Note: This article discusses postpartum depression. If you or anyone else is having continued symptoms of low mood, anxiety, feeling or having difficulty bonding with your child suggesting a diagnosis of Postpartum depression, especially extending beyond two weeks after birth, please seek the help of a medical professional. If you have suicidal thoughts at any point during pregnancy or following childbirth, please contact your GP or local mental health crisis team. There are a range of supportive contacts listed here.
Two years ago, I gave birth to my daughter, and with that, stepped into the role of becoming a mother, Alhamdulillah. After 24 hours in the labour ward, a sleepless night of contractions and pushing, the blessing of an epidural and a cluster of brilliant midwives and doctors, I finally held my daughter in my arms for the first time. She, expelled from the comfort of the womb, cried her first cry as I bawled through tears of sleep deprivation, intense hormones, sheer exhaustion and pure gratitude. My husband, whom I had rarely seen cry in our six years of marriage, also had tears tumbling down his face as he held our baby girl for the first time. It was, Alhamdulillah, such a surreal experience, and one that is strangely balanced between something I will never forget and something I can barely remember.
After a few hours, the midwives waved my husband home while I spent my first hours alone with my baby overnight. As the hours passed and my exhaustion mounted, I felt more and more alone in the hospital bay. I tried to settle her with breastfeeding – something I had mistakenly expected to be easy and intuitive. Struggling with this, I hobbled over to her to change her nappy, my hips and back heavy and aching from the arduous labour I had just endured. I scrolled on my phone to see if anyone might be awake to lend an ear, but most of my loved ones were asleep. As my baby cried for possibly the fifth time in the twelve hours she’d been alive, I found myself also succumbing to slow soft whimpers which mounted to heavy and teary sobs. SubhanAllah, I will never forget what happened next.
As I wept and wiped my cheeks, a soft voice on the other side of the curtain said, ‘Excuse me sister?’. It was a friendly-faced sister on the bay opposite mine. She introduced herself, entered my bay and asked if everything was okay. My 2 am exhaustion and anxiety led me to blubber, ‘I just feel…so…overwhelmed.’ The sister rushed to my side and held my head to her chest, as I cried like I’d never cried before. Then, she stroked my hair and said, ‘It will all be fine, Allah is here for you. You are not alone. Look at the beautiful daughter Allah has blessed you with. You will be absolutely fine.’ I continued to cry then, this time with sheer gratitude at how Allah placed the most perfect person in this moment: a second-time mother with some knowledge of what to expect, Alhamdulillah. Although I did not manage to keep in touch with that sister, I make du’a for her regularly. Those moments gave me such strength to continue to nurture my child that night, and remind myself that Allah SWT truly was near, as He always is. It reminded me that although I was feeling overwhelmed, perhaps the feeling would soon subside insha’Allah.
Then came the first few overwhelming days, weeks and months of being a new mother. As a doctor, I thought I knew all about the potential challenges of the postpartum period – the period immediately after birth lasting approximately six months (with variation between mothers). Many women experience ‘Baby Blues’ – a period of intense tearfulness in the first two weeks as a result of rapidly falling hormones and intense sleep deprivation. Close friends who had experienced this mentioned to me that they had felt irrational, emotional and tearful in those two weeks, but that this soon improved.
Although most mothers experience some form of the ‘Baby Blues’, some (around 10%) also experience serious mental illness in the form of postnatal depression or psychosis. The key difference is that the ‘baby blues’ is an expected response to hormonal imbalance, remedied by time and support, while the others are illnesses, requiring urgent medical and psychological treatment. While the symptoms can overlap, mothers with postpartum depression have severe low mood symptoms lasting for longer than 2 weeks which is also associated with a lack of being able to bond with their child. This is sometimes accompanied with intrusive and suicidal thoughts. Mothers with postnatal psychosis can have thoughts of harming their child, and delusional beliefs and thought patterns which need immediate management under the care of specialist mental health professionals.
Simply knowing about the postpartum period was very different from actually experiencing it. During the postpartum period, I became the worst version of myself that I have ever been, likely due in part to a new 24/7 job that I had absolutely no training for. It was a challenge to go from being an independent adult to suddenly being thrown into a world where a small tiny creature depended on me entirely for sustenance, warmth, care and love. My moods fluctuated hourly and I found myself crying and succumbing to those ‘baby blues’.
As fellow mums will attest, the term ‘sleep deprivation’ in the postpartum phase is a severe understatement. I assumed it could not possibly be worse than working 12-hour hospital night shifts, forgetting the compulsory 12 hours rest between each shift – something newborn babies definitely do not award us. By the fourth night, I considered if it might be inhumane to order earplugs off Amazon to get a bit of sleep. From my myopic perspective, it really felt like I would never sleep again.
Then there were all the feelings, thoughts and rage that came flying into my head about everything and absolutely nothing. The seasons changed, and as winter approached, I felt so sad at the prospect of the sun setting early. I scrolled through my Instagram feed with my cluster-feeding baby stuck to my breast and felt incredibly lonely. I also felt resentful towards mothers who were in the same stage as me, but made it look so easy. I felt upset that I was spending all day and night placing this baby at the centre of my universe, but no one else was placing me at the centre of theirs.
I was part of a WhatsApp group of other mums who had given birth that August and they reinforced my rage and upset. I would nod in agreement as I read about their woes of feeling like no one understood them. I firmly agreed with the idea that having a baby had taken away my individuality, and that this was a process of ‘mourning a life that once was.’ I felt more annoyance when thinking about how much my life had changed and how little my husband’s had in comparison. Although he shared in my sleeplessness, his body had remained his own property, and not on demand full-time to a little human.
I checked and rechecked my feelings against the symptoms of postpartum depression – it didn’t match up. Although I felt angry and irritable, I did not have a persistent hopelessness or difficulty bonding with my child. I also did not feel worthless or, Alhamdulillah, in any way suicidal. I just felt extremely sleep-deprived and like I had lost my independence. Speaking to my other Muslim mum friends, it seemed that I was experiencing a very common feeling that many new mothers have. Of course, the resentment I felt was offset by a strong love and attachment that I felt towards my baby, but admittedly this alone was not enough to reset my perspective.
It was, instead, the slow and steady realisation when I finally found Allah in the struggle.
It struck me when one of the mums on that WhatsApp group ranted about a series of nappy mishaps, leaks and colicky baby episodes and ended her rant with: “Motherhood is such a thankless task!” I read and reread the comment and felt completely taken aback. Where I had been nodding along and finding this group to be confirmatory for all of my negative thoughts and feelings, I suddenly realised this entire thought pattern had been a world away from what Allah SWT is truly pleased with.
In a non-religious worldview where an infant is merely a byproduct of reproduction, and a means to continue a species, indeed motherhood could seem entirely ‘thankless’. Indeed, children rarely thank their mothers for the difficulty of the first few months and years, and even if they do, it is not by virtue of remembering that time. But as Muslims we believe in divine intention and purpose in every moment. If we had memories of our mothers cleaning up our nappies at 3am, crying in exhaustion during our illnesses, or even their pain while we exited their wombs, how would we function independently day-to-day as adults? It would without a doubt be a source of immense trauma and guilt, which Allah SWT, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, has simply erased from our memories.
Instead, in our tradition, motherhood is the complete opposite of ‘thankless’. The perspective lies entirely with understanding whose thanks we are seeking. Allah SWT is As-Shakur: The Eternally Grateful One. We deserve no gratitude from Our Creator, and yet He is infinitely grateful. The virtues of motherhood itself are numerous in the Qur’an and sunnah, yet it was only through becoming a mother that I understood why. How can something that is rewarded so heavily be considered thankless?
Once I made a key perspective shift, I felt lighter and at ease within this hardship. Like all tests, this was one decreed for me by Allah SWT, with its purpose being the purification of my heart. By spending most of my time ‘mourning’ the loss of the self, I ignored the fact that I did not belong to myself. Likewise my baby, who I really love with a fierceness beyond belief, is a gift and test bestowed to me from The Almighty. Hence, spending time preoccupied in negativity merely served my Nafs instead of my Creator.
I had spent Ramadan after Ramadan in pursuit of purification, yet when an opportunity presented itself, I ignored it. I had spent several nights irritated for missing an alarm to pray Tahajjud, yet I complained that the baby kept me awake – during Tahajjud time. Although I wasn’t praying after childbirth, there were several acts of worship I could engage in – even as simple as making dua, since I was awake during the time when Allah accepts every supplication (Sahih al-Bukhari 1120). I felt foolish for not realising this sooner. I was feeding, burping, changing, cuddling and nurturing this baby for His Sake, even when I didn’t feel it.
I stopped scrolling on social media mindlessly at 3am, and focussed instead on speaking to Allah and making du’a. I reminded myself how much I prayed to be able to be awake at this time before I was a mother, and how this was Allah SWT answering that dua.
Fundamentally I came to a realisation that Allah’s SWT mercy and reward in a situation is not equivalent to how much we ‘feel’ it. I could pinpoint iman ‘highs’ I experienced as a university student with no responsibilities in Ramadan. Being awake in the depths of the night with my baby-who-won’t-settle was certainly not a ‘high’ point. But again and again in Islam, we are shown the examples of Prophets and those beloved to Allah struggling and attaining His Pleasure through their struggles. It is often in our struggle and when we feel the lowest of all that we are the highest in the sight of Allah.
With this in mind, I experienced the story and new mother struggles of Maryam AS completely differently. Without the support of a husband, or family, she endured these postpartum days. How did she feel as her hormones fluctuated? What were her thoughts as she responded to her crying baby? Allah SWT tells us that the pain of childbirth even made her exclaim:
In the moment most difficult to her, she was the nearest to Allah. The moments she wished to be forgotten were later eternalised through divine revelation. The child she endured this pain for was to become our beloved, most excellent, incredible Prophet Isa (AS). I had spent so much time chasing Imaan highs, that I had forgotten Allah is closer than our jugular vein even in their absence.
It took me some time to flip the negativity and truly become and remain positive. It certainly wasn’t a linear process, and I often fell back. It was only when I pushed my perspective to keep finding Allah in everything, that I found true contentment. When I realised that there was opportunity for worship, even in the seemingly mundane, I was driven to seek it more. When I realised that I was being given this chance to earn rewards, I found so much peace.
One night, when I was feeling really rough, I noticed my baby breathing. I watched the rise and fall of her chest; the expansion of her lungs. I placed my ear on her chest and listened to her heartbeat – the same heartbeat that had made me cry in our first ultrasound scan. I realised how incredible the miracle of our creation is. I felt her little breaths on my cheek as I counted – inhale: Alhamdulillah, exhale: SubhanAllah. I was lost in this exercise for several minutes, and it grounded me.
As time progressed, my hormones balanced and the veil lifted. The challenges of motherhood have become more welcome. In many ways it has become easier (sleeping!), but I know that many more challenges await insha’Allah (hello toddler tantrums). But I pray Allah SWT enables me to continue to seek Him and find Him in the struggle. I pray that it’s something that elevates me on the day of accountability. And I pray that my striving enables me to raise a pious child who is the coolness of our eyes. insha’Allah.
In all this realisation, I feel adamant to make this a learning process that I do not forget. If I am blessed with another pregnancy in the future, I don’t want to return to square one and feel all the negativity again. So here are a few tips for new and expectant mothers, to ease the journey with the help of The Almighty:
1. Make a worship plan. Immediately after birth, the bleeding can last from two to six weeks, meaning no Salah (or fasting if this coincides with Ramadan) for that time. This does not mean that Allah is far away. It is, in a most beautiful way, the first example of Divine maternity leave (Alhamdulillah!). I could not imagine the anxiety in the first few weeks of having to juggle a newborn and missing fajr. It does however, mean that worship needs to be proactive – even if that’s small. Make a consistent plan that you will implement everyday: ‘If I am up at 3am, I will make du’a or dhikr.’ For days or nights when you simply cannot function, create a YouTube playlist of Qur’an or dhikr for you and baby to listen to, and play it on repeat.
2. Write down some affirmations in the good times, before any opportunity for bad times. These can be Qur’anic verses, or even just prompts to remind you: Allah sees you. Allah is with you. You are elevated in motherhood. Just as Allah SWT took care of your baby in your womb, so too will His Mercy take care of you on this journey.
3. Speak to Allah and speak to the people He has blessed you with. Don’t be shy to ask for help, and don’t forget that motherhood is probably the oldest job in the history of mankind! Speak to any mothers you know about how they felt and what got them through. If you like journalling, write a few lines reflecting on each day, or send yourself voice notes to debrief.
4. Remember to enjoy it. Celebrating my daughter’s second birthday last week made me wish I could pause time, rewind a little bit and just cuddle her and inhale her newborn smell again. Although I definitely struggled and am enjoying motherhood considerably more now, I wish I had been aware of how quickly it goes. If I could go back and speak to my postpartum self, I would tell her that no struggle lasts forever, and to spend a little more time being conscious and absorbing those newborn cuddles.
Motherhood and the postpartum period is truly a huge challenge. But it is without a doubt an even huger blessing. Remember the words of the sister who spoke to me in the depths of the night: “It will all be fine, Allah is here for you. You are not alone. Look at the beautiful child Allah has blessed you with. You will be absolutely fine.” In a world where we are so focussed on ourselves, it can be hard to realise that our selves are no longer the centre of our universe. Finding Allah in the journey is imperative, and reminding ourselves to centre only Him is key. Insha’Allah, if you can do this early, it may not stop the tears or the hormones, but it’ll remind you that the ride has been & will always be: For His Sake. Alhamdulillah.
ReferencesNational Childbirth Trust. Perinatal Depression: The Questions You really Want to Ask
Inayah is a junior doctor based in London. When she is not working, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with her 2 cats. She enjoys deep meaningful conversations and good tasty food. She also enjoys acquiring new hobbies, although she isn’t very good at sticking to them! Inayah is also a co-founder of the Submissions Podcast, which is a podcast created to share stories by and for Muslims. Instagram: @submissionspodcast
By Maya Areem