Spotlight: Healing

[creative nonfiction]

1: Adab

Being with family is the ultimate exercise in learning good adab. There is no simple translation for that Arabic word. Adab. A-da-ba.

Turn it around, and you get ba-da-a: beginning.

But you live in the West now. Your parents lifted you out of that loving, prickly embrace and introduced you to the beginning of fragmentation. And here, the seed of your difference took to the soil, like a newborn hungry for milk. You are fed different waters. Different honey. Different poison. You are irrevocably changed.

Your outward and your inward states are different to the family you left behind. You are now a child of the third space. There is joy in this, and there is grief, and the rest of your life will be spent negotiating that gap.

You marvel at your friends who keep in touch with family. They fly back for Raya. Call people by appropriate titles. They move so seamlessly, between the different circles of their lives.

You could do this too, if you choose courage. But it has always been easier to avoid.

Your own family longs to see you. Grandparents. Aunties, uncles, cousins. There are so many of them, and each one carries a spark of you inside them. They are not only linked to you by blood, but you are also tied by history. Each one of them carries a story. But to reach that story, you must sit with them, and listen, with an open heart. Some of them are more difficult to sit with than others.

It is not only language—it is the pain they press upon, in the way only family can. Some love to speak only of light things, things that make you smile. They respect your independence as an adult, while fondly sharing memories of you as a child. They represent Beauty. Others love to dwell upon old hurts, and they carve out new ones by their careless tongues. Scalpels could not be sharper. They represent Rigour. There is a place for both, in your life.

Rumi spoke of this: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

And so, you exhale, pick up your mobile, and make the first phone call.


2: Selfish Mama

The sadistic expectation of self-immolation begins at birth. Being a good mother means annihilating yourself. Show any signs of weakness, and you are called ungrateful.

No—it starts in pregnancy. Why do all the Instagram feeds show glowing mamas? Where are the mamas who look more like you?

The brutal, un-photoshopped truth—morning sickness so bad eye capillaries burst, hemorrhoids so painful it hurts to move, and the massive emotional tides that pull and pull and pull—

And that, my love, is only the beginning.

The relentless calls of “Mama!” All day, every day. Mummy is the human battery pack from whom newborns, toddlers, preschoolers, and tired husbands draw from.

What is the secret to this infinite well? This—there is no such thing as endless giving. Leave that to the Divine.

There is only one way to surviving these decimating first few years of motherhood—be that selfish mama. The one who does not want to martyr herself on the altar of motherhood. No human sacrifices, please. We stopped that, eons ago.

“Keep your self-care cup full!” But what if that cup has shattered, amidst the diapers, sleep
deprivation and tantrums?

Rebuild it, one shard at a time. Fuse it with gold. You are kintusoroi. More beautiful for
your scars.

One impossible day, in a future too distant for you to even imagine, your helpless little newborn will be a woman grown. The glimmers you saw during her first few years of life—her strong-willed nature, her easy smile, her love for nature—have taken root and flourished. You and your husband tended to her with love and devotion, and now, it shows.

One day, she will grow wings and fly, and all you can do is hope that she will come back to you, with her heart open to yours. She will make choices, some which warm your heart, and others that break it. She is her own woman.

So. Leave some of your heart for you.

Nourish your marriage, so when your children have left home, you can still smile at your husband. Perhaps your love has even surpassed what you felt on your wedding day—a love deepened over the brutal and blissful years of parenting.

And maybe, just maybe, one day—your husband, your children, and their children will sit together, smiling, and share cups of warm tea.


3: Second baby

It is both easier, and harder, the second time around. You think your heart cannot fill with any more love. But it does, and flows over.

And there is the grief, that catches you by surprise. Your heart aches for the time when it was just you and your only child. All eyes were on her. Life will never be the same again, and that is both beautiful and terrible. You will be splintered between your two little ones for the rest of your life.

“Don’t compare your children.”

One thing remains the same—sleep deprivation is the worst.

And there is the newness, the heart-splintering sweetness.  Your newborn and you, lying on the bed. She is curled beside you, nuzzling at you, tickling you with her tiny, tiny fingers. Her newborn smell is something words cannot pin… it is unmistakable, both new and old, and speaks of a world you were once part of, but can now no longer touch. For as long as she is this little, you can access this wonder, by nuzzling her delicious sweet-sour head.

But she will grow. It is inevitable. And her newborn helplessness will soon be replaced with infant curiosity, then toddler determination. Now she cannot resist you, as you carefully change her diaper, dip her gently into her bathtub, and gently lather her with soap. Meanwhile, her older sister balks. She resents the amount of time your newborn spends latched onto you. “She has mom-mom all day!” You nod in sympathy and remind her that she did too, when she was a baby.

And then she catches you by surprise. She shares inside jokes with you. Astounds you with words you had no idea a three-year-old could say. She shows you how she can shower herself all by herself now. She leans in, both eager and shy, when you remember to cuddle and kiss her. You cannot believe how strong and lanky she has become, when once, she could fit in the crook of your arm. When she lets you, you cover her with kisses and hope that this assuages some of her loss.

You hope that one day, she will understand that she may have lost your undivided attention, but she has gained a friend: someone to hold her hand, and have her back, on the day when you and your husband are no more.

Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of two, poet, writer, and dreamer. She has lived, worked and studied in Singapore, Australia, Jordan, and has laid down her roots in Malaysia, her ancestral home. Raidah is inspired by trauma healing work, the power of storytelling, and reconnecting with tradition. Her short story “Datuk” was published in the recent Bitter Roots Sweet Fruits anthology. Many of her poems, articles, and stories have been published online. You can find Raidah hunting for patches of green, playing puppets with her young daughters, and writing when she really should be sleeping. Drop by her blog at, or visit her on Twitter @raidahshahidil.