Why birthdays change when you become a mum

I’m about to do that thing where I take a wonderful moment from motherhood and talk about it in an intense, slightly morose way. Because a child’s birthday isn’t just about copious amounts of sugar, and standing on brand new bits of Lego. No, it’s about letting go, and a deep, residual melancholy harking back to the moment of their birth.

I did warn you.

We all know motherhood changes things. There are a host of clichés that tell us what to expect; we’ll no longer finish a hot drink before it turns tepid, get a good night’s sleep, pee in peace, leave the house without snot trails down the back of at least one leg. The list goes on. Being the eldest of 11 (yes, really) I thought I was pretty clued up about the changes having children would bring, but some parts of motherhood are so visceral they’re hard to fathom until they happen.

One thing I didn’t know was that motherhood would break me. Just after Little E and Bean were born I pulled them onto my chest, and as they unfurled and looked into my eyes, I felt what I can only describe as a physical sadness. I think it’s common to feel relief once pregnancy is over, but for me, it felt terribly sad. I found the physical and spiritual side of pregnancy so empowering, and all of a sudden it was over, and my babies were in an imperfect world. That initial separation was when I realised that motherhood means forever being a bit broken.

Another thing I didn’t know before becoming a mother was that birthdays are as painful as they are happy. The birth dates of my children are carved into me the way wood is hacked out of a totem. Each year I think back to their births and I’m no less affected by the memory of when they came into our lives.

We celebrated E turning the grand old age of 4 this week. Even without his birthday this is a full-on time for us. 2014 has been our most difficult year as a family, so the fact that it’s finally drawing to a close is a relief. And it’s almost the end of term, so we’re trudging through the nursery and work routines, the late nights, and the early starts, in an exhausted stupor. And then there’s Christmas just around the corner, a time which, for me, is heavy with difficult memories and the need to make it good again with my babies.

E is just as exhausted as the rest of us, and his behaviour has nosedived as a result. He’s been pushing all the boundaries. What starts with hysterical giggling and hyperactive bouncing, ends with him in tears and being removed so he can get some calm and perspective. The night of his birthday was no different. He crashed, big time. It probably wasn’t helped by the huge tube of Smarties he’d eaten during the day (note to self: birthdays don’t make E numbers any less manic-inducing). By bedtime he’d had the biggest meltdown and was snivelling in my arms. We had a quiet chat and I explained why he couldn’t have a bedtime story, he’d been too naughty. He was worried Santa would know (more tears). I reassured him that he could be good the next day and he drifted to sleep in my arms, but not before telling me, “it’s so hard to be good sometimes, mummy”. I cried all over his head for about 5 minutes after that.

As I lay next to E I thought about birthdays. About how time flashes by when you share it with a child. How the demands of each day mean you don’t see the ebb and flow of life. I’ve wandered through this year in a daze, not processing, just focusing on getting from morning to night. Perhaps that’s why E’s birthday hit me so hard. It was a sucker punch of a day. I felt it in my guts. All of a sudden I could see how much he’s achieved this year – the growing, the changing, the challenges, the little mountains climbed. And it dawned on me, for about the millionth time, how lucky we are to share this life with our boys.

Now that I’m a mum, birthdays are no longer just about cake and presents. They are the dot to dots that make up our journeys from woman to mother, from child to man. They are landmarks from a life before we made life, to the moments after; from the newborn haze, to the toddler chub, and the struggles of trying to be good when you’re 4.

Christmas and the muddle of multiculturalism

I first published this post on my other blog, but I figured it’s as much about motherhood as post-religious angst, so it fits here too…

It’s nearly Christmas! This means:

1. I’m having palpitations about the number of gifts we’ve bought (zero).

2. I’ve failed (again) at Christmas cards, homemade decorations, and Christmas pudding *wrings hands/hangs head in shame/yells “down with Pinterest!” and punches air with anarchic glee*

3. Everything. Must. Smell. Of. Cinnamon.

4. My selective memory/eternal optimism leave me with only romantic memories of snow (both my babies were born during snowy times). So I’m thrilled by the Daily Mail snow ‘terror’ alerts. Snow is beautiful. I love snow. I want it to snow. Snow.

5. I’m having an annual flip out with my inner grinch. I had Christmas banned as a child and (small detail) I’m not Christian, so each year I feel like a Christmas fraud and I worry my children will see through my attempts to create meaningful tradition from nothing.

Christmas time, mistletoe multiculturalism, and wine making it up as I go along…

I think it might be an unwritten law of blogging, parent-blogging at least, that December is dedicated to wish lists and that elf on the shelf thing, but I won’t be going there. To me Christmas is about lots of the usual fun (foooooooood, Bridget Jones on tv, all the wine, a 48 hour period of intense Christmas shopping involving tears and expletives, the tinsel debate – yay or nay?) but with an added layer of niggling worry that I’m doing it all wrong.

As the half-Iraqi, half-British, step-daughter of a Pakistani revert to Islam (I am all the hyphens), I grew up in an intersection between different faiths and cultures. We stopped celebrating Christmas after my parents began practising Islam when I was about 10, and we were herded with the psychological equivalent of hot-pokers into an Islamic ideology that was intolerant, exclusive and uncompromising. Some of the cultural changes that occurred after the ‘conversion’ were gradual, but Christmas ended abruptly. We had one year’s grace when we were allowed to put up a Christmas tree on New Year’s day as an odd compromise, but that was just weird for everyone. The following year there was nothing. After that, whenever I heard Bob and the gang sing “do they know it’s Christmas?” with their earnest, self-important faces, I’d feel terribly sad. For myself. It was obvious that Ethiopia had more pressing concerns than missing out on *cough* a-white-saviour-complex-themed *cough* Christmas, but me? I was heartbroken. What can I say? 10 is a selfish age.

As the years went on, new challenges arose that made Christmas a non-issue. I spent my teenage years battling for clarity amidst conflicting cultures and the pressures of a religious ideology that I had little respect for. Despite being mixed race, my white skin and blonde hair granted me white privilege. I felt it from a young age, especially when I saw my ‘half’ (I hate that phrase) siblings battle against racism and stereotypes that bypassed me. But my ‘whiteness’ also meant I grew up on the periphery of each of my cultures. I was the perpetual oddity; the novelty gori (white person…with loose morals) in the Pakistani-Muslim community, and to white British people I was the curious convert girl. As is often the case, my siblings and I were seen as half this and half that; lacking in culture and identity, rather than having it in abundance. Those feelings of cultural inadequacy have stuck.

My experiences leave me with conflicting ideas about multiculturalism. I see how positive and enriching it can be, but I hate that it’s become synonymous with misguided, lazy notions of tolerance. I know people want multiculturalism to work, but they need to be more considered. Communities, schools, families and individuals mustn’t assume that multiculturalism necessarily plays out as the utopian ideal of cultures existing side by side, in harmony. In reality, conflict, tribalism, prejudice and abuse cam seethe just below surface level. It’s wrong when the traditions of any ethnic group or religion trump all other value systems. And it’s dangerous. I remember my life turning upside down after being forced to convert, and how not one teacher batted an eyelid. They never questioned my upset, my transformation, or the way I retreated into my shell. Religious misogyny was played out overtly, day after day, in my life and the lives of so many girls I knew, but no one in my school, or the wider community, dared challenge the status quo dictated by religious leaders. Maybe they were worried about being seen as politically incorrect and culturally insensitive. Or perhaps, on a subconscious level, they were making the value judgement so often confused with cultural tolerance:  that ethnic minorities and Muslims don’t deserve the freedoms afforded to other British children. Either way I realised pretty quickly no one would help me, so I kept my head down and focused on university, knowing it would be my escape from religious fundamentalism. A few months after starting my degree I met my now husband, was disowned, and the rest is history. And heartbreak. And freedom.

During the cultural hiatus between leaving home and having children I had to feel my way with all things festive and previously forbidden. As is the case with most parents, I want my children to enjoy things that I couldn’t and to have traditions in which they find comfort and happiness. But the guilt I was taught to associate with Christmas, birthdays, Halloween…and anything else enjoyed by the kufr (non-believers) was deeply ingrained. As time’s gone on I’ve developed into a more rational person, but I think Christmas will always be symbolic of a monumental and disorientating shift in my life. The ‘convert’ years have left me with a sense of cultural dislocation, so I continue to make up ‘tradition’ and cultural identity as I go along.

48/52 (or, why pretty pictures are only half the story)

I’ve been terrible at keeping up to date with this blog. And the 52 project? Well, let’s not go there. But I had to share these photos from a walk we took yesterday, at one of our favourite spots.

If we had the money we’d move 20 minutes up the road to the next town, but as it is we’re very lucky to live where we do. Our best days are spent outside, exploring our area, spending little to no money, and watching the boys run wild in beautiful open spaces.

However, photos (especially blog photos) often fail to capture the truth of a moment. So many blogs would have you believe that children are serene creatures, full of winning smiles and beautiful, pensive faces. Of course they all do a bit of that, but they also do a lot of other stuff, like epic amounts of snot, mortifyingly loud tantrums, hiding half chewed food in the toes of your Ugg boots, and smacking you square in the frigging EYEBALL when you’re trying to capture a beautiful day out. Can you guess which of the above had just happened here…








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