MuslimMatters is excited to welcome Haleh Banani on board, a trained and experienced psychologist and practicing Muslim sister. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston, and over 10 years experience in diagnosing mental and emotional disorders and administrating programs of treatment. She has given inspiring lectures in the U.S., Dubai, Jordan and Egypt. Read more of her biography here. Haleh will be helping MM take the next great leap in helping our communities and families by providing information that will help the healing process where psychological disorders or social problems are taking a toll. We are formulating a column where Haleh will answer selected reader questions on a periodic basis. If you have suggestions of what you would like to see, feel free to add them here.
Join us in welcoming Sr. Haleh!
If you are breathing and interacting with others you need psychology! You may think that psychology is just common sense and not really a necessity. But I beg to differ. Limiting beliefs and cultural taboos of “shrinks” may be hindering you from seeing the value of what this field has to offer. Now, I’m not suggesting for all of you to run out and make an appointment with the nearest therapist, but what I am asking from you is to have an open heart and an open mind while reading my articles. If your cup is full or turned upside down you will not be able to receive any benefit. Knowledge of psychology can either simply enhance your life or completely transform it. In my practice, I have worked with many suicidal clients that had lost their will to live. Using psychology in the light of Quran and Sunnah, they not only choose to live, but they are living with purpose celebrating life, Alhamdulillah. Psychology can help you to understand yourself, which will affect every aspect of your life. By understanding yourself you will be much more capable of relating to others. That means having a better relationship with your spouse, raising your kids with ease and deliberateness, learning to be a better friend, and achieving success at school or work.
Learning psychology can help you to understand yourself on a whole new level. It’s absolutely fascinating to learn how your psyche works – what makes you tick, what motivates you, how to overcome fears and phobias. Once you know how your mind works, you can start programming yourself for success. You no longer have to stumble upon success – you can aspire, plan and achieve while putting your complete trust in Allah. Then when you have taken a decision, put your trust in Allah, certainly, Allah loves those who put their trust in Him (Surah Al-Imran 3:160). You will no longer be at the mercy of other peoples’ approval or validation because you can learn to accept yourself and in accepting yourself you can accept others. In learning about behavior modification, you can learn how to motivate yourself and others to make that oh so necessary change; like shedding 20 pounds, giving up bad habits, forgiving others, controlling your anger and getting organized. Allah will never change the state of the people until they change themselves (Surah Al-Anfal 8:53).
If it’s not motivation you are lacking, you can learn to cope better with all of life’s challenges. Learning coping skills can be a matter of life or death. Thousands of people die due to heart attacks and strokes because they never learned to cope with the daily stresses. Your outlook on life can become optimistic by becoming aware of your internal conversation which is called self-talk and you can even reinvent yourself by vigilantly avoiding negative thoughts the way you would avoid a poisonous snake. The pursuit of happiness has to begin within. If you don’t like yourself, you can’t expect others to make you happy. Once you like yourself, you will be able to embrace the people around you and focus on giving to them on a deep, emotional level. Each one of these concepts I have mentioned requires an article to explain; however this is an introduction to the psychological material I will be covering insha’Allah. Consider this article as a preview of coming attractions!
When you start becoming happier with yourself, the first people who will notice the change will be your friends and family. Your relationships with them will improve significantly because you will no longer be consumed with your inadequacies. Learning to accept yourself with all your shortcomings and imperfections will make you less judgmental of others. You will be able to be more tolerant and respectful of people even if they are not your ideological clones. Many times we classify differences in others as flaws and we quickly dismiss them. This way of critically judging everyone prevents us from achieving a higher level of empathy and insight. Many times in hearing different perspectives, we broaden our understanding and become more compassionate. This compassion is essential within families. Kind words and forgiving of faults are better than Sadaqah (charity) (Surah 2 Al-Baqarah:263). Genuine acceptance, sympathy and forgiveness creates an environment conducive to effective communication and conflict resolution. Learning the fine art of expressing your needs and resolving problems could drastically improve the quality of your family life.
As you nurture yourself and improve your family life, you will become more at peace, exuding happiness and confidence which will make you more appealing. But all the appeal in the world cannot compensate for a lack of interpersonal skills with your spouse. Having the skills to nurture this vital relationship and the diplomacy to resolve conflicts will transform your married life. He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and whoever is granted wisdom is indeed given a great wealth (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:269). When you acquire the necessary tools and wisdom to nourish your relationship, serenity will descend and difficulties will become more manageable.
Having a strong and stable relationship with your spouse should be a prerequisite to having children because of the impact it has on their personalities and their lives. Not only do people lack the skills or role models in having an efficacious relationship, they also believe they can just improvise on parenting without any prior training or knowledge. Ask people of knowledge if you do not know (Surah Nahl 16:43). It’s disheartening to know that a person is required to take courses and seek training from experts in order to drive or hunt, but when it comes to becoming a parent and raising the future generation there are absolutely no criteria. Seeking knowledge within psychology regarding effective parenting and applying the beautiful example of our beloved Prophet (peace and salam upon him) will enable us to have a map which will guide us in the rugged and unpredictable terrains of parenting.
Empowered with the knowledge of psychology within the Islamic framework will have you parenting with ease and deliberateness, while reaping the rewards of gratifying relationships. You will introspect and understand your emotions, which will enable you to be more accepting of yourself and others. Aspirations will be achieved with simple guidelines when accompanied with perseverance and trust in Allah. It is my hope that this article has wet your appetite for learning more about psychology in the light of the Quran and Sunnah, insha’Allah.
On Prophetic Wisdom and Speaking to Children in Times of Distress
By Rania Awaad, M.D.
A remarkable trademark of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, was that he spoke to children at their age-appropriate levels. To draw inspiration from the Prophetic wisdom on how to speak to young people, particularly in times of distress, one need only reference the Prophet’s gentle interaction with his young companion, Abu ‘Umayr, upon recognizing the child’s grief about the death of his pet. Perhaps the most striking lessons we learn from this interaction was that the Prophet, peace be upon him, recognized the child’s distress, inquired about it, then approached the child with gentleness, validation and in a non-blaming manner that both recognized and healed the emotions the child was experiencing.
It is imperative that we engage our children and teens in their moments of distress and avoid shying away from discussing difficult topics. When a disaster strikes our families and communities, it is very likely the young ears in our homes have heard snippets of our conversations and picked up on our own distress and that of other adults around them. While it may not be age-appropriate to give children the full details, hushed conversations coupled with little reassurance is a definite recipe for more fear and confusion. Here is a set of tips that we as parents can implement to help quell the fears and anxieties of our children and teens related to distressing news:
- It starts with us: Unplugging from social media, centering ourselves, processing our own emotions, debriefing with those whom we trust, being conscious of what we say and how. The way we react will have an impact on our children- our reactions cue them in on how they should react too. It is okay for our children to see us in a controlled state of frustration or sorrow as long as we are able to help them feel secure. It is also okay for us to delay the conversation with our children in order to give us time to process our own emotions- so long as we are able to get back to reassuring them.
- Prepare: How we talk to a 5-year-old will be different than how we talk to a 15-year-old. Simple language can be used with younger children while a more detailed discussion may be needed for older children. Educating ourselves about various angles of a tragedy helps us gain a sense of control and enables us to convey a balanced perspective to our children. In the Islamic tradition, we believe that good can emerge from any tragedy. Before talking to our children, it would be best to consider the key messages and values we want to express ahead of time.
- Inquire: Even young children may have heard about a horrific tragedy. If we have children in different developmental stages, we might consider talking to the entire family first at the youngest child’s level and then individually with each child.
- Ages 3-6: Avoid sharing horrific news with children in this age group if they are unaware of it. Only if we suspect they know something (like mentioning it to an older sibling or while playing, for example), should we ask children 3-6 if they’ve heard about anything that upset them.
- Ages 7-12: Wait and see if they ask us. There is no need to discuss horrific news with this age group unless we suspect or know they will be exposed to it. Signs of distress like regression or not wanting to go to the school or the masjid after news of a shooting, for example, are signs to invite them to talk.
- Teens: Assume they know- but don’t assume their knowledge is complete. We will need to fill in the blanks and correct flawed or misleading information they received from friends or through social media.
- Children with developmental delays or disabilities: Gear questions to the child’s developmental level or abilities, rather than their physical age. If the child is aware of the events, provide details or information in the clearest and appropriate manner possible.
- Listen: It is important that we first understand what is going through our children’s mind so that we can understand what they might actually worried be about. Many parents jump right to troubleshooting and problem-solving mode. Yet in doing so we may increase our child’s anxiety by projecting onto them our own adult-level fears. Listening with more than our ears helps keep us tune into our children’s non-verbal communication. Listening also means removing distractions like phones, computers and the like. It’s important to note that children may need to talk about what they are hearing and feeling for a number of days in order to process the implications.
- Validate: Open up the conversation by asking a simple question like, “What things are you concerned or upset about?” Once the child responds, validate their concerns even if they don’t match our own or make sense immediately. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling (name the emotion). I can understand that.” In trying our best not to minimize their fears, we allow our children to properly express their emotions. Children and teens often need help naming what they are feeling- labeling emotions (upset, angry, scared, disgusted, disappointed, etc.) helps bring them back to a balanced state.
- Simplify and Correct: Abstract ideas can complicate matters and scare young children. Using familiar terms and not over-explaining are both helpful for young children. For a mass shooting one may say, “A very confused and angry person took a gun and shot people. The police are working to making sure people are safe again.” Tweens and teens are more likely to hear news from unreliable sources, so they need the truth to come from us. They are more likely to respond better to us if we accept their sources but give them the tools to view the information critically. When we teach them to ask questions about what they saw or heard, it helps them think beyond a clickbait headline or meme.
- Model Hope and Faith: As parents, we need to model hope and strength in our identity as Muslims. Conveying pride in our Muslim identity and seeking solace in our faith is crucial to our children’s development. This is an opportune time to remind ourselves and our children that Allah is in control of everything and is the best of planners. Putting trust in Allah and channeling feelings of hopelessness into meaningful contributions to the world around them is one of the most important forms of healing. When children and teens feel that they can make a positive impact, it restores the soul and boosts the resiliency they will need their whole lives.
Most Common Mistakes:
- Minimizing: Suppressing the conversation or minimizing children’s reactions or fears can manifest itself in physical symptoms. Some signs to look for that they are having difficulty adjusting include:
- Physical: Children may complain of feeling tired, having a headache, stomachache, or generally feeling unwell.
- Emotional: Children may experience sadness, depression, anxiety, or fears.
- Behavioral: Look for signs of social regression, acting more immature, or becoming less patient and more demanding. Children who once separated easily from their parents may become clingy. Teens may seek assistance to their distress from substance use.
- Sleep: Watch for trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, difficulty waking up or nightmares.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical manner to an unusual event or whether they are having real problems coping, and thus in need of extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your child’s pediatrician or mental health professional. If you prefer that your child speaks with a Muslim mental health professional, you can find ones in your locale here. Some Muslim counseling centers such as the Khalil Center offer both in-person and online therapy options. In all cases, do not wait for the signs. Start the discussion early, and keep the dialogue going.
- Over-exposure: One of the most common mistakes is talking about horrific events in front of children and assuming they do not understand or will not be affected. The other major source of over-exposure is via media coverage of violent tragedies. Children age eight and younger have difficulty telling if what they hear and see on screens is fantasy or reality, and this ability develops gradually with age. This is why experts recommend against allowing children under age eight to view media containing any type of violence. Even after the age of eight, graphic or repetitive exposure to violence can cause children to virtually relive the event over and over. This can lead to children developing long-term anxiety, depression, anger, and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
- Feigned Indifference: It is possible that despite our attempts to use the seven steps above to engage your children, they might not want to talk to us about their concerns. That is okay, but we must offer them alternatives such as other trusted adults who can help them. Also consider teen help lines such as Khalil Center, Stones to Bridges, Amala Hopeline, or Naseeha. At the very least, let them know that help exists.
Keep marching ahead:
Tragic events stay in our collective memory and may cause very real fear and anxiety. However, they are also teachable and character-building moments to reinforce our values within ourselves and our children. As parents, it is important for us to practice self-care. Overstimulation from constantly checking our news-feeds will likely raise our anxiety levels which our children will likely pick up on. As families, it is imperative that we connect with communities that provide spaces for encouragement, support, and understanding and serve a healing purpose for each member of the family.
Finally, a parting reminder that we are created to worship Allah, Most High, recognizing that He is in full control and is the best of planners. We must hold fast to our principles and values, and be a forward-looking people who constantly work on improving ourselves and the communities around us.
1. The family and Youth Institute: After a Tragic Event.
2- The Muslim Wellness Foundation: Coping with Community Trauma.
3- The Khalil Center Confidential Helpline: click here.
4- The Khalil Center: Faith and Community Leader Training: Mental Health First Response Certification Training
Rania Awaad, M.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she is the Director of the Muslim Mental Health Lab and Wellness Program and Co-Director of the Diversity Clinic. She pursued her psychiatric residency training at Stanford where she also completed a postdoctoral clinical research fellowship with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Her research and clinical work are focused on the mental health needs of Muslims. Her courses at Stanford range from instructing medical students and residents on implicit bias and integrating culture and religion into medical care to teaching undergraduate and graduate students the psychology of xenophobia. Her most recent academic publications include works on Islamic Psychology, Islamophobia, and the historical roots of mental health from the Islamic Golden Era.
Through her outreach work at Stanford University, she is also the Clinical Director of the San Francisco Bay Area branches of the Khalil Center, a spiritual wellness center pioneering the application of traditional Islamic spiritual healing methods to modern clinical psychology. She has been the recipient of several awards and grants for her work.
Prior to studying medicine, she pursued classical Islamic studies in Damascus, Syria and holds certifications (ijaza) in Qur’an, Islamic Law and other branches of the Islamic Sciences. Dr. Awaad is also a Professor of Islamic Law at Zaytuna College, a Muslim Liberal Arts College in Berkeley, CA where she teaches courses on Shafi’i Fiqh and Women’s Fiqh. In addition, she serves as the Director of The Rahmah Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating Muslim women and girls. At Rahmah, she oversees the Murbiyyah spiritual mentoring program for girls. Dr. Awaad is a nationally recognized speaker, award-winning teacher, researcher and author in both the Islamic and medical sciences.
Highly Educated, Willingly Domesticated
Doctor. Engineer. Certified Nurse-Midwife. Writer and Literary Critic. Lab Technician. Parliamentary Assistant. These highly-trained, respected careers are the culmination of years of intense study, training, and self-discipline. Most people, upon achieving these esteemed positions, would happily dedicate the rest of their working years to putting their knowledge and expertise to use. They would gradually gain more experience, earn greater pay, and amass professional perks. Most likely they would also, over time, assume leadership roles, earn awards, or become sought-after experts in their field.
What kind of person has all this at her fingertips, but decides to give it up? Who would trade in years of grueling study and professional striving for an undervalued position that requires no degree whatsoever What type of professional would be willing to forgo a significant salary to instead work for free, indefinitely, with no chance whatsoever of a paycheck, recognition, benefits, or promotion?
Who else, but a mother?
While certainly not all mothers choose to give up their careers in order to raise their children, there is a subset of women who do. Stay-at-home-moms (SAHMs) may spend the majority of their days performing unglamorous tasks like washing dishes, changing diapers, and reading storybooks to squirming toddlers, but behind the humble job title are dynamic, educated, and capable women. They may currently have a burp cloth in one hand and a sippy cup in the other, but chances are, SAHMs have a mind and capabilities that reach far beyond the apparent scope of their household duties.
What motivates a capable and ambitious woman to give up her career and stay home to raise children? Is she coerced into it, or does she choose it willingly? What is her driving force, if not money, status, or respect? I had many questions for these women -my sisters in Islam and my stay-at-home “colleagues”- and some of their answers surprised me.
For this article I interviewed seven highly-educated Muslim moms who chose to put successful careers on hold, at least temporarily, to raise their children. Between them, they hold PhDs, MDs, and Masters degrees. While the pervasive stereotype about Muslim women is that they are oppressed and backward, these high-achieving females are no anomaly. In fact, according to her article in USA Today, Dalia Mogahed points out that, “Muslim American women are among the most educated faith group in the country and outpace their male counterparts in higher education.” Across the pond, The Guardian reports that “more young Muslim women have been gaining degrees at British universities than Muslim men, even though they have been underrepresented for decades.”
Ambitions and dreams
Every single one of the women I interviewed grew up in a household with parents who highly emphasized their daughters’ education. In fact, all of them were encouraged -either gently or more insistently- to pursue “top” careers in medicine, engineering, or science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the women I interviewed were at the head of their classes at university.
In their school years, before marriage, all of the women I spoke with considered their career to be their main priority; motherhood seemed far-off and undefined. “When in uni,” explains Neveen, an endodontist who eventually put her career on hold to be a SAHM and homeschooler, “I never, ever thought I’d homeschool (nor did I believe in it), nor did I ever think I’d be a SAHM. I was very career-oriented. I was top of my class in dental school and in residency.”
“I absolutely thought I would be a career woman,” agrees Nicole, a mom of three in California who holds a Masters degree in Middle East Studies. “I never considered staying at home with the kids, because they were totally out of my mind frame at the time.”
“I expected that after graduation I would follow a research-based career,” adds Layla*, another SAHM in California who holds a PhD in Computer Engineering. “I never thought I’d stay at home because I believed it was fine for kids to be in daycare. I also thought SAHMs were losing their potential and missing out on so much they could otherwise accomplish in their lives.”
As young women, many assumed that if they ever chose to start a family, they would have assistants, nannies, or domestic helpers to lighten their load. Several of them believed they would put their future children, if any, in daycare. However, the reality of motherhood made each of these women change her mind.
“My child was highly attached to me,” explains Sazida, an Assistant to a Member of Parliament in England, “and I could not envision him being looked after by anyone else despite generous offers from relatives.”
“After I had my first child all I wanted to do was be able to care for her myself,” concurs Melissa, a Certified Nurse Midwife from New York.
It turns out that maternal instincts were not the only factor that made women choose to drop out of the workforce. Dedication to Islam played an enormous part in their decision-making.
“After having my first child,” explains Layla, “I decided that he was far more precious than working. He is a gift that Allah gave me to protect and care for.”
“After I became Muslim,” shares Nicole, “My goals changed, and I hoped to marry and have children. I do think it was beneficial for my children to have a parent always there to depend on,” she adds. “I feel like I was the anchor in the family for them, and I hope to continue that role.”
“What’s important to me,” asserts Neveen, “Is to raise my kids as good Muslims who love -and are proud of- their life and deen.”
Another reason many highly educated women choose to stay at home is because they have the opportunity to homeschool some or all of their children. Remarkably, out of the seven women who answered questions for this article, five reported that they chose to homeschool at least one child for a few or more years.
“I really enjoy my homeschooling journey with my kids and I get to know them better, alhamdullilah,” states Layla.
The opportunity to nurture, educate, and raise their children with love and Islamic values is the primary reason why these talented women were willing to put their successful careers on hold. “Hopefully Allah will reward us in Jannah,” muses Layla.
Although none of the women I interviewed regrets her choice to be a SAHM, they all agree that it is a challenging job that is actually harder than their former career.
One obstacle they must overcome is the negative perception others have about successful women who make the choice to put their career on hold. “I soon learnt that casual clothes, a toddler, and a buggy don’t give you the same respect as suits and heels,” says Sazida.
One would expect, given their faith’s emphasis on the dignity of mothers, that Muslim SAHMs would enjoy the support of their family and friends. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
One mom explains, “My in-laws offered to look after my child, and my father-in-law couldn’t understand why I wanted to stay at home when there was perfectly good childcare that they were offering. After two and three years passed, he got more and more disheartened that I was not earning and complained about the lost potential income.”
“My non-Muslim mother told me that I wasting my education,” confides Nicole. “She did not support me staying home, though I think she appreciated that I was there for my children and have a good relationship with them. She was a SAHM as well, so I am not sure where that was coming from, actually.”
Melissa’s mom was similarly skeptical of her daughter’s decision. “My mother didn’t love me being fully dependent on my husband,” she admits.
“I was not at all supported by my family or friends,” laments Radhia, a Lab Technician with a BS in Microbiology with a Chemistry minor.
Other than being doubted and blamed for their choice, there are other challenges that SAHMs face. Accustomed to mental stimulation, exciting challenges, professional accomplishments, and adult interaction, many former career women find staying at home to raise youngsters to be monotonous and lonely. The nannies, assistants, cleaners, and other workers they had envisioned often never materialized, since hiring these helpers was usually too expensive. Husbands who spent the day working as the family’s sole breadwinner, were usually too tired to help with household duties. A few women admitted that they felt guilty asking for help in the home when their husband was already exhausted from work. To exacerbate the problem, most of the women I interviewed lived far from family, so they could not rely on the help one normally gets from parents and siblings. That means the bulk of the childcare and housework fell onto their laps alone.
“The main challenges for me,” states Nicole, “were boredom, and finding good friends to spend time with who had similar interests. I was also very stressed because the raising of the children, the housework, the food, and overall upkeep of our lives were my responsibility, and I found that to be a heavy burden.”
“I think the feelings of vulnerability and insecurity about whether I was a good enough mother and housewife was difficult,” shares Melissa. “All my sense of worth was wrapped up in the kids and home, and if something went wrong I felt like a failure.”
“It was not as easy as I thought it would be,” confesses Radhia. “It was overwhelming at times, and I did miss working. Emotionally and physically, it was very draining.”
“Staying home has been harder than I expected,” adds Summer*, a Writer and Literary Critic from Boston. “I didn’t realize how willful children could be. I thought they’d just do what I said. I’m still trying to get used to the individuality! It’s harder than my job was, only because of the emotional load, and the fact that the effort you put in doesn’t guarantee the results you hope for.”
Giving up their salary also put women in a state of financial dependency, which can be a bitter pill to swallow for women who are used to having their own resources.
“I felt very dependent on my husband, financially,” says Radhia.
“Alhamdulillah, my husband does not refuse if I ask him to buy anything,” explains Layla. “However, I felt like I was losing my power of deciding to buy something for someone else. For example, if I want to buy a gift for my mother or my sister, he never refuses when I ask him, but still I feel internally it is harder for me.”
“Alhamdulillah my husband’s personality is not one that would control my financial decisions/spending,” shares Neveen. “Otherwise I would never have chosen to be a SAHM.”
“Giving up my career limited my power to make financial decisions,” asserts Summer. “I could still spend what I wanted, but I had to ask permission, because my husband knew when ‘we’ were getting paid, and how much. He paid the bills, which I didn’t even look at.”
“Asking permission,” Summer adds, “is very annoying.”
Re-entering the workforce was difficult for some women, while not for others. The total time spent at home generally affected whether women could easily jump back into their profession, or not. Some of the moms felt their skills had not gotten rusty at all during their hiatus at home, while others felt it was nearly impossible to make up, professionally, for missed time.
Words of Wisdom
Although all of the women I interviewed firmly believe that their time at home with their children is well-spent, they do have advice for their sisters who are currently SAHMs, or considering the position.
“If I could go back and speak to myself as a new mum, I would tell myself to chill the heck out and just enjoy being a new mum,” says Sazida.
Melissa offers, “I wish people understood how talented you have to be to run a home successfully. It’s a ton of work and it requires you to be able to do everything from snuggle and nurture, to manage the money, budget, plan precisely, be a good hostess, handle problems around the home, manage time, and meet goals all while trying to look cute.”
“I would always recommend that women have their own bank account and money on the side,” advises Nicole. “You never know when you are going to need it.”
“Once their kids are in school,” adds Radhia, “I would suggest SAHMs start something from home, or take on part time work, or courses, if necessary.”
“For moms choosing to stay at home,” Layla suggests, “I would say try to work part-time if your time permits, and if you have a passion for working. Trust that Allah will protect you, no matter what. Remember, you are investing in your kids, and that is far more important than thinking ‘I need to keep money in my pocket.’”
Support, don’t judge
As a Muslim ummah, our job is to support one another as brothers and sisters. It seems people forget this oftentimes, and erroneously believe that we are entitled to gossip, speculate, and sit in judgement of each other, instead. In our lives we will all undoubtedly encounter women who choose to continue their careers, and those who put them on hold, and those who decide to give them up completely. Before we dare draw conclusions about anyone, we must keep in mind that only Allah knows a person’s entire story, her motivations, and her intentions. Only He is allowed to judge.
We must also remember that some women, for a variety of reasons, do not have the luxury of choosing to stay at home. They must work to the pay the bills. Allah knows their intentions and will reward their sacrifices as well.
It is my hope that this article will not cause more division amongst us, but rather raise awareness of the beautiful sacrifices that many talented and intelligent women willingly make for the sake of their children, and even more so, for the sake of Allah . They are the unsung heroes of our ummah, performing an undervalued job that is actually of utmost importance to the future of the world.
*Name has been changed
For the past decade, writer Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, and About Islam. Her articles frequently tackle issues like Muslim American identity, women’s rights in Islam, support of converts/reverts, and racism. A graduate of Grinnell College, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband and five children. Laura recently started a Facebook page, The Common Sense Convert, to support Muslim women, particularly those who are new to the deen.
New Motherhood: When Mom Is Sad
Becoming a new mother can be one the most rewarding experiences a woman can have in life, but it can also be incredibly challenging and overwhelming. New motherhood is typically associated with feeling incredibly blessed, a new sense of fulfillment and family bonding. There is a general expectation that new mothers should be happy and when they are not everyone is left bewildered as to why. What is a new mom supposed to do when there is a piercing angst wedged deep within her chest that won’t go away? Or when mixed clouds of frustration and sadness follow her everywhere she goes? How can a new mom tell anyone about her difficult feelings when she is supposed to be joyful? Well, the answer is- she doesn’t. New mothers often times keep their struggles to themselves and some end up falling into Postpartum Depression.
Getting help for depression has become more acceptable in the Muslim community over the past few years, however, Postpartum Depression (PPD) still flies mostly under the radar because of lack of knowledge about the subject and the associated shame. Myths about what causes PPD lead women to isolate and not reach out for help when family and community support can be exactly what new mothers need.
What is Postpartum Disorder?
Postpartum disorder is when a new mother experiences clinical levels of depression after having a baby; such as sadness, crying, major changes in appetite, sleep, irritability, feelings of no motivation, and hopelessness. Many research articles quote that depression affects 11% of women during pregnancy and 10-14% of women postpartum, but the range can be anywhere from 9-25% depending on risk factors and circumstances. Women from minority backgrounds, which many Muslim women fall into, can have postpartum rates as high as 23%.
It is assumed that PPD is caused by a woman not wanting to have a child, however, for the majority of women, it’s caused by a combination of physiological changes (e.g. falling hormone levels), being overwhelmed and not enough support. PPD doesn’t just happen for new mothers but can happen after any pregnancy or even during pregnancy (Perinatal Depression).
One of the biggest reasons PPD is not talked about by new mothers is shame and guilt. Around the world, and especially in Muslim communities, having a baby is expected to be a time of joy and celebration. It’s an encouraged sunnah, rite of passage and expected social norm- there is an expectation of experiencing a “magical feeling” due to the birth of this wonderful gift. When a woman feels that everyone around her expects her to be happy and she isn’t, that can cause shame, guilt, and self-doubt.
No woman wants to be labeled as ungrateful, unhappy or incompetent, and when a woman feels like she can’t talk to anyone about her vulnerable feelings without being shamed or belittled, her negative feelings are further compounded. A woman might be accused of being unappreciative for her child or life in general when she brings up her thoughts of PPD to family members. Confused spouses may grossly misunderstand PPD and turn on their wife calling her lazy or indoctrinated by Western or feminist values when the new mom says she needs a break from the house. When the new mother has nowhere to turn, she suffers alone in silence. Sometimes this suffering is well hidden behind fake smiles and at other times the pain cannot be contained and results in outbursts, chronic agitation or a complete emotional shutdown.
PPD symptoms are also many times overlooked because people have a hard time recognizing what symptoms are. A woman is expected to behave and feel differently when pregnant or after having a baby, but what is the difference between normal adjustment issues and clinical Adjustment Disorder? Does a mother have high agitation because her baby wakes up at all hours of the night, or because she is depressed? Does a first-time mother have a normal amount of anxiety because she isn’t experienced, or because she might have clinical Postpartum Anxiety?
When the new mother doesn’t know what signs to look out for then she misses opportunities to identify and address potential issues. Here are some signs to look for concerning PPD:
- Persistent sadness, anxiety, agitation, or distress for chunks of time throughout the week that lasts at least a couple weeks.
- Impaired functioning. This is tricky because many new moms will not be able to take care of certain aspects of her life like before, but when a new mom can’t keep up with the house, basic day to day activities, hygiene or friendships, etc. it could be a sign that she is struggling.
- Appearance that there is a big change in personality. Personality is innate and doesn’t tend to change over time. If someone seems like their personality has changed especially in a negative way this is likely because of a bigger issue at hand. It’s not that a once happy and social person is now pessimistic and solitary, it’s that the happy and social person is now depressed.
Why is Postpartum Depression Relevant to the Muslim Community?
Postpartum Depression is an important health and wellness issue for all communities but should be particularly noteworthy for Muslim communities as we place a lot of importance on respecting mothers and treating them well. When most people think about the significance of motherhood in Islam, immediate thoughts come up of taking care of one’s own mother – usually, the picture emerges of an old mother cared for by her now-grown children. But what about the significance of the role of motherhood itself? If we are to hold motherhood highly than we should also provide the support and resources needed for women to be able to fulfill their roles in the best way possible. When new mothers are supported, it not only helps them but also their children – the next generation of the Ummah. Healthy moms help make healthy homes and healthy communities.
In addition to giving mothers the appropriate support they need, we as a community also need to make sure that we are not giving mixed and contradictory messages to new moms about their contribution to the Ummah. Motherhood is simultaneously one of the most treasured and disrespected roles of our time. On the one hand, Islam puts mothers on the pedestal, while on the other hand modern day society indirectly disrespects motherhood all the time- especially for those who decide to stay home and take care of their children. It’s not unusual for some people to serve their mothers in a heartbeat yet go to their wife, daughter or friend and say the following:
“What do you do all day with the baby (or kids)?”
“It must be nice to stay at home and not go to work.”
“Why don’t you put your college degree to use?”
“Anyone can be a mother- you don’t need an education or any special qualities.”
As Muslims, it’s important for us to monitor our own healthy subconscious views about motherhood as we live in a global culture that promotes the opposite. How society views motherhood contributes to how mothers feel about themselves, and how they feel about the big responsibility of raising children entrusted to them.
Addressing PPD from a Multi-Level Perspective
Addressing the issue of postpartum depression comprehensively and systematically would be better suited for a longer publication, however for the purpose of this article, here are some simple strategies on an individual, family and community level that can help address PPD.
New moms are overwhelmed with many physiological, psychological and logistical changes, however, there are ways to get help if it’s getting too difficult to manage day to day functioning. One of the first places a new mom can turn to is her doctor. Obstetricians are very familiar with the ins and outs of regular adjustment versus clinical depression. If a new mom is not sure about Perinatal or Postpartum Depression, she can run it by her obstetrician at one of her pregnancy check-ups, at the hospital after delivery, or at the 6 week follow up visit.
Having supportive family and friends also makes a big difference. Many new moms are uncomfortable talking about their difficult feelings in social circles because of perceptions that they may be less than their peers. If one doesn’t have supportive friends or family members there are many new mom groups that can be a good substitute. These support groups can be found online, at hospitals and through OB/GYN groups. In the absence of a supportive network, new moms can reach out to a therapist to help them sort through feelings and identify local resources.
Self-care is extremely important. There are expectations by new mothers and those around her that she has to selflessly give herself and time to her child unconditionally. Motherhood is a never-ending job, but this doesn’t mean that a new mom shouldn’t carve out time in her schedule for herself. As a psychotherapist who has worked with countless new moms over the years, I truly believe you can not take care of someone else if you can’t take care of yourself. Getting alone time, uninterrupted spiritual time, taking naps, eating healthy food, getting exercise, being in nature and spending time with friends shouldn’t be looked at as luxuries, but as necessities for long-term wellbeing.
It’s important for a woman to look after her mental health, however, this is not her responsibility alone. Families are meant to be interdependent and so husbands, grandparents, and siblings should also keep an eye on the new mom to ensure that she is taking care of herself while she cares for the new baby. If a husband notices that his wife has not been feeling well for some time, as the shepherd of his family, it’s his responsibility to assist her in getting the help she needs; mothers of adult daughters, aunts and sisters should do the same.
Families can help by being emotionally and logistically supportive. Kind words go a long way, but so does giving a helping hand. Assistance should be given freely with no intention of making the mother feel incompetent, or that she is failing. Letting new mom take a break without baby can do wonders for her and is not “selfish” of her.
Obstetricians provide postpartum screenings in their office, but this is not nearly enough. Prevention and intervention on a community level is needed and masajid should promote support groups for new mothers and mothers in general. Having support groups takes minimal effort or upkeep as all that is usually needed is a space where new moms can meet consistently and a person to facilitate.
Additionally, masajid should make consistent efforts to make their spaces kid friendly. A new mother who previously attended many events at the masjid can find herself completely cut-off from the community if she cannot bring her baby or kids – likely worsening her depression. Kid-friendly components to masjid activities can be critical to a new mother and form one of the key pillars of community support she needs.
In summary, Postpartum Depression can be preventable and treatable with simple interventions like providing new mothers adequate emotional, social and community support. When we open up the conversation about PPD we take away harmful assumptions about why it exists and can help address the issue from a multi-dimensional perspective. When PPD can’t be prevented or managed by community and family intervention, it’s important to help a new mother in getting the support she needs from her doctor or a psychotherapist without feeling like she is a bad mother.
Najwa Awad is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW-C) that has provided psychotherapy to individuals and families in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area for over 10 years. She obtained a Bachelors degree in Psychology at George Mason University in 2005. In 2007 she received a Masters in Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in the clinical treatment of individuals and families. Najwa also has post graduate education in the treatment of complex psychiatric trauma and telemental health (online counseling). Her experience in the field is diverse and includes providing services at group homes, schools and in the foster cares system. Most recently Najwa has been working and supervising in outpatient mental health settings providing psychotherapy to women, children and families. Commonly treated issues include trauma, mood disorders, behavioral disorders and anxiety. In addition to giving regular mental health workshops in the community, Najwa is also Fellow at the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.
 Gavin, N.I., Gaynes, B.N., Lohr, K.N., Meltzer-Brody, S., Gartlehner, G., Swinson, T.(2005). Perinatal depression: a systematic review of prevalence and incidence. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 106 (5, Pt 1):1071-1083