My six-year-old son is learning about fractions. He sits next to me at the dining table, and draws a bat, then colours half of it green. “The word half is used when something is split into two equal parts,” he explains. I nod, go back to my laptop.
Then he looks up at me and says, “I’ve got two halves. I’m half-Muslim, half-English. Right?” He looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to confirm whether his calculation is correct and my heart sort of breaks a little, to hear him refer to himself as pieces of a whole.
“Not quite,” I say. “Some of your family is Pakistani, because I am, and some of your family is English, because Dada is. And you are fully Muslim.”
He isn’t convinced.
“No, Dada is not Muslim. Only you are. So only half of me is.”
I am startled by his interpretation. My husband converted to Islam before marrying me. I say, “What do you mean? Of course he’s Muslim!”
“But his parents aren’t. We don’t say Assalam-o-Alaikum [Peace be upon you] to them.”
“No, you’re right. They’re not.”
“So if they’re not, why is he?”
I don’t really know what to say because where do I begin? Do I tell him that his dad became Muslim because he had a spiritual epiphany? Or do I tell him we fell in love but that to be together, his dad had to become Muslim first? I remind him that his dad is Muslim. I tell him he fasts for Ramadan, that sometimes we say namaz [ritual prayers] even if we don’t do it as often as we should. My son looks at me through narrowed eyes, unconvinced. “You rarely pray, Mama,” he says, dryly. In that instant I feel terribly ashamed while also quietly impressed at his accurate use of an adverb.
I was warned that this sort of confusion might happen in a mixed marriage. When I told my moderately religious family that I had met someone who was neither Pakistani nor (at least not then) Muslim, and that we wanted to get married once he had converted, they understandably had a lot of questions. One of those questions was: how would we raise our kids to know that they were Muslim, to know their Pakistani side and where they came from? Race and religion are often rightly seen as two separate things but they are also closely entwined. I was reminded I’d need to make a concerted effort to teach my future children about their Pakistani origins and their religion, because their sense of identity would not be a given. Because otherwise my half-Pakistani, Muslim kids might risk being lost.
I worry that if I push too much, they’ll grow up resenting both their religion and me
I send a WhatsApp message to a friend of mine who, like me, has three boys and also happens to be Muslim and Pakistani. I tell her how I think I’m probably messing my kids up. “I’m not sure I’m doing this right,” I text. “Hey,” she says. “We all feel like that. You’re doing great.”
I don’t know if I am though. Sometimes I worry someone will say they told me so. I hastily download an Islamic app for children, full of animations of cute characters with big brown eyes. It feels important to prove I am making an effort. It holds the boys’ interest for 10 minutes. I remember how, when I was growing up, I wasn’t always sure if I was praying because I wanted to or had been reminded to. I know that there are certain habits I will need to teach them, like how to pray in Arabic. I worry that if I push too much, perhaps they’ll grow up resenting both their religion and me. Then I wonder sadly if maybe that’s normal anyway, part of their teenage years to come.
Sometimes when I look at my children, I hear that same question repeating itselfin my head: how will I raise you to know that you are Muslim, to know your Pakistani side?
I think about what I love most from my Pakistani upbringing: the sense of warmth and liveliness translated into kitchen tables spilling with an overabundance of food, surrounded by far too many people talking too loudly and at the same time, and I realise this is what our own home is like anyway. I think of the values of faith I hold most dear; honesty, love, kindness, generosity. I realise our children are lucky enough to be surrounded by all this too. I would want to pass these values on, regardless. None of this is exclusive to one sort of identity over another. So this, I conclude, is how they will learn who they are: from seeing it, living it, breathing it, rather than telling them who they are supposed to be.
Over the last six years, I have learnt that motherhood comes with many expectations. Some of those expectations I have put upon myself, unnecessarily. So now I watch my children being themselves, and I allow myself to consider the possibility that maybe I am doing great after all.
• Huma Qureshi has contributed to The Best, Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly About Motherhood