It wasn’t so much that I subject myself to having the skin directly above my eyes daubed with hot wax before the woman hovering above me yanks off the paper, bringing a strip of innocent hair with her. Having my eyebrows tortured, whether by wax, string or tweezers, is something that I’ve been submitting to for years.
What’s new is that my free time is now so rare that I brought my eight-month-old son along in the stroller, thinking he’d fall asleep on the 15-minute walk to the mini-mall where I like to get my eyebrows done. This, I realized as my son sat wide awake and watching with great interest – causing me to work extra-hard not to wince – might not be the wisest thing to expose a baby of tender age to. Then again, seeing my eyebrows in their natural, Groucho Marx-like state is likely to be scarier.
Afterwards, I find myself making small talk with Farida, the salon owner and chief eyebrow shaper, and one of her upcoming assistants, Ibtisam. I linger because it’s a good chance to practice my Arabic, and because when you have a baby with you, boundaries are down. Every woman is happy to spend a few minutes with a baby boy who is smiling, cooing and making eyes at her, as my son is wont to do.
Farida, in her mid-30s, already has three kids at home, and is taking a break from having more. But Ibtisam, a gorgeous young woman (with too-thin eyebrows) has none.
“Actually, I lost two,” she says. “Two miscarriages. Now they told me I have to wait, and if I have another miscarriage, that’s it. I can never try again.”
“What?” I ask incredulously. “Oh, I’m so sorry. But what do you mean, can’t try again? Who told you that?”
“That’s what they told me,” says Ibtisam, whose black-lined doe eyes have grown glossy. Farida looks at her with a face that says Here We Go Again. And also, meskina. Poor girl.
“I’ve never heard that,” I say. ” I know lots of women who went on to give birth after several miscarriages. You should see a different doctor.” I look at her perfect face and model-slim body. “How old are you?” I ask.
“Twenty-three? You have plenty of time. I just gave birth to him and I’m 40.”
Farida’s and Ibtisam’s faces light up with surprise. Their skinny eyebrows rise higher. I like to think this is a sign that I pass for younger, but I realize that this is narcissistic on my part. It might be little more than polite flattery.
And then I discern something in Ibtisam’s face that says she doesn’t find this information inspiring, but just plain weird. If I could read her mind, it would say, but I don’t want to be like you. Waiting until 40 to start having children might be okay in my circles, but in most corners of Arab society, it’s freakishly late.
“I got married later. Well, actually, not just later, but rather, for the second time. I had a first marriage and it took a long time to find the right man the second time around. Anyway, you have tons of time.”
Ah, divorce. Another taboo subject. When you mention it, sometimes people in this part of the world look at you like it’s a disease you once had, and they wonder whether they, too, might catch it someday.
“Inshallah,” I tell Ibtisam, “it will happen soon. Sooner or later. You have plenty of time.” She was politely smiling and thanking me, but I didn’t feel like she believed a word of it. Like she’d received one too many inshallahs already.
As I guided Eli to motion a drooly, smiley bye-bye and walked away, I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for what I have. But I also felt a little silly. My joy at having a child at 40 is not going to lessen another woman’s sadness for having lost two pregnancies by the age of 23. To a woman who got married at 19 or 20 and is ready to start a family, the fact that others who are two decades older than she are managing to birth healthy children doesn’t make her feel much better. This is a good thing for me to keep in mind, being that I live in a city where there are plenty of Jews and Arabs who are grandmothers by the time they’re my age.
For those who find inspiration in my story – and in the stories of others like me – fabulous. But that’s because they feel it on their own, not because I told them to. Using my status as a first-time mother at 40 is not going to cheer up a woman of 20 who finds it difficult to conceive, nor does it necessarily help friends my own age and older who are trying to get pregnant. On some level, much of this is simply chance, or luck, or random cells colliding, or Divine Providence, or whatever supernal force you chose to ascribe our fates.
Yes, we can take action and get good advice. But at the end of the day, there are few things we can control. Except maybe the shape of our eyebrows.