spiritual lessons. It’s just a celebration of sins.
No one knows you or can hurt you like your family. We wield our intimacy in support of each other, in sport, or as weaponry. She spiritually disemboweled me and then vanished. There
was no middle ground to discuss our disagreement―only a tsunami of love or the wasteland of her utter absence.
As I traveled on a national book tour to packed crowds and global media coverage, a vast desert began to take the place of my heart and soul.
We experience God through the relationships we have with each other. Surrounded by human love, I more easily imagine and embrace divine love. The opposite is also true.
If my mother does not love me, how then can God? I wondered, bereft.
• • •
After the flood of darkness, after I raged like a toddler against my mother’s impassive door, after my ears stopped ringing at her pursed-lip silence, came solitude and reflection.
It’s hard to admit that light and darkness, love and hate, need and pain, are intertwined in our relationships. Every Mother’s Day, we trot out to brunch and pretend that love is pure and simple, that we’ve never been wounded or made each other miserable, that our hearts aren’t fists covered in each other’s blood.
In truth, the human heart is smooth with veins and membrane on the outside, but once opened, it reveals intricate ridges, ventricles, and striated, branching, indefatigable muscles that churn out a lifetime of heartbeats.
Contracting and expanding, our hearts are a microcosm of the universe, reflecting two of the 99 names of God: Al-Basit (The Expander) and Al-Qabid (The Constrictor). Every living being must experience hibernation, constriction, or quiescence in order to grow, bloom, or give birth time and time again. As the Sufis say: Without the bitterness of distance, how can one appreciate the sweetness of reunion?
Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, it’s hard to see being riven as part of my spiritual growth. When I eventually came to accept the cycles of closeness and distance, ebb and flow, breakdown and breakthrough, I began to release my rage, forgive my mother, and move forward, without her.
• • •
After months of silence, she called. Khoon key rishtey nahin toot thay (blood bonds can’t be broken), she sighs.
We speak occasionally now, feeling a way forward together hesitantly. It is not the same as before, nor do I usually wish it to be. Recently, while I was bedridden with a severe flu, she came to stay. She cooked nourishing food and watched her grandson so I could rest and recover. In breaking bread together, we forged a fragile peace.
Like hearts, families present smooth and shiny surfaces to outsiders, but our hidden chambers are known only to each other. The elasticity of families continues to surprise me: the way a family stretches to comfort, then contracts in anger, before expanding again with cautious affection after each disappointment. Who can say how far a heart will go to keep on giving and forgiving?
Relationships are stories unfolding over lifetimes, the building blocks of communities and nations. There are periods of retreat, followed by reengagement, ad infinitum. There aren’t necessarily neat bow-tie answers or happy endings. Some of our most intimate stories have tattered and bleeding edges and always will.
What continues to give me hope in my relationship with my mother―and, by extension, with others that I have differences with―is remembering that complete resolution or agreement isn’t the goal.
The goal is to keep opening the door to a lifelong conversation.