In her debut book, Everything I’ve Learned about Motherhood, Zeena Moolla reveals her experiences set against a backdrop of being raised by her father. We can't get enough of her honest, heartfelt and hilarious advice
“You know, Zeena, I can’t offer ‘parenting tips or lessons’ – I just got on with it!” my dad scoffed, when I’d asked him for some sage words to pass on to readers of Marie Claire.
But my 83-year-old pop, Hameed, is being typically humble. He’s extraordinary; the sort of person actually fitting of the word legend…
Since I was eight, the middle kid of his three children, my dad has been a single parent and a remarkable one at that. After he and my mother divorced in the early 80s, my dad, due to personal reasons, faced bringing us up completely alone in a culture vastly different to his life prior to living in the UK. My dad, Papa to his five adoring grandchildren, is South African-Indian, of a Muslim background, and arrived in London, alone, in 1957, with little life skill to his name. “You know, Zeena, I couldn’t even make a cup of tea,” he’ll brag, as he presents a table practically buckling under the weight of his homemade, unparalleled curry.
And he’s wrong about saying he can’t offer any parenting tips. I’ve been a mum for eight years now and I can honestly say, he set the best example of parenting I could ever wish for. I’ve learned a lot from him…
Lesson 1: White nuclear families are frequently, and wrongly, over sentimentalised
As a daughter of a single-parent, brown-skinned, AMAZING dad, I can personally attest that the romanticising of the white nuclear family, particularly by brands, is just bollocks – in every sense. A happy home is of course not determined by its composition and certainly not by its race. And yet a quick scroll through Instagram’s biggest parenting accounts, where so much brand money tends to flock these days, verifies a white, able-bodied nuclear family is still where the mega numbers and big bucks tend to land. In fact, the hugely lucrative online mum world specifically is so uniformly white, blonde and affluent, there’s an almost influencer caricature to them.
As Candice Brathwaite, author of I Am Not Your Baby Mother, so perfectly observes, it’s a white and middle-class image of British motherhood that’s, “all horizontal-striped T-shirts and shiny bobs.” Well, like her, it’s a world that bears no resemblance to my own. So I now fill my feed with parenting accounts (like @thatsinglemum, @olly.and.theo and @lemonlovesfashion), depicting sincere slices of diverse family life and parenting tips that exemplify perfectly, as my dad did, that happy homes come in an assortment of forms.
Lesson 2: Nurturing qualities are nothing to do with gender
While single mums have to contend with recurrent ‘sponging’ stereotypes and accusations of raising ‘ignorant aggressive and illegitimate’ children (according to Boris Johnston in The Spectator, 1995), single dads, it seems, are frequently subjected to notions that nurturing and ‘caregiving’ qualities are exclusively female. “People were always asking me how I was coping as a man raising young children, particularly daughters, but I never even thought about it like that!” my pop chuckles. ‘There was no time! I just had to get on with looking after you all.”
And this is no exaggeration. My pop was cooking, cleaning, washing, doing all kid-related activities – totally solo – while working full time. He didn’t miss a single parents’ evening. He dished out hugs and necessary medicine with every single childhood illness. He soothed me back to sleep with each nightmare that had me scuttling into his room for a reassuring hug. My dad set the most brilliant example that nurturing, kind, selfless parenting is not dependent on genitalia. And let’s be clear here, perpetuating such myths only serves to heap more pressure on women and I think we can all agree, this is something women can probably do without.
Lesson 3: Single-parent families are far from ‘broken’
There’s no denying that my dad had it tough; raising three children alone around a full-time job was no picnic. But that inference, that life must be a bit bleak, was totally inaccurate. And while this sort of remark was often said sympathetically, I sometimes sensed there was a certain amount of dejected projection – almost like, ‘God, I wouldn’t want that life’ – because in their view, our single-parent family was somehow broken and sad. But we were far from it.
My childhood with my dad contains some of the happiest memories of my life, and actually, we never really wanted for anything. It’s true, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up and that might have meant the odd school trip had to be forfeited, or we would likely only get one or two of those toys on the optimistically earmarked pages of the Argos catalogue for Christmas (despite our best efforts). But there’s nothing ‘broken’ about a family headed by a parent who does everything they feasibly can to provide a safe, happy environment. And (newsflash) some two-parent families, particularly when the relationship is deeply unhappy, can be far more dysfunctional and damaging. But I guess research into the effects of couples being together when they really shouldn’t be doesn’t make for great bigot-baiting headlines depicting a ‘broken’ Britain.
Lesson 4: Muslim men are NOT barbarous, medieval parents
Read the comments sections of certain newspapers (the ones where you can practically smell the gammon boiling in the angry capital letters), and you’ll get the distinct sense that Muslim men are archaic monsters who pose a dangerous threat to society. Putting aside the most repeated associations (frequently manipulated by the preceding news stories) with terrorism and sharia law, notions that Muslim men are a breed of stern, humourless, Quran-yielding misogynists, pushing their daughters into arranged marriages, are also very clearly touted in such circles.
Well, I’m happy to confirm my hugely funny, big-hearted father is neither a terrorist nor advocate of sharia law. True, we never had heart-to-hearts about puberty and periods, while he blow-dried my hair and bookmarked clothes I might like in the Littlewoods catalogue. But, as he didn’t parade me in a niqab before an array of suitors to check my dowry credentials and girth of hips for childbearing either, I think we can let him off?
Lesson 5: You don’t need any ‘fancy-pants’ books to raise children
“You know, Zeena, I raised three children – by myself – without any ‘fancy pants’ books!” I remember my dad chuckling, when I was a new mum and he’d spied yet another parenting book I’d ordered online at some desperate, ungodly hour. “I cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, shopped – everything! Alone! You can’t learn from a book how to find the energy to work full time, come home from work, make a meal, help with homework, wash PE kits, iron school uniform… And then hope your children sleep well that night, because you have to do it all over again the next day!”
It’s actually the sort of speech I’ve heard a lot from him. But he’s right, in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek way. You don’t need a parenting book to raise happy, healthy children (although you do need one like MINE to make you laugh though, obvs). Because the biggest parenting tip and life lesson my pop has passed to me is, without doubt, that unconditional, devoted love is all a child needs to feel safe and strong. This is how my dad has shaped me as a mother. Because, I can tell you first-hand, a contented, thriving family, whatever its make-up, is quite simply driven by love. And this has always been in overflowing abundance from my dad.
* Everything I’ve Learned About Motherhood (From My Single-Parent Dad), by Zeena Moolla (Thread Books, £8.99).
* You can follow Zeena here: @word_to_the_mothers