You are enough by author Hadia Tariq is one of six winning stories of the #WeToo competition, a collaboration between Stories To Action and Dastaan, where young people shared inspired by COVID-19’s impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Sarah was startled by Ali’s loud voice as he pushed her aside. He was carrying a charred frying pan under the faucet. When he turned around, he saw her wide eyes and her hands clenching a spatula.
Shaking her head Sarah unsuccessfully tried to smile, “Just zoned out sorry,” she took his hands to inspect for injuries. “Are you hurt?”
The question was answered with a hiss when her fingers touched his already blistering ones. She held his hand under cold water, barely noticing the mess. Afterward, they both sat, inspecting the burns and applying the medication.
Fighting back tears, she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
Ali pushed her hair back. “Not need to be sorry, but please be honest.”
“I am honest, it was a long day.”
“Five years together and you still think that you can lie?”
“I really am tired, my periods started today,” she replied in a low voice, not meeting his eyes since she was so embarrassed. Every month, she felt hopeful and every month, she was disappointed. She tried not to think about it, to be normal but failed. Her life revolved around her reproductive cycle, taking her temperature, checking for ovulation, praying, and hoping for a miracle. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“What was I supposed to say? My body failed me again? That no matter what I do, I can’t get pregnant? I have one job as a woman. I can’t even do that.” Sarah let out a bitter laugh.
Ali pulled back and said, “Please tell me you do not believe this crap. It’s the disappointment talking and not you, you can’t be this bitter.”
Sarah stood up, agitated. “I’m bitter?”
“At the moment, yes. Actually, you have been bitter for a long time. When was the last time you kissed me without the intention of getting pregnant? When was the last time we talked about something other than a kid?” He said running his hands through his hair. “We don’t even talk about that, all we do is mourn the lack of one!”
“And when was the last time you took out the time to talk to me? You say that I don’t talk. Maybe it’s because you never listen.”
“Same old story. I’m so tired of it.”
Sarah let out a laugh squeezing her eyes shut. “At least you only hear this from me. You don’t have to face the world, you don’t have to listen to our families talking about how nice it will be if we had kids. You aren’t constantly bombarded with advice, you aren’t given herbal medicines, you don’t get dragged to spiritual healers.”
Running her hands through her hair she continued. “I have to tolerate whispers and pitying looks. I am reminded how lucky I am to have such a loving husband, who still chooses to stay with me like I don’t qualify to be a human because of my problematic reproductive system!” Ali stood with open mouth. Technically, he knew everything she had said. They had joked about it. He hadn’t noticed when humor stopped being a shield against this cruelty. In retrospect, humor should never have been a shield. It should have been him.
“Sarah…” he whispered, taking a step towards her.
“No, stop!” she snapped and raised her hands in defense. “Nothing you say will change reality, nothing is ever going to change.”
She left the room but Ali did not follow her. He had assumed that he was being supportive. He too wanted kids and was devastated when each month they were disappointed,
but he always kept a brave face. One of them needed to be strong. Perhaps, he wasn’t thinking about her when he adopted an ‘I don’t care’ attitude.’ It was selfish because he couldn’t deal with his emotions.
A week passed. They talked only when necessary but otherwise, remained lost in their own minds. Ali wanted to hold her, comfort her, but knew that it was too little too late. He had to do something if he wanted to save his marriage. They sat in the car outside his grandparents’ house.
“Sarah,” he said. “You don’t have to be polite to be anyone making you feel bad, no need to stay quiet out of respect or for my sake. If people don’t know how to respect certain boundaries, it’s their problem. We can’t let them trample us. Staying quiet hurts no one but us.”
Taking her hand, he continued. “Remember, you’re not alone. I can’t change the past, but I can stop repeating my mistakes. I don’t deserve it, but I want you to trust me once more. Can you forgive me enough to do that?” He inquired, begging for her forgiveness not with words but with his eyes.
Sarah squeezed his hand. It wasn’t a full forgiveness, but it was a start. Ali gave a small smile. They would only go forward from here, never back.
The family get-together was in full swing. Ali was talking to his brother about the recent match, but they were interrupted when his sister-in-law placed a crying infant in her husband’s arms and rushed back inside. Ali watched his brother trying to coax the feeder into the baby’s mouth with an amused grin. His heart gave a painful tug, he wanted to experience what his brother felt in that moment.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked back to find his grandmother looking at him sadly. The smile on his face disappeared. “Everything okay, Dado?”
His grandmother stroked his head and asked, “When will you have children, Ali?”
Ali stopped himself from rolling his eyes, forcing himself to remain respectful. “When Allah wills for me to have them, of course.”
“I love Sarah and don’t want her to hurt. But somethings are inevitable and necessary for the bigger reward, and what’s a bigger reward than to have a child?”
Ali didn’t like where this was going. He knew what they had thought but no one had talked to him. Seeing that someone was comfortable breaching the topic meant that he had let things go too far.
He stood up before Dado could continue and said with a smile,”Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”
It was time to make things right.
Everyone was eating so he could speak without interruption, hopefully before he lost his nerve. His eyes went to Sarah who was sitting with a group of youngsters away from the women. He wondered when she drifted towards the less caustic crown, how much had he failed to see.
Clearing his throat to get everyone’s attention, he started, “This isn’t easy, but I need to clarify a few things. Afterward, I will be running away.”
A few in the gathering laughed and Ali shook his head with a chuckle. His eyes went to Sarah who was just as confused as the rest.
“I will apologize beforehand because what I’m going to say will be uncomfortable. It will be a topic of gossip for a long time, but my wife and I are already a hot topic, so this won’t be too bad. We’ve been married for five years and still don’t have children, that’s not natural.
“You all love us and want us to be happy and children equal to happiness. If someone doesn’t have kids, that means that they aren’t happy. No one understands that if two people don’t have children, it’s between them. No one can question their choice.
“We, however, do want children. Sadly, that hasn’t happened for us yet for whatever reason. We have been to countless doctors, Sarah has been dragged to herbal and spiritual healers, everyone in attendance has had some advice for her. It’s a way for showing concern and we appreciate that.
“What isn’t understandable is why all the advice for her? Why hasn’t anyone talked to me? Has anyone wondered that perhaps I am the reason behind our childlessness? And if you have, why didn’t anyone talk to me or recommend a doctor? Is it because I am a man? Talking about such things to me is considered disrespectful, makes me less of a male, makes us uncomfortable. So we decide that it’s Sarah’s fault, and I deserve some medal for loving her. What if she deserves an applaud for sticking with me, for taking the burn of your actions to save me from an embarrassment?
“Embarrassment? Such a strange concept, I wouldn’t be embarrassed if I had any other illness yet when it comes to this particular subject I am embarrassed.”
Ali let out another chuckle. Most of the present company was either looking down or discreetly whispering. He had crossed limits he couldn’t go back from. His face was flushed red
and meeting anyone’s eyes was difficult, so he searched for the face that would give him strength. Sarah had her mouth covered and he could see the wetness in her eyes, yet he somehow knew that she was not angry.
“I’ve made you all uncomfortable, but you guys have been making my wife uncomfortable for the longest time and it’s not on you alone. It’s my fault. I should’ve made it clear that I’ll not tolerate anyone ridiculing my wife. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something she has or something I have that’s preventing us from being parents, no one can make her feel bad!”
Sarah couldn’t remember how they left the place without any confrontation. Maybe Ali’s words had shocked everyone like it had shocked her. They now sat in their car, staring ahead, silent.
“Why?” She inquired.
“I thought I had made myself clear but I guess I hadn’t,” Ali replied. This was even harder than talking in front of his relatives, but it needed to be said. “Because even though I know that we have both consulted doctors and nothing seems to be a problem, somewhere in the back of my mind, I blamed you for this.” At Sarah’s startled breath, he said, “Please hear me out, and then you can decide what to do.”
At her lack of response, he continued,” I have been raised in a society where men don’t talk. Sure, we joke about physical intimacy but no one educates us. When a guy gets married, he doesn’t know much. He is told that his ability to sire children decides his manliness, and he believes that. The idea that he might have some problem is unbearable, so like everything else in this society, we blame the woman. It’s easier, it’s the norm, it’s such an unconscious action that you don’t even realize it. I didn’t know I was doing it until recently. I realized how I blamed you and was so proud of myself for still loving you, for not holding anything against you.
“This wasn’t easy. When you fall in your own eyes, that’s the worst kind of shame. What kind of a man was I that to deal with my own heartbreak, I blamed you for something that you had no part of? Being a bigger man made me feel better. So what if I don’t have kids? At least I am a good husband. But I was wrong. Not only did I blame you, I abandoned you.”
Ali turned to Sarah with tears in his eyes. “I forgot that loving you was a privilege, not a favor. You will not know how sorry I am, I will accept any decision you take after hearing this but hope that you choose to forgive me.”
“What if it really is my fault?” Sarah asked.
“No, it is not. I know how much you want a baby. How can it be your fault? We can’t control fate. Always know it’s nobody’s fault, not mine, not yours.”
Ali held her face in both of his hands. “I love you for who you are as a person. I love you because you make me happy, not for what you could give me. You alone are enough for me”.