Those hours I spent with Ahmed, in the throes of labour, were riven with physical pain but filled with warmth, too. That warmth glowed like a little ember in my mind long after we were separated again.
The baby’s arrival had brought something of the old Ahmed back. I noticed tears in his eyes when he first gazed at his daughter lying on my chest. And when he picked her up, his nervous gentleness made my heart swell.
But within only a few minutes, the reality of our lives began to reassert itself. My mother, Amma and Abba rushed into the labour room as soon as they were allowed. Amma scooped the baby from Ahmed’s arms, and Abba bent over her to whisper the Azaan, the Muslim prayer call, into her ear. Then the tiny bundle was passed from one person to another. Ahmed and I both got our turn during the rounds, but we didn’t get a say in how long we held her or where she went next.
And Ahmed’s strange sense of modesty returned. Once I had been moved to the ward, he refused to be in the room alone with me when I attempted to nurse the baby for the first time.
What’s more, fatherhood didn’t quell Ahmed’s irascibility. When the nurse pricked our daughter’s heel to draw blood for a test and the baby let out a wail, Ahmed was beside himself. He grabbed her from the nurse’s arms, then kicked a nearby cart, berating the startled nurse as he did. I begged him to calm down, but that only made him angrier.
“Be quiet,” he said peevishly. “You don’t know anything.”
I was embarrassed – and oddly conflicted. It was good to know that Ahmed felt a deep connection to our daughter already, but it was frightening to think it could lead to such volatility.
The morning after the baby was born people began to arrive in my hospital room. Amma brought me gond – a sweet mix of semolina, nuts and condensed milk – a traditional Pakistani dish thought to restore a new mother’s energy. Family friends came through the door with their hands filled with flowers or stuffed animals for the baby. As I sat in bed in my starchy hospital gown, trying to smile and express gratitude, I found myself wishing the other bed in the room was occupied, so we’d have some excuse to turn people away.
The chatter and commotion prodded me to keep my eyes open hour after hour, until it was finally late enough for my mother to shoo everyone out. When the last person disappeared into the corridor, my mother settled on the empty bed to spend the night with me.
The second day was a copy of the first. And then, after forty-eight hours in the hospital, I was told I could go home. Home. That felt like a cruel joke. As I settled the baby into the car seat for the short drive, I couldn’t help thinking that the last place I wanted to be was back at the condo.
Once there, two things happened almost immediately.
First, Amma named my daughter. While I was still in the hospital, Ahmed, his parents and I had talked about names. Amma had suggested “Aisha.” I had my heart set on “Sonia.” When we got home, however, it became clear that the decision wasn’t up to anyone but Amma.
“This is Amma’s first grandchild. She didn’t get a chance to name any of her own children, so she should get to do this. You can’t take that happiness away from her,” said Ahmed.
I knew full well that a happy Amma was better than an unhappy one. Besides, I was too bone-weary for a debate.
Next, my mother left the following morning. She hadn’t booked her return flight originally, thinking she might be needed for a while after the baby was born. But three weeks with Ahmed and his parents had wrung her out, and she wanted to escape their barely concealed hostility as soon as she could.
I was sad to see her go but did not protest her decision. Once she was gone, I thought, Amma and Abba might be a little less on edge and a little less unhappy with me.
After my mother had finished packing up her things, we lingered in the bedroom to say our goodbyes. As we hugged, Mother reassured me that things would get better.
“Just try to find ways to make him happy,” she advised. “Ask him to give you a bit more time. Try to enjoy your life together.”
“I’ll miss you so much,” I told her, “but I’m glad I won’t have to see you disrespected by this family anymore.”
We embraced one last time, and then she was disappearing out the door with Ahmed.
By the time Ahmed came back from the airport, I had returned to bed and was lying quietly, listening to Aisha’s whisper-soft breathing as she dozed in her crib. The lumpy mattress felt like a cloud compared to the stiff, vinyl-encased hospital bed. I could feel sleep beginning to take me off.
But a voice jolted me awake – Ahmed’s, telling me that I needed to be out in the living room, sitting with his parents. If I had thought having a baby would change any of the rules, I was wrong.
I sat bleary-eyed on the sofa, not even aware of what was being said or what was playing on the TV. Eventually, however, Aisha’s mewls broke through my haze. I stood up shakily and walked into the bedroom.
Once I had fed Aisha and got her settled again I crawled back into bed, so tired that I was sure I wouldn’t make it back to the living room even if I tried. When the bedroom door opened, I expected to hear Ahmed once again telling me to get up. But it must have been late. He got undressed and lay down in bed next to me. It had been weeks since we’d been alone together in our room. I reached out and put my arms around him.
Ahmed stiffened. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me back. “Get away,” he said. “I’m trying to sleep.” He rolled away from me.
As tired as I was, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep now. For the next few hours, I sat in the rocking chair next to Aisha’s crib, awash with tears. I thought back to the first eight months we had spent together – all the times Ahmed had made me feel beautiful and loved. Where had I gone wrong? How could I change things back? How could I make him love me again?
Eventually Aisha let out a cry. Before I could get her out of her crib and nursing, Ahmed was awake. “You can’t even keep a baby quiet,” he muttered angrily. Continuing to grumble, he got out of bed and left the room. From then on, he slept in the solarium.
Excerpted with permission from A Good Wife: Escaping The Life I Never Chose, Samra Zafar with Meg Masters, Penguin Books India.
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