Challenging social norms and tradition is an extremely difficult and brave decision, which invariably changes the lives of all those who choose to swim against the current. That is especially true in Egypt, where tradition is king. And according to tradition, a family consists of a mother, father – who are married to each other, of course – and children; anything else can be considered nontraditional. Childless couples, single parents, parents of adopted children, and many other alternative forms of families, are considered “unorthodox”, and more often than not, society finds them hard to comprehend. Why is that, though? The answer most frequently used is “stability”. That infuriating answer that seems to be the go-to for all who prefer the status quo over change.
Yes, familial stability is essential, however, it is not the only thing a family needs. A family needs to be healthy, happy, functional. What good will stability do if a family is dysfunctional? How many miserable homes were born out of unhappy couples “staying together for the children”? How many women and men stayed childless because of the stigma on adoption? And how many divorcees did not remarry for fear of gossip?
That is why it is extremely important to highlight those beautiful nontraditional families and celebrate the people who courageously championed their right for a full, happy life.
From single parents of adopted children to full-fledged patchwork families with step brothers and sisters aplenty! The tapestry of modern families is diverse, colorful, and above all, filled with a special kind of love, one that defies the scrutinizing, at times sneering, gaze of tradition.
We have spoken to two incredibly fascinating “Modern Family” examples, and they have given us a peek into the rich mosaic of their lives.
Naela and her Bundle of Joy
First, there is Naela, a lovely single mother of an adopted child, whose little family was born out
of immense love. “It was always in the back of my head. After my divorce 13 years ago, I thought I would adopt when I get remarried. I wanted to adopt even if I had a child of my own, perhaps because my father was an orphan,” she says. Throughout the ups and downs of Naela’s life, she had a change of heart about her decision to wait until she was remarried, “a voice told me that my life will not get better unless I finally do this,” she explains. This strong conviction Naela had was not going to make her get into this without being prepared, though, “I knew I needed to be ready. So, I started writing her letters on my blog. After a while, I started missing her, even though there was no one. I did this until I felt I was ready,” she tells. This ushered in the phase of procedures and paperwork, “my friend Dina El Ghamry had adopted before me and she was also single. So she told me about all the procedures,” Naela says, “I applied and of course they responded that I cannot adopt because I am single. I spoke to Dina and she told me to tell them that there is an exception for anyone above a specific age. I was also supposed to be living with family. So, since I live with my mother, they considered us a family.” And thus the real procedures began. Representatives visited her home to ensure the child will live well. Finally, Naela applied her paperwork. “The request is reviewed by two committees, and on my birthday the lady responsible for it sent me a message on Whatsapp saying that I got the approval,” she recalls. Naela then had to make the rounds on orphanages, along with her mother, to do the incredibly difficult task of choosing a child. “I used to pray to God for two things: to not have to choose, and to find the youngest possible child so they would not have a history,” Naela explains. Thankfully, the child which was brought out to her was a one-week-old infant, “she was so small,” Naela says. Still, she was unsure. How can anyone be sure? So, Naela and her mother continued looking through different orphanages.
When they went home that night, Naela spoke to some friends and found them all to be encouraging, even those who were not convinced at first. She prayed Istikhara for guidance and went to bed, only to wake with her mind made up. She called the lady and told her she wanted the baby. However, she found out that she will have to wait until the baby is three months old before she can take her home. And so, Naela was at the orphanage, day in and day out, for three months, spending an hour a day with her. During that time, she observed many of the unhealthy practices adopted by workers in Egyptian orphanages at that time, “each of the workers was responsible for two to three children. I used to enter the place to find them watching Turkish soaps, and the children are each in their room,” she continues, “they would only interact with them when they change or bathe them. You can only imagine what these children’s psyche will be like when they grow up if they are not adopted.”
Finally, Naela took her baby home. However, the first week was far from rosy motherhood dreams, “during the first week she would cry all night. She drove me crazy; I felt like I was going to die by the end of that week,” she tells, “however, my sister celebrated the new baby so much. She came from abroad with toys and clothes for her. So there was this state of joviality.” With time, more substantial issues started appearing. The discrimination against adopted children is sadly quite common. And Naela felt responsible to protect her child, whom she named Aseel, from it. From issues with sporting clubs, which requested additional fees only because Aseel is an adopted child, and would annul her membership the moment she reaches 21 years of age, to some schools not accepting adopted children! Naela even had to deal with her child being exposed to the fact that she is adopted at the nursery she went to, “I found her asking me ‘are you not my mommy?’ So I tried to persuade her to tell me more until she told me that one of the workers at the nursery told her that,” she explains, “I am not sure this person, in particular, was the one who told her, because Aseel was quite young back then. But what would they gain from doing that? I intend on telling her, but that does not mean you get to beat me to it.” Thankfully, Dina came to Naela’s rescue and told her to explain to her daughter that there is the mother who births, and the mother who cares and nurtures. “I told her ‘don’t I take good care of you? Then I am your mother, don’t tire yourself thinking about these things,’” she tells. This was accompanied by yet another inconsiderate act; the nursery did not invite her to the Mother’s Day party they organized, “I went home to find pictures from the event on Facebook, with all the children with their mothers and Aseel on her own!”, Naela recalls. Having learned from this experience, she told the manager of the next nursery she enrolled Aseel into that she does not want others to know of Aseel’s adoption. “This matter specifically is quite special for us. The Prophet PBUH said that he and the sponsors of orphans will be close in Heaven. Yet they hurt the feelings of orphans and their families. If you do this, you do not get to call yourself religious,” she tells.
Another obstacle, which Naela expected, but thought would take longer to start appearing, was Aseel’s natural desire for a father figure. “I thought this issue will appear when she goes to school. Yet it started when she was one year old. I was shocked,” she explains, “during her firstbirthday party, my sister’s husband was here in Egypt on business, and when he walked in she ran towards him even though she could not remember him from his previous vacation here.
Then when we would go out shopping, she would run towards the men in the street.” Naela’s ingenious solution for this was to take Aseel out on playdates with the daughter of a male friend of hers, who also happens to be a single father. These weekly playdates have helped fill that gap in little Aseel’s life. One cannot help but think of how lucky Aseel is, for having found a mother who loves her so much that she is willing to face an entire society, bravely and unwaveringly, “society does not understand that the child you adopt becomes your own and you truly forget, you intentionally forget about the adoption,” she tells. It is also evident that Naela is not the kind of woman who would let society dictate what she will and will not do, “people are not experts on my life, nor the topic. So I have placed clear limits, because I am not prepared for anyone to destroy my child’s life. This is too sacred, it’s her life,” she explains. Even her view on life has changed, and all for her little one, “I now look at life through her. I was single, my choices may have been uncalculated at times, I may have followed my emotions, but now everything is different. I am now living to provide a good life for her,” she elaborates, “this does not mean that I forgot about myself, as I must be good for her to be good.” Naela and her now five-year-old Aseel are living happily together, prepared for more adventures ahead.
Sally and Sherif’s Big Fat Blended Family
Finally, comes this truly inspiring patchwork family of Sally Hamza and Sherif Hamdy. Sally and Sherif’s love story is a real bonafide modern-day romance. This saga which spanned over many years resulted in one big, beautiful patchwork family. They have known each other since they were teens, and even dated at the time for eight whole years. And in spite of the fact that they went their separate ways when they were young, a series of serendipitous events kept bringing them back together. For example, after Sally’s first marriage – which had blessed her with her beautiful twins Malak and Nour who are now 18 years old – ended, they reconnected and considered marriage. Fate judged that it was not time yet, and they went their separate ways once more. Sally was married once again, and so was Sherif, though it was his first marriage. From her second marriage, Sally had a lovely daughter whom she named Habiba, 10 years old now. After seven years, Sally’s second marriage ended, and she lived alone as a single mother in Dubai. At that time, she and Sherif met again by accident – one could call it destiny. Sherif was also divorced at that point, with one beautiful daughter, Maya, who is now almost 9 years old. They started speaking again, and after over 15 years away from each other, they finally got married.
Due to their history, Sherif’s family welcomed the news of his marriage to Sally. His friends thought it was a proper ending to their story, “the first thing they said was ‘finally, a closure to the story,” Sherif tells. However, all things worthwhile require a fight. Sally had to face her family with her decision to get married for the third time, “sharing the news with my family including my girls who are now in university, was not easy,” she recalls, “my mother said ‘you
tried twice and obviously marriage is not your thing’, and my girls felt shy about living with another man they did not know.” A mother’s concern for her children is one of nature’s strongest instincts. And so in Sally’s eyes, giving her children a smooth transition has been the biggest difficulty she faced, “the most difficult part for any blended family is making it smooth for the kids,” she tells. In that sense, Sherif was blessed, as his daughter was excited about having
sisters of her own, “for her to know that she will have stepsisters, she was so excited. She enjoyed the vacation with them and asked when they will move to Canada with us,” he says.
One can say that Sally and Sherif have had a unique experience of family life. And as with everything in this world, it had its blessings and challenges, “it is a challenge to understand the different emotions and reactions behind the behavioral changes one will experience with siblings,” Sally continues, “it is also challenging when your children behave in a certain way, carrying some anger towards your partner, and feeling the urge to justify so they are not misunderstood.” For Sherif, blending in with his step-children, posed the greatest challenge for him, “the biggest difficulty I had to deal with was blending in with the kids,” he explains, “so after our Katb Ketab, we went to Gouna and took the whole family. I told Sally it was to confirm to the kids that I am not here to take their mum away. So it was a good bonding time.” Still, there is a bright side, no matter how difficult it is to reach, “it is a blessing to have kids who are not biologically your own and seeing them like real sisters in harmony. Reaching that point is not easy,” she emphasizes. Sherif agrees, “my daughter will definitely be blessed because she will have three other sisters,” he says. Things might not be easy for modern families right now. But progress is inevitable, and there are ways to create a more welcoming environment forpatchwork and other forms of modern families. Starting from inside the family, there are things that can be done by the family members themselves, “because I am a teacher, I was lucky to go through child and adolescent psychology as part of my study,” Sally explains, “child psychology does not only help you learn how to deal with children, but also helps in understanding where adults’ behavior comes from.” Due to the undeniable power of the community, raising awareness about the many new types of modern families is also essential, “with the increasing divorce rates there must be sessions, seminars, clubs or group discussions to raise awareness about emotional health and how parents can handle this situation,” she explains. This awareness can also be helped greatly by the media, “Social Media nowadays is very powerful and its impact is very influential,” Sally says. Sherif would like to see representation in all kinds of platforms, “I would like to see representation in films and TV series because this is what affects people,” he continues, “everyone is on their phones these days, no one watches TV anymore. So posts about this on
Instagram or Facebook can raise awareness for sure. This is the digital era!” It is the little things that make life worth living, silly anecdotes and whimsical memories are some of the best things about having a big family! While all families have their own quirks, a unique family such as Sally and Sherif’s is rich soil for funny moments. “My youngest, Habiba, has two half-sisters from my side, and two from her father’s side. Two of her sisters are named Malak, so she has to call them by family names,” she recalls, “my mother says ‘we are living in Layaly El Helmeya thanks to you.’” Another instance is Habiba’s familial riddle, “my eldest twins Malak and Nour also have two half-sisters from their father. So Habiba always asks me ‘how come my sisters’ sisters are not my sisters?’ and it became a riddle she tells her friends,” she says. The funniest moment for Sherif came shortly after his daughter found out he was marrying Sally, “her and my niece said they have to give me marriage advice. Their advice was that I have to take Sally out to dinner and have to pull her chair for her and buy her gifts,” he tells. Choosing love, and life, in the face of tradition, cannot be as effortless as Sally and Sherif make it seem. They have advice for anyone who seeks to expand their families the way they did. Sherif’s advice is to seek peace with the children, “if you cannot deal with your step-kids, the marriage will not last long. In a blended family both the father and mother have kids, and they are the most important part of the relationship for them,” he explains, “when the time comes to sacrifice, you cannot sacrifice your children.” As for Sally, it all comes down to choosing the right person, “choose the right person for you, not your kids. No one will replace any of their parents. Yet, they are privileged to have two of each! Think positively and remember no matter what happens, it is not about you,” she concludes.
Who is anyone to say what is a real family and what is not? What constitutes a family? Is it not, at the end of the day, the love, compassion and unbreakable bonds between them? A family is a clan, a tribe, a houseful of people who would die for each other. So what if it does not fit the narrow definition society has deemed appropriate? We the people have the power to change this definition, mend it so it can include all those marvelous modern families, with all their complexities and imperfections.