I am standing at the bottom of the steps. They are standing at the door, looking down at me. A two-year-old and a one-year-old, almost hand in hand. The elder is smiling, the younger looks confused. I wave bye. I turn and walk away, willing myself not to look back.
It is hard leaving my children with someone else. It is even harder to do that when I feel soul-destroying guilt at the knowledge that I chose this life for my children. I chose to raise my children as a single parent.
My divorce was not an impulse decision, a heat of the moment thing. I thought long and hard and deliberated intensely before filing the papers.
Pakistanis have a strange obsession with not getting divorced, and yes, I would call it an obsession.
Even expatriate Pakistanis who have lived abroad for many decades shy away from the word. As one well-meaning person put it,
‘No matter what else you achieve in life, no matter how successful you are in life, your success will mean nothing and you will be a failure if your marriage is not successful.’
Still, I went ahead with the divorce.
Despite the fact that my decision was clear-headed and well considered, I feel compelled to justify myself to every single Pakistani I meet.
The women are the worst. They look you up and down and you can almost hear their minds whirring:
Was he hitting you? No.
Then whatever else he was doing, why couldn't you put up with it for the sake of the children?
Did he want to divorce you? No.
But you left him although you have children together? Yes. Silence. Shock. Why?
It seems that after a woman divorces, she and her children become public property, a fair shot for anyone to comment on.
People who would not have dared to tell me what parenting style I should choose had I a man in the picture, now freely dispense their pearls of wisdoms.
Unfortunately for them, they cannot physically stop me from doing something – maybe they would have tried had we lived in Pakistan – but that doesn't stop them from talking.
What irritates me the most is the assumption that the divorce was not my choice, not something I would have willingly instigated. What woman would, after having children?
And when they finally believe that I was the instigator, they look at my children with pity, sympathy. Obviously their mother is crazy.
Obviously any woman who chooses not to have the ‘stability’ of a man’s presence – no matter how negligible, no matter how traumatising – does not love her children enough.
Obviously a woman who works full time, whose children are brought up in day care and then by the nanny is not worthy of being a mother. What is the point of studying and working when you are divorced? You should hide in a corner with your head down.
I read somewhere that attitudes towards divorce are changing amongst Pakistanis. Really?
Well, the change has yet to make a dent in the thinking of the Pakistani community in Europe. I can recount only two Pakistani women who looked me square in the eye when I told them about my divorce and said ‘I am sure you are better off without him. You will find someone much better.’ And both were women who had only recently moved from Pakistan.
It seems that first- and even second-generation Pakistanis living abroad still have the idea that divorce is a big no-no. They cling to this romantic – or is it misguided – notion that a woman once married has no choice.
What’s life after divorce, eh?
I’ve started avoiding Pakistani restaurants, shops, and community centres. The ‘shame’ of having to explain to people who know my ex-husband that we are no longer married is too much – though, the funny thing is, I didn't view it as shameful until I saw how people reacted.
As if I would be a total moron if I didn't feel any shame. What sort of heartless woman would I be if I didn't go to pieces?
When I compare the reaction of people back in Pakistan to Pakistanis based abroad, I am astounded. How can this be? How is it that people living in small flats in Karachi tell me to spruce up, look good, and make my ex regret what he has lost?
And yet, Pakistanis living abroad expect me to sit and sob and cry, spend long afternoons talking about how hard my life has become, and admit how awful I feel.
I think a lot about explaining my divorce to my children and wonder about how to protect them from wagging tongues. In the end, I always conclude that I can’t protect them from what people say.
What I can try to do is to raise my children to become the type of people who don’t care what other people say or think about them. Unlike their mother.