Sana Fayyaz grew up in Pakistan and then moved with her family to the United States as a child. A Muslim who didn't fit in America, Sana was happy to move to another country with her new husband. They moved to Saudi Arabia, and because it is a Muslim country, Sana expected to be welcomed. But that isn't what happened, and there were consequences for her unborn daughter.
Sana's book, Chai Chats
Sana's website: https://sanafayyaz.com/
Jule's website: https://julekucera.com/
Hard Times & Hope
Episode 26: Sana Fayyaz, a mother birthed by her daughter
Hi, I'm Jule. And this is Hard Times & Hope, a place for real conversations with regular people about a real hard time. We talk about what it was, how they got through it, and something good that came from it.
My guest today is Sana Fayyaz. Sana and I met in Rachael Herron's 90 Days to Done workshop, where she was working on her memoir, and I was working on my novel. Sana is the author of Chai Chats, a book of personal essays about gathering our inner resources, being present through challenges and savoring the joys of life. What will Sana share for her hard time? Let's find out.
Sana, thank you so much for being here today.
Thank you, Jule. I'm so excited to be here.
Me too. What's the hard time you're going to be talking about today?
Well, the hard time that I want to discuss is, it happened 10 years ago, and I was pregnant. Me and my husband, we were living in Saudi Arabia. And I faced the loss of our first daughter. She was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 47 days. And then she eventually passed away.
I'm sorry. How about if you take me back to before she went into intensive care. So set the stage, if we saw you on a video, what's happening in your life?
So basically, I'll go a little bit before that, and why this has hit really hard for me.
I am a Pakistani immigrant, and I emigrated to the United States when I was 10 years old. And I always had this longing for being accepted by people. So when I was living in America, you know, I had a lot of identity issues. In America, I was a Pakistani girl. And when I would go back to Pakistan, I was the American Girl. So I never felt a sense of belonging. And I really craved it, I was looking for it in other people.
And fast forward to when I was in my early 20s. I got married to my husband, he was the love of my life. When I was 16 years old, he was 19. And we had a crush on each other. And then our parents, who knew each other, it was an arranged marriage, we call our marriage like an arranged / love marriage, a combination of the two. So you know, it was a dream come true for me that wow, that here's this person I love. And I get to start a life with him. And he lives in Saudi Arabia. And I'm apparently an orthodox Muslim. Like, if you look at me, I wear a hijab. So you could tell that I'm Muslim, and Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. And I thought, Wow, this is great. I'll finally fit in somewhere. And this is going to be awesome.
And me and my husband, Shaquille, we're going to start a family. And our family is going to be so different. It's going to be the perfect family where we all feel a sense of belonging. We all feel accepted by one another. There will be open channels of communication. And so here we were, we got married in Pakistan, with all of our families, and then we moved to Saudi Arabia. And people started asking, When are you going to have kids? That's like the next level.
Right, right. And how old are you at this point when you and he moved to Saudi Arabia?
I was 24.
Okay, so you started dating when you were 16? Is that right?
No, we were not actually allowed to date as Muslims. So Shaquille, and I met, he is the son of my dad's best friend. So I had seen him when I was 16. And I'm like, well, this guy is so cute. And then I just loved the way he interacted with others. So I always had feelings for him. But I, you know, they were never expressed. And he says that it was the same for him. And then later in life, our parents got together and they said, Hey, this, you know, maybe the two would be great together. And it was kind of like a dream come true. Like, how it's a bonding in a heart that was, it materialized without us having to do any work.
Did your parents know that you each had feelings for the other, or you had noticed each other?
They had some sort of an idea.
That's wonderful. That just makes me happy when people are going into an arranged marriage and they're happy about it. You often don't hear that part.
I was wondering about that, how common that is or how rare that is. Okay, so you're now married. You've moved to Saudi Arabia. And people are asking when are you going to have kids. Is this your parents and his parents are asking, or everybody's asking. Who's asking?
Everybody's asking. It felt as if we were a part of a race. And most of my life, I always felt that way. Like, there's a checklist. I need to go to school, now I need to go to college, I need to get that degree. And then I need to get married. And now the natural next step is have kids. It's like the ladder you climb, you know, and then just keep moving and moving.
So, Shaquille and I, we had plans. No, no, we're not gonna have kids. But then I eventually gave in, because I, I have this personality, or I had this personality that I wanted to please other people. And because I was so into feeling accepted. So I thought, okay, maybe people do know what's best for me. So yeah, I should just have children. And we finally got pregnant after four months of being married. And we were over the moon.
Both of you?
Yes, both of us. So it was the first child in our, in my side of the family. And then from his side of the family, Shaquille is the only male. He has four sisters. So everybody was super excited.
So the first grandchild on one side, and the first child of the only son on the other side. Oh, yeah. Both families care a lot about this baby. This baby has heavy parental or grand-parental investment.
Yes, exactly. And there was so much preparation. My mom started shopping. When we found out the gender that it's going to be a girl, everybody was so happy. My mom started shopping. My mother-in-law started shopping. We were shopping for everything. Like I remember, I got like these cute little barrettes. And she was set for life. Like for two years of her life. She had everything.
Yeah. So then what happened?
Everything was going fine. And something happened during the delivery process.
So you were fine all the way up to delivery?
Yeah, no worries, concerns, everything's fine.
So you head into delivery expecting this is all going to go well?
This is all going to go well. And what's weird is that there's a bit of foreshadowing in this now that I look back, I found out very late, that I was pregnant. For some reason, my blood reports did not pick up that I was pregnant. And I ended up taking medication that was not good for the baby. But then they followed along the growth and everything. Everything's going fine.
And just like a day before I went into labor, my doctor, she said, Oh, you know, everything's going so well. But I'm just like concerned that you know, you took that medication. And you know, I just don't want anything, there could be congenital defects. And I'm like, Oh, my God, like, I never thought of this. Like you never told me this all this time.
And I think one thing is important to mention here... So this is Saudi Arabia. Everybody speaks Arabic. I don't speak Arabic. My husband does. So there was that, you know, that gap, that conversation gap, and language barrier. And I had specifically asked for a Pakistani doctor so that we're able to communicate.
So then when I went into labor, I went to the ER as I was instructed, and there was a doctor who spoke Arabic. And her English, I could tell that it wasn't... we were having some barriers. So I had asked her, where's my doctor? And she said that I'll be your doctor. But I said, I, you know, this is I'm in the throes of labor, like...
Sure, you're having contractions, things are hurting, and...
They're hurting. And I'm like trying to fight, for myself, my husband's fighting for me, like we need the doctor that we wanted. And my doctor actually came. And so I'm in the throes of contractions. And these two doctors started fighting with each other who's gonna take the case. And then eventually, the doctor I did not want took the case, because there was some rule in the hospital that the doctor who's on duty is the one who gets to do it. So that was very unfortunate. And my husband was ready to fight the hospital. So my husband and I, we have two very different personalities. He's the fighter, and I'm always let's go with the flow. So I told him in the middle of one of my contractions just let it go.
oh, oh, dear.
Yeah, let it go. We'll be fine. And he said, Okay. We go along with the process. We have no idea because this is the first time we're going through this.
Sure. Yeah. You're a young newlywed couple, pregnant, first child. How do you know, right? You don't even know what to expect in your own body, let alone the hospital.
Exactly. And then, when it was time for me to push, I was totally out of the zone. I wasn't able to feel any contractions. It could have been the medication that they gave me to make me feel numb. And for some reason, I had a feeling that I am ready to give birth right now, it's time. But the doctor insisted. She said, No, this the first time you're having a baby, it could take up to 12 hours to 24 hours. And I said, I feel like I'm ready because there's like the intensity of the pain. But she is like, No, no, don't worry, honey, I know what's going on. But yeah, I was ready in an hour.
Oh, and you knew, you felt it in your body.
I felt it in my body. And when she came in, I told her, now I don't even feel the pain anymore. I don't know what I'm doing. Please help me here.
And you're trying to say this in what language, English or...
English, but I feel like she's not understanding.
Sure. Your English is much better than what hers was. Wow.
And my husband is there. It's just like, I don't know, an accident has happened. And people are trying to communicate with each other. And things are happening really fast. So there was that, that break in between, like, nobody's able to understand one another. We're just trying to go with the flow. And she's saying, Okay, it's time for you to push. And I'm like, I can't push. I don't know what I'm doing.
You can't feel anything.
Yeah, I can't feel anything. And then I try my best. But I remember fainting, losing consciousness. And when I wake up, I'm surrounded by doctors. Like I think it was I don't know what they call it in hospital language, Code Red, I believe, or Code Blue.
Code Blue. All the doctors were there. And I remember specifically, the nurses had put a blanket on my shoulder. And they said, when the baby will be born, she'll be put on your shoulder, you know, for skin-to-skin contact. And when they took that blanket away, I knew that there's something wrong even though I was like out of consciousness, like, why is this happening?
And there was a male doctor there. And he was really angry. And he told the doctor who was handling my case, why didn't you call us sooner? And then he had to assist with my delivery. And I know this is a little bit graphic, but the first time he tried, the baby didn't come out. And then the second time he tried, I saw her come out. She was blue, and then all of a sudden, you know, they took her away. And then my husband followed them.
And then I lost consciousness. And when I woke up, I woke up when I felt severe pain. And that's when the doctor that was handling my case, she was stitching me up. And I just told her, Hey, this hurts more than labor, and then she's like, Okay, I'm gonna up the ante on the medication. And I'm asking her, Hey, where's my daughter? And she's not answering me. Then I asked her again. And she says, Your daughter's not well, you didn't know how to push.
Oh, she blamed you.
Yeah. So those are words that stayed with me for a very long time. You know, when I had more pregnancies, I always thought like, okay, I didn't know how to push. That was my fault. Um, and then when the medication started kicking in, I went back to sleep.
Sure. But it's interesting, she chose to up the medication in your whole body rather than give you a local anesthetic.
Yeah, there are a lot of strange things whenever I revisit. I'm writing about this right now. I'm writing a memoir about this time. And this is giving me a chance to slow down even more and reflect back on all the little things that happened. And make sense of the story.
As you reflect, what are you noticing?
I'm noticing that there was a lot of blaming and shaming. And a lot of, you don't know what's best for you. You don't know what's going on. The sense of authority, We know what's best for you. Because when I entered that hospital, it felt as if my body was not even mine.
Wow. There's a language barrier. I'm not familiar with the cultures of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Are the Pakistani in Saudi Arabia generally well accepted, admired, respected?
Not really. And that was that was oh my god, that really hit me hard. It was a reality check. It was, I believe the point where I grew up from my naive self, where I thought here I will be accepted as a Muslim in this country. So the Pakistanis are usually expatriates. And the Saudi population thinks of them as workers and they did not take my… they didn't take us seriously, let's just say that. They said, Hey, this happened, it could have happened to anybody. Think of it as an accident. You guys are young, you'll have another baby.
Oh, but that hurts so much. It's a total negation of the whole experience and of the child.
Exactly, yeah. And then they told me she only has a few days to live. Like, you know, she was totally in a coma. When they started giving her oxygen, she was able to revive. But she wasn't able to move because the oxygen, it turned out that she was stuck in my pelvis for about 25 minutes. And the oxygen had been cut off to her brain.
And this is when you were probably saying you needed to have the baby. Now you're ready. And you're being told no, you're not ready,
Most likely, most likely. And then the doctor had a severe lapse in judgment, and wasn't able to take quick action.
Several lapses, even the decision to enact the rule, the rule about who's on call takes the patient when she knew that she was not able to communicate effectively with this family. So many things went wrong. You said there was a lot of shame and blame. And as I hear the story, it feels like the blame was put on you. Or the baby. What's happened with that shame and blame?
That's such a good question, Jule. And I think there's a couple of components to that. Even when people were expressing condolences. They asked like, oh, maybe you should have read more Quran, which is our holy book. And then I got thinking, Oh, my God did not read enough? Like, was I not a good enough Muslim? This, this, why this happened to me.
So I feel like there's you know, we have to be so careful, especially with people who are undergoing difficult life situations, traumatic situations, we have to be very, very careful with the language we use. We don't know how it lands with that person.
Mm hmm. Especially when they're in such a vulnerable place.
So in the story, where we left off, your daughter is in neonatal intensive care, they tell you she's got no more than two, three days to live. What happens next?
In my heart of hearts, I knew that she would live beyond three days. Maybe that was just me as a naive young person. I just thought that No, I've never done any harm to anyone. I've always followed the rules. Nothing bad can happen to me, or my daughter. That's the way I used to take life.
And I approached the American Embassy because I'm an American citizen. And I complained about the hospital. And lo and behold, they find out I'm American, and then I'm treated differently.
By the American Embassy, or by the hospital or both?
The American embassy was very welcoming. They listened to me. They listened to my concerns, and then they filed the complaint. And then the hospital gets a neurologist on board for my daughter.
So they didn't have a neurologist until the American Embassy complained.
Yeah. And this was, I don't know if I've, I was thinking, should I feel happy about this? Or should I feel sad? Because if I'm a Pakistani, that means I'm worth nothing. But if I'm American, then that means I have more privileges.
I can see how you'd be conflicted about all that. I mean, glad for the help, for the quality medical care she should have been getting, she and you should have been getting all along. But it says so much about what happened before that. Okay, so they bring in a neurologist, you know she's going to live longer than three days.
Yeah. And she does. And every day we go and see her, me and my husband, we spend time with her. And here we were, in this rat race, like checking of boxes. And here's our daughter, we named her Mahek, which means fragrance, we will always see her.
And I would always ask the nurses. Okay, what was her urine output today? How much milk did she drink? She was connected to all sorts of tubes. She couldn't give us anything. You know, like when you have so many anticipations and hope when you have a baby, like the baby's gonna interact with us and our life is gonna change. We'll have this person to love and then there's the future. But here's Mahek. She is in this tube. We can't even hold her. Because we're scared that we, you know, we might infect her. And then all I can do is just hold on to her hand.
And she's laying there and I'm just thinking, Wow, Mahek, even the way she is, she still brings me so much happiness. Such joy. And she doesn't have to do anything. She just has to be. And this comes back to me later in life. When I reflect on myself and how I show up in the world, you don't have to do anything.
You just have to be.
Yeah, you just have to be yourself.
How did you hold her hand... with one finger? Because I picture someone very small. How did you hold her hand?
I would just put my finger in between her and then you know kids, they have that reflex? And I had a sense that, even though they said, Oh, her brain functions have completely deteriorated, I've felt like she communicated with me, especially on the day before she passed away. I just, it just felt like, in some way she told me that this is my time, Mom, I'm going to leave.
How long had she been with you? Nine months plus? I mean, how many days was she with you?
So you lose her. How did you find out that she left?
She had a cardiac arrest. And the doctors… I recall one week, it was one of our normal visits. And at this point, it just seemed everybody had given up. Because every day was the same thing. And me and my husband, we were the only ones who had hope. And then here was another paradox, because the doctors kept saying the more she is alive like this, then she's not going to have a normal life, she'll be severely disabled. So and then this is like, it really hurts me. They said, like, you know, you should just, it's better for her if she's not alive. So that was just like, Okay, what do we want, as parents do we want a severely disabled child? It is just a lot of things to deal with. But at this point, I feel I was so… I just really wanted Mahek to live, that I would fight tooth and nail with everybody.
And so she had a cardiac arrest. And then did she pass with that, or sometime after that?
Sometime after that. So the doctors had said, you know, it's the cardiac arrest. And this is what she's going to pass away. And before the doctors had told us that she will die, I remember, I, you know, I did the normal things I do with her. I had a ritual, like I would go, I would say hi to her, I would talk with her. And then there would be a certain set of prayers that I would pray, and then I would blow on top of her. Because I thought, you know, this might help. And I always would pump breast milk for her so that, you know, they could administer that through the tube. And then that day, I just like, she kind of shivered in a way, which she never did before. And I said, Okay, yeah, I think I'm like, Mahek doesn't want to live anymore.
She's ready to go now.
She's ready to go now and I have to let her go. But I feel like I wasn't ready. Like I held myself together. And the doctors then told my husband, this is the case. And my husband told me that, I was like, Okay, and then it was time to go. Visiting hours were over. Then when we stepped out, I just broke down, like I cried, and my husband told me to be strong. Let's be strong. If she wants to go, let her go.
We went home. And the whole night I didn't sleep because we were expecting the call. And so in the morning we received the call that she had passed away. And then I went to the hospital and it was the first time she was free from all the tubes. And then we were able to hold her.
I'm glad you could hold her.
How are you different than the person you were because of this experience?
I honestly feel that instead of me birthing Mahek, Mahek birthed me.
Could you say more about that? I want to understand that.
Before Mahek, I was living a very disconnected life. I was looking for belonging externally. I didn't have a sense of self worth. I didn't value myself. And I just thought I had to outdo, you know, I have had to perform in order to be worthy. Because me as myself, I am not worthy enough to be loved.
And then when Mahek came into my life, it was just like a reminder that that's not life. This is not how you're supposed to live life. And she really taught me the importance of slowing down because afterwards you know, I was still living the same old life, I was trying to forget that I had this daughter. And then at one point I thought, you know, I, it was just...
You tried to move on and just okay, she's gone, move on with life, get back to my list.
Get back to my list. And then at a certain point, I just like, no, this is not the way. This is not why Mahek came into my life, like she was a reminder. And I have to share her with my daughters, my family, and have to let them know about her, how special she was to me. And in doing that, I feel like I came much more closer to having a connected family. Like the family I always wanted.
Wow. A large connected family. With four daughters.
Tell me what you're thinking because I've can't read the expression on your face. What are you thinking or feeling right now?
I just feel because I'm writing a book about this whole process. And talking to you about this Jule, it just it gave me an insight. Like it came full circle at this moment right now.
I'm glad. Do you want to share how the insight is formed in your mind at this point? Or do you want to keep that for your book, and that's fine if you want to, because there are some things that we want to keep just like little gifts, inside for a bit until it's time for them to get born. So however you want to handle that is fine with me.
I want to let it simmer.
I'm glad I'm glad you said that. Because to me, that's like a confirmation of the woman that got born. She knows she's worthy. She knows she can say No, she doesn't have to say yes to please somebody who's asking her questions. So that's wonderful.
If you could say something to that young woman on her way into the hospital with her first baby, what would you say to her?
I would tell her to trust yourself. Listen to your instincts. And you know what's best for you. Nobody else can tell you that.
Thank you for listening. That was Sana Fayyaz. I'll put links to Sana's website and her book in the show notes. I'm Jule Kucera, host of Hard Times & Hope. My website is Jule Kucera. com. That's J-U-L-E-K-U-C-E-R-A.com
Take care. Take heart. See you next time.