Originally written for SISTERS Magazine.
Umm Zainab Vanker and her daughter Umm Khadijah commiserate on what it's like to be part of three generations of women.
Umm Zainab Vanker
While growing up, I remember watching old family TV shows, like Little House on the Prairie, Family Ties and Growing Pains. I would watch these programmes and wish that, one day, I would have a close mother/daughter relationship. Unfortunately, I never did have that with my own mother, but I remember making a promise to myself that, insha Allah, I will have something similar with my own daughter(s) one day, should Allah I grant me some.
The day my daughter was born, I was happy, but also very scared. Scared that I may be a bad mother, scared of making the same mistakes my mother did with me and my sisters, and as such, having no emotional relationship or bond with my daughter at all. Coming from a dysfunctional family and having no mother/daughter bonds, I was only given glimpses of such relationships in the Islamic seerah, such as the relationship of ‘A’isha t and her mother. But, there were some real life examples of mothers who enjoyed close bonds with their children and whom I learnt a lot from, just by watching them, and hoping that one day I would feel that connection and love.
The Early Years
From day one, I made sure to hug her, hold her and let her know I loved her, as much as I could remember to. As she started growing older and I had more children, life became busy, and I would sometimes realise that I had not hugged her or told her how much I loved her for a while. It was then that I would feel guilty and upset with myself and had to make a conscious effort to remind myself to hold her close and let her know I love her. Even when I disciplined her, I would later tell her that I still loved her, even though I was upset or angry.
Due to the way our life was and our decision to homeschool our children, Zainab and I were together practically 24/7, with barely any time apart. She was my tail wherever I went and I was hers. There were many times we both became frustrated with each other and got on each other’s nerves. The fact that during these years she had no friends at all and blamed our way of life for it, was harder to bear on my conscience.
The pre-teen and teen years were the most difficult time, and there were many days and nights I would shed tears and ask Allah I to help me not just be a better mother, but also help strengthen our bond and bring us closer. I made a very conscious rule that I would not exclude her from sitting or developing a friendship with older sisters who were my friends. I would let her sit in on many sensitive discussions we used to have, unless I felt that it was too personal or inappropriate for her. Having an open communication, no matter what, has always been important to me to have with all my children, especially with my only daughter, as this is something I never had with my own mother.
The relationship between Zainab and myself was more mother/daughter, rather than friendship, with a closeness that was still developing. Her role model during these formative years was always her father, and even though I silently felt envious and wished that there was something I was doing that she would be proud of and want to emulate, I realised that it was not important. It was more important that we have a close bond and she can talk to and confide in me.
Marrying and Moving Away
Just before Zainab turned 17, and us not even expecting it, we suddenly had a young man come forward asking for her hand in marriage. Even though we had recently discussed this situation happening, we had not expected it to happen so soon! Especially since we lived in a fairly small community, on an island with few potential suitors that we would consider for her, not to mention that she was still completing high school. My daughter has always been slow to mature in many ways. It was a constant battle, as she was not only a tomboy (partly due to having three brothers) but was also adamant that she did not want to grow up quickly and preferred to remain childish!
Suddenly, we had to decide whether to inform her of this new development or say no. We decided that it was best she knew and made the decision to accept or not after at least meeting and speaking to the brother on her own. It took a bit of coaxing to get her to accept just meeting this young man, but after that, things started happening very quickly.
The most difficult part for us as parents was that she would not be leaving just our home or city or province, but that she would be moving to another country and continent altogether. This would be the first time in her life that she would be without us nearby or ME for an extended period of time. The few times she was away from us visiting her aunt, we made sure to call her daily.
For the last three to four years, I kept advising her to be prepared for the possibility that she may marry someone and move away from us altogether - just as I did after marrying and leaving my family behind in South Africa. The difference between us was that I was somewhat emotionally disconnected from my parents, due to my life and family situation. Whereas she was not just physically, but emotionally attached to us in almost every way, and our bonds were getting stronger as she grew older.
Our relationship was maturing and evolving into the one I had dreamt of. The day we said goodbye to her was very hard. Our blessing was, unlike twenty years ago when telecommunication was expensive and you only called home every few months or wrote letters, we knew we would not have to wait too long for her to reconnect with us online. It was a sigh of relief when that happened!
News of Her pregnancy and Birth of My Granddaughter
As soon as I learnt that she was expecting, my heart felt very heavy, for I knew how much she needed me, and I could not go to her or be with her through this time, due to my other commitments at home. It was not like I could just drive there and bring her home for a few days to rest and pamper her, like many other mothers can. All I could do was listen and advise her through email and Skype.
Hearing about her pregnancy woes made me ache inside, as there was not much I could do for her, as we were continents apart. As soon as she knew, she informed me that she was having a daughter, I was so happy, but sad inside, for I knew that she would not be able to come home to have the baby, and I was not sure if I would even be able to go to her. Yet, deep inside, I was hoping that I would be able to be there for her during the birth of her first child.
Allah had other plans for us both. It so happened just three months before her due date, my husband received ajob offer in Malaysia, and after discussing it together, we decided it would be good for him to accept and for us to move. We both realised that it would not be possible for me to go to Egypt to help and look after her. Alhamdulillah, a close family member was able to go and help her and be with her during this time. This eased my mind, but I was still missing out on a big part of my daughter’s new life, but there was nothing I could do to change things.
The day Zainab gave birth was a really hard day for me, but trusting in Allah I and making du’a for her, I knew she would get through it okay. After all, she did have half my genes! It was not easy knowing I would not be able to give my granddaughter her first bath, the way I did for other sisters’ babies before. Unlike many other new mothers who have their own mothers to help take care of them and their little ones, I was not able to assist my daughter, and this made me feel like I was not a good mother at the time. But things were not in my hands, this was Allah's plan that I had to accept and be patient with. For He, subhanahu Ta'ala, knows what is best for us all.
Building, Keeping and Maintaining Strong Bonds
Like everything else, maintaining, growing and keeping the bonds of closeness is not always easy. I was worried that my granddaughter will not know who I am nor have a close attachment to me, being so far away. Alhamdulillah for Skype and technology! From the day she was born, she not only heard my voice almost every day, but saw me online. As Khadijah, my granddaughter, was growing, I was able to be a part of her life in many ways, even from a great distance. Although it never is the same as having them nearby, it was more than my family has ever had with my own children! One of the blessings of moving to Malaysia was the possibility of Zainab and Khadijah coming to visit us, or us them - it was a lot less probable, had we remained in Canada.
Alhamdulillah, a few months after Khadijah turned one, my husband was able to go and bring them home for a visit! Even though she knew my voice and saw me online all this while, I was not sure how she would react the first time we met each other in person. It took a couple days for her to realise that I was the person she had been talking to online. This visit helped strengthen the new bonds formed with Khadijah, so that after they returned home, it continued to grow and strengthen, to the point that at two and a half years old, she calls us online by herself and asks to talk to us.
During Zainab's growing and maturing years, I know I was always her strongest critic, but I tried to always push and guide her towards helping her know her own strengths and weaknesses. It's not easy
when your pre-teen or teen daughter dislikes you at times, but we mothers need to realise that we need to be their mothers first, and the friendship will grow as they themselves mature and you have
an open, honest relationship. Working on building that bond from day one can never be taken from you, no matter how far you may be from each other or which ends of the world you live in.
Give your daughters the chance to work with you on projects, and volunteer together working in your community. Listen to their ideas, even if what they say is idealistic or impractical. Allow them to try new experiences, as long as it is within Islamic guidelines. Let your friends be their friends and mentors; it helps when you know they're talking to people you trust, rather than people you don't
know. Know when to discipline them on the spot or take them aside and give them a talking to. Never be shy or afraid to tell them something you or they may not like. Never take their anger, dislike or outbursts of emotions personally. Give them space to make mistakes and hopefully learn from it. Teach and show them respect and they will return it. Remember that your most important role is first as a mother, before being a friend. Never be jealous of her having other sisters, even your own friends, as confidants. Do not be discouraged when she tells them things she won't tell you, but be perceptive, and you will learn many things about her, without her even having to tell you. Know when to let her vent and when to offer advice.
These are just some of the things that will help you create a strong bond with your daughters, and later granddaughters, insha Allah. A bond that will endure many tests and trials, only to make you bothlearn how much you love, appreciate and need each other.
Insha Allah, one day, Khadijah, Zainab and I will be three generations of women from one bloodline in the same house. I can't wait to hear the madness and laughter resonating within the house, since I am normally surrounded only by men!
Zainab Umm Khadijah
When I think back to my relationship with my mother during childhood and adolescence, there were two emotions that I felt most intensely: a fierce love and desire to protect and impress her and the equally fierce need to escape her control!
I was definitely a troublesome kid, and I know that I caused my mother a lot of grief. We got on each other’s nerves, and there were times when we could barely stand to look at each other! I went through phases when I resented her and downright hated her, but what stands out most is that no matter how angry we were at each other, she was always ready to give me another chance. Even when she lost her temper (with every right to do so!) she never stopped doing what she thought was the best thing for me.
Our personalities have always been very different, but what makes my mother special is that even if she didn’t completely understand how I felt, she made the effort to help me however she could. There are things she did that I never recognised or appreciated then, but when I look back, I marvel at how every step she took helped me to grow, to learn and to become a better person.
I strongly believe that if it weren’t for our clashes, her tough love and even some of my acts of rebellion, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
The later teen years smoothed out our rocky relationship, but being a rebellious spirit, I pushed my mother close enough to the edge that she can blame me for her grey hairs! Nonetheless, I suddenly
found myself in the position of having a ‘cool mum’ (according to my friends) and had to admit that, yeah, she was pretty cool. It was especially during this time that I began to notice and admire how
much my mother was capable of - how much she sacrificed for our family and how much patience she had to go the extra mile for me, even when she was already tired and stretched thin in her time and energy.
My love for her grew even stronger, and I secretly wished that I could handle life with the strength and courage she displayed, whilst always making it look easy. With all the trouble I gave her, I
rarely saw her break down or show just how weary she was, not only with me, but with her own issues as well.
Perhaps the most poignant moment that made me realise just how much I depended upon and needed my mother’s support was when I got married at the age of eighteen and left home. It was a difficult and painful adjustment to not only leave my family, but also to leave the country I had grown up in and move to a foreign country with a new husband I barely knew. I spent days and nights crying, not just out of homesickness, but because I was all alone with no family or friends nearby to help me deal with the culture clash that made early married life even more difficult. When I became pregnant soon after, I felt that I had lost the last remnants of control over my life.
Three years later, I know now that the only reason that I made it through those agonising months of emotional pain is because of my mother’s never-ending du’a. That du’a continues to be a source
of comfort for me whenever life gets too overwhelming and it’s hard for me to get a grip on myself; I know that no matter how tough things are for me, my mum is out there praying to Allah I
that I can get through it - and I know I will, insha Allah.
When I gave birth to my daughter at the age of nineteen, I was still very much a child in need of my mother. Ironically enough, it was the distance between us that made me stronger and forced me to
grow up a little bit more. In turn, it’s what made me appreciate the struggles she had gone through when she had given birth to me at a similar age.
Being away from my UmmiJaan sucks, but it has also taught me how to stand on my own two feet. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still very emotionally dependent on her and that I call her almost
every day just to whine, complain and annoy the heck out of her, but I’ve learned to cope with difficult situations on my own as well.
One of the few things that I actually enjoy about growing up is how my relationship with my mother keeps improving. I’m still her child, but I’m an adult too – I can be rebellious without having to endure (too many) scoldings and lectures; I can choose to accept her advice or not (instead of being ordered to!) and I can make decisions which she will support me in, even if she doesn’t always
agree with them (like dyeing my hair blue!). I have the opportunity to work with her on a more equal footing, and I continue to learn more about her, which only increases the love, respect and
admiration I have for her and for everything she has accomplished and continues to accomplish. I only hope that she is as proud of me as I am of her.
Now that I have a two-and-a-half year old daughter of my own, I fervently pray that I can be even half as patient, nurturing and plain old enduring in raising my child as my mother was (and is) with
me. I still feel like a kid and often can’t believe that I have one of my own – after all, I’m only twenty-one! Knowing that my mum will always be just one Skype call away, no matter what the situation is – whether it’s the fact that I forgot to get my daughter vaccinated on time, or I’m just having a really bad day – is a thought that comforts me.
I also hope that despite the thousands of miles that physically separate us, my daughter will have the chance to love and learn from her grandmother the way I did (although she’ll probably get
a better deal out of it). I can’t wait for the day that I’ll be able to sit at the kitchen table with my mother and my daughter, talking seriously, laughing giddily and getting smacked on the back of my
head with my mother’s chappal [flip-flops].
I love you, UmmiJaan!
Umm Zainab Vanker and Umm Khadijah Kathrada are an incorrigible mother-daughter team who manage to keep their relationship full of love, laughter and squabbling, despite the fact that they live on opposite sides of the world. They are both incredibly grateful to Allah I for blessing them with such a wonderful relationship with each other and pray that it always remains so.