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It had been a tiring day.  With four kids under the age of six every day is a tiring day, admittedly, but yesterday had been particularly tiring.  The kids were off school because of the Eid holidays and all the places we would normally take them – the mall, the park, the other park – were all closed.  All of our Pakistani friends were visiting their families around the country so most of our friends were away too, but our families live in the UK and Canada and so we were on our own.  The kids were tired and irritable and fights kept breaking out.

Eventually, reluctantly, we put on a film for them to watch while my wife prepared dinner.  I collapsed onto the bed and opened my laptop to answer some of the many emails that were waiting for my response: funding proposals, meetings, requests for board minutes, and so forth.  I tried to get my brain into order, to assemble my thoughts, but it was like trying to round up a gaggle of hyperactive squirrels.  They kept wandering off.  This state of perpetual fatigue is, I think, going to be my salient memory of parenthood.  The other week my watch was showing the wrong date, and I only noticed ten days later.  I opened my laptop and started to type.

As if on cue, our baby boy, only six weeks old, opened his mouth and started to scream.

“Sweetie, can you get him?” called my wife from the kitchen where she was, by some kind of alchemy, turning fish, spinach and potatoes into something delicious.

I sighed.  My one chance to get something done today.  My one chance.  Once the kids are in bed and we have the house to ourselves all we do is collapse in front of a DVD, and often fall asleep halfway through an episode of the West Wing.  All of the work I was hoping to do today would have to wait until tomorrow.  It was frustrating.  I felt angry.  I felt tired.  I felt a whiney sense of injustice: why did we live so far from family and friends who might be able to help us?  Why had we gone so long without a day off?  Why had it been two years since our last decent holiday?

And then, as I picked up my new son and held him close, his eyes fixed on mine.  He pulled his head slightly back to get things into focus and stared at me.  And then, slowly imperceptibly, a tiny smile started to curl at the corner of his mouth.

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One of the challenging aspects of having a baby in Pakistan is that it is culturally inappropriate for a woman to be obviously pregnant.  Pakistan is a conservative society and it is generally held that pregnant women should remain indoors.  I’m not sure whether this is because the sight of a pregnant belly is considered somehow shameful or because women considered to be in such a fragile condition are expected to remain at home in order to be protected – but whatever the reason, pregnancies are generally concealed from public view as soon as they become obvious.

This is rather odd, of course, since Pakistan as a nation deeply welcomes and treasures children in a way that Western countries have stopped doing.  When eating at restaurants the waiters are more than happy to take care of our kids while we finish our food at a more leisurely pace, while the sight of one of our blonde-haired children is enough to make passing ladies stop and pinch their cheeks admiringly.  Yet this aspect of Pakistani culture is entrenched, and when I announced to our landlord that we would soon be welcoming our fourth child, I did so in hushed tones, as though quietly informing him that I had a bottle of whiskey hidden in my car.

“Our fourth child will soon be joining us” I said quietly one morning.  “So please forgive us if there is more noise than usual”.

“Ah” he said, gravely but kindly.  “I quite understand”.

We exchanged knowing nods and shook hands as though engaging in some dodgy business transaction, and went our separate ways.

The thing is, we can’t afford for my wife to retreat into the house and become a hermit for the last trimester of her pregnancy.  We have jobs to do, children to take to school, shopping to manage, and nobody to support us – no nearby relatives, no mother-in-law to move in and take charge for three months as a Pakistani mother-in-law would do.  So we were forced to disregard this aspect of Pakistani culture – regretfully, of course, since we do everything we can to respect local customs, but what else could we do?

So for the final three months of the pregnancy we went about our business as though guilty of some weird secret, covering up the increasingly conspicuous physical evidence of our child’s imminent arrival with baggy clothing and hurried shopping trips.  I doubt we fooled anyone.  It’s astonishing how perceptive Pakistani people are, particularly women.  I’m not too concerned, though.  Our child’s quickening in the womb was made evident not just by my wife’s swelling belly, but in our smiles, and in our trepidation, and in a quiet and private sense of joy.