Aicha came early to women’s conversation group one night. This was several years ago now; I was just getting to know her, and we’d only been in Mauritania a few months at that point.
I was still getting ready for the group, so I brought out refreshments and drinks, and Aicha and I settled down together on the low matlas that lined the wall, leaning back against our blue and gold patterned cushions.
“You’re not like other mothers,” she began, tucking her mulaffa back behind one ear. “You don’t curse your children.”
I didn’t get it at first, so she went on;  “You don’t say to them, ‘May God shorten your life.’”
Shocked, I fumbled, “What on earth do you mean?”
Aicha explained that Mauritanian mothers all curse their children, even for what I would consider the minor annoyances of life. “Say you had a plate of cookies ready for guests and your child ate them,” she said, “Or you put new clothes on your child and he ran outside and got them dirty. You would say, ‘May God shorten your life.’”
This was my first introduction to Mauritanian parenting philosophy, and I was appalled. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe words have power. And no matter how angry I’ve ever been at my children, I’ve never even for a moment wanted their lives to be shorter.
I had other glimpses from my conversation group, those women who came each week to practice English and ended up becoming my closest friends and guides to the new culture.
“Which of your children is your favorite?” Hyati asked me one week.
Again, appalled. “I don’t have a favorite!” I protested. “How could I? I love them each as much as the others.”
It was their turn to be shocked! They all had favorites among my children. Aicha liked Elliot’s funny adult speeches best but Hyati preferred Abel’s charm and silky blonde hair; all the women adored Ilsa as they all hoped to have daughters someday. (I kept shushing them, afraid my kids would overhear) Not only that, they went on to tell me who the favorites were amongst themselves and their siblings. Aicha was her father’s favorite. Both of Hyati’s parents had favorites among her brothers. This was accepted as a way of life.
I opened my mouth and delivered a lecture. I didn’t want to put them down, but I think favoritism in parenting is a bad idea–especially favoritism at a level that everyone in the family knows about and openly acknowledges. I didn’t say so, but it explains a lot about certain dynamics in friendships. Moorish women tend to be very jealous and manipulative, pitting one friend against another and gossiping about everyone, and before this I’d chalked it up to the lack of power that women have in a male-dominated society. That evening’s conversation gave me a new glimpse into a life lived in someone else’s shadow–unable to be unconditionally loved by your own parents, a favored brother or sister always and forever preferred above you. It reminded me of the story of Joseph and his many-colored coat, gave me a hint of the misery of his brothers. So later when Khadi was bitter and cynical, twisting her mouth as she denounced the possibility of romance or happiness, it helped me see where she was coming from.
Yet I also thought of some wise advice I was once given, years before when we were still in Portland. I was hugely pregnant with the twins, and I had to go for non-stress tests weekly at the local hospital for about two months. I loved those times. I would lie back while the nurses attached little monitors to my extended stomach, then I’d relax in the quiet dusk of the room, the only sound the thub-thub-thub of the twins’ little heartbeats. After about half an hour, a nurse would come back and look at the readings. It was a tiny little oasis of calm and quiet, where I didn’t have to do anything but relax and ponder how much my life was about to change.
Usually the nurses would chat away while they were hooking me up. One, a mother of 4 herself, took it upon herself to talk about parenting more than one child; something I worried about. Elliot, then 20 months, and I were so close. How would we both respond to the addition of two tiny babies to the mix?
I’ll always remember something she said to me. “You will have favorites and that’s ok,” she said, “As long as that favorite changes. If it sticks, you and all the family are in trouble. But it’s normal to have times when you are closer to one child.”
Then she bustled out, leaving me to think over her words. I assumed they would come true. But they haven’t, not really.
I’ve never been good at picking favorites. Ask me my favorite colour, coffee drink, season…I’m at a loss. It depends; on my mood, on what season it is actually right now, on if you mean what colour flower or what colour t-shirt. And so I’ve found that I’ve always appreciated each child for the different things they bring to our family and to my life. I could never pick one because that would mean leaving out the others.
Aicha has two boys of her own now, and I wonder if she remembers anything of my long-ago lecture on the perils of favoritism. I know how much she adores them, but I wonder if she still opens her mouth and curses them when they annoy her.
I wonder how our friendship changed her. I know it changed me.
She’s kind of my favorite.