It was a weird thing to see. “Mutassan has passed away,” my dad’s text read at 9:41 a.m. The words just hung there.
Until that morning, I had never really experienced death firsthand. I’ve known a few people that have passed away — classmates, family friends, distant relatives — but for the first time, I was experiencing the crushing finality of death. On Oct. 20, 2015, my maternal grandfather, Mutassan in Malayalam, stopped breathing. Only a week before, my mom had flown to India from my childhood home in Michigan. The journey across the ocean is exhausting when there is something to look forward to; it is even more so when your fears are unfolding at the destination. Rushed, tired, and cautiously optimistic, my mother went. A few days after she got there, he woke up and saw my mother by his bedside. He lucidly asked about me and my brother and my dad — even at that bedridden stage, his family was on his mind. And then he slipped away. It happened so quickly. I haven’t seen my Mutassan since 2009. Growing up, my mom would make us go to India every other year to see her parents. Because my Achamma — my paternal grandmother and only living grandparent on my dad’s side — has always lived with us in the United States, my dad was never as adamant about these trips; we went for my mom. I used to dread the India trip. It’s not that I didn’t want to see relatives, and the journey was okay when you had company. I was always bored. When you’re a teenager whose friends are taking lavish cruise vacations and lying on beaches, the last place you want to be is your grandparents’ house with dial-up Internet and Windows ’95. I hated that boredom that would envelop me for three weeks every other summer. That 2009 summer was the year I graduated from high school, and I was especially ticked that I would be missing so many graduation parties. I got on that plane somewhat resigned, knowing that this might be the last summer that I’d be able to visit for a while. College meant summer classes and internships, and then it’s onto real life’s obligations and restricted vacation days and excuses. This was the last summer where time was really mine, where vacation stretched on endlessly. Of course, that was then. Those feelings are from “then,” when I was a younger and more selfish version of myself. With this news, I felt nothing but guilt. After my parents were married and my brother was born in India, our small family moved to America along with my Achamma. First Florida and then Michigan, the roots were planted before I even came along. Ours has always been a family of immigrants with these trips to India, long distance phone calls, and Hindi music on weekend mornings. But it is only as an adult that I have begun realizing the strength of my parents to leave behind everything they knew in search of career fulfillment and a different life for their children. I am only now appreciating my mom’s sacrifice of parting with her parents to move to the other side of the world. Sure, I moved to a new city after college. But they moved eleven time zones away from everything they knew. After we got the news, there was a feeling of helplessness that shrouded me. Eight thousand miles away, my mom was having the worst day of her life, and all I could do was send her a Whatsapp message in the hope that she’d have access to WiFi at some point. I briefly considered the possibility of attending the funeral until I realized that even if I left that very moment, I would never make it in time. I cursed the miles between us and then the tears began.
Through this whole ordeal, I understand my mom more than I ever did before. She is brave — almost stoic. I am quick to cry; I get choked up talking about anything I feel strongly about, I notoriously cry during every movie, and I can essentially summon tears upon command. But my mother is a rock, rarely showing much emotion at all. When I finally got to speak to her, it was my voice that was cracking and my eyes that were swimming. She spoke solidly, even matter-of-factly. She is stronger than me. I can’t say that I was close to my grandfather; I would only see him on those summer trips and occasionally I’d speak to him during my mom’s weekly India call. But I know Mutassan was so proud of us. He hated that we were so far away, and would do his best to coax my mom to move back to India every chance he had, but he was proud of what we were accomplishing. When I decided to go to the University of Michigan, he looked it up online (on that never upgraded dial-up Internet) and told me on one of those rare phone conversations that it was a good school. After I graduated, he wanted to know more about the career I was pursuing and the unconventional path I desired to take. Instead of questioning me, he was supportive. This was the thread of unconditional love, of familial love. I loved the way he would emerge from an afternoon nap in a lungi and drink his tea in front of the TV. He would talk back to the TV no matter what he was watching — whether it was a tennis match, the local news, or the Indian cricket team. I loved his insistence on driving himself everywhere — even in the awful Indian street traffic — and his stubbornness in letting go of that bit of independence when his eyesight began to fail. He would tease me about driving on those lawless streets after I learned how to drive stick shift and I would shake my head violently at the thought of getting behind the wheel there. I loved the way he’d command a room, just by sitting in the head chair with a glass of Scotch in hand. A few months before he passed, my mom asked my brother and me to write him a simple email, updating him on our jobs and our lives. “Mutassan has been asking about you guys,” she told me. “Just write an email, he’ll be so happy.” My parents would remind me about this email every Sunday when I spoke to them. It was almost nagging, and I’d always say that I’d do it just to get them off of my back. For months, I assured them that this would be the week that I’d write that email. This week. No, sorry, this week. Sorry, I forgot, I’ll definitely do it this week. I never wrote that email. I always thought I would see him again because you always think you have more time. And I thought I was too busy, living my “demanding” New York City life. I didn’t sense the urgency in writing down a few words to my grandfather, who cared unconditionally about my wellbeing and happiness. I thought that he’d be waiting for the email for months to come, with infinite life left to live. I didn’t feel the need until it was too late. Now once again I am feeling mountains of guilt. In a way, I guess this is my letter to him: Dear Mutassan, I’m doing well. Actually, I’m doing more than well, living in this city and chasing my dreams that you always supported. My roommate and I are writing short films and actually filming them, and I feel so grateful to be pursuing creative things. I hope I can come to India again soon and I wish that it’d be you waiting for us in the bright white Kochi airport, ready to stuff our large suitcases into the too-small trunk of an Ambassador cab. I hope that you can forgive me for not sending this sooner and I hope that you are still proud of me. Thank you for always watching over me.
Radhika Menon is a writer, TV connoisseur and pizza enthusiast living in New York City. She is a proud Michigan native and alumna of the University of Michigan. She loves puns and is sometimes funny on Twitter: follow her @menonrad.
May is an important month for mothers around the world as we get to celebrate motherhood for Mother’s Day and support mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also a month in which a week is dedicated to honour maternal mental health before, after and during pregnancy. To honour this beautiful month, I would like to explore motherhood as I have experienced it as an South Asian, immigrant mom — the magic, the struggles, the mental health challenges, the community expectations — and share how I have reached the most comfortable, confident version of myself as a mother.
12 years ago, on a very hot, humid August morning, after going through a few years of unexplained infertility and then finally getting pregnant, I was rushed for an emergency C-section and my tiny, but very feisty, daughter was handed to me. As I held her in a severely drugged-up state, very much disappointed in my body’s failure to deliver naturally, I felt a rush of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching, fierce, protective love I had ever experienced. In the hours following her birth, I also experienced major confusion and anxiety every time she cried endlessly; I didn’t know how to soothe her.
I grew up listening to my mom, grandmothers and aunts talk about the beauty and miracle of motherhood, but no one ever talked about the extreme sleep deprivation, the mental and emotional breakdowns and the sheer physical exhaustion. I had seen most moms in my very traditional, Pakistani family, sacrificing their own needs for the comfort of their children. In fact often, I would be confused at how proud my grandmothers were for sacrificing their health and mental peace to raise their families.
After moving to Canada I repeatedly witnessed the same thought and behavior patterns in other South Asian maternal figures. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing, especially among the older generation! They love to talk about the beauty and magic of motherhood and glorify the rough parts of this journey with a kind of toxic positivity. South Asian women, I find, generally don’t like to discuss the struggles, the vulnerability and the mental load of motherhood. Yes, motherhood is magical, beautiful and one of the biggest blessings but also it might probably be the most difficult thing you will ever do! In retrospect I do feel, had I heard healthy discussions about the mental and emotional challenges of motherhood, along with its privilege and beauty, I would have been much more prepared for this magical, roller coaster journey!
The mental health challenges, the invisible load of motherhood, the continuous mom guilt, the overwhelm, the self doubts, I experienced all of these during the happiest time of my life. And I felt extremely guilty for having these feelings! Was I not supposed to have that ethereal new mama glow and calmly enjoy this new phase with ease and joy? My overwhelm and anxiety as I protectively held my five-pound, feisty baby girl just felt wrong! It made me doubt myself as a mother.
As an immigrant mother, one of the hardest things I have had to do is to break away from, and unlearn, so many culturally-acquired behavior patterns and expectations. It is so important to acknowledge the fact that mamas need to be vigilant about and take care of their emotional and mental health in order to be fully intentional and engaged in raising their children and taking care of their families. Thankfully, the thought patterns are evolving and finally the South Asian community has started having discussions about mothers’ mental health issues and acknowledge that motherhood, though absolutely precious, is exhausting, rough and can sometimes leave one questioning their sanity.
After the initial years of motherhood, I started researching and reading on mental health and South Asian behaviour patterns. My observation and research has led me to a point in time where I can proudly say that I am the most comfortable I have ever been in raising my children. I have come to the realization that this will be the most fulfilling, but also the most daunting and exhausting thing that I will ever do. I have also come to a very solid conclusion, the better my headspace and mental health is, the better I will be at being the best version of myself for my children. I really want my children to see me making my mental health a priority so that they learn that their mental health is also as sacred as their physical health.
Once I realized how pivotal my own mental health was for my family’s wellbeing, I became more mindful about prioritizing my mental health. These 10 mantras have really helped make a difference in my mental health:
It is not normal to feel excessively overwhelmed and anxious all the time just because you are a mom. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Talking to your doctor about your sense of overwhelm is a great place to start. Accepting medical intervention (meds) and therapy are an important part of my parenting journey; they do not make you a weak or bad mother in any way. Rather it makes you a braver, better parent!
Motherhood is not always glorious and rosy as most of us have been made to believe. Like any other relationship, it will also have its ebb and flow. It will sometimes be chaotic, messy and hard and that is ok!
They say, it takes a village to raise a child and that is so true! In case of immigrant families, a lot of times their village is far across the oceans so what do you do. You mindfully try seeking out a village of like-minded families/people that share similar values and beliefs as your own. And then you help each other out. In other words, when offered, graciously accept help from that elderly neighbour, a family friend or a distant relative. They probably have gone through this busy season themselves and realize how exhausting and isolating it sometimes can be.
In today’s world, many of our decisions are driven by our favourite influencers, mom bloggers and social media personalities. Majority of them curate content that just spells perfection and beauty! From a beautifully arranged, tidy house, to an impeccably put together, happy mama serving fresh, organic meals in her tastefully-decorated, minimalistic kitchen; we know very well that social media can be unrealistic and shows only the beautiful parts of the journey. Yet most of us feel this immense pressure to be perfect and be the providers of the absolute best for our children. Honestly, in my experience, motherhood became so much easier, smoother and calmer once I let go of my exhausting efforts to be the perfect mother! Once I accepted that there is no such thing as a perfect mother — only a mama who loves her children like crazy — I felt at peace and became way less anxious.
Most South Asian cultures measure the worth of a woman by her marital status and later by the success of her children. In the first few years of being a mom, I enrolled my tiny humans in as many different activities as I could in dreams of future success in education and careers. I was always running around planning things for them to do. The result was an extremely burnt-out mama with overwhelmed kids in tow. It has been quite a journey to learn that children will be at their happiest with simple routines and happy experiences. You DO NOT need to lug your family to fancy, expensive activities in order to prove your worth as a good parent! Children will remember simple, happy experiences where they can connect and spend time with their loved ones. A simple picnic in the park on a beautiful day, feeding the ducks at the local pond, visiting the farmers’ market, going to the beach on a hot day, camping trips with other families, these are some things my kids consistently recall happily from their tiny human days.
Connecting with other moms going through a similar situation will make your journey less isolating, less intimidating and so much calmer. Culture tells mothers to be resilient and unwavering, and not share their vulnerability with others. That can be very isolating! After a rough night with a teething baby and a clingy toddler, nothing feels better than having a quick cup of chai over a phone call with another sleep-deprived, tired mama!
Mamas, you are being so generous and giving to everyone around you. Be kind to yourself too! Indulge in self care and take out time to do little things that bring you peace and joy. It could be a lunch date with a friend, getting nails done, doing a yoga class, taking a walk by yourself, listening to a podcast or going out for a movie. Remember your children are observing you all the time and will learn emotional regulation and self care by watching you do it.
Mom guilt is real and can be devastating for one’s mental health. Know that you are only human and the only way to learn about motherhood is by actually going through it. You will make mistakes and it is okay! Give yourself extra love and grace on those hard days. As long as our children see us apologizing, being respectful and loving and trying to be a better parent, it’s all good.
Taking care of one’s physical health will always help in achieving better mental health. Eating well, staying hydrated, learning some breathing techniques, moving one’s body, all these help so much when the days seem long and never-ending.
Motherhood, specially in the initial years will be physically exhausting. If you are like me, maybe you have also thrown your babies at your spouse as soon as he walks into the house and escaped to the washroom for a mommy time out! It is probably the busiest season of life for both you and your spouse and might leave both of you angry with and snapping at each other. Try to find little pockets of time when you and your partner can reconnect, away from the beautiful chaos of the tiny people you have created together. Something as simple as having a takeout meal together after kids’ bedtime can feel heavenly and therapeutic and recharge both of you for the day ahead.
So moms, I urge you to let go of overthinking, enjoy the present moment, go with the flow and savour the messy as well as the beautiful, uplifting parts of your journey. Cherish and protect your own mental health, reach out for help and support if the journey gets too isolating and overwhelming. For your children, will grow up seeing the beauty and wonder around them through the eyes of the most important person in their lives — their mom.
As we enter the holy month for Muslims around the world, Ramadan — a month of fasting, reflection, community, charity and celebration — I aim to foster long-lasting Ramadan memories and traditions for my children while also showing them the beauty of our faith.
The rich tapestry of my life has been intricately woven by the threads of my Pakistani ancestry, an Indian-Kashmiri partner, and the multiculturalism we have passed on to our children. As I navigate the current journey of my life while being a mother to two children, I aim to provide my kids with a life enriched by different cultures which will ultimately help them to become compassionate and empathetic human beings in the future.
Through education, conversation, and exploration, I hope to help set a strong foundation of values that will serve them well in their journey as Muslim Americans and make Ramadan a holiday that they look forward to every year.
Before we explain the importance of Ramadan to children, it’s helpful to holistically explain the importance of the five pillars of Islam.
Declaration of Faith (Shahada)
Giving Alms/Charity (Zakat)
Fasting During the Month of Ramadan (Sawm)
Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
When it comes to Ramadan for young children like mine, there is no better way to teach them than implementing practices of both fun and learning. Engaging them in activities that feed their interests means that they are much more likely to retain information.
It’s amazing to see the assortment of Ramadan decor available at national retailers such as Target and Amazon. I purchased Ramadan lanterns for the kids, and we decorated our home with majestic lights, crescent moons, and other arts and crafts the kids and their friends enjoyed. Noah and Liyana also look forward to the ‘Countdown to Eid Calendar,‘ and put a star sticker on, each day before bed.
Charity and Gifts
Charity supports building a strong foundation for children and demonstrates to them that their actions, no matter how big or small, can make a difference. I strongly believe that good habits instilled during childhood go a long way. The kids have been packing gift bags filled with toys and food packages for local orphanages. I have partnered with other Muslim families to create Ramadan cards for the victims of the Syrian and Turkish earthquakes.
Songs and videos
Another form of educational content that we have introduced to our kids is singing and watching animated videos — after all, we are in a tech generation! Below are some options for child-friendly and lyrical songs to teach your children about Ramadan.
Community is an integral part of a Muslim’s life and even more so important during Ramadan. It shows the profound significance of relationships to humanity. As a Muslim parent, it is important for me to make my kids excited about community-based traditions such as Eid-ul-Fitr. This year we will be taking the kids to the Washington Square Park Eid Event where there will be many family-friendly activities.
Whether it’s decorating our home during this blessed month, Ramadan-themed coloring books, bedtime stories or our ‘Countdown-to-Eid’ calendar, the best part of it is that we do it all together, as a family.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”