The Reluctant Mother
The Reluctant Mother is a book of rage.
Rage at being alone in your pain, having your conflict belittled, and your struggles trivialised. It is the story of a young woman who seeks to find herself in a world that constantly tries to define her and who she should be. It is the memoir of an anti-mother.
A woman who doesn’t fall in love with her baby at first sight but discovers love along the way.This book is for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the idea of ‘ideal’ motherhood. Be it a woman or a man, one way of confronting trauma is to know that you are not alone in it. To know that someone shares your story and understands your emotions and guilt that accompanies feeling anything other than ‘perfectly blissful’ about motherhood.
It is at once heart-breaking and poignant as it is hopeful and comforting. It is the story of one woman and yet the life of many. It reveals how tradition and modernity, faith and reason, pleasure and pain are all so intimately interwoven for women that their true sense of self is inevitably one of contradictions.The book’s biggest strength lies in its rawness and honesty. Nothing but the truth stands here.
I met Zehra Naqvi on Facebook and found her posts to be fresh, unique and thought-provoking. Since I was relatively new to Facebook, I had not known about her blog that was later made into this book. Yet, when I found out about this book being published, I was determined to not only read it but also talk to her about her motivations for sharing her personal journey about her ambivalence and struggles as she navigated the journey from carefree, ambitious young woman to hassled mother and ultimately discovered so many nuggets of truth along the way – gems that are scattered across this unusual book.
What happens to you if you are a reluctant mother in a culture that glorifies motherhood?
When twenty-four year old Zehra finds out that she is pregnant, she has been married for a year. But for all the years of her young life, she has made plans that include a satisfying career as a journalist, interesting conversations, international travels and exciting adventures. The pregnancy throws her imagined future completely off course. From the physical demands of a turbulent first trimester to the emotional impact of having to stop working and move from Delhi to Aligarh, Zehra’s life trajectory changes drastically.
We come to know Zehra through the entries in her journal during the time of her difficult pregnancy and the early years of her son’s life. It is not a mere tracking of the unfulfilled desires of an ambitious woman or a chronicle of the struggles of a young mother, but a deep look into what makes a marriage, how motherhood can be fulfilling but also limiting, how life can go from a happy dream to your worst nightmare leaving you with no hope for a better future.
“Unreality, thy name is motherhood”, says Zehra as she discovers that simple pleasures like restful sleep, a long shower, an hour to read without interruption, are impossible once the baby is born. Zehra’s difficulties are exacerbated by the absence of her husband, her main pillar of support, who has taken up a job overseas in order to build a strong financial foundation for the family.
As mentioned in the book’s subtitle, Zehra doesn’t shy away from narrating “the story that no one wants to tell”. The book shines with pain and candour. Its strength lies in the way Zehra digs deep into the women’s expectation from marriage (not just to procreate), from family (support without judgment and well-meaning but misguided advice) and society (interdependence not interference).
While every woman/mother may have experienced some version of Zehra’s story, it is still one that is not discussed often enough. I commend Zehra for touching on topics that are generally considered taboo including the role of therapy when you are stuck (and your loved ones are unable to help), reasons why men are reluctant to be vulnerable and how it affects the family and most importantly, the fact that a woman is ‘not a mother above everything else but a mother along with everything else”.
My opinion: Highly recommend for women of all ages, regardless of whether you have stars in your eyes with plans for a perfect happily ever after or whether you have sons and daughters who do.
Question 1: You are a journalist by training. When you began your career, did you think you would write a book about your personal life?
I had been writing poems from the time I was 12, and I knew, around the time I was 14, that I was going to be an author one day. Much before I became a journalist, I had a deep desire to write a book. But I hadn’t imagined that my first book would be non-fiction, and about my own life. The book just happened on its own, much the same way as life unfolds – without warning. It was a story that engulfed my life and kept growing larger and larger until it spilled out of me, demanding to go out into the world.
Question 2: Your book is structured as a personal journal. Did you use excerpts from your journal for the book or was that an intentional choice based on the material?
Though the book is structured as a series of journal entries, there is no real journal that holds any of these entries. Whatever I wrote, I wrote from the memory of those feelings and experiences. It was an instinctive choice to structure the book in that manner, because that felt like the most authentic way to narrate this story – to present the conflicting feelings, the volatile emotions, the way that life was changing from one moment to the next. It felt like the most intimate way to tell such an intimate story.
The journal structure also allowed me to use the present tense throughout, giving the narration a sense of immediacy, because to me it seemed as if no time had passed between the occurrence of the events and the moment when I was writing about them. I lived every moment all over again as I wrote it.
Question 3: Did you come up with the idea to write this memoir or was it someone/something else that prodded you?
This memoir actually started off as a blog in 2013. And it was prodded on by sheer coincidence: by the movie ‘Julie & Julia’ that I happened to be watching. I watched Julie Powell struggle with the lowest phase of her life, and I watched her take to blogging, and then I watched how her life turned around and her blog became a book. Despite there being no parallels between her life and mine, I found myself relating increasingly to her feeling of being ‘stuck’ in life. The moment I finished watching the movie, I opened WordPress and made a blog for myself. I decided I was going to blog everyday, like Julie, about my own life. Incurable dreamer that I am, I fleetingly imagined that one day my story might take the form of a book.
But it was only later, after I began to get messages from fellow bloggers and readers, heartfelt messages telling me how much they identified with the feelings expressed in the blog, that I began to seriously consider turning it into a book.
The first person to say this out loud and ask me to convert the blog into a book was Kathi Ostrom, a blogger from Canada. Her blog was about dealing with an empty nest, and mine was about dealing with an unexpectedly full nest! We both were on opposite ends of the motherhood rainbow, and yet we found an honesty and depth in each other’s writing that we could relate to. I always credit Kathi for being the first person to make me believe that this story could take the form of a book.
Question 4: In a culture that glorifies motherhood, your memoir reflects an unacknowledged facet that most women would shy away from admitting (and writing!). Who/what were your primary motivations for writing this memoir?
My primary motivation was just what you’ve mentioned above: trying to speak my truth, an unacknowledged truth, in a culture that endlessly glorifies motherhood and refuses to acknowledge the woman inside the mother- her struggles and tribulations, her dreams, desires and ambitions. That even after she becomes a mother, she still wants romantic love, she still wants sexual intimacy, she still wants professional fulfillment, she still needs a ‘room of her own’, to quote Virginia Woolf.
My primary motivation was my own sense of isolation, the feeling of being a freak and an aberration in a culture of women proclaiming ‘motherhood is the best thing that happened to me.’ My own ambivalence over the sacrifices that motherhood demanded, the drastic changes in life that came post motherhood, did not seem to be reflected anywhere around me- neither in the books I had read, nor in the movies I had seen, and certainly not in the conversations of women around me. I felt an overpowering urge to express my ambivalence and conflict, to put it out there before the world. Even if I was a minority of one, I was still going to speak my truth.
It was only when I started writing that I realized I had stepped into the dark closet of motherhood, where countless mothers suffered wordlessly, for one word about their ambivalence would label them bad mothers. I began to get a steady stream of messages from fellow bloggers and readers about how the blog spoke to their deepest selves, the part that they would perhaps not have acknowledged even to themselves. They saw in my writing a reflection of their own voices, of the feelings that they were not allowed to accept in public without being shamed and maligned. And thus, from one woman’s story, it became the untold story of countless women, the story of countless mothers. Then it suddenly became far more pertinent for this story to be published and be out in the world.
Question 5: How long did it take from start to finish for the book?
It took me five years to write The Reluctant Mother, primarily because I didn’t know I was writing a book. It started off as a blog in 2013. At the end of 2017 I finally decided to turn it into a book, and in 2018 I had sculpted the finished manuscript into shape. It took five years to be written because along with writing this book, I was also writing two columns every week for Financial Chronicle, and articles for various publications as a freelance journalist – along with bringing up a little boy.
Because this book was written over such a long duration, the narrative voice also reflects the gradual transformation in the thought process of its writer. As a 35-year-old woman, when I look at my book now, I see a young, 26-year-old in it, and she feels like quite a different person- trustful, hopelessly romantic, so full of dreams and longings. As I have written in the introduction to my book, this story is ‘a moment suspended in time, and will, perhaps, remind the readers of who they were when they were young… passionate and full of dreams and romance.’
Question 6: Did you read other memoirs for inspiration? Any recommendations for readers who may like to read other memoirs on related topics?
I used to read mostly fiction then, and did not read any memoirs or consult any books on motherhood or parenting while writing my own book. Even until signing the publishing contract in 2019, I had not read any memoirs on motherhood. The thing is, my focus was barely on the craft or style of writing. I was simply playing my ‘natural game’, to use the language of athletes. I was writing in my natural style, and the thing I cared most about was telling the story as honestly and truthfully as I could. All I had was an earnest story and a desire to reach out to weary hearts- hoping they might find some comfort, some solace in knowing they weren’t alone.
Then in 2020, after my book was edited and close to publication, I came across Elif Shafak’s memoir Black Milk, in which she speaks of her brush with postpartum depression. In between her own story, she weaves the stories of myriad writers- some of whom were very eager mothers, some of whom struggled with being mothers, some of whom decided not to be mothers. The book struck me with its vivid and varied portrayals of motherhood- in particular how women writers were affected by motherhood.
I sat at the very intersection of writing and motherhood that the book dealt with. It felt like a validation of the exact message that I was trying to convey through my own book: that motherhood is not a monolith. That there is no homogenous experience of motherhood – that every woman is different in what she longs for and desires, and that every woman’s experience of motherhood can also be vastly different and subjective. That the stereotype of the mother who wants nothing else except her child was far removed from reality.
Other than this book, I would also like to recommend Shashi Deshpande’s Writing From The Margins, a collection of essays that are not about motherhood per se, but many of them reflect the life of a woman as a mother and a writer.
Question 7: How did you decide what goes in and what stays out? Were there any concerns about how your husband and extended family would feel about the level of detail you have shared?
An interesting question! How does one decide the relative importance of events in one’s own life? How does one decide the level to which one’s life is one’s own, for it is criss-crossed by the lives of so many others?
I wrote, first and foremost, about the things that most wanted to come out, that most wanted to burst forth from the pen. It was of utmost importance for me to write of all the ideas, thoughts and feelings that were clamoring to be said and refusing to be relegated to the corridors of silence. What did I keep out? I do not know. Perhaps the details that were not relevant to the story that I wanted to tell. There was no conscious decision to keep anything out – except perhaps episodes that would infringe on someone else’s life, someone whose life was not mine to talk about. In everything, the most important thing for me was to tell the truth, never to twist the truth.
As far as my husband is concerned, we have known each other since we were teenagers. There is a level of trust that we have between us, which we had even when he was miles away in Oman and I was in India. In truth, men who feel the need to control their wives and dictate terms to them are grappling with deep insecurities inside them. Their need to dominate stems from their insecurity about themselves. My partner possesses a quiet strength and sensibility that one does not easily come across. He lives by the values he espouses – they are not just a show put on for the world.
He used to eagerly read all my posts on the blog, and he was the first person whom I showed the finished manuscript to. I asked him time and again if he was comfortable with putting his life so much in the public eye, but every time his reply was the same – this is your story, this is your truth, and you must surely tell it. Nevertheless, I asked him to go through the manuscript thoroughly and see if there was anything that made him uncomfortable. He read it all the way through and didn’t ask for any deletions; instead, he came to me and said that he was deeply moved by the book. Even now, he picks it up and re-reads a few pages every now and then, and comes back to tell me every time: ‘This book gets me emotional.’
He was the one who urged me to keep going and not lose hope when I got no acceptance from publishers at first. And he was the first one to share the link to my book with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and invite them all to the book launch! He feels very proud of this book which, in truth, is as much his story as is mine. It is as much of a modern-day love story as it is a story of motherhood.
Question 8: What was the difficult part?
Writing a synopsis and finding a publisher! Being able to define and summarize my book in an objective manner, because I was too close to it.
Question 9: What was the easy part?
Writing the book! That was the easy part because the words just flowed by themselves. It was a story that was bursting out of the seams of my existence, I had all these emotions and thoughts and ideas that were just raring to be let loose. It felt like the most natural thing in the world; I was simply following my instincts.
Question 10: What was your path to publication? Did you have an agent?
No, I do not have an agent. I got in touch directly with several publishers, several of whom read and liked the manuscript but felt that the book did not fit their list. That was a difficult period because I had begun to lose faith in the book – until I found Hay House. Ruchita Ahuja, who later edited and chiseled this book, read the entire manuscript and called me over for a conversation. She very graciously told me that this was a ‘very important book’ and she hoped that it was going to ‘go big’. I’m always going to be grateful to her for seeing this book the way I saw it, and for being able to understand the complex emotions emanating from it.
The journey to publication nevertheless tested my patience quite a bit because Covid-19 descended upon us. So the book which was ready for publication by mid 2020, had to be held back until the end of 2021, when Covid finally gave us a breather. In the end though, that delay proved a much better decision than releasing The Reluctant Mother in the middle of the pandemic, because this way the book was able to get a memorable offline launch and be displayed in bookstores. I got an opportunity to meet my readers at my launch and at offline events at bookstores. So it proved to be a very happy ending ultimately!
Question 11: Did you learn any lessons – during writing and after publication of your memoir – any surprising or unusual takeaways?
Three things: First, a reaffirmation of my belief that when one’s intentions are pure and sans any ulterior motive, when one’s words are true and heartfelt, they will, sooner or later, reach out and find the people they were meant to find.
Second, a surprising realisation that in the community of authors, editors and publishers, there will be many people forthcoming with advice and guidance. It is a community that believes in giving.
And third, that patience is a great virtue in life.
Question 12: What is the one thing you want the reader to remember from the book?
I would ideally want the readers to remember many things from the book! Though it is ostensibly about motherhood, it is also a narrative of love, marriage, selfhood and protest. Mostly protest – against established social norms and beliefs. So if there’s one thing I would pick, I would want my readers to remember that mothers are not goddesses, they are humans, with their own needs and dreams and desires – and that’s perfectly normal.
I would want readers to remember that both women and men have their own share of struggles and problems in life, and we’re all trying to get through as best as we can. We are all human – women and men- and we must always try to understand each other’s struggles, and not belittle them.
Question 13. Any words of advice for aspiring memoir writers? Or mothers?
I find myself unable to offer much writing advice. I mostly ask people to read a lot, follow their natural voice and tell their story in their own style.
The best advice I can give to aspiring memoir writers is this, which I am quoting from a post I wrote on Facebook last year:
‘Don’t wonder why you are telling the story of your life. Don’t think – well, who am I, why should people want to know what I went through? Believe me, they do. We all want to hear each other’s stories, because we want to know that we are not alone. We want to know that this grief and pain and confusion is not ours alone. We want to be comforted. There are people whose lives your writing will touch, people whom you won’t ever be aware of. People whom you will comfort without even being aware of it. My life has been touched by writers who will never know of my existence, and their words have healed me in ways that they will never know.
Writing comforts. Stories comfort.’
As for advice to mothers, I would say find that elusive balance between self-love and self-sacrifice. Find space for yourself, for the woman inside the mother, and find time for your own needs and dreams as well. And with your children, try and be patient. Motherhood is not the reason for your struggle – it is society that is responsible for heaping the entire responsibility of parenting on you alone, when in truth it is supposed to be an equally shared task between both the parents, and among all family members. It is our society that has failed mothers by expecting only sacrifices from them.
So, more than advice to mothers, I have a message to our society in general – to families, to companies, to organisations, to governments: We need more acknowledgement of the role of mothers in nation building – not through lip service and bombastic poetry, but through actual law-making and policy changes that enable women to fulfill their dreams along with motherhood.
Not as a hand-out, not as charity, not as special treatment, but as their right, in acknowledgement of the fact that by birthing and bringing up children, women are playing an important part in creating future citizens and future leaders, and thus mothers are playing the part of drivers of future growth. The upbringing of children is not just the mother’s concern, then, but the concern of the society as a whole, the concern of the country and its institutions, and of all the organisations that are benefitting from the demographic dividend.
Question 14: Would you recommend any other memoirs by Indian authors?
I would recommend your memoir, Ranjani – Rewriting My Happily Ever After, because it is so real and would help so many women find the strength and the roadmap they are looking for. And I would recommend Annie Zaidi’s award-winning book Bread, Cement, Cactus: A memoir of belonging and dislocation. This book is very close to my heart because it speaks of belonging, dislocation and the question of multiple identities that we carry inside us. It is a very pertinent book for our times, and in fact for all times, because humans have always been in a state of movement and flux, and questions of belonging and identity have always perplexed and confused people.
In fact, more than physical dislocation, we experience emotional dislocation, existential dislocation – an identity crisis that is very often reflected in the changes post motherhood. A woman’s life is perhaps an entire story of dislocation – given that we leave the life that we know to move to our partner’s homes and spend our lives with them. So dislocation and belonging are themes that have particular resonance, and this book handles them with great nuance and sensitivity.
Book is available for sale at: As a paperback, available on Amazon across the globe, and in all major bookstores across India. Also available as an ebook on Kindle.
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