Mothering the Mother

It’s the female equivalent of the macho man. The house is spotless. The laundry is up-to-date. The older children are dispatched and she’ll be running them to their after-school music/dance/sport/tuition later. The dinner is ready. What’s wrong with that you may ask? Sounds like a woman who is looking after her home and family.

Except that her newborn baby is having a short snooze upstairs after feeding all night and half the morning. Our new mother is due to go back to work in three weeks. She has a dinner party for six planned for the weekend and although she may look chic and well dressed with her wash-board stomach because she got into her post-natal exercise routine from day one, inside she is screaming.

Here is an example of a woman who has succumbed to the pressure to be a super woman and to do several very demanding things perfectly all at the same time. She may still be recovering from childbirth, adjusting to the demands of the new little arrival in her family, but she must not let the façade of “coping” slip even for a moment.

Her husband can’t take time off work without being thought of as a bit of a loser and he likes things to carry on pretty well as normal back at home. He isn’t in a position to get up for the baby in the night and she’s determined to breastfeed.

Friends all “managed” even though it was a bit “hectic” for a while; they didn’t let it show and they didn’t ask for help. If they can do it so can you. The cracks are hidden on the inside. Grandparents are kindly but decorative. They’ll travel up from Kent with a car full of presents and kisses, but child minding? Well… Grandma’s got a busier schedule than Mum.

Extended Families in the Muslim World

Muslim family

Extended families offer a plausible solution to a new mother’s hardships.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, our Muslim Mum is stirring. It’s 11 o’clock and she’s just getting out of bed. Her baby is snoozing beside her drunk on milk. The older sister has gone to school with her cousins.

Our new Mum may flip through a baby magazine, have some breakfast and then come and sit downstairs with her mother and sister to greet the friends who are coming to welcome the new baby. If she feels like a bit of exercise she may make the tea but she won’t have to worry about cooking and certainly not cleaning for a month or so. As for work? Well, what do you think husbands are for?

If our Western Mum could have a glimpse at her counterpart in the Muslim world receiving the care and support she should expect from those closest to her, it would begin to dawn on her. She is normal after all.

This is the way she was made. Nobody can be expected to give birth and turn into a 24-hour milk bar without some adjustments being made. It is normal for a mother to need a lot of rest. It is normal for a baby to need a lot of attention.

If she is expected to take on this demanding role, someone is going to have to mother the mother. Despite how it may seem to many in Britain today, especially in the city amongst upwardly mobile income groups, having a baby is not just something you fit in on a weekend between social engagements.

It is a big thing. Breastfeeding is a really big thing, especially if you take it on for a couple of years and the success of it depends very largely on getting off to a good start. Having her other needs and duties looked after leaves a mother able to focus on breastfeeding and get the rest and adequate nutrition she needs and helps avoid many of the problems that can interfere with breastfeeding.

If she has fed the baby for the umpteenth time and feels drained, a mother needs a spare pair of arms to mind the baby while she gets some rest, someone calm who won’t get so churned up by a baby’s cries and who exudes reassurance. Who better than a grandmother or relative with older children? This isn’t a practice reserved for the leisured classes in many countries around the world.

Women from various income groups support each other and there is always someone there for the new mother. Even if a new Mum is forced by economic hardship to return to work early, she isn’t afraid to ask for help and others are not shy to offer it. Even the kindest and most involved father cannot play the same role without exhausting himself into the bargain. Women need each other at these times.

Anyone who has seen a woman sink into depression from the sheer exhaustion of looking after children alone, shredded by lack of sleep and the high octane demands of a growing family will guard their privileges jealously if they are lucky enough to benefit from the Muslim system of extended family support.

Unfortunately, in what they call the “developing” world (developing into what exactly?), including the Muslim world, trends have a habit of following in the footsteps of Europe and the U.S, mistakes and all. If they knew the reality and the price that many have paid in these societies, they wouldn’t give up their traditions and practices so blithely.

They would beware of a move away from extended family and community life, of a drive to insist that women can only be economically productive if they make a clear separation between their family and work duties or a suggestion that breastfeeding is all very nice for a while but if you want a really chubby baby and a much easier life…

Reassessing Modern Motherhood


Mothers are women who inhabit or perform the role of bearing some relation to their children, who may or may not be their biological offspring.

As it happens, many western women are now reassessing the practices that women were dragooned into in the past. Alhamdullilah, breastfeeding rates are shooting back up, now that the government has realized we don’t want to raise a generation of emotionally starved weaklings.

Women look at our own mothers and wonder what madness could have gripped us as a society to be sold the line that modified cow’s milk given at scheduled times would be better for babies than mother’s milk on demand.

The same is going for homebirth, which is re-emerging in some European countries. It is often the more highly educated, higher income groups who are beginning to question the practices of the past. Can it really be true that babies and mothers will surely die unless the woman is rushed to a fully equipped hospital and a doctor is on hand at childbirth? Can it really be true that the body is very good at delivering a baby with a little help from a supporting team because it is designed that way?

Many women are beginning to feel that hospital doesn’t feel right for giving birth in a comfortable, stress free environment despite the improvements that have been brought into delivery units under pressure from lobby groups and patients. As some have said, “a farmer wouldn’t dream of moving a cow in labor.”

So why do we transport our women at the height of labor at top speed down to a crowded, busy hospital to be attended by distracted strangers? Then we wonder why labor slows down and the woman gets tense and the domino effect of stress, drugs, assisted delivery swings into action.

It is in the area of post-natal care that women in the west have most to learn from the Muslim world. They are beginning to realize that it is harmful for a mother to subordinate her needs at this crucial time. In order to give her new baby the priority he needs she has to be relieved of other responsibilities and she has to be looked after herself. If she tries to ignore those needs, she may do so at great cost to her own well-being and thus to the family as a whole.

Inshallah, our religion will protect us from the worst excesses of following misguided advice but we also need to be role models for others. This is because our religion teaches us to live in harmony with the way we are created. One of the times when the signs given out by our bodies and our babies are very clear is when we become mothers. We ignore those signs at our peril.

This article was first published in 2004 and is currently republished for its importance.
About Sarah Louise Baker
Sarah Louise Baker is a Muslim British novelist who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She embraced Islam while working in Japan in 1990. Her novel, From Utah to Eternity, on Islamic conversion, was based partly on personal experience. She just finished a book about everyday experiences of wearing the hijab (the Islamic headscarf). You can reach her at [email protected]