It was at the 3am feed last week I think, when I finally accepted it. Let’s book someplace on the south coast to get away for a few days over the holidays, I said to my husband who had just brought S* to me after a nappy change. For months, I had been resisting booking anything over Christmas, holding out hope that I may be able to go home over the holidays – like we have every year since we migrated to Australia five years ago. But this year it’s different, different because of the pandemic but also because my daughter was born in July.
My mum had planned to come for the birth, to care for me, to listen and to give advice. She would have cooked for me, as she always has, in times of difficulty and in times of celebration. Nothing a hot, home cooked meal can’t fix. But as I was about to apply for her visa in April – we brown migrants have to plan ahead – the lockdowns started. The visa application reminder popped up for days on my phone until I finally cancelled it. I had held out hope but eventually accepted the lockdowns were here to stay.
In the last trimester of my pregnancy, all I wanted to eat was Karri, a type of slow cooked Pakistani curry with chickpea dumplings. Only my mum’s version, because everyone else’s sucks. No amount of takeaway and all the cuisines we are lucky to have in Sydney could satisfy the craving. The same home-cooked food of mum’s that I used to take for granted. When I lived at home, mum would be mad if I ate out. “You’ve ruined your appetite,” she would say.
In the last few weeks before S was born, I would drive all the way to Lakemba just to look at some familiar grocery items. Some days I woke up and felt like I could do anything – in reality, I could barely move without groaning – for a bowlful of mum’s Sabut Dahl, slow cooked whole lentils. Perfect winter food.
She turned towards her Khaloo the other day as he whistled on FaceTime. Cheers all around!
My husband – my only family in Australia – held my hand as S was born. Three days later, we came home to a dark and empty apartment and ordered some takeaway. The first few weeks are hazy, but all I remember thinking is that S would be about five months old when her Nano and Khalas could finally hold her and her cousins could entertain her. Come December, I’m getting on the first flight to Lahore, I thought.
S was a winter baby and as I dressed her in the warm sweaters and onesies knitted by her Dado and sent lovingly all the way from Canada, I smiled and told S* how every stitch was made with immense love. I cannot wait to see her Dado hold her and her Phuppo, who pesters me for videos of S all the time, play with her cheeti. My niece, who is S’s “official fashion consultant”, has spent hours helping me pick outfits and shop online. I cannot wait for my two favourite girls in the world to meet.
In mums forums online, everyone spoke of the isolation of becoming parents during 2020. How the pandemic had ruined perfectly laid plans. Very few could see their parents. No visitors. It’s hard not being able to share your newborn baby with your dear loved ones. But as lockdowns across Australia have lifted, many parents are finally sharing the joy with their families. They post pictures of the first meeting with grandparents, uncles and aunts. Not me, not us migrants.
I hold back tears as Nano says to S in their regular video calls that she wishes she could squeeze her cheeks, as she sings to her, as her Khalas make funny faces over and over just to get a fleeting smile. How excited they get even if she just looks back at them on video. She turned towards her Khaloo the other day as he whistled on FaceTime. Cheers all around!
How much they’re missing, I think. I was able to hold, cuddle and kiss my niece and nephews at this age and I know it doesn’t last long. Soon, S will be crawling, then walking, and before we know it – July will come around again. My hope is that she won’t be cutting her first birthday cake knowing no other family besides her mum and dad. I love our big, brown family that is spread across three continents and that still manages to stay intimately involved in each other’s lives. I want S to experience this love, comfort and happiness too.
I have moved a lot and lived in four countries over the past 10 years. I’m no stranger to living alone, but I don’t think I have ever felt this isolated in my life. As lockdowns lift for Christmas and people across the country can be reunited, there are tens and thousands of families like mine who are still locked down, unable to see our loved ones across international borders.
These days, I’m trying to teach S how to cross her fingers too, for that vaccine to come through.
• Maliha Aqueel is from Lahore, Pakistan. She is a Phd student at the Gender and Culture studies department at Sydney University
*the author’s daughter