A man came to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim)
My maternal grandfather was on his sick bed when he called his eldest to his side. My mother, at 26 already pushing Pakistani spinsterhood, obeyed. He informed her that they had accepted a marriage proposal for her. He asked if she wanted to see her future groom’s picture.
She asked him, “do I have a choice in marrying him or not?”
He said no.
She replied, “then there is no point in seeing his picture.”
In this wildly unromantic and deeply begrudging way my mother married my father, first glimpsing him from the back of the car, being whisked off to his home after their wedding. She peered through her veil, seeing nothing but a single ear.
My father had no idea that Ami (the word commonly used for mother in Urdu) came to the marriage unwillingly – not because of personal animosity towards him, but because of a firm bitterness towards the institute of marriage itself.
The oldest of seven children, she had witnessed her own mother, an exceedingly meek woman, suffer at the hands of her in-laws because of the consistent and prolonged absences of her husband. My maternal grandfather was a police deputy superintendent, often posted in areas far from his family. This left her, with five young sons and two daughters, alone with her sasuraal (in-laws), fending for herself. There is no evidence that they were ever physically abusive towards her, but there existed that very special brand of insidious psychological torment that mother and sister in laws from the subcontinent have honed to perfection.
My mother, who was often shuffled around from one relative’s home to another to both avoid being a burden to her father’s family and escape them, grew a tough skin.
She didn’t trust marriage, she didn’t want for herself what she saw her own mother, an educated woman, have to deal with. She resented her father for not being there, and she was independent and tough.
She did not need, or want, a man.
She studied to become a teacher and a very young age was given the role of headmistress at a girl’s college in Lahore. She was disciplined, stern, with little patience for foolery, and had a presence that allowed her to govern teachers decades her senior.
Her career would be her way out of marriage, and over the years she turned down proposal after proposal until time ran out. Not for her, but for her father. He was sick and wouldn’t live long, he had given her time and space to pursue her education and work, but he refused to go to his grave without seeing his first born married.
My father’s family, unlike many South Asian families, didn’t expect her to stop working after marriage. She continued in her career but then, while pregnant with me, learned that my father had been approved for a visa to the United States. After I made my appearance, my father left for the US, she kept working, but prepared to join him with me soon.
It wasn’t an easy decision for them to leave every single relative, every street they were familiar with, friends, and careers. But here I was, this brand new life, the start of their own family, a chance to become independent from her own in-laws. My mother took it.
If my father was our rock, my mother has been the swirling eddy surrounding him, powerful and deep, sweeping us along with her passion and pain.
She is a person rarely satisfied, which has been both her strength and weakness. I’ve never seen her complacent, always pushing for more, always demanding more. My childhood is filled with memories of her intense outrage at the injustice of the world.
“Pray for Chechnya!”
“Pray for Kashmir!”
“Pray for Palestine!”
“People are dying in Ethiopia!”
“The USSR is destroying Afghanistan!”
About charity, I’ve learned mostly from her. She is always ever raising money for something, someone. Give, give, give, God will return it tenfold. Even giving a merchant his due, without the incessant haggling common to our culture, is justice. Think of his family, of the people he employs! To this day, I know when she calls me, it is just as likely that she is calling because a woman in the community needs shelter as it is she’s calling to tell me she cooked something she wants me to pick up.
My sense of social justice, politics, religion, global issues, and yes feminism, can only be attributed to her. In the seventh grade I overheard two teachers marveling at my focus on a magazine article about the drought and deaths in Ethiopia, while other kids sat and chatted. “Wait”, I thought, “why is this weird? My mom gave this to me.”
Her drive on such issues is maybe what kept her going through a marriage she didn’t want. And of course, one my father also wouldn’t want. But three children in, no one was going anywhere.
My siblings and I have spent countless hours debating about the course our parents should have taken. They should have gotten divorced decades ago, if not for their own peace of mind, for ours. No, they sacrificed their happiness to keep a unified home for their kids. We wonder how they can stay together, seemingly unable to live with or without each other.
Abu was not a man given to religion when they first married. But Ami, over years and years spent on a prayer rug, eventually rubbed off on him. Though even their attitudes towards God, heaven, hell, our purpose on earth, are dramatically different. Abu is soft and easy-going, and for him, God is soft and easy-going. Ami is structured, scheduled, orderly in prayer, and for her God is exacting, with rules you do not break or bend.
I fall somewhere in the middle, understanding and internalizing both of their attitudes towards faith. I hold dear to me the belief my father holds that above all else, God is compassion. Yet, I value her discipline, the ferocity with which she demands from others and demands from herself. If you need a prayer recited a quarter of a million times, she’s your woman.
I do wonder though how a woman so committed to God, who spends her entire nights whispering words of worship, is so restless. Should faith make you more or less content? It’s something I wrestle with. How much fire and how much ice?
Still, the need for purpose, in life, prayer, work, comes to me from her. “You’ll have to account for your time with God, what did you spend it on, what did you do with your life, who did you help, what will you leave behind?” This the ethos she planted like a seed in my psyche.
We all want things from our parents that we didn’t get, because no parent can give it all. None. What they can’t, if we feel loved, we overlook, we forgive, we understand. Ultimately that is where I stand with my mother. I know, fifty years ago, she hoped for a different life. She worked for it, but was thwarted because she chose to honor her father’s wishes.
It can be hard, as a child, to feel like you may not have been part of your parent’s grand plan. Even if its not at all true, it can feel like that when you sense their dissatisfaction with life. But greater than that, for me, is the realization that she could have left any time she wanted, and she did not. Her dreams were important, but never more important than us.
She never abandoned her children, she worked, she made sure to have home cooked meals, she scrimped and saved, she sewed our clothing, she demanded we educate ourselves and have careers, she taught us Quran, she introduced us to God, she held down the home, despite not ever having wanted to. In a time and place where personal, individual fulfillment is paramount over the needs of family and community, both her and my father taught us what commitment actually looks like.
Now that my sister and I are both mothers, we get it. We also get how hard it is to chose a unified home for your children over independence, over marital angst. We get how easy it is to walk away, and how hard it is to stay put, swallow anger and pride, and figure it out.
In the Islamic tradition, its said that God has 99 names, each of which signifies one of His attributes. One of His most beautiful names, one that most often appears in the Quran, one that He, Himself, stresses above other attributes is Al-Rahman: the most merciful, loving, compassionate.
The root of the this name is “rahm”, the same word both in Arabic and Hebrew for “the womb”, a place of ultimate protection. It is no coincidence that motherhood is connected to the compassion and love that God himself gives to the world. It is no coincidence that most mothers then bring to their children similar compassion and love.
I sense, mostly and overwhelmingly, this compassion and love from my mother, it radiates even through her worst times, when we all feel defeated by her momentary unhappiness. At some point, she shrugs it off, picks up the phone, tells you to write down a prayer that will get you through whatever you need getting through, and keeps trucking. She doesn’t always tell you things the easiest way to digest them, but mostly everything she says is right.
No one in the world makes me feel that my work is as important as Ami does. No one in the world makes me feel that taking care of myself, which I’m not very good at, is as important as Ami does. While I often feel stressed at the demands of others, she has never pressured me for time, attention, help, even though no one in the world is more deserving of it than her. In all of this, is her continued, compassionate self-sacrifice and her singular independence.
She wasn’t able to make her life everything she wanted, but I hope she is able to fulfill some of those dreams through her children. I hope she sees in any and all of our achievements, in every devoted prayer, in all the juggling acts to raise children while maintaining our careers, in every loving moment between myself and my children, are her lessons to us.
We aren’t much, but I hope that we are enough that at the end of her life, she feels like we were worth it.
Happy mother’s day Ami, you are loved.