14th December 1997


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The maiden years are over

Jemima Khan reveals what she has learned about motherhood while living with husband Imran’s extended family in Pakistan

Two years ago, when 21-year- old Jemima Goldsmith married Pakistani cricketing hero Imran Khan, 42, many people thought she would soon come to regret the sacrifices she would have to make in order to be a dutiful wife in a Muslim country. But while there have been adjustments to make, Jemima now the mother of a one-year-old son Sulaiman, is adamant that she has gained far more than she has lost by embracing another culture.

“Before I moved to Pakistan I assumed that leaving home was a necessary part of growing up. However, having lived for two years since my marriage as part of an extended family in a traditional society. I now believe the joint family system and small intimate communities form a more solid foundation for the development of mature and stable individuals.

“As my child grows up surrounded by all his young cousins, I have come to realise that the most obvious advantage of living in Pakistan is being part of a society that encourages mutual interdependence and close social and family ties.”

It is a lesson she applies now when she brings Sulaiman back to Britain for visits. “I choose to live with my mother in our family home in Richmond rather than in a separate central London apartment, primarily because I now understand the importance of the special bond that can develop between grandparent and child.”

The pattern that has been established in the West of separating the generations, is she says, not only a sad one but a wasteful one, too, “In Pakistan, it is unthinkable even to consider putting one’s parents in a ‘home’ or to assume , as many now do in the West, that the elderly are the state’s responsibility. An individual who fails to take care of a parent or grandparent becomes a virtual pariah.”

But it’s not just the fear of disapproval that leads Pakistani families to honour and include their older generations. “Children benefit from close contact with grandparents,” believes Jemima. “My son spends hours playing in his grandfather’s room in Pakistan, enjoying the special indulgences denied by parents. Once a week Aga Jan (a respectful term for an elder in the family) takes all his grandchildren for their communal Friday prayers in the mosque and there is great excitement - which seems to me touchingly old-fashioned - as they prepare to leave the house in their smartest Friday clothes.”

Jemima says that as Sulaiman grows up and she sees how much he needs constant mental and physical stimulation, she sympathises with the plight of single working mothers. “They are forced to send their children into day -care, where they can receive only the most superficial attention. It is not the single mother who should be condemned, as so often happens, but the society in which a woman without a husband to rely on often has no other family or financial support to fall back on.”

While outsiders stress the restrictions put on Muslim women Jemima is now more aware of the freedoms a traditional society can bestow. “In Imran’s family one of my sisters-in-law, who has four children, works part time as a surgeon. During her working hours, the children are left in the familiar environment of their home with a whole range of relatives to care for them.”

“Society revolves around family life which allows mothers and children to be together at all times. When people gather to discuss important issues or attend festivals or parties, even late at night , children are always present. When I’m in England I long to take my child along to dinner with me, but sadly it’s not practical and it’s just not done”.

She also recounts with amusement the horror of her British friends to some of the choices she has made. “In Pakistan, most mothers breast feed for about two years, which surprises most foreigners who seem to feel this is unnatural behaviour. I remember in a moment of exhausted defeatism I told one of my girlfriends that I was going to give up feeding. She breathed an audible sigh of relief and exclaimed, ‘Thank God, we all thought you would be one of those fanatics who would be breast feeding until your child was walking. Thankfully, I managed to re-energise myself and it seems her fears were well-founded!”

“The habit of feeding cow’s milk to a baby from a plastic bottle on strict schedule would be incomprehensible to most Pakistanis.”

Although she came to Britain for the delivery of her baby she found on her return to Pakistan that she was glad to be able to throw out some of the Western strictures on baby-rearing. “I used to hold my hands over my ears as he cried thinking he would feed better if I gradually forced him into a four hour pattern. My sister -in-law was astonished .

“Why do you torture yourself and him?” she asked.

“In many ways, we are encouraged in the West to act against our most natural instincts. Mothering has been made to seem so scientific that one hardly has the confidence to trust one’s own instincts any more.”

In a society where mothering is still largely left to mothers, without advice from “experts” she found less guilt and anxiety in families.

“When my sister-in-law told me how one of her children did not begin speaking before the age of three I was shocked, recalls Jemima, “ and asked if she had not been at all concerned. She just laughed and said. ‘Children will progress at their own rate.”

“Individuals and children in particular, appear less emotionally dependent in the joint family system since they are in close and continual contact with so many other people of all ages, from babies to great grandparents, and have sufficient emotional and psychological security to become independent.

“Within this framework of support, no one relationship has to bear too much emotional intensity or weight of responsibility. As a result there seems to be none of that needy attachment and insecurity characteristic of Western family relationships.

“When a child is given unconditional and unlimited love by all round him, far from being ‘spoilt’ as we would say in the West, I have found that he is in fact far freer, less demanding and more content; he learns sooner and more readily to take responsibility for someone else.” – Hello

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