HRH Princess Haya bint al Hussein writes about what being a mother means to her
Words by HRH Princess Haya bint al Hussein of Jordan
‘I recently attended a baby shower at which, among the gifts, the mother-to-be opened a greetings card like none I had ever seen before. The front of the card was innocuous enough, with a photograph of a sleeping baby and a message, ‘A baby is God’s Sweetest Gift.’ Inside, the card had a button adorned with a picture of a musical note and marked, ‘press’.
‘Aaaaw,’ cooed the mother-to-be, smiling up at the women who surrounded her as she pressed the button. But instead of the soothing lullaby notes she might have expected, the piercing cry of a recorded baby rang out from the card.
‘Very funny,’ she said, pushing the button again in an attempt to silence it.
The crying crescendoed, and her smile quickly became a frown. Turning the card over, she continued to press the button, frantic now, desperately trying to make the noise stop. Each time she pressed it, the volume of the crying increased.
‘Okay, this isn’t funny anymore,’ she said. ‘Who bought this? How do I turn it off?’ Nobody owned up, but the crying baby card was passed around the room as various women shook it, pressed it, hit it and eventually stamped on it. One by one, the women gave up, stumped as they failed to quiet the baby’s cries, each more piercing than the last. Meanwhile, the mother-to-be was becoming increasingly agitated.
‘Really cuts through you, doesn’t it?’ she said to me, quietly.
‘Don’t worry,’ one of the other women interjected. ‘Real babies are much easier to soothe than this.’
‘Can someone get rid of that?’ the mother-to-be asked, gesturing to the crying card. What had clearly been intended as a practical joke had struck a raw nerve; no mother, or mother-to-be, can bear to hear a baby cry. One of the guests took the card out of the living room and into an adjacent bedroom.
‘I’ve put it under a pillow, she said, returning. The mother-to-be still looked anxious, and so I reached over and covered her hand with mine.
‘The thing about babies,’ I said, ‘is that their cries have the power to turn mothers into madwomen.’ Her eyes widened. This isn’t something we are supposed to say out loud, but I don’t know any mother who has not been brought to her knees by the quiet desperation of trying to soothe a crying child. Who has not found herself, in the dead of night, frantically beyond tears while a baby screamed, screamed, and screamed some more. But, as I told that mother-to-be that day, usually, the reasons for the tears are quite simple, and when we can decode the messages, most of us can soothe our children’s cries.
As she and I conversed, we could still hear muffled screams, drifting through from the bedroom. Somebody pulled the living room door firmly closed.
‘You’ll need to stay calm and run through a checklist in your mind,’ I told her. ‘Is the baby too hot or too cold? Are they dry? Do they need burping or are they crying for food? It’s almost always something simple, and they’ll usually settle once you meet that need.’
Once. You. Meet. That. Need.
I have thought about the mothers who cannot meet their babies’ needs more than ever since the practical joke that ruined a baby shower, and I’m writing to here on their behalf.
What do they do about the cries that cut through them like machetes, more relentless than that dreadful card (which, by the way, finally ran out of batteries after three hours of noise)?
The sound of a crying child is unbearable. There are no two ways about it. But what must it be like to face that sound and try to comfort your child in the desperate knowledge that there is nothing you can do to take away their pain? What must it be like for hunger to consume your own body, to barely have the strength to move, and yet to have to find the energy, night after night, to hold and rock your crying child to sleep?
As a mother, what would you do? Would you wish for silence; send up a prayer that asked for the noise to stop; just to stop? We’ve all been there, but not with stakes like these. Perhaps you would pray that it would never stop, as silence could signify a far greater tragedy?
There are 300 million malnourished children in the world right now. Their mothers who must look into the eyes, day after day, when they have nothing, or not enough, to give.
None of us want to know these facts, to really know them.
They are too raw.
I know that when I became a mother, it was as if I shed a protective skin which shielded me from the pain of the realities of our world. For a long time, I could barely face watching the news because my new mother-brain processed everything differently.
Even now, I sometimes creep into my children’s bedrooms to watch them sleep and kiss their cheeks when the tragedies of our world feel too much. And when I return from a humanitarian mission trips to the front lines of desperation, all bets are off; I will lift my sleeping children out of their beds and bring them into mine, where I can hold them close through the night.
Sometimes, I think, it would be easier not to engage with the pain of the world, and undoubtedly, many of you reading feel the same.
But I am here to implore you to engage anyway.
Mothers of the world, we are now entering a New Year, a time when families come together. You know as well as I do, that moving the crying baby into another room does not make the crying stop; that out of sight or earshot never really is out of mind.
Hard as it might be, we have to avoid the urge to build soundproof walls and electric fences around our own families, around your own consciousness: we owe it to our own children to embrace the thread of maternal compassion that unites us all as women, as mothers, as human beings.
Let me say it again: 300 children around the world will go to bed hungry this evening. And their mothers will be unable to soothe their cries; to meet their needs.
We owe it to our children to ‘lean in’ to this reality. To equip ourselves with knowledge of the facts and to arm ourselves as warriors in the fight against the scourge of hunger, which has no place in a world with ample food to share.
It’s time for hunger to end.
If you are moved to help another mother to feed her children throughout 2017, there are many ways to make a difference. You could donate to a food bank that supports families in your local area. Or you could support the World Food Programme, UNICEF or an NGO like Save the Children, Medicins Sans Frontières, Oxfam or CARE.