Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Choosing Children - Part III

The OG Trio

When I published the first part of this series, someone asked me why I chose to write it now. I didn’t have any other answers except that it is long overdue and I know no other Muslim and/or Arab openly talking about it. It should go without saying (but unfortunately I know I have to say it again), this series is not at all intended to shame having children. Rather, it is to shed light on the fact that having children should finally be recognized and taught as a choice. I don’t know how that is not Parenting 101, but let’s not get redundant. Part I and Part II already covered this fact. However, let me quickly reiterate some religious points: The concepts of reflection, thought, and contemplation are repeated in the Quran more than 200 times, meaning every single thing we do in this life as Muslims requires thorough knowledge and awareness. An intentional mindfulness to our life choices, including having children.

Sometime in late June, months after I intended on finishing this series, amidst final exams and coming to the conclusion that online dating is most certainly a concoction of Satan, I woke up from the strangest dream of my life. The instant I opened my eyes, I knew this was one of two reasons God had me delay the finale of this series.

My mom, brother, and I were sitting on the couch, and I get a notification that my dad left me a voice message. I play it aloud for the three of us, who had been waiting for him to get home, and it sounds like he’s clearly driving. He tells us that gas prices are too high for him to drive home tonight from his business trip so he’s staying at a local motel (counterintuitive and totally not what my dad would actually do lol, but dreams are weird). Then he says to my mom, as if knowing his message would be on speaker, “Tell Dania that her test results came back and her body is ready for reproduction, but her window of opportunity is closing. So if she wants them, she needs to start now, but of course, it’s totally up to her whether she wants to have any or not.” 

In real life, my gynecologist found an abnormal growth in my uterus and I was scheduled for a procedure at the end of June to have it removed. If ever any woman is on the fence about having children, this procedure will traumatize you against it. The pain was so excruciating my tears streamed without my knowledge. This is saying a lot considering my tolerance of pain is HIGH. I wasn’t even crying. The tears just escaped my eyes uncontrollably. Even my doctor (who is genuinely incredible, THANK GOD) deeply empathized with me and periodically checked in to manage my pain level. I knew the anxiety leading up to—and after the procedure as I awaited the results—triggered the dream. After all, my dad was a doctor, and since his passing in 2019, he only shows up in my dreams when I’m dealing with a heavy dilemma. Somehow, he always has the perfect answers, even in the afterlife.

We could spend hours psychoanalyzing the various parts of this dream, but what resonated the most for me was the fact that even when the biological argument came into play (as it often does when people interrogate me), my dad still emphasized that free will is on the table. He reminded me it’s my body, my life, and therefore, my choice. But it wasn’t just the reminder. It was the fact that it was so normal to him for his daughter to be allowed to choose. It was the fact that he built an authentically safe space for me to change my mind (if need be) without being judged or criticized or given an “I told you so.” And while this was a dream, in actuality he always extended these same privileges to me. Privileges I rarely find in the world anymore, and this is another reason I decided to publish this series.

While scrolling through social media, every once in a while I come across a “motivational” quote that isn’t too cliche or nauseating (because let’s face it, pop psychology has become exhaustingly problematic). Last year, I saw one that said something along the lines of: Normalize compassion with those who change their minds because growth is real. Basically, it’s the idea of offering grace when people come full circle in their knowledge or simply change their mind—overcoming ignorance, becoming more educated, surviving trauma and seeing another side to things, etc. As saturated as the world has become with “Be Kind” and “Love is the Answer” mantras, humanity often fails at these things. Why are we so stingy with our compassion and grace to others in this world? Why do we angrily attack anyone who doesn’t see things our way and then relish in unhealthy egotistical pleasure at someone’s shift? Shaming them or rubbing noses in the change? (And then continue having children that we pass on these unspoken behaviors to? Make it make sense.)

The dream left me wondering, what grace and compassion does the world offer someone, specifically a woman, who reconsiders her lifelong choice to remain child free? But I did not have to wonder too long because I remembered the lack of kindness and grace I received when I “finally” got engaged to my ex-husband. The celebratory wishes coming from a place of society’s relief that the feminist they feared was finally muzzled vs. being genuinely happy I supposedly found the one. And then the severe attitude shift following my divorce. (You can catch more on that here in my Domestic Violence Awareness video series.)

But hearing the gentleness in my dad’s voice, assuring me that I was welcome to walk any of the paths that best fit me, was a relief. I realized if (and it’s a HUGE “if”) I ever changed my mind about having children, aside from having my parents’ blessings, I am doing what I know is best for me and that is all that matters. And I hope that the rest of the folks in this world who choose a child free life or are still trying to figure it out, especially those who share my cultural and/or religious backgrounds, can find their way to this liberation.

I share this little aside because interestingly enough for a very brief few weeks this summer, for the first time I found myself almost contemplating it. Life can be really strange—sometimes cruel, very funny, and just a tad bit awkward. Long story short, I unknowingly caught some deep feelings for someone I never expected to fall for. I think what carved the depth of these feelings was the fact that he and I were friends for the longest time, which is not something I experienced in any previous potential relationship. So it built a solid foundation for me to be vulnerable. It also helped to know that the feelings were mutual for a while. However, everyday is apparently opposite day with men, so the moment I started feeling things, his feelings (romantic and platonic) were mysteriously and unexpectedly obliterated. But before he exhibited the shocking twist and disrespect, I had felt a slight “what if” spark about having one baby. And this was, I realized, the second reason God had me delay the finale. I never (and still don’t) believe the notion that when you meet “The One” and fall in love you’ll suddenly crave reproduction because I did fall in love once (like real life-altering-never-forget-this love) and despite crossing oceans and making too many sacrifices for him, I never even had a tickle to be a mom. So it was really weird for me that it suddenly happened with this dude.

I shared this with only three people in my life who I trusted would not overreact or dismiss my lifelong choice to be child free: my mom and two other girlfriends. It’s not that I suddenly contracted baby fever with this guy. Actually I had hoped that if we explored a relationship he would tell me he was entirely open to a child free life. However, I thought if he said he wanted at least one, I’d consider it. But when the rug was pulled from under my stilettos and he completely changed his behavior without an explanation, everything was immediately extinguished. The slight consideration to having a baby. The friendship I loved so much. And my faith in a lot of things.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusion (and I know many *cough* h a t e r s  *cough* surely will), I am not saying I changed my mind. If anything, following the excessive levels of painful disappointment I faced this year, I feel even more committed to a child free life. The lack of grace, compassion, and understanding in this world is draining. We offer women no grace, no compassion, and no empathy to choose what to do with their bodies or their lives—physically, sexually, or professionally. Three different men in the last year told me it wasn’t until now, in their 30s, that they woke up to the realization that women are human and not objects. (Somebody, just end this nightmare for me!)

We misconstrue the understanding of feminism and then demonize and marginalize women when they fight for the right to make their own choices. Case in point is the severe irony that even while writing this, I am anxious about its reception, knowing the number of people who will be utterly devoid of empathy and understanding, but rather malice when reading that I briefly reconsidered being a mom. People who will carry this little piece of information with them, waiting to discredit my choices moving forward. It is so exhausting because I face this in my community and in relationships. This is why I am writing the series. This is why I write and do anything in life. Unfiltered truth based education and awareness to break down this growing meanness we have in society. To eliminate the marginalization and isolation of people who choose to do (or not do) something.

For the longest time, I carried this choice in isolation. I had only ever known one other Arab Muslim woman that chose a child free life. We often exchange stories about the judgment we face, the harassment, the abuse, and the hate, and I think that’s pretty sad. However, since coming forward with Parts I and II of this series, quite a few other women (and some men) from my religious and cultural background messaged me to express gratitude and relief that someone from among our people is speaking up about this and that they no longer feel so alien.

Alienness is a feeling I know all too well and not only because of my child free choice. It started when I was 11 and diagnosed with trichotillomania. I thought the psychiatrist was joking when she said the word but she pulled out the dictionary from the bookshelf behind her and showed me. I cannot explain the immense relief that enveloped me to see that word on paper. As if having it documented means I am not the one “weirdo” on this planet that has something undiagnosable. As soon as I got home, I plugged in the internet cable, waited for that dial up tone, and asked Jeeves to show me all the articles on trichotillomania. (Shout out to the late 90s and early 2000s!) That little 11 year old girl suddenly felt a little less alone, but she still felt compelled to hide the secret until she turned 29. I found an unexpected moment of vulnerability and shared my story on a very public domain and suddenly I was liberated. Feeling shame for something that is not shameful was no longer a weight I wanted to carry.

The same thing happened here and it started when I saw the We Are Childfree feature in The New York Times. It was a photo + interview based spread of women who chose child free lives and it blew my mind! Finally this was coming to light and in such a beautifully powerful illustration. I immediately found their Instagram account and knew I was home. The immense sense of relief, validation, and end of aloneness I felt was immeasurable. At 29, I became the person I had been looking for since the age of 11 when I spoke up about OCD and trichotillomania. And at 32, We Are Childfree became the community I had been seeking since I was 18 and coming to terms that motherhood may not be my future.

From reading (and sharing) stories to exchanging commentary to learning about other helpful resources to finding new friends, I had finally gotten to experience this “village” everyone told us about that helps raise the child but never got to witness. A whole village of child free people who have our backs, provide a judgment free space, and are so loving and nurturing. I highlight these last two qualities because they’re the top two qualities I’m accused of lacking when I reveal my child free choice. To be honest, some of the most empathetic and kindest people I know are those who never had children. Why marginalize us instead of welcoming us into your village? Recognizing that we serve other genuinely significant roles in this life aside from parenthood? We become the fun aunts and uncles that your children turn to when sometimes you lose your sight as a parent. Some of us become the avid babysitters when you need some alone time. There’s this really sad misconception that everyone who chooses a child free life is a child hater, but um, friends, I freaking love babies! I just don’t feel compelled to have any of my own, but let me tell you, I have been counting down the seconds till my brothers make me an aunt.

My point to all of this is enough with the judgment already, and enough with misusing religion and culture to uphold patriarchal agendas. Not everyone has to become a parent. Not everyone has to get married. And not everyone has to make a choice and stick with it to satisfy your impressions. I find it disturbing yet interesting that these hateful attitudes are strictly coming from those who are parents or soon to be ones. Don’t you think you of all people you should be the ones preaching empathy, love, and understanding? You’re basically supplying the world of its next generation and it’s about time we had a better one. Just saying.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Choosing Children - Part II

Mama & I in the same place where I told her I didn't want to have children, 14 years later.

Unpopular Fact: A genuinely secure person would not, at all, feel threatened by the life choices of another.

I think of this fact often when I get attacked for my child free choice, wondering what fuels such intense, almost visceral, reactions from these people. I know what the answer is but to avoid exacerbating the argument, I refrain from informing people that their anger is clearly a byproduct of envy and insecurity.

I was 19 when I first came forward with this decision I had been ruminating over for two years. Ironically, it came out while my mom and I were babysitting my cousin’s newborn. She was finishing up a diaper change and I was clearing up the crib when I anxiously asked, “What would you say if I told you I don’t want to have kids?” Without even looking up, her hands moving at professional speeds, she said, “It’s your life. You do whatever you want.” I was surprised and looking back at this moment now, I realize why exactly I was so shocked at her answer. Regardless of how we’re raised and what types of environments we grow up in, the patriarchal system is still in power and will leave its mark one way or another. For us women, gifted with the right kind of upbringing and empowerment, the unlearning starts earlier and becomes easier with time, but every once in a while, we are reminded of the patriarchal indoctrination. For men, the work is two-fold because they don’t easily see the need to unlearn what benefits them so well.

Despite my mom’s answer, there was a small part of me that almost doubted her open minded (but still hardcore religious) demeanor. I decided to ask a follow up question, inspired by the obnoxious behavior and rhetoric of her peers. “So you’re not mad that I won’t ever make you a grandma?” She laughed loudly, as if I had cracked a really good joke, and said, “I got to live out my life the way I chose, and I wanted children. Grandchildren are not MY choice to make.” That was it. That was all the reassurance and validation I need to never look back. Though it didn’t ease the isolation I would soon come to face for this decision, it gave me the thick skin I needed to survive.

❥    ❥    ❥

The reason I blame insecurity and envy on people’s reactions to this choice is because there is no other valid answer to why they behave this way. I remember one time a group of young Arab women were hanging out and, per usual, the conversation revolved around husbands, what to cook them for dinner, and babies. Many were engaged if not already married and they asked me about my plans, specifically how many children I wanted. When I matter-of-factly let them know children were not in my plans, one girl just would not accept. “What?! Oh my god, no. You know what? I’m going to pray so hard that God gets you impregnated ASAP and you end up with seven kids!”

I can’t get (too) angry at people who never grew up with genuine free will. Who were never gifted the time and space to choose their lives. Even if many of these people thought they chose what to study or whether or not to get married or when to have children, the truth of the matter is, these choices were all stemming from unspoken pressure. I compare their reactions with my mom’s and recognize insecurity vs. security. I believe the same goes for men, except men also seem to seek out any opportunity to attack a woman more empowered than they are. Case in point: In 2019 I posted a TedTalk about a woman’s child free choice and the sexist journey she experienced in seeking sterilization.

The story was incredibly powerful and so I posted it on Facebook. Little did I know it was going to anger a random older Arab (who I don’t even know) so intensely he would take it upon himself to convert me back to Islam. Yes, he doubted the validity of my religiosity and headscarf because I have exercised this one choice. Here's one of a few screenshots I saved as a reminder:


See, religion is a failing argument for why one “must” have children, and I’m speaking strictly about Islam and Muslims right now. I understand when we feel sympathy and frustration towards our family, friends, and community members who lose their way spiritually, but choosing not to have children? I don’t understand the religious-based anger or reasoning.

Growing up in a practicing Muslim household means Quran comes up anywhere and everywhere, no matter what we talk about. I recently posted an Instagram video where my mom managed to somehow bring Quran into the conversation about skydiving. That’s literally my home. We eat, breathe, and sleep scripture, so when I make a choice, it passes through every religious litmus test I learned. In conjunction to my upbringing and education, I also read and understand the Quran, and it doesn’t take too much sensibility to see the 5:1 ratio in verses.

Every time someone tries to use religion as an argument for why children are an “obligation” they always turn to Chapter 18, Verse 46:

“Wealth and children are adornments of the worldly life;
but the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward, and better for hope.”

It’s a lovely verse, but what part of it is mandating reproduction? The part that calls children an adornment (zeena in Arabic)? An adornment is an accessory, as in an addition, not a foundation. I also think it’s very powerful that God pairs “wealth” and “children” in this verse, that they are attractions of this life, however…

God also provides us with FIVE other clear-cut verses in the Quran that caution Muslims about these two:

“And know that your wealth and your children are a trial
and that Allah has with Him a great reward.” (8:28)

“And it is not your wealth nor your children that will bring you nearer to us in position,
but rather by being from those who do good; for them are double the rewards of what they did
and will be in the upper chambers, secure.” (34:37)

“Never will their wealth or their children avail them from Allah.” (58:17)

“Oh you who have believed, let not your wealth nor your children divert you
from the remembrance of Allah; for whosoever does so, then they are the losers.” (63:9)

“Your wealth and your children are but a trial, and Allah has with Him a great reward.” (64:15)

The point behind my presentation of these verses is simple, self-explanatory really. God Himself is giving us a choice, presenting to us the pros and cons of child rearing (and wealth). Telling us that those who acquire these adornments should pay attention and not let them steer or overpower their lives. (Allah calls them fitna, and for those familiar with the Quran, that’s a heavy word referring to things that can misguide you in life.) None of these verses mandate or prohibit reproduction and if I were to summarize this series into one thing, it’s this! Having children is a choice, not a mandate.

Consider terminology. When we call reproduction an “obligation” instead of a choice, it alters the weight and value of the entire experience. When we begin to approach having children as something someone is choosing—and choosing wholeheartedly—it automatically shifts the overall emotional, mental, and physical wellness of both parents and children. It’s interesting when those of us who choose not to become parents are called selfish, but the folks carelessly reproducing “just because” or “because of religious obligation” (or "as a solution to problematic marriages") are not selfish? Bringing a living soul into this heavy world and not by authentic choice?

I have painfully heard it quite a few times at community gatherings, parents passively aggressively resenting having children…in front of their own children! I’ve wondered how many women in this world suffered from lingering postpartum depression and how many actually suffered from suddenly realizing this is not what they wanted but never had a moment to think about it?

One of the most powerful illustrations of this was on the show The Bold Type, when Sutton Brady induced a miscarriage after finding out the baby had no heartbeat. Her loved ones, assuming she was grieving the loss, offered her comfort, but she later reveals that her grief stemmed from guilt for feeling relieved. The experience had taught her she did not want to become a mom because she had never thought about it.

That’s the problem. We are not raised in a world that genuinely teaches us to reflect on and weigh the decisions painted as necessary life stages, like marriage and child rearing. “You just do it,” is what I hear from most people who still don’t know why they want to get married (or why they are married) and why they want to have children. So anyone who “goes against the grain” is shamed, guilt tripped, and attacked.

I am not shaming anyone for having children nor am I against it (for others). I am simply insisting that we begin recognizing it as the choice that it is and respecting people's right to make that choice. And a choice is not just deciding to have a baby. It’s an active effort to do your utmost best, to make sacrifices, to go through anything and everything to raise as best a human as possible. If someone understands they cannot/do not want to take on this very big responsibility—for whatever reason at all—that person has every right not to have children.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Choosing Children - Part I

I had forgotten what it was like to feel this alien, this almost sense of insecurity that I was taken aback. All I said was I don’t want to have children and the interrogation began. It had been almost a year since my last relationship and I decided to try dating again. A very small part of me wondered if two and a half years of a pandemic were enough to get men to put in some effort with online dating. Sixteen minutes into swiping told me no. Amidst hundreds of swipe lefts, I managed to find two potential possibilities that checked off enough boxes for me to swipe right. Muslim, Arab, highly educated, ambitious, and attractive. Quite a rare combination these days.


The conversations started out well enough—some clever comedy, tasteful compliments, and polite discourse about each other’s histories and current endeavors. But there was this gnawing part of me that knew what was to come. It’s a heavy burdening anxiety I carry because never have I ever brought up the child free choice without being attacked. Be it rage filled tantrums over a bowl of chips and salsa or invasive and inappropriate interrogations or severely harsh verbal assaults, I have heard it all and know I will unfortunately continue to. This time was no different, as they began hounding me with questions, treating me like some foreign specimen defying my pure biological purpose in this life (which is what one of them actually said). It amazed me to see how deeply ingrained this idea is into the minds of people, especially men and especially Muslims who are supposedly implementing the Quran. Remember the Quran? The sacred scripture that teaches us we were created on this earth to worship the Lord and do good. The mere idea that our sole purpose exists to marry and reproduce defies religion at its core. I no longer offer explanations for this choice because it is just that, a choice. The fact that people don’t see this is the real problem, but I’ll dig deeper into this during Part II.

“Give me some reasons why, because this is so strange!” they urged, but I simply told them I see no need to justify my reasoning, especially when they have made it abundantly clear they want children (but could not offer me any reason as to WHY they want children—another huge issue I found on this journey). Not long after, I deleted the account and realized online dating doesn’t work for Muslim women and those who choose a child free life at that. Heck, offline dating is failing us too and I remembered my last relationship.

It lasted about four and a half months, more or less. No lie, the first two months I was floating on cloud nine like never before. I had never uttered the words, “I think he’s the one,” before and yet I found myself saying them to my mom. On the first date, per usual, the child free discussion arose. This, in conjunction with the recent online dates, taught me to shift this pattern and not start off the relationship with this dealbreaker (unless I want to get rid of the date ASAP), but I’ll get to that in a future installment.

At first he was dissatisfied but also mesmerized at the alienness of such a mindset. He asked for a few days to digest it, which taught me another lesson: I will no longer accept a partner who has not chosen a child free life himself. This whole ambivalent “I guess I’m cool with that” will no longer cut it. He came back three days later claiming he is okay with this decision and was willing to keep going. My ex husband lied and said the same thing, so much so, that when I filed for divorce due to domestic violence, his claim to the world was that my child free choice is the real culprit behind our marital dissolution. I note this important point because it later came back to haunt me in this recent relationship.

As things progressed, we were edging closer to the need for our families to meet. As American as I am, I am Muslim and Arab first and foremost, and while I had met his family and he met  mine, our families had not yet met each other. For the next phase to happen, the big meeting needed to happen first. After what I’ve been through, I held intense anxiety about this. I witnessed my family endure a lot from my ex husband and his family that a part of me feared what would come of this meeting. More importantly, however, I realized his family should know about “our” child free choice if this was to move forward. Because I know how my people think, I knew that if they weren’t informed in advance, they would assume I “seduced” their son into loving me that he blindly accepted this choice against his will, and I’d live in their resentment forever. I know too well what problems in-laws create for their children and grandchildren, so I wanted to bypass this.

I told him that we should figure out how to let his family know before any meeting is arranged. However, instead of exercising a partnership and discussing together how to broach the subject (which shouldn’t require such dramatic sensitivity in the first place) with his parents, he went rogue and threw the metaphorical grenade solo. Hundreds of miles away, I felt the searing pain of the shrapnel. From being demonized for being a divorcee to my “old age” (I turn 33 today) to the “sinfulness” of this choice, it all came out. None of it really hurt me or surprised me, until my experience of domestic violence was entirely dismissed and they blamed my divorce on my child free choice, just like my ex husband did.

The week our families were set to meet was the week I ended the relationship, and strangely enough for a few months after I experienced the same PTSD I had with my ex husband. God was helping me detox and I felt so much more gratitude for the strength He has given me to leave sooner and sooner when I start seeing red flags.

I start this series with my personal journey because I want to shed light on yet another layer of harassment we have to face as women. I have only met one man (who happens to be Muslim and Arab) that also chose a child free life, but we never engaged in enough conversation for me to learn whether or not he faces the same abuse. Nonetheless, I share this introduction because it’s time for us, especially Muslims, to cease with the harassment. The number of times my child free choice has been used against me are countless. Whether to discredit my faith, my spirituality, my womanhood, my capacity to be a wife or to be a nurturing human being, it’s incredibly ridiculous. For the remainder of this series, I will be incorporating religious texts to support the fact that this is indeed a choice and not a mandate upon humanity. Until then, I pray, birthday wish, and advise our human societies at large to end the prejudicial and hateful rhetoric and behavior towards all people who choose a child free life.

P.S. Such hate is unGodly, FYI.