By Dr. Uzma Jafri
Mommying is a journey with numerous challenges and triumphs. For professional women with children who work outside of the home, it’s like walking a tightrope. Finding confidence as a working mom doesn't happen overnight, and it's absolutely normal to experience doubts along the way. We call this doubt “mom guilt” in pop culture these days.
Arguably ALL moms, whether they have jobs outside home or not, suffer self doubt at least a few times (and hopefully not more than that, if we’re lucky). And while it appears to be a lifelong affliction, we can learn strategies to abate it. So let’s talk about the doubts and deterrents to confident mommying, how we build our confidence and how we save ourselves from the trappings of “I can do it all.”
When you first become a mom, everything must be done a certain way because everything could kill your kid and everyone will know if you’re not doing EVERYthing to prevent it. You’re also managing everything from laundry to breastfeeding to dinner parties to a research project at work. All the while we answer the self-flagellate questions: Am I doing enough? and Am I enough?
The truth is, these doubts are part of every mom’s learning process. For those who’ve never seen the movie, The Never Ending Journey, it begins and ends with a mother. Mommying is THE never ending journey, as most of us eventually find out, of growth. We will never know it all because our kid reaches a new stage, and we get to go there with them. There is no “figuring it all out” in mommying. The goal of mothering is to keep the kid alive while staying alive ourselves, altogether physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Mothers are born at the same time as their kids. And not just the first, because the birth of a new personality requires the birth of a different mother for that child. Same womb, same household, but different mom each time. This generates anxiety with each child of course, but expect it, and you won’t feel like you were hit by a mack truck when the kiddo gets her legs.
Remember, mom guilt changes with each stage of mothering our growing children, but it never goes away. Keeping it corralled is the best we can hope to do in order to mommy confidently.
Deterrents to Confident Mommying
Dr. Uzma Jafri's three children when they were very little, on a "vacation," when self-flagellating mom took a rice cooker with her to make baby food and toddler-friendly foods. Image source: author.
Two major assaults on mom confidence come from the twin myths of perfection and balance. First, perfection is only for Allah (S). Great moms and great leaders get there because of the mistakes they make and then learn from them. God didn’t make any mistakes in choosing us as mothers for our kids, but WE will make tons of errors as moms because we are learning on the job!
Next, nothing is ever balanced. There are simply different priorities at different periods in our lives. So while we can do it all, we can’t do it all at once, nor should we. Who wants to set themselves up with those crazy expectations?
Living in the West with the unrealistic goals of perfection and balance, we’ve lost the traditionally shared experience of motherhood. Moms are biologically primed to receive help, to delegate maternal responsibility and work. As such, we need to be okay again with external support to avoid burnout and lower self-esteem. That’s a hard pill to swallow in a means-to-a-goal-independence-is-king culture of tangible productivity. But it means disavowing current cultural norms to reaffirm our historical ones.
Building Maternal Confidence
The hardest part of fighting mom guilt is building an army, a mom support team because no one does a better job of making a mom feel like crap than another mom. This is usually done unwittingly, so resist the urge to channel Boy George and ask, “Do you really want to hurt me?” Because your mom-sisters don’t mean to do it. Hurt people hurt people; we have generational trauma to overcome here, and we can do it together.
If we avoided mom-petitions entirely to level the current playing field of concern, we would easily understand that Islamic school works for others and no school for another set of families; grade light parents and tiger moms exist separately and equally; a mom whose kid chooses college or takes time off means just that without any further exploration, curiosity, or flabbergasted-ness needed.
Dr. Uzma Jafri's daughter trying on hijab and cheesing for the camera.
A true mom sisterhood is supportive under any and all circumstances, which means if both mom and kid are breathing, happy, safe and content, then they’re doing it right. Maybe it’s not what’s right for us, but it’s what’s right for them. And those social mom-petitions where we ask each other about our children as a way to “one up” instead of learning from each other? That’s a hard nope.
This is an exercise in unlearning the generationally renowned Muslim mom exclamations of “Why would you do that?” or “What were you thinking?” Sharing experiences and advice provides different perspectives, generates ideas to implement at our own kitchen tables, and reassures us that there are many ways to find happiness. Save judgment and be saved from judgment. That realization is the foundation of confident motherhood.
Loss of Self
Field observations and personal experience taught me that it takes roughly three years to come up for air from early mommyhood. Until then, we are not our confident pre-baby badass selves. Rather, we are constantly leaking (tears, sweat and milk), yeast-smelling, hypervigilant-against-all-external-threats balls of anxiety whose priorities flipped inside out when our wombs did.
The onslaught of first and second breakfasts starting at dawn to waking up to nightly binge feedings with colic, croup, wet beds, vomit, hand-foot-mouth disease and social pressures to raise a coding, capitalist genius who still memorizes Quran by age three lends us no time to remember who we are.
Because we are, quite literally, trying to survive.
Consider this a period of “natural suspension to be.” When showers are a luxury and khushoo in prayer comes at the expense of finding a child and his sidekick toddler sibling slathered in and temporarily blinded by Vicks vapor rub. We cannot pay attention to our personal passions and dreams. It is okay if our identity at this time is caretaker because almost zero other humans can be substitutes. It’s why Allah (S) chose us to do it. And we don’t die in the process because “Allah burdens not any soul beyond its capacity.” [2:287]
The author cuddling a baby at the hospital where she was training and working more than 80 hours a week while her own babies were at home.
Despite the many pressures of motherhood, we remain servants of Allah (S), the identity that never changes. Our service in this period of Natural Suspension To Be is our ibadah
, our khushoo, our identity
. The essence of who we are, beloved to Him and to our spawn, is how we should view ourselves as well. Perfectly created to fail several times, but still meant to be right here right now. What a solace to our anxious hearts!
After shifting and adjusting to our new role as mothers, we put the pieces together to curate an ideal grid of what we want to do next. That stage is “meant to be.” Disney might call it “happily ever after,” but remember that we could have another kid and then start all over with losing ourselves and the well-loved routines we’ve established. The movies never set us up for success.
What was important from pre-babydom that’s still meaningful now, and what have I always wanted to do, maybe with a hand pump and diapers tucked in a purse, but can I make it happen? Where is Allah (S) leading me with the new skills of long stretches of sleeplessness, lifting heavy moving objects in spite of painfully engorged breasts, supersonic hearing and knowing what’s happening behind my back at all times?
The answers to these questions are different for every mom, but know that losing ourselves in our children is not the point of mothering. It’s a temporary suspension, but Allah (S) has planned for us to do great things IN ADDITION to raising our children. It’s obligatory for us to use all of those talents to pay homage to our Creator, but thankfully it’s also a natural process already programmed into us to reach our Meant To Be stage.
Bracing Ourselves Against Dark Matter
When I had three kids under the age of three, I was working 80 hours a week, breastfeeding and pumping, managing a household without nearby family, and next to no support at home or work despite warning signs I exhibited. It was the darkest period of my life for many reasons, including seeing my babies only in the blackness of tahajjud or after Maghreb.
The author's husband with their three kids when they were little, when he learned that mom can handle all three kids by herself all the time.
For those of us biologically or genetically primed for anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any number of mental illnesses, self doubt is the nudge that pushes us over the edge. Too many young mothers experience postpartum depression and have no clue, and too many of us flatly deny having it, even when the breast pump is saying, “Kill me now.”
That was me. I didn’t get help when I needed it most, even when I knew better. Humility is a lesson hard learned for good reason.
While that and my work hours are an extreme example, no one has to suffer alone after the birth of her baby and as we said before, the birth of herself. As a community of women, we can alter the trajectory of suffering by stopping by to see the mother, not the baby, postpartum.
Drop off those frozen meals and extra diapers, bake her galactagogues
(milk-supply boosting foods), do the laundry, deliver her groceries or pizza, clean her bathroom, wash her dishes, change the diaper pail, put out the garbage, let her sleep with the baby while you attend to the idiots who still insist on showing up wondering, “What do you mean we can’t hold the baby?”
And most importantly, listen and look for the signs
of sleeplessness and helplessness, the broken heart that can’t forgive herself for something entirely out of her control.
If you or the new mama don’t know what to do, call or text the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262) for free and confidential, 24/7 mental health support for moms and their families before, during and after pregnancy. Put that on a sticker and tape it up where a new mom can see it in the wee hours of the night when she’s waking up with baby: bedpost, mirror, nursing chair, breast pump or bottle station, windows and doors.
Mommying is about realizing what we don’t know about what we don’t know, And for those of us with any trauma in our pasts, we have a lot to unlearn to get this semi right. Or at least better than the generation before. When we know better, we do better, as we like to say on our podcast.
Raising children, and ourselves with them, is the greatest exercise in humility a Muslimah can undertake. It’s critical to ask for help, accept support, intervene early and remember that “Surely with hardship comes ease.” [94:5] The challenges are temporary hurdles we can prepare for and jump easily over when the time comes.
If you don’t want to do it alone, reach out at the hotline above, or email anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
, and we will lend an ear, send a pizza or direct you to local resources ASAP, Insha’Allah
Dr. Uzma Jafri is originally from Texas, mom to four self-directed learners, a volunteer in multiple organizations from dawah resources to refugee social support services, and runs her own private practice. She is an aspiring writer and co host of Mommying While Muslim podcast, tipping the scales towards that ever elusive balance as the podcast tackles issues second generation Americans have the voice and stomach to tackle.