Published on February 14th, 2018 | by Tara Dorabji1
Ask a Mutha: On Love
For this installment of Ask a Mutha, I asked mothers to tell me about their hearts. To share with us how they love. After all, life is an evolving relationship with love.
For February, here is the first installment of mothers on love. – Tara Dorabji
CONSTELLATIONS OF LOVE SURROUND YOU
By Ayesha Mattu
A love letter to my 7-year-old American Muslim son
January 1, 2018
As darkness engulfed our personal and political horizons in 2016, you realized at the tender age of five exactly who stood shoulder to shoulder with you and who stood against you. There was the beauty of loved ones and strangers around the world lining up to be counted with you, and the utter anguish of close family and friends who did not.
The truth hidden in this heartwound: now we know who our people are. They aren’t necessarily the ones who say they love you, janum, but those who understand love is a verb and do.
In spite of its many hard days, 2017 also carried a vast expansion of your circle of love with your first trip to our ancestral home in Pakistan. What a blessing to be amongst people who love you and your “bright” skin (as you call your brown-white heritage) and reassured us, This, too, is your sanctuary, your home.
We greeted our ancestors with prayer, joy and longing and then sat among their graves in remembrance. Let me tell you just one story from the thousands that culminate in the creation of you:
In 1916, your great-great grandmother Hassan Bibi was a young widow with two little sons. Fearing for their lives as the sole heirs to their father’s estate, she left with them by stealth one night, dressing as a man and riding away on horseback. She returned years later to successfully assert her rights. Her courage and determination give me hope every time my world ends, and another begins anew.
Your ancestors are and will be with you in your own times of grief and joy, which will cycle through your life as certain as the seasons. If wasn’t for Hassan Bibi, our family wouldn’t exist. She loved and protected the future—and here you are, five generations later, living proof. Remember, then, that you too are connected onward to generations you may never meet. You are an ancestor in training, janum. Feel the tsunami of love—this great wave gathering power over centuries and transforming all it touches—buoying you up, welling within you, and flowing forward through your intentions and actions.
I know your greatest fear is losing us, your parents—the fear of every child (especially the only child), of being alone in the world. Janum, you are never alone. When that day comes that we must part—may it be decades of joy and health and contentment away, insha’Allah—then know this: you will carry your father and me with you in your heart every day, and into the everywhere of your glorious life.
Never believe the untruth some may tell you that love is narrow and small, or confined to a romantic partner. Your love life includes the constellations of people you love and are loved by. The Beloved, your ancestors, your biological and chosen families, and the sweet earth and creation are madly in love with you and await your passionate love in return.
Remember how you, Daddy, and I lay on our backs in the giant sequoia forest, fingertips brushing, gazing up in wonder at the night sky ablaze with spinning galaxies that seemed close enough to pull us up into their radiant hearts? Think of all the generations who journeyed under those same stars and lived and loved so fiercely to protect the integrity, dignity, and worthiness that are your birthright.
You were created whole, janum. You are love incarnate. Go—unleash it upon the waiting world.
All my love, always,
Ayesha Mattu is a writer and the editor of two groundbreaking anthologies: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex & Intimacy. Connect with her at Love, InshAllah, Twitter , and Instagram.
LOVE vs. ROMANCE: KIDS EDITION
By Aya de Leon
In spite of the fact that I wouldn’t let my daughter go near the monstrous Disney princess franchise, that I delayed her video watching till she was well into preschool, that I thoughtfully prescreened every single series I would allow her to view, that I obsessively curated her toy collection, that I heavily censored her books, frequently editing out or changing parts I found objectionable—yes, in spite of all this, my eight-year-old daughter has still been exposed to the toxic narrative of heterosexual romance.
Part of what’s so damaging in many of these romance narratives is that feelings of love and romance—for girls in particular—are indicated by characters blushing and lowering their eyes. So romantic feelings are not linked with desire or exuberance or connection, but rather with feelings of shame and humiliation. Which in my value system is not what people liking or being attracted to each other should be about. And it’s certainly not what I want to teach my daughter. These narratives have to do with a fundamental alienation and lack of connection between people. As a Black/Latinx mom, I often explain to my daughter that European culture has a lot of shame about bodies, feelings, closeness, and emotional vulnerability. So Europeans have passed that on to the places they colonized, and European-Americans pass these values on in the books and videos, creating a Euro-centric distortion of human reality.
I want my child to learn age-appropriate truths about love: human relationships are valuable. Connection requires communication. And each moment in each relationship is new and requires fresh thinking. Romance in media is about tired tropes and scripts that never change, giving little room for girls and women to be who we are. I challenge the limitations of these scripts in adult fiction. I definitely don’t want my daughter to be exposed to them.
There are many, unfortunate romance intrusions in shows we love. One example is Puffin Rock. This beautifully drawn show features a clever and intrepid little girl puffin with a baby brother. She has friends of many species and they have great adventures. But there’s an older hermit crab character “Bernie.” In one episode he has a lady friend ”Bernadette” (really?) and he does something rescue-y in her direction. Why this perfectly lovely show needed a romantic storyline of the older hermit crab character, I’ll never know. It’s almost as if the writers were having a bad week and decided to fall back on some hackneyed cliché plotline because they couldn’t think of anything else.
At least with the Disney princess franchise, I know what I’m getting into, and I can avoid it. But these other series are supposedly not about romance, don’t have romantic leads or romantic content in the show’s premise, and they don’t begin with ongoing romantic tension in the setup. Yet it seems that in moments of lapse, they default to these romantic storylines. Which means that unless I preview each and every episode of a new show, my kid will be hooked on the series by the time I encounter the objectionable content.
Girls need to be in the reality of their lives, not the “someday my prince will come” narrative that their lives really begin when a boy likes them. Even stories that focus more holistically on girl characters can’t seem to give up this trope. It’s perfectly illustrated in Disney’s non-princess story Inside Out. A lot of the story is great, and gives children a great picture of how emotions work. But there’s one scene when we briefly enter the mind of the tween boy as he crosses paths with the protagonist girl, Riley, and his brain begins to sound an alarm: “Girl!” This gives the impression that attraction between people comes not from common interests or some sort of human connection, but rather the abstract heterosexual identification of someone of the “opposite” sex that sets off alarm bells. These pre-adolescent romantic scripts are unhealthy because they reinforce the idea that boys and girls are “opposite” sexes whose primary function in each other’s lives is romantic or sexual. Inside Out also has a bit about imaginary boyfriends and an imaginary boyfriend generator. I found it funny at the time. But when I really think about it, why does a pre-teen need to spend any time imagining a boyfriend?
My daughter does not need to be thinking about romantic love. She should be thinking about friends and adventure and make-believe and magic and animals and science and sports and creativity and storytelling and families and fun and the world around her.
This implanting of romantic ideas into my daughter’s brain is the precursor to early sexualization. Before my daughter’s physical and hormonal body will develop to the point that she can experience sexual desire, society will already have groomed her to be concerned about her sexual desirability under the male gaze. And who likes who. Before my daughter can have an authentic crush or romantic feeling stemming from her own interest or curiosity about another person, she will be conditioned for romantic anxiety, competition between females, body image issues, and the normalization of preoccupation with boys, a boy, a boyfriend, wanting a boyfriend, and wanting to get that kind of attention from a boy. Even if my daughter develops a queer identity, or exclusive attraction to girls, the romantic angst is completely transferable.
Our society is completely oblivious to tracking romantic content’s damaging effects on girls. So while patriarchy is consistently committed to monitoring and controlling women’s sexuality and parents are concerned about exposure to sexual content, there’s no language about monitoring romantic content. For example, Common Sense Media (which I love) has several categories to warn parents about areas of content in TV, movies, books and games. They rate content in areas like violence and scariness, profanity, drug and alcohol use, and what they call sexy stuff. And they identify what age any given media is appropriate for. Sadly, they don’t track romance.
But at the end of the day, the thing that upsets me most is the hijacking of the reality of love. Love is what my daughter and I feel for each other. What she feels for other members of our family, what she feels for her friends. Her real training for adult relationships is how she watches me and her father struggle for a more egalitarian marriage. How we all get cranky with each other and have to apologize. How we all grow in our capacity to love and relate by loving and relating. And she also needs to see the reality that romantic relationships need support. Partners need to practice self-love and engage in things they love and have a larger community of people they love. Those life lessons for kids: how to be a good friend and stand up for your friends and speak up for yourself with your friends. How to try different things and keep going with things you love even when they get hard. How to love nature and science and the arts and learning and social justice. That is what the media should be supporting and focusing on for children her age.
So if you know of any websites that track children’s media for romantic content and heteronormative bias, please, put it in the comments!
Aya de Leon is a writer of fiction and non-fiction for adults and young readers, including her award winning, feminist heist series, Justice Hustlers: Uptown Thief, (2016), The Boss (2017), and The Accidental Mistress (2018). Her bylines include Ebony, Guernica, VICE, Catapult, Writers Digest, and Bitch Magazine. She teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.