That night, as Hamzeh entered their apartment and laid eye on Noor's big, round belly, his face did not show any expressions of surprise. He took off his shoes, mumbled his usual “Salam Noor jan.” and followed Saeed to their tiny living/bedroom. Noor went to the kitchen to boil up some water and bring them some tea. As the water was boiling, she stood near the door. All her ears could pick up was mumbling and “state”, “supervisor”, “drive”. The moment she entered the room with the tray, Hamzeh stood up. - I won't be disturbing you anymore. - Please stay baradar jan I just brought tea. He nodded his head no while mumbling a couple of “thank you”s. As soon as they were alone, Saeed took the tray from Noor and put it on table. “He said there is an open position for supervision.” He put a cup in front of her. “His close friend is also a supervisor. It doesn't seem like a scam.” He slid a couple of biscuits to the plate. “It's in the neighbor state.” He placed the plate in front of Noor. “It's a four-hour drive.” Since the beginning of this conversation, Saeed hadn't locked eyes with her even once. Finally, he rose his head. “We have to work it out Noor jan. I'm sorry.” She remained solid. Again a wall of silence appeared to be surrounding them. “I don't want to ask you to be strong beyond what you're going through right now.” Saeed was the first one to break it. “This seems like our best option for now.” “When will I be able to see you?” Noor's voice stopped the silence from building further. Saeed's eyes turned to her, his gaze was still anxious but Noor's question, or simply she addressing him at that point, made him feel less guilty for a second. “On weekends.” Noor had placed Saeed's sack on the bed, slowly packing some essentials for him. She had put one hand on her belly, stroking it gently over her maxi. Apparently Saeed had to share a room with a couple of other workers who supposed to commute on a weekly basis. She packed a box of masks and some cold medicine. They kept saying that what this new virus does to the body is similar to a cold, but worst. Saeed had to leave at 6 AM tomorrow morning. They both tried to go to sleep for at least a few hours, but it did not felt like an option at that moment. Saeed was running his fingers through her locks and brushing them against her cheeks from time to time. Her belly was pressing right next to his, as if the baby had already found its spot to sleep between them, while they'd be protecting it like two human shields. He closed his eyes, his hand still resting in her hair. “I'll make the life that I promised you to have with me.” Noor wrapped her arm tighter around his waist. “I know.” - Her doctor had predicted that she'd go through labor around the second week of Saeed's absence. Her chest started to feel heavy the moment Saeed got into Hamzeh's car. It was the first time that she had to be left alone after they'd moved to this country. Both of them. There were plenty of nights they both had to stay late at work, but there was always the other person to come home to. But not this time. Nothing felt or looked promising. Not for them. And apparently, not for the world that surrounded them. Every time she'd turn on their tiny TV, there was death news because of a deadly virus that could enters one's body by doing something as necessary and simple as breathing. There was a baby growing inside her. They were already on a financial strain. Saeed wasn't supposed to leave her side. People were dying because they were breathing. She did not want to keep her hopes up one them just to have them being torn down again. - Hamzeh's wife, Suraya, checked up on her twice a week. She had only seen her once before this whole situation happened. It was literally their first week in U.S. when they invited them over to their house to spend a day together. She remembered having a whole conversation with her about many things, from the stores back in Afghanistan they both used to shop at, to how cold are the winters here. “It's OK if you cry yourself to sleep every night. Just don't let him see your tears. He might play strong in front of you but he is as scared as you are. Saeed is just like Hamzeh.” This sentence never left Noor's head.
Her mind kept repeating all the glorious things her mother and grandmas have told her about their own pregnancy experiences. But the more she tried to convince herself that things are normal or eventually will turn out to be, the more it felt unreal. She had seen in movies that when someone tells their partners about their pregnancy, it's often a happy moment of shedding tears of joy and holding one another in the sweetest embrace ever. But this news kept making her more and more anxious. She felt guilty. Was God punishing her for wanting things more than she should? All she could think of was how their heated moments now only agitated her. All he did was to grab his pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his uniform and lit one. He sat by the window, staring at the empty street, holding the smoke in longer than usual. He tossed the pack in his hands a couple of times, his gaze completely zoned out. “I shouldn't be smoking. It's bad for you.” - Noor spent most of her time in bed after work and Saeed didn't pushed her otherwise. In fact, the lingering silence between them appeared to be the peacekeeper for now. Noor's body was going through daily changes and nobody could handle none of it on her behalf. They haven't had talked anything through since three days ago, when she announced that she was pregnant. “I'm leaving.”, “I'm home.”, “Do you want dinner?” were the most spoken words between them. And also the sound of Noor breathing as she drifted into sleep every night. Saeed had never fallen asleep before her. He needed to know that she has entered the safe zone of disconnection first before following her into the same dimension. Noor finally decided to call home. She didn't want anyone else to know yet. She couldn't "fake smile" her way out of the congratulations and the questions she herself did not have any answers to. She needed a way to hush her constant anxiety for at least a couple of minutes. And she needed guidance more than anything else. Her mother picked up after three rings. “Noor jan is that you?” Her voice seemed to be the only thing that hadn't changed around her. “Maman jan…” She covered her mouth with her palm as tears immediately started to roll down her cheeks. She wasn't going to play strong. She wasn't going to lie when every thought in her mind ended up to be a cry for help. “I'm pregnant.” These words dug their way out from between chokes of air and subs. “Does Saeed know?” She managed to spit out a syllable equivalent to “Yes”. Her mom was silent. It felt good that she didn't try to stop her from crying. Her quietness was comforting her. Facts wouldn't at the moment. She cried and cried till her eyes felt dry and her eye lids felt too heavy to stay open. “What should I do?” A new grip formed in her throat right after she spoke these words. “Do you have a pen and some paper nearby?” Her mother didn't ask if she wanted to keep this baby or not. It really didn't feel like an option to her. She was going through enough suffocating guilt already and constantly blaming herself for not being careful. Handling something that was so distant from whatever she had learned to believe and handling two burdens instead of one was far from her current state. That night when Saeed came back home, she showed him the paper. Her mother had asked her to note down some key precautions she should be taking. They were both sitting on the edge of the bed, Noor's gaze was slightly switching between her own entwined hands resting on her lap and Saeed's fingers, holding the paper. “Noor jan.” He reached for her hands and squeeze them with his usual, familiar, warmth. “We will work it out.” Her morning sickness was almost gone as she entered her second trimester. However, moving around was becoming a new challenge. Saeed would drop by the store every evening so they could walk home together. That night, as he was helping Noor to put on her coat, he said:” Have you heard that the virus has entered U.S. now? They said that we should wear masks from tomorrow all day long.” - Saeed's step-brother, Hamzeh, who lived in another suburb located in a two-hour drive, payed them a surprise visit on a Sunday evening. Noor had a feeling that Saeed had already told him what was going on. When they first came here, Hamzeh was in fact the first person who sat both of them down in his house and talked them through on how financial dynamics really work here. Him reappearing at their door like this had only one meaning. He already knew they were in trouble.
“To Noor-e jaan-e man hasti.” She could still hear him whispering these words into her ear, holding her tight to his chest, running his fingers through her dark brown locks. Earlier that night, as the Imam had finally announced them husband and wife, the loudest echo in her head was the sound of her own heart, beating so wild that any cheering or loud Afghan folk songs seemed almost faded. But now, as she was laying in his embrace, the only sound she could hear was the beating of his heart. In her mind, she silently prayed to Allah, asking Him to always bring them back to each other, no matter what comes up their way. They've been growing up together as playmates, classmates, family friends, and each other's “almost” secret, unspoken love. When Noor graduated from high school and got accepted into Kabul university, it was harder than ever for Saeed to hide his feelings for her. She was the light of his life, not any of those boys cruising around the university in their fancy cars. That night, when Noor heard Saeed's dad talking to her dad about them getting married, her thoughts and heart beat were all over the place for the next couple of days. That was always the risky part of trusting her heart: fairy tales like this might be the fine line between possibility and reality. Noor wasn't usually a pessimist. She had figured out a long time ago that she lets her heart decide for her instead of her head most of the time. She had also seen the fair share of pain that these decisions could bring her. Falling in love with Saeed was one of these decisions. It started from her heart and before she knew it, spread out through her whole body. Keeping her feelings in her secretive comfort felt relaxing but she wasn't sure if she can hold on like this for any longer. Saeed knew that Noor didn't want to start a family in Afghanistan. That was what they'd both agreed on. Getting married back home and officially starting their lives in the U.S., where Saeed's step- brother, Hamzeh, was sponsoring them. Everything seemed to be working out in the most magnificent way possible: marrying the only person they'd gladly gave their hearts to, the tiniest details about their wedding ceremony working in their favor, and having all they needed for entering the land of opportunities and starting a new chapter in their passports. Things working out this easily felt too good to be true. - Financial challenges were the first ugly side of moving to a different country. Saeed was working full time in a factory and Noor had picked up a couple of shifts in their local supermarket. They'd both wake up in the dark, and come back home in the dark. Everyone had told them that this was something they'll go through. The only thing that mattered was to survive it. There was no turning back. Or it's better to say that none of them even wanted it. - Three days of morning sickness in a row. She had managed to pull herself together and carry out the first two days. But today, pain and stiffness was glistening down her arms and legs like never before. Saeed had already covered her body with three woolen blankets but she couldn't stop shivering. The room kept spinning around her head and the thought of getting up and going to work sounded like a crushing tower. Her body felt drained, as if none of her physical resources were enough.  Translation from Farsi to English: You are the light of my life.
As I sit pregnant and writing, I can feel my 32-week-old making her presence known by gently nudging my belly button further outwards, a thermometer ready to pop. I think she's already a fan of essay's, which is lucky for me as a non-caffeine drinker and writer of the night. In experiencing pregnancy for the first time and at the age of 32, I'm living the tale I've seen visually portrayed in the media and from my closest social circle for years, and I'm taking notes. Now pregnant, I've paid closer attention to woman around me experiencing a comparable experience- as we tend to do as social beings gravitating towards the similar. Yet, coming from a life as a social worker, I have been programmed to question social norms- however necessary and wonderful they may appear on the surface. This journey has surfaced two tacit rules people follow or believe while expecting, sometimes unbeknownst to themselves. I come to these rules as a non-judgmental observer, engaging in some and decidedly staying away from others. Tacit rules aren't necessarily bad, but it is often empowering to understand their dynamism over the way we think. I am a huge proponent being non-judgmental of other women through the time of pregnancy and within our daily lives, knowing our personal perspective gives us the special opportunity for differences in decision making. However, it is powerful to know that when pregnant, you have a right to your own voice without feeling shame that seems to leak out of even the tamest of how-to books. Tacit Rule #1: You must wait to tell people you're pregnant I think it is important to understand that telling people you're pregnant is not information that is owed to your third cousin on your dad's side the second you pee on the stick. If you want to tell the world, tell the world. For me, keeping it from others was at times exhausting, especially at my sickest. A weight was lifted when people knew, it was suddenly more acceptable running to the restroom every 5 minutes or devouring a cheese stick every time I opened my drawer. On the flip side, there was a joy in having this knowledge just to myself and my husband, a time to process our feelings privately before the world took storm. Alec Baldwin's wife, Hilaria Baldwin, in an act of wonderful heroics has started to discuss the nature behind miscarriages and often the crumbs of stigma left scattered behind, especially while debating when to tell others. Experiencing a miscarriage herself, she wrote a beautifully written post on social media, part of which she stated: “I have no shame or embarrassment with this experience. I want to be a part of the effort to normalize miscarriage and remove the stigma from it. There is so much secrecy during the first trimester. This works for some, but I personally find it to be exhausting. I'm nauseous, tired, my body is changing. I don't want to have to pretend anymore.” Whatever your reason for telling people around you, make it a choice you make for yourself, not those around you. Tacit Rule #2: Pregnancy hormones only effect you physically, not mentally. In having a conversation with one of my closest friends, we realized we committed a fallacy. It started with me stating, “I think I have pregnancy brain sometimes.” We both exclaimed that we didn't know pregnancy brain was actually true as people throw the term around so readily, but then paused to think. In our society, woman are often linked to moments of hysteria and emotional outbursts are “just being a woman”. It is unfortunate that people often discount this large part of pregnancy and how difficult it can be to cope with the forgetfulness or fog your mind is enveloped in. The contrast is even more stark as people rarely question the physical effects of a pregnancy. If I am using the restroom more often or state that my feet hurt, no one queries it, it's a biological process, after all. Yet the moment I place my keys in the fridge and blame it on pregnancy brain, suddenly it is an excuse of natural womanhood, something I should be able to control. According to an article in Medical News Today from 2018, they found that general cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning were significantly poorer in pregnant woman, especially in the third trimester. What I take away from these tacit rules are this: if a pregnant woman says she's feeling emotional in any direction, don't discount it. Support her. Pregnancy can sometimes feel as if your body, of which you have learned its detailed intricacies, is suddenly swapped with another. It doesn't react like you are used to, it is learning a new law that you've taken decades to learn and memorize. If a woman decides to tell the world she's pregnant day one, support her. If someone waits until the eight month, be there. Pregnancy is often a beautiful, amazing process, one that is utterly incomparable. Yet, in those mornings of utter sickness and moments of pure exhaustion, let's lift each other up.
My first job was at a popular, upscale local restaurant that shall remain nameless. I had the distinct honor of greeting our guests at the door and finding suitable accommodations for their dining needs. I was a hostess. A menu and silverware slinger. The face of the business and the keeper of the wait list. While the place was classy as hell, the owners were unbearably pretentious. Designer clothes, artificial (or at the very least, enhanced) facial features, and a beyond extravagant lifestyle set these folks apart, and in their minds, high above, the majority of the business owners in our area. That mood permeated the entire place. Never mind the fact that we were in southern Oklahoma and not Beverly Hills. Never mind the fact that most of our patrons drove pick-up trucks and not BMWs. This was true of the owners, the managers, servers, cooks, host/hostesses, bussers, and perhaps most importantly, the customers. I was joined in my greeting duties by two alpha females from my school. At school, they were not extremely popular, but also not outcasts. They had an adequately sized group of friends, composed mostly of fellow athletes that they could successfully intimidate and boss around. They were abrasive, aggressive and grossly lacking in class. All of these details, however, did not prevent them from feeling superior to the common folk they were forced to walk amongst. It was as if simply being employed by this elitist establishment, simply receiving a W-2, was the only license needed to belittle and shame others. It was not attractive. Obviously, my kind heart did not last long. After parting ways with my first source of income, the rumors at school began to swirl. It was sophomore year, and I was on top of the world. I made excellent grades, participated in several extracurricular activities and was not too many rungs down on the social ladder. I was a well-behaved teenager who was terrified of the consequences of getting into any significant trouble. As such, I was surprised when I began to observe that the gossip-filled notes being passed fervently across the room from student to student managed to pass over me. I was not included in the latest buzz, and by my fellow student's reactions, I could tell it was juicy. Feeling left out, I complained to my current best friend after class. Her eyes immediately fell on her shoes, which began awkwardly shuffling weight from one to the other. She bit her lip, then cautiously raised her eyes to meet mine. “You know why they skipped you, right?” she said. “The notes are about you. Apparently, there's a rumor going around that you are pregnant and your parents made you quit your job.” I couldn't move. My stomach dropped, my heart rate increased and suddenly I was finding it difficult to find air to fill my lungs. How could anyone possibly believe this? I was sixteen years old, my own mother was currently 4 months along with my little sister! “AHA!” I thought to myself. That was it! Someone must have seen me buy a pregnancy test (for my mom) several weeks back and assumed the worst. I began to relax. Once people realized that my mom was having a baby, they would feel silly and the rumors would stop, I was sure of it. The relief was short lived, however. As I looked up, I saw a trio of fast-moving bodies coming toward me down the hallway. It was my boyfriend of 2 years, flanked by two familiar and angry alpha females. I'll save everyone here the drama of the back and forth, voices raised, he said/she said drama and just let you all know that everything turned out well in the end. I convinced my boyfriend that I was not going to be giving birth to his offspring in the coming months. My very pregnant mom came to school events frequently, showing everyone that my retorts to their claims were valid and true. There is one twist to this story, and it gives me profound joy to this very day. On the day of graduation, a little over two short years later, the sun rose and shined on my life with endless promise and possibility. Those two alpha females joined me in celebration as we walked across the stage and received our diplomas; both in their third trimester.
He admits he stole this from another father, but as a little girl it didn't matter. What mattered was that my dad never failed to say it before leaving my bedside, “If I lined up all the little girls in the whole wide world, I would pick you to be my daughter.” I would beam, give him a kiss, and drift off to sleep. Every night. I graduated college, moved away and began a teaching position in North Texas. Though no one was tucking me in at bedtime, it was guaranteed that I received flowers twice a year: Valentine's Day and my birthday. On every card my dad would sign it, “If I lined up all the girls in the whole wide world, I would pick you to be my daughter”. Now that I was older, it meant considerably more to me. Growing up, my parents were not shy about the purity conversation. They talked about how beautiful it was, inside the context of marriage, but gave us appropriate warnings when done outside of its original intention. There was no question left unanswered. They had thoroughly directed me to the pathway of righteousness and I stayed on it for a long time. Then I turned 27, met a man and became pregnant almost immediately. One word sums up everything I felt in that moment…destroyed. Nearly instantaneously, an evil whispering entered my ear. “Your dad won't love you anymore. You have humiliated him in front of everyone. And he will never love this kid. Ever.” These thoughts were not a result of anything that happened between my dad and me. We had a wonderful relationship our entire lives. These were whisperings of a foul presence desperately trying to bring me into a place of fear. “But were any of these thoughts actually true? Was my dad still going to love me? Would he love this baby?” All of these uncertainties were running through my head, getting crueler by the minute. I was helplessly plummeting into a deep pit. I knew I had to tell them…so I packed and got in the car. After three wearisome hours, I drove up into my beloved parent's house. This beautiful home that was filled with treasured memories; hundreds of nights playing games, taking our dog to the lake on weekends, prayers before bed, constant laughter, holding each other through family deaths, words of wisdom through high school, fun memory after fun memory…it all hit me as I put my car in park. I didn't want to go in. This home that was once filled with unreserved joy…I now entered carrying heavy and almost unendurable sorrow. I was bearing an excruciating wound, something I had never experienced before. Just walking in the door, I knew, would be piercingly painful. I took numerous deep breaths and turned the knob. I won't go into all of the details of that first evening, but it wasn't perfect. My parents are undeniably the godliest couple that I know, but this particular night wasn't great. Feelings were heightened and emotional things were said. Everyone was on edge, feelings were hurt and pronounced apprehension was in our midst. The three of us each went to bed with angst. When I woke up around 8:30 the next morning, my parents already at work. I walked soundlessly into the living room and sat down on the couch. I had no music on, no TV, no phone, nothing. I was sitting, alone and quiet. I was completely numb. I had been there for about an hour when I heard the familiar creak of the back door. My heart began to pound and beads of sweat rose upon my palms, panic had set in. I was immobile. Steadily looking at the ground, I saw my dad's church shoes slowly sit down in an oversized chair across from me, but he didn't say a word. As he sat there still and pensive, looking down at the floor, I began to think about all of the dreams I had lost. “The look of my father seeing me in a white dress on my wedding day: Ruined. All of the protection and guidance he had given me for 27 years: I had stomped on it. Every time he would look at me now, he would see me for what I was: Used, torn, and publicly blemished.” The room was tense, heavy and thick with anxiety. We sat there quietly for probably only 5 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, even with thoughts racing through my head, heart throbbing, feeling nauseated, I looked up at him and with a quiver in my tone, all I could get out was, “Dad…I don't have anything else to say except I'm sorry. I am so very, very, sorry.” My dad looked up at me, silently lifted up his sturdy hand, tenderly waved my words away and said, “Oh Lauren...if I lined up all the little girls in the whole wide world, I would still pick you… every time.” And with those words, I wept, uncontrollably wept, for a really long time. I sobbed out every fear and all of the evil thoughts penetrating my mind. Those potent words, those very simple words…In one of my lowest valleys, he chose to speak life-giving words and it forever displayed his unconditional love to me. I don't have enough words to express the love I have for my dad.