I remember when the first labour pains started. I had just finished writing my column for The National, attached it to an email to my editor and pressed “Send”. It was after midnight and I was perched in bed. I clicked my laptop shut, sighed with relief and snuggled up. An hour later I felt contractions.
That clicking sound remains loud in my mind, the sound of the door closing on me as an individual, a single public entity. Seventy-two painful hours later, I gazed into the jewel-like eyes of my baby daughter as my husband, smiling, gave her to me to hold. I had a mini-me.
Except as the days passed, and the fog of new motherhood lifted, I felt strongly that she wasn’t me. She was a creature of her own. It was her right not to be part of my public life. I confronted the fact that she had her own new existence, like a small green shoot. Bright lights would burn her. She had a right to privacy and my duty was to shelter her from that glare.
It’s hard to keep the most intimate and beloved person in my life private. She’s adorable, smart, funny and beautiful. Her existence shaped every breath of mine from that moment. Her very being, her smile, her complaints, each action and expression intimately informs who I am.
The paradox is that I am still the same independent woman, individualistic even, who clicked shut that laptop that night, but you cannot understand me, I cannot understand myself, without knowing her.
The paradox is that while I continue to fiercely desire to engage publicly with my ideas and activities, I feel more fiercer still that my child, one of the great influences on me, should be part of my private life only. The paradox of the fierceness with which I guard her privacy could be a hyper-assertion of my motherhood, emphasis through absence.
There are no public photos of her. It was only after long and anxious reflection that I offered her name up to the public. This is unusual in our world of Facebook photos and Twitter selfies. Many parents I know on social media use images of their children as their profile pictures. For them, their children are the full embodiment of their public persona. My profile has a noticeable absence of family photos.
The increasing numbers of women in the public eye combined with our ever more powerful social media will mean that how to balance our public and private lives will become a bigger decision for more and more parents, but especially for mothers in the public eye. Social expectations on women usually demand we marry and have children, and that our status on both issues be a matter of public knowledge. But I don’t think children should be collateral damage from the pressures on women.
I’m flouting the laws of modern motherhood that require public evidence of being a mum. Also, my assertion of myself as my own woman, with my own ideas and my own journey to conduct in the public space is quietly and positively subversive, stating that I exist independent of my persona as a mother. It’s a difficult decision, because it doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad not to share my beloved with the world. Privately, my feelings and photos are shared boundlessly.
I am both individual and mother. For me, I want you take me on my merits; for her, I want to protect her. Publicly I’m proud to assert that being a mother has made me the woman I am today.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk