There is a widespread misconception that pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are exhausting and daunting experiences to undergo. This view could be the result of the painful experiences that some mothers went through before medicine evolved. However, those personal anecdotes were reiterated as true horror stories that reduced this unique experience to a terror that might scare some women. Najlaa Saeed Al Kuwari is working hard to change this unfavorable perspective of motherhood by spreading awareness about it. She also backs up her advice with science in the hope of breaking the ongoing cycle of negative views and experiences related to motherhood. So, who is Najlaa Saeed Al Kuwari?
I am a mother of four, a breastfeeding counselor, a doula, and a childbirth educator.
Have you always aspired to work in this field?
Not at all! I graduated from Qatar University, College of Business and Economy, with a degree in Marketing. But I did not plan to find any job in that field after graduating and decided to be a full-time housewife. I was even planning, during my final semester at university, to become a mother. My interest in education about pregnancy and breastfeeding was the result of my first pregnancy. I noticed that the educational content regarding pregnancy and birth was scarce and outdated if I searched for it in Arabic. But I would find some valuable and updated information on the topic in English. For example, I found a group called: “Positive Birth” on Facebook founded by Sara Hanibal, a breastfeeding counselor, and a doula. My sister introduced her to me, and I learned a lot from Sara about birth; my sister and I attended many workshops with her. This experience led me to think about ways to share my knowledge with other mothers who cannot access the information in English.
After I had my second child, some of my friends were pregnant with their first child or were new mothers, and they were looking for someone who would advise them and provide support. They hoped to receive that support from a mother who is as young as them, and this is how I got the idea to create a WhatsApp group in 2013, and it included my friends and my elder sisters. My sisters are knowledgeable and experienced in motherhood. I would refer to them personally for any questions I had, and I believed that everyone in the group would benefit from them. We share a lot of important and valuable information regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding in that group, in addition to discussing our individual experiences. Over time, the group members started adding other women who were going or planning to go through pregnancy, so the number of members increased. After some time, I came across an account on Instagram called: “Birth Kuwait.” The account provides educational content and workshops about pregnancy and birth, and I benefited greatly from their content.
At the same time, I was thinking about expanding the group and moving to a bigger platform because the WhatsApp group limit was 25 to 50 people. So, Instagram was a better option. In 2014, I created my account on Instagram: Young Mothers, and through that account, I organized workshops for mothers in collaboration with experts in Qatar. The workshops with experts were important because each mother has her own unique experience, and I cannot answer all their questions. I organized a workshop about first aid for children, breastfeeding essentials, preparation for giving birth, and how to massage babies. At that time, there were no specialists in Qatar who could speak Arabic, so, unfortunately, all the workshops that I organized were presented in English. Some of the workshops were with Sara Hanibal, and she always encouraged me to learn and become a certified counselor to help the mothers who need experts who can speak Arabic.
Luckily, in 2015, Birth Kuwait announced that they would be holding a breastfeeding counselor workshop, so I traveled to Kuwait and attended the workshop. I was certified as a breastfeeding counselor upon completing the workshop. I also participated in a workshop given by Sara to become a doula. A doula is someone trained to provide emotional support for the mother during pregnancy and childbirth, which is different from a midwife’s job. I have worked as a doula for a few years only, and I no longer offer this service. In 2020, I was certified by Birth Kuwait as a childbirth educator in the Lamaze technique.
Were you interested in working in the marketing field after graduating?
As I mentioned earlier, I was planning to become a mother and be a full-time housewife. But few other factors made me decide not to search for a job. For example, I think that the human resources laws in the country are unjust when it comes to parental leave, and the support that a mother receives during pregnancy and postpartum is not enough. During my first pregnancy, I felt that I have no choice but to take care of my family full-time or push myself to find a job while taking care of my family. For me, balancing between a job and caring for my children to the best of my ability was a very tough situation. Indeed, I did not work, but these are the impressions that I got from listening to the experiences of mothers who I know, and they assured me that balancing between the two was exhausting. So, I decided that I did not want to put myself in that situation.
Can you tell us about the services that you offer?
Currently, I offer three services. The first is spreading awareness through Instagram posts and stories. Initially, I posted them in Arabic only; however, we started posting in Arabic and English in 2020. The second service I provide is running a group on the Telegram application because Telegram allows us to create bigger groups, and the group currently has more than 100 members. The group’s goal is to be a platform for all the mothers to share their experiences and network with other mothers who have similar interests. We also aim to provide emotional support as the group has several breastfeeding counselors. Although we would love to help anyone who needs it, we have rules and regulations for joining the group to ensure that we are reaching the mothers who need our support the most. The third service I offer is online breastfeeding counseling. Any mother can request this service by visiting the link provided in my Instagram account: Young Mothers. They can request a session with other qualified counselors or with me, as we have at least five other counselors who offer that service.
Have you faced any challenges in this field?
During my first pregnancy in 2010, and before I became a counselor, I used to tell people about my visits to breastfeeding counselors, and I was ridiculed for it! People made comments such as: “you need a counselor for breastfeeding?! It is as simple as putting your breast in the baby’s mouth!” The truth is that breastfeeding is not as simple as they describe it, as some complications during pregnancy or birth can hinder it. This is another reason why I wanted to provide the knowledge and experience I had for other mothers. Another challenge that I faced was the widespread negative view about giving birth. Sometimes, we hear women describing their birthing experience as a near-death experience. Some women indeed went through horrible experiences, and they have every right to express it, but the issue is that only negative experiences are widespread. It is rare to hear mothers describe their experience of giving birth as easy or happy, which highlights the negative experiences even more. Moreover, experiences are subjective, every mother will have a different experience, expectations, views, so it is not enough to rely on mothers’ experiences to educate about giving birth. This was another reason for my attempt to share a neutral view of giving birth and spread awareness around the expectations and options that a mother has, which, unfortunately, a lot of us do not know about.
Do you have any experiences that impacted your life?
I get emotional every time I receive thank you messages from mothers who asked for my consultation. They usually express their feelings and how I helped them reach their goal, and I thank Allah for giving me such opportunities. I am happy to be able to help other mothers and spread awareness. I am a mother of four children, and I understand what other women might go through during pregnancy. As a mother, I know that we have many doubtful thoughts about our abilities as mothers; we question if we are good mothers or not. Many of the counseling requests that I receive are primarily about comforting and reassuring the mother rather than any issues with breastfeeding. Unfortunately, some voices in our society will always blame the mother for things beyond her control, which results in the mother feeling more isolated with no emotional support and feeling that what she is doing is insignificant. Mom’s guilt is a real thing, and almost all mothers feel that way sometimes or all the time. Regardless of our choices as mothers, we always worry that there might have been a better option to consider for our children. Also, the health care and attention that a mother receives after giving birth are not as much as they need. During the pregnancy, a mother is taken care of; however, as soon as she gives birth, the attention shifts towards the child. Even during the doctor visits to check the child during their first year, it is rare that the mother will get the care she needs. There has been an increase in awareness around the mother’s need for attention and care after giving birth, but this still needs more development. Another experience that I remember was when I was working as a doula. I was working as a doula with a woman going through labor, and this woman’s mother was present in the room, and she was going to be a grandmother for the first time! The grandmother was very supportive of her daughter during the delivery, but soon she became nervous as her daughter’s pain intensified, so the grandmother left the room. She called me outside and requested that I stay with her daughter and support her because she cannot do so. This shows that the doula is responsible for supporting the mother and the other family members.
During your journey, have you had any moments of weakness or doubt?
In 2018, when I was pregnant with my fourth child, I went through a challenging family situation, and I was also physically exhausted from the pregnancy. I felt that I could not be generous and giving during that difficult time. So, I stopped taking consultations and stopped posting on Instagram. I do not view that break as a failure but rather something that I needed to do to prioritize my mental and physical health. So, I took an open break, but I continued to manage the group that we had, except that this time, I was the one receiving the support from them, and they helped me overcome this period of my life. All thanks to Allah, I was able to resume my activity in the Instagram account after a while. I updated the consultation process to be online so mothers can still benefit from it during the covid- 19 pandemic. Also, I was able to include other qualified counselors in my project.
Has society’s perception of your work changed?
When I used to tell people that I am a breastfeeding counselor, they found it strange, and they would dismiss it because “nobody needs instructions on how to breastfeed their child.” Thanks to Allah, this view has changed, and we have many Arabic-speaking breastfeeding counselors on social media. The awareness around breastfeeding has increased too, and today, when I tell someone what I do, they know what my role entitles. I also noticed that more women are interested in learning about breastfeeding. And that is a good indication because it coincides with Qatar’s 2030 vision because breastfeeding is an indicator of the health of society; as the number of mothers who breastfeed their children increases, it lowers the number of children who get affected by diabetes type 2, and obesity; and for mothers, it reduces the risk of breast cancer and heart diseases. Developed societies always encourage breastfeeding, spread awareness around it, support the mother, and enable her to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible. There are many ways to help women in this mission, such as providing them with medical care and social services and allowing them enough break after birth. In addition, they should allow mothers enough breastfeeding hours and make it easy by providing a nursery in the workplaces and also allow them to work remotely. All these ways will encourage mothers to continue breastfeeding. A group of mothers and I have initiated a campaign to reach lawmakers and change or implement laws that enable breastfeeding and supporting families in general. We titled the campaign: “there is no replacement for them.” In the campaign, we are requesting several demands. The first is to give a more extended leave for the mother after birth, ask to have a nursery in the workplace, and give the fathers a leave after their wives give birth. There are about six or seven requests other than what I have mentioned, and we are waiting for updates.
Do you have any initiative other than your project and the campaign?
I have mentioned Qatar’s and Hamad Medical Corporation’s 2030 vision, and I want to clarify few things. The Ministry of Health established several committees that work to fulfill Qatar’s vision concerning breastfeeding. I am a member of two of those committees. One of them focuses on supporting and enabling women to breastfeed, and the other is related to the mother’s mental health during pregnancy and postpartum. One of my goals is to increase awareness around mental health, specifically for pregnant women and new mothers. There is a stigma around mental health in our society, and people refrain from talking about their experiences, which might lead mothers to think that they are alone in their struggle. She might not find someone to go to for advice and support to overcome this period. Unfortunately, the mother’s mental health dramatically impacts her, the children, and the whole family. My future projects will include mental health, encouraging conversation around it, and finding the best ways to support each other. Hopefully, we will be able to discuss mental health with no fear or shame.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
I advise them to participate in open conversations to enrich different discussions. When every person, man, or woman, shares their experiences and challenges, others will benefit. Sharing our experiences, expertise, and knowledge with others enriches our society and adds more value to our individual experiences. Sharing the resources that we have with others is the simplest form of generosity. We must not keep our knowledge and experiences to ourselves only to feel special because in the end, we are all connected, and what we give to our society, we receive it back.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.