My wife and I have four children, and three of them were born in Pakistan. All three of them were born in the summer, which demonstrates a lack of good timing on our part. Being pregnant, I am reliably assured, is no picnic, and the discomfort of lugging around a swelling belly is made significantly increased when it is forty degrees outside, and humid to boot.
It was with a sense of relief, therefore, that we pulled up outside a private clinic in Islamabad for the birth of our fourth child, my wife feeling happy that she would at least be relieved of the burden of pregnancy, and I was also feeling happy that I would be relieved from worrying about whether the baby was ok.
Pregnancy, after all, is something rather miraculous, and in many ways rather strange. The sense of love for the child-that-is-to-be is powerful – and yet in the early stages it is an odd love, for an anonymous blob of tissue, tiny and helpless, growing silently and invisibly in the womb. During each of our pregnancies I have found myself wondering what the child will be like, what it will look like, how it will laugh and cry and play – and all this at a stage when it consists of little more than a bundle of cells buried somewhere inside my wife’s tummy. It is also an anxious love. We are desperate for our babies to thrive, to develop normally, and even in the West this cannot always be taken for granted.
We walked into the clinic feeling relieved, therefore, but also anxious. The various stages of medical assessments and preparations came and went, and my wife was prepared for surgery. I put on scrubs and went in to sit next to her in the operating room. And then, a few minutes later, came the sound of my son’s first tentative screech. I started crying. I always do.
Later that day, while my wife was recovering, I took my son in my arms and went for a walk down the corridor to comfort him. The corridor was lined with women, mostly mothers or mothers-in-law of the other women who had come to the clinic to give birth. They looked up at me silently as I passed. There is a barrier between men and women in Pakistan, a barrier of culture and honour. I would not talk to a woman in the street, even if she were a friend of my wife’s. It would be awkward for both of us. I have not even met all of my wife’s friends; some of them I have never even seen with their hair uncovered. So when the women in the corridor looked up at me it was with the usual sense of silent curiosity. They would not speak to me, nor I to them.
But then the saw the bundle in my arms, swaddled in blankets against the fierce air-conditioning, and the barrier broke down. “Mashallah” said one as I passed, “Praise God”. Then a second echoed her, and a third, and I walked down the corridor with a foolish grin on my face, accompanied by the faint whispers of Pakistani grandmothers quietly praising God for the safe arrival of my son.