Dreading the Sex-Ed Talk? Try this instead

#MuslimSexEd

So many parents dread “The Talk.” They will do anything to ignore it, delay it, and outsource it. I have had parents tell me, knowing that I am a teacher and rather open in the way I discuss: “Can you just explain this to my kids so I don’t have to?”

Forget the idea of “The Talk.” Think of it as “The Ongoing Conversation.” It starts at birth and continues through adulthood. It is a dialogue that is woven into everyday life as something frank, matter-of-fact, and not shameful.

It starts with respect for the body of the child in infancy. It continues into toddlerhood, when you use anatomically correct names.

It’s the matter-of-fact answer that you give to your four year old when he asks what makes his sister a girl: “She doesn’t have a penis like you do,” you say.

”Whaaaat??” he will say, “You mean everyone doesn’t have a penis? That’s crazy!” Then you think to yourself, “Freud would get a kick out of that comment.”

The conversation continues when your children don’t see their mother praying. You explain that there’s something called menstruation, and you will tie it into reproduction and tell them about how every month, there is a window of opportunity for a woman to become pregnant, and if she does not, she will shed her uterine lining during menstruation.

When your children go to the science museum and see an exhibit on skeletons, you point out that the female skeleton has wider hips to accommodate a baby during childbirth.

As your children read science books and watch documentaries, they will come to know that animals “mate” in order to have babies. They will hear about mating behaviors. My son will often point out: “See that bird? They usually fly like that when they are looking for a mate.” This is a great opportunity to talk about how animals engage in mating behaviors to attract potential mates. “Even humans use mating behaviors as well to attract others.” More conversation ensues.

These frank conversations mean that your kids don’t have a problem talking about these issues openly. My 8 year old daughter told me that her friend saw on the TV show “Anne With an E” that the girls were making fun of Anne because she was the only one who didn’t get her period. What a great conversation starter!

Another time, my son got confused and said, “Since you are not praying this week, does that mean you are having a baby?” Time for more conversation, this time explaining that no, menstruation means a woman is not pregnant.

After years of this type of frank openness, do you think it will be hard to explain the actual mechanics of reproduction? Everything ties in together, and the idea of sex is not something that exists in a vacuum–it is part of this beautiful conversation about our bodies, our feelings, gender, physiology. Honestly, after all these conversations, an astute enough child would probably intuitively figure out how humans reproduce.

All of this openness serves to create an environment that is free of shame regarding the body and sexuality. I do not mean by this that it is free of modesty–what I refer to is the toxic sense of shame in one’s body, thinking that the privates are dirty, or that sex is a crude, dirty act borne of necessity.

When children see our discomfort in talking about the body, or about sexuality, it can give them the message that these are sordid, shameful topics. They think that “good boys” and “good girls” don’t talk about these things. And in their marriages, it can lead to a relationship where sexuality is not cherished and respected.

How do you handle these conversations in your home? Do you have any advice to share regarding how to address sex ed in an open and inviting way? Please let us know in the comments.

our faith, our feelings, our hearts

When you think of eemaan (faith), think of “heart-sense.” The foundation of our emaan begins in the heart–with the speech of the heart, and the actions of the heart. The speech of the heart is it’s acknowledgement and affirmation that there is none worthy of worship but Allah. The action of the heart is the next step–it is when the heart overflows with submission, love, hope, and fear of Allah. From this starting point, when our tongue speaks or our body acts, they do so with this “heart sense” already in place.


So many times we live our lives on the surface level only. Our tongues speak, our limbs act, and yet the heart is silent and still. We do this with our friends and family, when we interact with them absent-minded and distracted. We do this with our lord, when we stand and bow like empty shells, lacking any sense of heart during our worship. We weren’t created this way. On the contrary, we were created with hearts that were pure and full of instinctive connection with Allah and with others around us. We came into this world truly feeling and embodying every moment from the depths of our heart. We quickly learn to shut down that heart-sense and create a shell of insincerity around us.

Here’s the amazing thing about kids, though: they are still pure and so their heart-sense radiates forth in everything they do. When they gaze with wonder at the heavens, their heart knows that this is the mark of their Creator. When they put their arms around you, those are not only arms holding you; it is a clasp that starts out from the depths of their hearts.

I realize this when my kids settle in for bed every night. I’m worn down and wanting to shut the light, offer a half-hearted “Love you!” and be done with it. I’m old and jaded, and my body is used to acting on auto-pilot without the heart-sense to guide it. Not for the kids.

When Abdullah hugs me, it’s with a hug so deep and an “I love you mama, sooooo much” that is so earnest it can’t be faked. And on cue, Zaynab calls out from her bed and there is always a catch in her voice, a crack. “I love you, Mama.” It’s a feeling so big she doesn’t know what to do with it, so her body shows her heart on it’s sleeve with that tremble in the voice as she speaks it.

I think about this now. How often do I ask my kids to betray their heart-sense and live inauthentically? It might be the time they are upset at something seemingly trivial and my response is to distract and deny: “Oh, come on, that’s not something to worry about; let’s do this instead.”

What if instead, I responded by going deep down to the heart-sense? “That really upset you. You are shaking. You must have been really hurt by what your friends did.”

If we abandon engaging the heart-sense with our children, it becomes harder for us to engage them in issues of faith. Over time, as we push away real feelings and anything that seems uncomfortable or awkward, our kids become jaded just like us. You see this when they start to not show the same enthusiasm that they did when they were younger, preferring instead to give a shrug and nod of the head. When you try to talk about virtues like courage and love, empathy and eeman, they are often hesitant and out of touch with these feelings. Often times, children don’t have the words to describe how they feel, because they haven’t been given ample opportunity to name and identify feelings in a non-judgmental way.

Eemaan is deeply tied in with emotion and feeling–in fact, true eemaan is rooted in a deep love for Allah, a fear of his punishment, and a hope for his reward. You can’t choose to ignore the heart-sense in some areas of life and then expect it to blossom in others. We need to encourage a heart-sense in both areas of life: in our dealings with our Lord, and in our dealings with our fellow humans.

Questions to ask ourselves would be:

“Am I focusing on outward appearances here, or on the khushoo’ (humility) of the heart?”

“Is my tongue the only thing moving, or is my heart being moved?”

“Am I comfortable talking about my inner life?” This includes eemaan, love, hope, and fear of Allah, as well as the myriad human emotions that we experience regularly.

You see, when you shut down any discussion on internal feelings with your children due to your discomfort, it becomes hard to discuss eemaan and taqwa. These things are deeply personal aspects of us that require great trust and courage to be vulnerable enough to share this inner life with others. If you are consistently brushing off, invalidating, and shutting down the conversation regarding feelings in your home, you simply can’t expect to have an open discussion regarding faith.

WalkMS 2010

This year a friend of mine whose husband has MS was so kind as to organize a team for the local MS Walk. These walks are sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and benefit their programs and services. Our team was called “Muslim Support” and we had nifty matching t-shirts with our team name on the back. We made shirts for our kids as well, saying “I (heart) Someone With MS.” There were three paths: 1, 3, and 5 miles each. Needless to say, the MSers and their families in our team took the 1 mile path. The others were feeling adventurous and so took the 3 mile.

I realized afterwards that having MS is somewhat like being on that walk. You start off the day at the starting line with everyone else, but you plod through your day slowly and deliberately while everyone else goes by as if they are going twice the speed.

Then, when you both reach the finish line (we all did close together in our case), you realize that they have done three times as much as you did, but in the same amount of time.

While you go off to recoup, the rest go off rushing throughout their day through numerous other tasks, while you struggle to regain strength from the first task.

This is your brain on MS. This is your body on MS.

The more and more a person progresses through the years with the disease, no matter what fancy medications they are on, the result is that this dichotomy between “normal” and “MS” only becomes more and more pronounced.

It is part of my lack of acceptance of this fundamental truth of MS that leads me into trouble sometimes. I don’t want to accept that I can’t do fifty million things in one day, so I say “damn to hell with the MS, I’m gonna do it!” and the MS just says, “screw you,” and raises its head in vengeance. My husband said one time when I fell into an MS slump–“You knew this was coming,” and I did.

That’s why the job of the caretaker is so hard because they see us struggle with the acceptance of our limitations, with the acceptance of dependency on medications, with the acceptance of dependency on rest and people’s help. And the most they can do is advise and support–only we can wrestle ourselves into accepting the realities of what is happening to our bodies.

Us MSers on the walk were fortunate enough to have our beloved spouses with us, and our children and families, plodding along beside us, and walking side-by-side with us as we crossed the finish line. And they alone know the true triumph of being able to do that feat of walking so far–something that normal people would take for granted. So we can only hope that as we plod along and our steps get slower and slower, that we’ll have those beloved caretakers by our side, matching their steps to ours, hoping that they don’t mind taking it slow, and hoping they get the reward for sharing our struggle.

————————————————————————————————————

(btw, I’ll be back to the top 10 Tarbiyah Mistakes notes soon!)

Coming Soon: the Top Ten Tarbiyah Mistakes

I just attended a fantastic halaqah… and those sisters who know me personally may feel free to email me and request that it be sent to them insha Allah, but the topic was:  Top Ten Tarbiyah Mistakes. Tarbiyah, as you may know, is the process of character development that we engage in with our children. So before going to the class, my thought was–Ouch!–we get to hear 2 hours of the ten biggest things we do wrong every day with our kids?

But as Allah (swt) says: “And remind, for verily, the reminder benefits the believers” (Adh-Dhariyaat: 55). Sometimes a swift kick in the proverbial arse is what we need to make a firm commitment to change, and boy was this a kick.

I really would like to take the time to type up my notes, but until then I will leave a teaser–I’ll put the ten points she mentioned, then come back with the notes as I can get them out (maybe 3-4 at a time). If you would like to get this and other blog updates straight to your inbox, feel free to add your email address in the box at the top of the right column and you will get the posts as they are published. In the future if you would like to unsubscribe, you can easily do so through the emails themselves, or just post a comment and I’ll unsub you.

Here goes, Letterman style—

The Top Ten Mistakes of Tarbiyah

  1. Choosing the wrong spouse–someone who differs with you on the fundamental issues of life and parenting.
  2. Considering tarbiyah as beginning at a later stage in life
  3. Letting the children control you and run the family
  4. Making sure that 90% of what you say is commands, prohibitions, and threats
  5. Assuming that your child thinks like you
  6. Using injurious and harmful words
  7. Never explaining anything and expecting immediate and prompt blind compliance
  8. Comparing your children to each other (in looks or behavior) and show favoritism
  9. Lying to your kids
  10. Assuming that you are the source of guidance for your children

Now…I don’t like leaving things hanging like that, because some of these are not clear in what they mean and I’m sure leaves the person scratching their head and saying, “but…”

However, the notes are long, I’d like to do them justice, so they will be back another day bi ‘idhnillah.

As a clue to some of the points of the halaqah, I’ll say that some of the topics mentioned include Steven Covey, Dr. Sears, racism, totalitarianism, family mission statements, principle-centered leadership/parenting, and punishment.

Ready? Check back soon! In the meanwhile, feel free to discuss the points so far…

Becoming a ScreamFree Mama

I want a ScreamFree life.

Funny that I was just thinking about that this weekend and today I came across this via facebook: Screamfree Muslims. In particular, the founder sr. Olivia is having a webinar course on screamFree parenting. I was just thinking to myself this weekend that me and the Man (aka Baba A to Z) need to work on cutting out the scream when it comes to the kids (sorry, Baba, I’m including you too!).

I’ll give myself some credit–I don’t justify screaming. I should say “emotional reactivity” instead, since that is the word that the ScreamFree program uses, and it’s a term that encompasses so much more than screaming. I know that it’s senseless to react, to blow up, and to say dumb and hurtful things in a moment of anger instead of logically handling a situation. But guess what…I do it anyway! I’m sure most parents do, it’s just a basic failing in human nature that we lose our temper. “Laa taghdab, laa taghdab, laa taghdab.” … “Do not get angry, do not get angry, do not get angry.” We’ve heard that hadith a million times.

And seriously? We know deep down that screaming.doesn’t.work. End of story. It just becomes a crutch–child doesn’t listen until screamed at, so parent screams all the time, leading to screaming not even working, and an escalating cycle of screaming between parenting and child. It takes a big leap, however to go from the acknowledgement that something is wrong, and actually learning and applying techniques on how to fix it.

I’m not sure I’ll spring for the webinar–it’s close to a hundred dollars, and I think I can check out some books and handouts and get the gist. For me, the issue is keeping my mind focused on the goal of mindful parenting, and reading books helps me to focus on that. When I found the book Raising Your Spirited Child, it really helped me improve my parenting while I was reading it because I was suddenly more aware of what my child was like and what he needed. The reminder benefits the believers–no matter what the subject is, deen or dunya (and this is akhlaaq-related so it’s definitely deeni improvement).

My current mental exercise is–why not scream? What are the harms of screaming to one’s child? (or student, I should add, for I am also guilty of that one)

  1. Raising one’s voice is explicitly condemned in the Qur’an via the words of Luqman al-Hakeem as he advises his son: “And be moderate in your walk and lower your voice. Indeed, the harshest of voices is the voice of the donkey” (Surah Luqman: 31:19). From now on, I will tell myself–“Mama, when you scream, you sound like an ass.” And it will be true, because Sadaqa-allahul-Adheem.
  2. “Emotional reactivity”, i.e. getting angry, is explicitly condemned in the Sunnah. “Do not get angry, do not get angry, do not get angry.”
  3. Getting angry is in direct contradiction to the very character of RasulAllah (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam.)
  4. You can’t impart something you don’t have yourself. The Arabic proverb goes: Faaqid-ush-Shay laa yu’teeh…the one devoid of something cannot give it. How do we teach good-manners if we are ill-mannered? I see my son scream at his little sister and know that my own screaming is what set the example. And God forbid that our children go on to scream at their spouses, destroying their marriages and family lives, simply because we set the wrong example from the beginning.
  5. Screaming tears apart relationships. Think about a time you have been screamed at. It doesn’t even take a full-blown scream to deeply wound a person. You know this when you are having a strained conversation with your spouse–it doesn’t take much of a raise in voice and tone from the other to feel hurt. We can only imagine the pain our own children feel. I remember reading a poignant thought by Alfie Kohn where he asked in reference to discipline–before we react to behavior that we perceive as bad, ask ourselves, “Is what we are saying/doing to our child in response worth the effect it is going to have on the relationship?”
  6. Screaming doesn’t even work in the long term. If we think of discipline as merely getting our children to do what we want in the here-and-now, then screaming occasionally works. However, if we think of discipline as raising our children to be morally upright individuals who have good character, then screaming definitely does no good towards that goal.

One of the criticisms leveled against this line of thinking is that somehow kids are different, so different standards should be applied to them, and that “you need to discipline.” ScreamFree parenting is not antithetical to discipline; in fact, it is harmonious with discipline because effective discipline does not occur in a scream-based relationship. Olivia has another great post describing this: DJ Empty Threat. We end up screaming empty threats and in the end no real discipline occurs.

So…this post has been somewhat of a personal pep-talk for myself–we’ll see how long I last sane and “ScreamFree.” And if you catch me slacking (yeah, you, Baba…) then just give me a sober look and say, “This is a ScreamFree zone, mama. Take it somewhere else, woman!”

Notes from a marriage seminar

Our local masjid recently hosted Imam Muhammad Magid to do a program on how to have a successful marriage. It was a beneficial seminar from an imam who truly is in the trenches as far as helping his community members heal their own marriages. There were quite a few gems of wisdom; I’ll share some of them below.

The Key to Forgiveness

This gem was absolutely brilliant and particularly memorable for me, because it is something that just clicked and made such complete sense. To introduce the idea he put forth, I’ll first give an example of a piece of marriage advice I once came across by Muhammad AlShareef (of alMaghrib Institute). He said that when things go wrong, just say sorry. Even if you may not have been in the wrong, or were also wronged yourself, you can never go wrong by saying “sorry.”

That’s a great piece of advice, except how many times have you been in a situation with anyone and felt, as the saying goes, “sorry doesn’t cut it”? How many times has that harmed friendships, partnerships, marriages–virtually any relationship? A person gives an apology, and yet the other party feels as if a mere apology was insufficient?

Cut to Imam Magid–he offered a wonderful explanation based on a keen understanding of human nature as well as using an example from seerah. His advice is that one must be ready to forgive one’s spouse, but in order for one to do that, the one who is apologizing must acknowledge their mistake verbally and explain what they did wrong. Why? This shows the other person that the one apologizing has acknowledged their trespass and it frees up the other person to open their heart and forgive.

How do we derive this principle? When Wahshi, the killer of Hamzah, came to repent to RasulAllah (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam), the Prophet asked him to describe to him how he killed Hamzah. He then told him to keep away from him (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam) for a few days. Even after the person has acknowledged their wrong, they should not expect instant forgiveness, for it is a process, not an instant reaction.

A Parable for the Marriage Relationship

Imam Magid described the husband-wife relationship with the following example–they are like the two wings on a bird flying to its creator, Allah subhana wa ta’aala. The bird cannot fly with only one wing, and the two wings must be flying in unison in order for the bird to stay on its correct path.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T…

Allah says in the Qur’an: “And among his signs is this: that He has created for you spouses from yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility among them…” (Ar-Rum: 21).

A fundamental principle of the marriage relationship is that it is founded on respect, and this draws back to an aspect of our creed itself. We believe that our spouses are creations of Allah, so we offer our spouses respect that a creation of the Lord deserves. How easy it becomes for us to become used to our spouses, take them for granted, and then not offer them basic courtesy and respect? Remember that first and foremost, ones spouse is a creation of Allah, and as such is deserving of basic human respect.

Practical Advice: Go the Extra Mile

A simple way to increase love between spouses? When one spouse requests something from the other, say, a glass of water–go the extra mile and see what more you can do. “Would you like ice with that? A snack?” Little things can make the difference in a relationship.

One.

One year has come and gone as in an instant.

It seemed like a few months ago, when, after a day of what seemed like false-alarm random labor pain that I would go to the hospital’s birthing center “just in case” and have Z in the shower half an hour after arriving.

It seems like just yesterday that I realized with a start that she was born on a Saturday, just like her brother, and three days after her 37th week, just like her brother.

It seems like mere seconds ago that I caught her, saw my husband’s teary, exited face saying, “we have a daughter, we have a daughter…” and then walked myself over to lay down with her, never letting her go for a second, Siraj by my side, as we just looked at her, the nurse still laughing that we two had “delivered” this baby before the midwife could even arrive.

Those after-birth moments are pure magic–even the nurse was so exited and congratulatory that my wishes were fulfilled, set long before the birth, that I catch her, keep her close, and attached to the cord as long as we wished.

Z.M.S.

She is named after her father’s paternal grandmother, a woman I wish I could have met, whom I know my husband loved so dearly, and she him, that I could say nothing but “yes, of course” when he proposed we name our first daughter after her.

She–the fact that she was a girl–made the horribly long, nauseating, and sometimes bedrest-bound days of her pregnancy so much more worth it.

Her birthday and my life with MS share the same timeframe, because I first started having symptoms shortly after her birth. I feel sorry for her that her early months were clouded by my own health issues, but it led to her having such a strong relationship with her father. Every time I climbed into an MRI tube or went to physical therapy, there she would be, playing with her baba. Even though she wouldn’t take a bottle and so he could not feed her, they bonded so closely and so well. A blessing in disguise from the lemons of life, indeed!

She was my comfort baby, along with her brother of course. When I would feel discouraged at my own health and well-being, when I would wonder what on earth was happening to me, I would just look at her, look at her brother and think–ah, but I have this!

IMG_7134She gives me strength, even as I will count my years with this disease by her years, it is a reminder of why I fight it every day. My mental battle is won when I look at her, look at her brother, and think, “I will be well for you two.”

I love the fact that as her early months passed, she became crazy over her brother. I love that spark of connection that exists between them two alone, and pray that it lasts like that forever.

I love that she has the best father a child could ask for, and the best brother a sister could ask for.

I love, I love, I love, and I thank Allah for the love we have, for it is what makes us human–“Whoever does not show mercy, shall not be shown mercy” (hadith).

I pray that we are blessed with a long life together, as a family, and that Allah brings us all closer to Him, and reunites us in Jannah, Aameen.