Friday 30 December 2016

Morning Bliss - Starting the Day Peacefully

I have always been an early riser and I have always found myself having better, more productive and more satisfying days when I wake early, particularly during that part of the year when I can stay awake after Fajr (dawn) prayer easily.

During the current break from school and work, the whole family have been sleeping in late. This has been good for catching up on my sleep, but it also mean that we all wake around the same time and I don't get any quiet time during the day at all.

So today after praying Fajr, I determined not to go back to bed, but to get a few hours of peace before everyone else woke up. 

There was plenty to do and sometimes I use this time to get a head start on housework and chores. The sink was full of dishes from the night before (this lot is from after I have already washed up the dinner dishes):

There was a load of letters and filing to sort through:

The view into the garden was not much better. The recent building works on our house are pretty much finished now, but the garden has paid the price.

This morning I decided to leave all of the mess and chores for later and take the early morning hours for myself. I made some coffee and got to enjoy it in one sitting, whilst it was still hot.

I wrapped up against the frost we have been having the last few days in my beloved, ugly and very warm giant wrap cardi. I bought this new at a boot sale for 50p from a lady who said it had cost her a lot of money but she never got to wear it. It really has kept me warm over the years.

I used the time to update out family calendar for the coming days and my Filofax too which I used to keep myself organised.

I even managed to take a look at my beads.  I have finally made a set off brown wood and glass bracelets that I was planning to make for months and a few colourful bracelets.  At the moment I am trying out combinations of these black beads as I would love to have something in black that went with most of what I wear.

In all I managed to get about two leisurely and peaceful hours this morning before the kids started to wake up.  Because I had some time for myself, I was so much more relaxed as everyone else got up and so much happier taking care of them.

Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) asked Allah (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) to bless us in the early morning hours, he said: “O Allah, bless my Ummah in its early hours” [Tirmidhi]

Monday 19 December 2016

Some Space and Time

I have had the sincerest intention every day for many days – to write, to blog, to answer e-mails to catch up with the various things that go with running a blog (like broken links, editorial calendars and queries about reviews and advertising).

But life seems to conspire to distract and obstruct me. We are still living and sleeping in the downstairs two rooms of our home. This means that there is nowhere for me to sit comfortably for an hour or so without putting pressure on my back. We mostly sit on the floor and I can’t quite find a comfortable position with the laptop.

My laptop surrounded by mess.  I sat cross legged on the edge of my mattress on the floor to access it.

A few months ago our van was rammed whilst we were sitting in traffic and alhamdulillah although we are ok, my back took some of the impact and I am trying to be careful not to strain it.

I have been working on updating my Annual Planner to publish on the blog for 2017, but have only been able to do it in fits and starts. This was supposed to be followed by the Inspirational Journal for Muslimah’s, a project dear to my heart, which also remains a work in progress.

The good thing about stepping back from blogging a little, is that every time I do so, I find tons of inspiration and motivation to come back to it.

Except I caught a nasty cold which left me drained and light headed. Then today the kids appear to have come down with nasty colds, so I have three of them with various aches and pains sleeping all day and me pestering them to eat and take their medicine.

Sleeping Babies

So in the end, I have decided to give myself a few days of grace.  No writing, no feeling bad for not having answered e-mails, no worrying about anything.  I will give myself a few days to see if it is enough to get my home and life in order and some space until everyone feels well again.  To find a place to sit comfortably to write regularly.  To not be surrounded by things.  To fall into the gentle rhythm of family, holidays from work and school and unrushed prayers that I am looking forward to for the next two weeks insh'Allah.

Insh'Allah I will get on with posting more blog posts and answering e-mails as soon as I can, just not in the next few days. xxxxx

Sunday 11 December 2016

Is Raising Good Muslim Children in the West Impossible?

Even as I write the question in the title I have to admit that I am a little biased. I was born and raised in London and I am trying to raise my children here. So what prompted the question? I went to pick up Darling from nursery this morning and said hello to some of the mums I meet there sometimes. One of them mentioned her daughter was Darling’s best friend, and I told her that her daughter’s name was mentioned daily in our home often alhamdulillah.

Another mother asked Darling’s besties mum how long before she was moving to Pakistan. She explained that they were still setting up a factory there and would move the family back there as soon as production had started. The other mum asked her why she wanted to go back and she replied that she couldn’t see a future here, that no matter how much you worked it wasn’t enough to live comfortably and the kids turned our strange here. She did mention too that they had no family here.

A tiny part of me did feel like exclaiming “we aren’t all messed up!!” Over the years, I have heard stories of families, including one of my dad’s friends, selling up and moving to Pakistan either because they thought their money would stretch further or because they thought their kids would get a better upbringing. Some stayed, many came back once their money ran out and they realised no one wants to know you if you are penniless, even all the relatives that helped you spend the money. Sometimes their children grew up and insisted they wanted to come back to the UK. One of my friends moved for the benefit of her daughters’ religious education, she struggled with the change in the environment, but stayed long enough for both daughters to become alimah (scholars) and then returned here with them. Then there are numerous friends and acquaintances that talk about moving to places like the UAE to provide their families with a more halal environment.

So are kids raised “back home” in Muslim countries better brought up? Do they have better manners? Are they more religious? My own thought on this matter is that it depends on the way they have been brought up and how you define well brought up. From my experience of my family and the families of friends, there is no shortage of spoilt, ungrateful or messed up kids back home. We also hear about the ones that have turned out well.

I do think it is a little bit easier back home in some regards: some values, such as care of the elderly and respect for your parents are ingrained into society and internalised in a way that they are not as much in other parts of the world. The way our children talk to us here is much more familiar and can be taken for rudeness. On the other hand the things that are influencing our children here: internet, mobile phones, social media etc. are now present in Muslim countries too and the children there are as up to date on the trends as the ones here are.

At the same time, I questions what we consider as well-brought up. There are some things that I think are universal: respect for parents, respects for teachers, and kindness towards your extended family, there are others which I think are not. My mum would often tell us how good our cousins are, massaging their mothers feet when she would come home from shopping. We would just go “eeewwwwww, we’re not doing that!” and think how good our cousins were at playing the grown-ups.

My kids are comfortable in disagreeing with me and debating an issue with me. In Pakistan, this might be considered as bad manners, but I don’t see it in that way. I have always said they can disagree with me as long as they do so respectfully. Here we are taught to question and be critical as part of our education. In Pakistan, I haven’t seen this in the past, certainly my husband’s generation was educated through rote learning, I suspect this may have changed now.

I hope this lady is happy if she moved to Pakistan, I hope her children are raised beautifully and she is pleased with them. In contrast I love the approach my husband has taken. He believes that you get what you strive for. If you are here to make as much money as you can, then perhaps you will. If you are here for your children to get the best upbringing, whether that means academic schooling or Islamic upbringing, then perhaps you will achieve that. In doing one, you may miss out on one of the others, who knows. But if you are here for your faith, as a da’ee, one who shares and teaches the faith and who’s biggest anxiety is that of our beloved Prophet (saw), to share the message of Islam, then, again, you can hope to get what you have worked for: a life filled with the beauty of faith, and perhaps the same for your family. My husband would say that you either influence your environment as a da’ee or you let it influence you. I you are a da’ee, then I think there is no East or West for you and I believe that Allah (SWT) will take care of the tarbiyyah (correct upbringing) of your children and safeguard their iman. I am reminded of a beautiful poem by the Pakistani poet Allama Iqbal, which was left in a comment on this blog:

Tu woh Yusuf hai ke har Misr hai Kan'aan teraa
You are the Yusuf for whom every Egypt is Canaan

(from jawab-e-shikwa, by Allama Muhammad Iqbal)

For the da’ee every Egypt is Canaan.

I would love to hear from readers about their views and experiences. Is it better back home?  Is environment too big a factor to ignore? Are children better brought up there? Are we doomed to messed up kids in the West? Or do you think it’s less about where you live and more about how you bring them up?

Friday 9 December 2016

Things That Make Me Smile - 10

I haven't done one of these posts in ages (no. 9 was in 2011!), but I thoroughly enjoy doing them and when I look back at them, I really enjoying reading through them.

At the moment, the things that make me smile are:

A Sindhi Ajrak shawl.  I had one and wore it until it was in tatters.  My mum has the same and has worn hers carefully and keeps offering it to me.  I can't bring myself to take it, but would like to get myself another, perhaps the next time my mum-in-law comes over from Pakistan...

Pomegranate - these are in season somewhere and we are getting loads in the local shops - cheap and so sweet.  I am taking advantage and peeling and de-seeding a couple every day for everyone to share.

Colour - The days are so short here, that we barely get any sunlight on days where we start work before it is light and find it dark by the time we leave.  I have always been besotted by colour, but at the moment even more so, whether my favourite green, jewel like colours, complementary palettes or rainbow spectrum's of colour.  I can't get enough of them.

After living in our home for almost 14 years, we finally saved enough to get it refurbished.  I am thinking about the children's rooms and for the boys there is one thing that I love: maps!  I will see where I can incorporate them: trunks, bedding, wall art etc

At the moment the short days and the cold clear weather have meant that we are getting spectacularly colourful sunsets and sunrises and skies full of stars with the moon in full clear view.  I am thoroughly enjoying the beauty of it all.  Something like this most days:

I have been looking for a boxy bucket-type bag for some time to carry my snacks, journal and Filofax to work or my mums place.  Something I can see into easily and that will keep things organised, a bit like this:

These last few weeks I have been obsessed with goal setting, life plans and journaling.  I have looking at all sort of planners and journals and ways to organise my to do lists and thoughts and various goal and plans.  The bullet journaling method has been on my radar quite a bit during the last year and some elements match the way I use my Filofax.  I love the effort and art that goes into these.

Friendly Strangers and Your Children

I took my youngest, Baby, for a stroll to the shops today. She is quite small with a petite pixie face and I often get comments from people saying she looks like a little doll, obviously they can’t see that she has a temper like a little wasp. It’s always nice when people stop to coo over your little ones or say hello to them or make a nice comment. It’s even more gratifying when you live in times that are not very child friendly or even Muslim friendly. A kind comment can make your day. 

But where do you draw the line? It’s one thing when a smiling elderly lady says a nice word, but often people can come into your space or touch your child. I recall one occasion when Little Lady was two or three years old and a very elderly, quite frail, gentleman approached us in the shopping mall. He said hello to Little Lady and started to talk to her. I thought it was quite sweet until he took hold of her hand and started to walk away with her. He walked a few metres with her and then said goodbye and left us there. I had followed, but I had absolutely no clue what to do. The man was about 90 or so and looked so fragile. He was also from a generation where there seemed to be less of a terror of stranger danger or child abuse. I am embarrassed even now writing about it, but I could not bring myself to say anything to the man and was utterly relieved when he said goodbye.

I think part of it was his frailty, another part was his age. We have been brought up to respect and think well of our elderly and to indulge them. 

Today, Baby got cooed over by two men in the charity shop I went into. They kept commenting on her smile and her face. Both appeared to have mild learning difficulties and it seemed to make them happy to say hello to her. One reached over to tickle under her chin which made me a little uncomfortable, but he then walked away. When I went to the till, he strolled past again and kneeled down to talk to her and tickled her knee, which made me reaaalllyy uncomfortable. She pulled a face to show she didn’t like it and I mentioned that I didn’t think she liked it. He didn’t seem to notice and did it again until the other man on the till told him to go and do some work. 

I couldn’t bring myself to tell him bluntly not to touch her. He wasn’t frail or elderly either. Perhaps it is the English habit of being too polite and not being direct about things, certainly I didn’t want to be rude. I think if he hadn’t stopped then, I would have said something, or just swung my pram around away from him.

Curiously, some other countries are known to be more child friendly, and it’s not a big deal for a passing stranger or fellow traveller to engage with your child. Certainly in Pakistan people will randomly start talking to you or want to pick up or even kiss your child. It’s not as much of a big deal I don’t think, although people have become more wary and protective over time.

I’m curious, what would readers have done? Would you have been very clear and told the man not to touch your child? Would you not mind if the other person had become offended or embarrassed? Or have you dealt with these things differently? Do you come from somewhere where this is normal behaviour from strangers? Do you routinely interact with people’s children and feel that there is no harm in it, or that parents are too protective these days? Would love to hear people’s thoughts.

I have no idea why she decided to sleep like this...

Sunday 4 December 2016

How to Deal with Difficult In-Laws

A sister recently left a comment on the blog describing problems she was having with her mother-in-law. You can see the original comment here and a truncated version below:

I am also a daughter in law. I made the intention to live and look after my mother in law who is currently in her 40’s and so her son can also do so. 2 weeks after my marriage I overheard her tell my husband; Leave her, you can get better from your back home country; He of course did not agree to that. She then started to lie to him and say I tried to punch her. I had a lot of house work being heavily pregnant straight after the wedding but she hardly helped with anything. When I asked, I was ignored. When her son asked I got told off by her. She is not a very honest individual and keeps cursing me. She threatens me by saying she will make her son divorce me. She has made me cry and laughed in my face saying I act like a baby. She turns the water switch off so neither I and my husband can have a shower in the morning which we of course need. I did everything to please.

Over time I have had a number of comments and e-mails on the theme of struggling with in-law’s. It seems to be a recurring issue for so many people at different level – from disliking each other’s way of doing things to physical abuse and neglect. I think there are a number of issues at play: different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles colliding, a difference in values, personality differences, and a lack of understanding of how a family unit can work from an Islamic perspective. I think another part is that a lot of fear, anxieties and insecurities can rear their ugly heads and influence the way women behave towards each other. 

I don’t believe in women being martyrs and enduring cruel behaviour or abuse because they should “just be patient”. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek if it is only to offer it up for another slap and not to resolve the matter. I think a lot of the time we internalise behaviours that we see in our families and around us without knowing it: putting up with bad behaviour and not speaking up, not answering back to our elders, having a desire to please. We internalise values and an understanding of how women should behave and of how a daughter in law should behave: helpful, patient, sacrificing, submissive even. Which is very noble alhamdulillah, but not if it is not appreciated and not if it means putting up with unkindness or unfairness.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in life has been that you cannot change others very easily or sometimes at all. You cannot choose how they behave. But we can change ourselves and we can choose how we want to behave. I think Muslim women should work to become confident and empowered. We should find our voice and share our opinions. We should value ourselves, our dream and our needs. We should stick up for ourselves and others. I don’t think these things are un-Islamic. I think they are an essential part of being a Muslimah who is strong enough to be positive and live according to her faith in the best way.  So my first advise to this sister would be to look at yourself and ask the question: if you truly see yourself as one of Allah SWT’s blessed, beloved creation, would you settle for this behaviour? Would you put up with it if this was happening to your sister or best friend? Why is it so important to please someone who doesn’t care to be pleased by you? Why not please yourself?

I don’t mean to sound harsh when it feels like the problem is not yourself, but someone else. But the other person is unlikely to see it that way or change any time soon. There is no easy solution. Another life lesson alhamdulillah: when you are clear on what you want and don’t care what others think, suddenly people’s behaviour towards you changes. When you stop looking to them for approval, they start looking to you for approval and agreement. To stop caring what others think is the hardest thing in the world for me, but some things you can do are:
  • Become clear on what you want out of life, how you want to live and your plan to get there
  • Understand what internal measures of success you need to set for yourself, such as achieving a goal or feeling accomplished. These should slowly start to replace any need to please others
  • Work on building your confidence and sense of self-worth in the face of those who do not value you.
It seems as if you are not what your mother-in-law envisaged in a daughter in law. That’s not your fault. It does seem that you are what your husband required in a wife, hence he is with you despite your mother-in-law’s opposition. I find in many families parents overstep their limits in finding a spouse for their child. They will look for someone that fits their requirement and values and matches their view of what a son or daughter in law should be like. They forgot that the purpose of our spouses is to fulfil our own needs in a partner: emotionally, spiritually and physically. Only we can know what we need, which is why Allah (SWT) gives us the right to choose who we want to marry. I think a lot of parents are still some way from understanding this concept.

Perhaps when we find ourselves in situations like the sister who commented, we need to re-evaluate our roles as a daughter-in-law. Is it to cook and clean? To exclusively take care of all of the care of parents and elders? To mould ourselves into what someone wants us to be? If we choose to help with the housework and care of parents, then this is a kindness on our part, it should be done for the pleasure of Allah (SWT) and not to please our in-laws or others. No matter how much we do, there will be a time when they will seem ungrateful and hurt us. But when we do things for the sake of Allah (SWT), He will never let us down, we earn the reward no matter how small the good deed.

In traditional families, this kind of thinking is scary and takes courage. To step back, assess and decide to change how we behave or react and what we tolerate from others. To make a decision to accept and deal with the consequences of doing this – which are usually not as much as we have allowed ourselves to imagine. 

At the same time, it can be challenging to deal with the range of behaviours you find yourself up against: misunderstandings, arguments, passive aggressive behaviours, emotional blackmail etc. You need to be able to recognise them for they are and armour yourself against them. When I see a grown women who is old enough to be a grandmother, resorting to passive aggressive behaviour or emotional blackmail, it tells me she feels powerless to deal with things directly, she either lacks the courage or be lives that her views or decisions do not hold enough weight to stand on their own without resorting to this kind of behaviour. I think I would feel very sorry for a person who even at this age feels so powerless.

When I have had to deal with this kind of behaviour, on the first few occasions I felt stressed, anxious, guilty and helpless. Over time, I decided that I will be the adult, carry on behaving in the best way I can and carry on doing what I have to (the bit about having a clear vision and plan). This was met with sulking, refusing to eat and hypochondriac type behaviour (saying they felt unwell). Throughout I carried on speaking to the person as normal, which confused them. I behaved as normal and was polite. In the end the person realised there was no point in playing games and went back to normal.

I know this is easier said than done, but at some point we are no longer young girls, new brides or 

We must take the difficult steps to becoming strong Muslim mothers, wives and women. Women who fear Allah (SWT), strive to do the right thing, fulfil their responsibilities, but also respect themselves and inspire respect from others.

May Allah (SWT) have mercy on the many sisters I have come across that struggle with this issue and may he reward their good intentions and resolve misunderstandings and bad feeling that develop between them and their in-laws insh’Allah.

Picture of the Day 01.12.16 - Beautiful Winter Sunsets

After a mild autumn, the temperatures here have dropped giving us bright cold days and clear nights.  It's rare to see the stars in the middle of London, but the last few days have been so clear that you can see so many so clearly.

The sun rises and sunsets have been quite eye catching too, with the sky awash with bright shades of pink, purple, orange and blues.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Lacking Confidence as a Muslimah at Work

I recently asked colleagues for some 360 degree feedback. This involves my work peers rating me on a number of competencies such as leadership, team working and effective communication, alongside some feedback on what they think I do well and what I could do better. I got some really useful feedback from colleagues, but one person’s assessment really stood out. She mentioned lots of good qualities but suggested they were hidden because I came across as lacking in confidence and holding back in meetings and in front of managers. Her words rang true and it was painful to have a light held up to the flaws that have been plaguing me.

Over the last year I have been thinking a lot about what I want my next step to be at work. But whatever career path I think about, the same issues come up. I have guilt about leaving home to work in an environment with mixed genders. I have a number of friends that wear niqab and stay at home and disapprove of Muslim women working, I think over time, their stance and the things they say has affected me more deeply than I care to admit, with a lot of guilt and anxiety resulting from this. 

I hate expending the energy that goes into trying to avoid shaking hands with men, trying to sit away from men, trying to go to a different site and decline a lift with a male manager or colleague (I always insist I will meet them there and take the train). I struggle with the effort of making wudhu at work and the worry when I have meetings through prayer time and I have to try and find time to get away and pray. 

These things have made me think long and hard about work. How can you strive to do well, when deep down you have doubts about whether you should even be there or whether you should be wearing niqab to be there? How can you network and speak up in meetings confidently when you spend time avoiding handshakes and physical contact and even end up hiding behind your monitor every time a manager comes by?

I decided a long time ago I would not chase money and make do with what I earn. I would try to do work that adds value in some way rather than chase promotions for financial gain. But I found over time, that the sense of ambition never went away. If I want to do something, I want to do it as well as I can. 

After months off anxiety and guilt building up, the feedback from my colleague, really brought all of these things to the fore for me and sent me into a tailspin all day. As always, writing has been the best way to deal with the anxiety and I have been emptying my mind of all of my thoughts into my journal to review. Some truths have been inescapable:

Staying at home would mean more time and concentration for ibadah (worship) – and isn’t that our purpose in this life?

Staying at home would mean a more measured and slower day and less exhaustion.

Staying at home would mean more time for myself and to do things I enjoy.

Not working would mean a massive struggle for us financially in the short term. I believe that many of the sisters who stay at home manage to get by because they claim benefits from the government or are provided with housing or housing benefits. I don’t think many of them are eligible, either because they are able to work or their husbands are working but not declaring it. Which is the bigger sin – benefit fraud or going to work and not wearing niqab?

Working means I have money to contribute towards the household bills and my daughter’s Islamic education. I have money to help others and my parents if the need arises.

I am fully aware that money is not the whole story. When I reduced my hours from five days to four days, it was still enough to make do. I believe that Allah (SWT) provides in one way or another. Perhaps I could leave work and my husband’s business would grow to fill the financial gap.

My fear is that I will step away one day and look back over the years and think, why did I not do that sooner? Why did I waste all those years doing something that does not fulfil our purpose for being here or took up my time and stopped me from reaching out to fulfil another dream?

What If I stop working and feel directionless and bored? If it turns out to be a mistake, how easy would it be to start again?

Is this just a first world problem being blown out of proportion? My mum worked from home as a seamstress doing piece-work for factories. This required long hours on low pay and led to her developing arthritis in her hands. In her view, it is much better to go to work in an office, sit down and do work that uses your mind and get paid properly or it. Both she and my mother-in-law value the independence and choices that your own income can bring and have known what it is to not be able to make ends meet.

How do I reconcile prayer and work so that I can do the first but also do justice to the latter?

All of these questions have been on my mind for a long time. Writing them down made them easier to try and look at objectively. I want to work, but I want to do something that adds value and helps others. I want to gain some expertise in one area, such as health, women or minorities and become an expert on them – when I know what I am talking about I feel confident and speak up comfortably.

I will try to work flexibly, so that I can do more prayers at home.

I want to help my husband develop his business, once our home refurbishment is done he has some ideas to diversify his business that we are really excited about. That will give me leeway to reduce my hours further if I choose to.

Truth be told, I have been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted on some days recently. Cooking and cleaning up after builders after an intense day at work, helping kids with homework and keeping the babies occupied. Listening to my six beloveds (hubby and the kids) tell me about their day as they need to process or share everything that has happened to them that day. At the end of some days I have asked myself if I was foolish for trying to do everything and being left shattered, when there are some women that sit at home all day and get their bills paid for them by their husband or the government or both.

Setting things down on paper and thinking them through has helped me find a little clarity. Now to try and understand how I can get from where I am to where I need to be.

I would sincerely love to hear from sisters about their experiences in this regard, whether working, staying at home or transitioning between the two.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Wudhu Bag for Work

As we move into the shorter days of winter, quite a few of my daily prayers are starting to fall during my work day (midday, late afternoon and soon the evening prayer too).  This means I have to make ablutions for prayers at work.  I have always struggled with washing up for prayers at work. Taking my scarf and hijab cap off, taking my shoes and stockings off, making sure there is no trace of lipstick.  This is coupled with sometimes struggling to find a quiet place to make wudhu without an audience watching you stick your foot into the sink and wondering what on earth you are doing (if that reference makes no sense, there is a video showing the Muslim ablution here).

At the moment I am using one of the disabled toilets which affords me some privacy, but is usually a mess with wet floors, hair and dirty tissues on the floor and usually a filthy toilet.  I usually give the place a quick wipe down before I use it, but I still have to put tissues on the floor, wipe it down afterwards and find more tissue to clean myself off.

My office is trying to save money and go green so the the building has removed all hand tissues or napkins and replaced with dryers.  Which means I have to find paper towels and keep them in my bag.

So last weekend I had a think about what could make it a bit easier for me to make wudhu at work.  I came up with this wudhu bag:

The main components are a waterproof makeup or wash bag, two lots of small towels which I picked up very cheaply.  The darker colour is to put on the floor and the lighter colour ones for me to dry off with.  I take one of each every day and then when I get home drop the used towels into the wash and put two more in my little bag.

I also added deodorant and make-up remover.  You can add panty liners and a small bottle to make istinjah (ablutions after toilet), such as a roll-up type bottle that you can open up to fill, then empty an roll up again (like this one here). 

I have been using my little wudhu bag all last week and have found it such a big help to have everything in one place and have the towels to hand.  I like that rather than throw paper towels away, I can wash and use the same batch over and over again.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Dealing with Bullying

When Little Man started secondary school, I was worried that he would be an easy target for bullies. He is gentle natured, friendly and likes to tell stories. His school is very big with children from a very mixed catchment area. It was my old secondary school and I remember how rough it was at that time, although much less so now. Alhamdulillah his friendly and easy going nature helped him settle in to his school. He knew some of the older boys from our local masjid and has been joining them to pray at school.

In fretting about Little Man starting school, I missed completely what was going on under my nose. Gorgeous had been less than his usual sunshine-y self in recent days. I put this down to his growing up a little and becoming quicker to answer back and argue. I found him becoming sullen at times and angry at others. 

It is my habit to check in with the children to ask how their day was, what they had eaten and what they had been doing. When my older children were little, they would happily tell me about their day. As they have gotten older they have become less forthcoming. It takes longer for them to open up and they need space and silent company from me to start talking. Over time, I have learned to ask and then wait with patience for them to loosen up and make their complaints or share their exploits that day.

Gorgeous is no exception, except he is quicker to tell you what he is thinking or feeling. If you haven’t got round to asking, he will let you know by declaring that clearly no one cares about what happens to him. Then on asking, will vent about how horrible his teacher, the boys who are not his friends and all the girls in his class are.

Over the last few weeks, I reacted in the change in his behaviour by reminding him that I expect him to treat me with respect and asking him to behave kindly to his siblings. During this time there were a few high profile cases in the news where children had been bullied, including one particularly devastating incident that we discussed and which particularly seemed to stay with Gorgeous and which he kept coming back to.

It was only a few weeks ago when I picked up from school and saw him looking utterly miserable instead of his usual chirpy self that I asked him what was wrong. After much prompting, he told me one of the boys in his class had been beating him up. I was taken aback and approached the cover teacher who was in charge. Both she and the classroom assistant were very clear that this couldn’t have happened as the child in question had sat next to them all afternoon. I would have been stumped had a boy in the class not piped up that he had seen the child earlier in the day kick Gorgeous and punch him in the face twice.

The supply teacher said she would mention the incident to Gorgeous’ normal teacher. I took the classroom assistant aside and told her about the change I had seen in Gorgeous and that I was unhappy that this hadn’t been caught. The classroom assistant told me that she had noticed Gorgeous moping and dragging his feet in the classroom. She had told him he should improve his attitude or she would complain to his mum.

On the way home, I gave Gorgeous a hug and told him that we would sort out his problem and that he should let me know the instant that anyone bothers him. The bullying had been going on since the end of the previous year. I remember telling the teacher a boy had hit him and he told me that it stopped after that, but after the holidays it had started up again this year.

The following week I met with Gorgeous’ teacher and talked the situation through. He had met with the headteacher to work out how they could manage the other child’s behaviour. He indicated that the child was an abused child and they were working with the appropriate agencies to help him. I advised that I believe in being understanding and compassionate to those that had suffered, but that Gorgeous could not go into school to be hit every day. He had to agree with that.

In the intervening time there have been a few incidents with the boy, but I have seen him come back to his cheeky, lively self. A few things stand out from this experience. I was so focussed on Little Man who was dealing with the bigger change, I didn’t expect that Gorgeous, one of the biggest, loudest kids in his class could be a target, I could have been more open-minded. 

The other is that I assumed the changes in him were due to his getting older. I realise now that his fundamental nature is upbeat and extrovert. I think in future I might be more sensitive to any departure from his usual self, rather than assume that he is growing out of his usual nature.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Working Muslim Mama: Deciding How Much Energy to Dedicate to Work

I have always been of the belief that being a working mother does not make you any less competent or capable of handling complex and high profile work, nor of handling work that puts you under intense pressure. That sounds like an obvious thing to say but I think working mothers are sometimes considered as not being able to commit to the same level as everyone else due to their children, or that they are conflicted or distracted in some way due to their responsibilities.

When I worked in the Civil Service I was suggested as a candidate for their fast track programme for graduates called the Fast Stream. At the time Little Lady was very little and I decided that the scheme might mean travelling and long hours and I was not willing to commit to this if it meant less time with my little one. One of my colleagues, also a young mum of one, questioned why she had also not been suggested for the scheme and the manager foolishly suggested that it was because she was a single mother – you can imagine the storm that created. But it made me realise that when managers saw you as a mother, they assumed you could not commit or were not able in some way – before you even got the chance to assess whether this was true for you or not.

The last two year as a mum of five children, including my crazy baby, who really does seem to have unlimited energy mash’Allah, have been a major reality check for me. I have had to assess what I can realistically do with the 24 hours I have, without going crazy or falling apart from exhaustion. I have had to give up lots of things whilst trying to retain a little something outside of work and homemaking that feels like it is for myself (being able to write for instance).

I have always operated from the position that if you are taking time away from your children because you have to work, then you might as spend that time doing good, valuable work, rather than just counting down the hours till you leave. I felt that the length of time away from home is the same regardless of what you do, so why not take on the responsibility and complexity rather than an easier option that feels less taxing. But this mind-set did not take into account the fact that work takes energy and focus as well as time. I didn’t think of this before because I always felt like I had unlimited energy and the work was rarely taxing or fast-paced enough to challenge that.

What I have found as I have moved towards doing work that is more pressured is that there is a cost in terms of the energy and focus that you have left for other things. I used to go home from work, get the house work and dinner done and spend time blogging or making cards or jewellery. My brain needed more stimulation. My work at the moment, delivering projects as part of an organisation wide transformation programme, is intense and fast-paced, I have to keep multiple workstreams going and not miss or forget anything. I very often find myself trying to work out how to do something I have never done before. I am also on a learning curve which means I am constantly taking in information, assessing it and trying to understand how to apply it. This means I am no longer bored or under-stimulated. What I had never realised in the past is that mental activity is physically taxing (the Scientific American says that the brain uses up to 20% of the bodies energy). When you work that intensely you go home many days exhausted with a need to wind down and switch off.

Often you will find out that when you get home, this is the last thing your children and partner need. They want to share their day, to vent, to plan for the evening. Often they need your help to process what has happened to them during the day or to wind down as well. I recall there was a time when my mum-in-law spent the summer with us and was quite depressed. I would come home from work every day and spend time sitting with and trying to cheer her up and get her to share what was bothering her. I had the energy to do it then, I don’t know if I would manage that now.

My family demand my full focus in the time that we are together and my heart tells me that they deserve it more than my work does. This means that I am having to learn to manage my energy a bit better through the day. Thing that help include eating healthy food that is not so heavy that it makes me sleepy in the afternoon or taking a proper lunch and getting outside to walk or meet with colleagues who provide good company. I am trying to be honest and say when the work is too much, although this is something I struggle with. I am trying to set boundaries so that I stop work at 4pm and leave without feeling guilty. I try to use the commute to wind down and leave work behind, by reading or making a simple dhikr slowly. Then there is my frenemy – the power nap, I find it helps massively if I can get my head down when I get home for 20-30 minutes, any longer and I am groggy for hours afterwards.

The big question though really is whether we need to take on less at work and delaying doing anything that is very intense until the children are older. I am a definite believer that we cannot have it all – work, home, children, social life, me-time and spiritual and that if we try to, we do it half-heartedly, in a rushed way without any quality to it all. Or worse still we make ourselves ill and miserable. So is the answer to hold back in our working life and take the quiet, slow road that doesn’t demand too much of us? I felt like I have done that to some extent for 10 years and with the babies being little, it seems it will be the case for at least another 10 years, will the time for career have passed? Even then, now that my oldest is a teen and the boys are older, I don’t find that they need me less, but just as much or more, only in a different way (less wiping snot, more being present while they tell you why they are having a rough day).

I don’t feel I have the answer yet, my thinking now is less about work and more about quality of life and balance. My legacy will not be the job I do, but the way I raised my children, any good deeds I did and whatever area of work becomes my “life’s work” – whether academic or community-based.

With this in mind, I don’t plan to go full speed at work and burn out at the expense of my family, but to try and be measured, learn as much as I can as I go and continue to be selective about the opportunities that come up for now.

Saturday 8 October 2016

The Real Muslim Mama's Manifesto

What a horrid morning. I woke up feeling so miserable today and spent the whole morning veering between rage and sadness, with everyone feeling the brunt of it. The house is still being refurbished and we are still living in two rooms. Everyone has colds and coughs and keeping everyone organised and with a routine seems like an uphill struggle. This morning I lay in bed for a long time with the sound of builders banging and sawing, Little Lady shushing everyone so that I could sleep and the door bell ringing every 5 minutes. For the life of me I could not think of why I should get up. I felt purposeless, pointless and utterly powerless this morning.

I kept telling myself the reason why we are here:

And I created not the jinn and mankind except that they should worship Me (Alone) (Quran 51:56)

But this morning the words were not connecting, the anger kept pushing through and tears kept flowing. In the end I did the one thing I always do when I feel anxious or sad. I tried to move and do something. I believe that action of any kind is a powerful antidote to negative feelings. I started the task of getting breakfast served, getting bedding folded and mattresses put away and start organising and meeting the various people passing through my home during the morning. Throughout the morning, I continued to feel angry and sad. In the end I spent two hours cleaning so that my mind could be freed up to think and tried to think through what was making me feel like such a miserable train wreck.

By this time my family had had enough, my husband took the boys to the builders merchants to buy supplies, Little Lady went with my sisters to “The Cake & Bake Show” and Mum-in-Law got fed up of my moaning, donned her abayah and fled the house, to my mums house I suspect. It finally gave me some headspace to think and reflect instead of rage. It dawned on me that as ever a big part of the trouble was from the internal dialogues I have going on, some that I am barely aware of. 

I felt powerless despite being the strongest person in the house and having the most central role. I felt like my time was not my own despite no one telling me what to do. I felt like life was too short, that I didn’t know what to do and that it was just flying by. This despite being in a place and with a life that meant I could make choices and pursue avenues that are not available to most of the people in the world. It’s strange how we disable ourselves with the stories we spin to ourselves.

The thing for me to do was to take each one of those little internal conversations and turn a spotlight onto it. To decide if it was right or if it needed to be wiped clean and replaced with a more positive way of thinking. This systematic dismantling of my beliefs proved a massive eye opener and left me feeling empowered and as if a burden had been taken away from me. I think we all do this to ourselves, talk ourselves into a corner with doubts and negativity. I share the negative self-talk I had internalised here along with the positive response from myself, because I suspect this kind of thinking affects so many sisters:

Negative Self talk: You don’t need to find your purpose, your purpose is to worship Allah (SWT) and take care of your children and home; everything else is a worthless distraction. This is a first world problem anyway, think of all of the people starving and fleeing from war, they have much bigger problems to deal with.
Response: Every single one of us is born with a purpose, whether to take care of our homes raise the next generation or serve the world in a different way. With the right intention, every single one of these is a form of worship. Every single one of these can help and serve a world full of so much pain and suffering.

Negative self-talk: Your writing is just a distraction. Any action that distracts from your main duties is a waste of time. You won’t make any money from it, you will steal time from your family to do it.
Response: A balanced life requires you to honour and take care of all of the facets of your life: spiritual, family, self-care and development and your life’s work. If you neglect some areas and feel obliged to dedicate yourselves disproportionately to others, this will create resentment. You can’t give of yourself to others if you have let your own reserves run empty

Negative self-talk: I have no control over my time, it is all spent cooking and cleaning up after others, making sure they are taken care of and making sure everyone’s lives run smoothly. I and up doing what my mum-in-law wants, my husband wants or what my kids need to get done.
Response: Errrmm…don’t spend all of your time doing it then. As a mother I am a leader in my home. I can choose how best to spend my time and I can delegate activities to others too. I can choose to let my home get messy or do nothing if I want to. I can choose not to feel guilty and step aside from the anxiety that doing nothing creates. Besides your husband or mother in-law haven’t said a thing, stop imagining what they might be thinking and putting words in their head
Negative self-talk: Life is so short, you will never get to do all of the things you want to. The days fly by so quickly. By the time the kids are older you will be too old to enjoy things like travel anyway. What’s the point?
Response: Yes life feels short, but it has been a long journey getting to today. You may have another day, but you may have another years, only Allah (SWT) knows. But my job is to make each day count by waking early to do something I love, by serving others, by making as much of my life an act of worship as possible and by being mindful and conscious as much as I can each day. Besides half the joy in realising the wonderful things you want to do comes from the dreaming and planning. Then we can take the small steps each day towards our goals in the time and resources we have.

The Real Muslim Mama's Manifesto:

My time, focus, energy and money are mine to spend and invest as I see fit. These things are in my control. Others may have an opinion, which I will respect, but I will choose according to my own priorities.

All of the facets of life deserve to be honoured and attended to in order to live a fulfilling and balanced life: worship, marriage, parenting, self-care, self-development, health, rest, our creative life and yes, even pleasure. There I said it. We can own our pleasure, make time for it and refuse to feel guilty. This will leave us able to invest the time we do in marriage and parenting as healthier, happier people, perhaps even more interesting people. After all, if we don’t respect ourselves, why should those around us respect us?

I will treat worship as a source of connection to Allah (SWT), as an opportunity to recharge and reinvigorate myself. I will spend my life working to improve this worship. At the same time I recognise that worship comes in more than one form and for each of us the spiritual path is unique. Some of us are born to be da’ee (one who propagates the faith), some are naturally inclined to quiet worship and reflection during the night. Some of us serve and help our brothers and sisters and others still fight for the rights of the poor and vulnerable. We all have unique gifts and qualities that we can use to connect to our Creator, the key is to do so with sincerity and the best of intentions.

We will put aside our needs and wants to fulfil the rights others have over us: our parent’s spouse, neighbours and children. But we will be realistic about how far we can do this. We will not serve to the point we become ill or resentful. We will not give up our voice or dreams, but strive to find ways to balance our responsibilities with our needs. The care we mete out to others, we deserve to receive back also.

We will be realistic about our expectations of ourselves as parents and of our children. We will work to inspire those around us through our good example and passion for our faith. We will encourage the best of behaviour from our children but we will keep in mind that the world we live in is a very different place than the ones we or our parents grew up in. The expectations our parents back then will not hold today. The world is violent and oversexualised, we deal with being online and connected 24/7, information overload in soundbites that get shorter and shorter. Materialism and commercialisation is shoved in our children’s faces and the pressure on them to fit in and confirm is unbelievable. We will be their rock, anchor and refuge insh’Allah. We will learn to communicate with our children, to comfort them and teach them to be strong in their faith and values in a messed up world. We will teach them do the right thing when under pressure to do what everyone is doing. But we will also be firm and demand respect – we are mothers before friends.

We will not compare our children to others. We may pray for our children to be scholars or huffaz, or to be Doctors and engineers and work hard to encourage them, but we will accept that our children have their own purpose and journey and that it has nothing to do with anyone else. I have met enough sisters to understand that sometimes what looks like a perfect upbringing on the outside can belie the truth of a household: dysfunctional families, empty marriages, spoilt children, mental illness or domestic violence. Your child may not be born to be a scholar or Doctor, maybe Allah (SWT) wishes for them to live their lives beautifully in some way we have not envisaged. Maybe that perfect child is on the way to self-destruct. 

We will not compare our marriage to others: not to the perfect weddings, honeymoons or dinners that appear on our social media. Not to the siblings spouse who looks like a model or whose husband showers her with gifts. We are less than perfect, our spouses are less than perfect. We will work on taking care of each other, strengthening our communication and taking care of each other’s happiness. At the same time we deserve love, attention, kindness and understanding and it doesn’t hurt to receive a gift now and again, after all: Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Give each other gifts and you will love each other.” (al-Adab al-Mufrad 594). 

We will be diligent in fulfilling our duties to our Creator, our families and our communities to the best of our abilities. We will be sincere in our efforts. But we will not sacrifice our health and sanity: “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear…” (Qur’an, 2:286). We will make time to rest, to dedicate to play as well as work. We will invest in our own development and find space for our creativity to flourish without feeling guilty. A mother who is happy and fulfilled benefits everyone and her development means her families development and growth.

Finally, as Muslimah’s we try to be humble, modest and disciplined in our lives. But this does not mean that we should be cold, bored or boring. It is in human nature to enjoy the company of friends, to enjoy romantic love and to take pleasure from beautiful things. We will make space for self-care, play and pleasure in ways that are balanced and halal and that make us happy to be alive and get up in the morning insh’Allah.