Pregnancy and Motherhood, Demystified: The Personal Account of a Dubai Mom

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Photo: Courtesy of Alexander Krivitskiy

During my pregnancy, I made a promise to myself that I would someday write about my experience. I was surprised by how little I had known about what I was about to go through. Growing up with Hollywood movies slightly skews your expectations of the whole thing. Sure there’s morning sickness to deal with, but that’s only in the morning, right? Wrong. While every woman’s experience will differ, I felt that it was my duty to share my own in the hopes of providing information, support, and guidance to others. 

The one thing that is true, I will say, is that being a mother is wonderful. The expression “a bundle of joy” is absolutely spot on, though it might take some time before you realize that. Here’s what happened up to that point. 

Limiting Mindset – Break Out!
I found out that I was pregnant in the bathroom of my office. I had been married for over five years at that point and had all but lost hope in my chances of conceiving. You see, I had stopped using birth control right after my wedding, but four years later, a medical test revealed that my husband had reduced fertility. We moved to Dubai in April 2016 and I had stopped thinking about children, focused on living my life to the fullest, surfing, and enjoying Dubai’s nightlife. So there I was, standing in a bathroom cubicle, and my first reaction was, “F*ck”. I called my best friend in Brussels and then my husband, who immediately and ecstatically informed the whole world. I was two weeks pregnant. 

So there I was, standing in a bathroom cubicle, and my first reaction was, “F*ck”.

At first came the nausea and the grumpiness. I could smell everything five times stronger, so living on Sheikh Zayed Road meant a blend of petrol fumes and the Pizza Express across the street (that’s a total of 12 highway lanes away). I would throw up often at work, and the only thing that would help the nausea was to eat small portions all the time. Let’s not talk about the weight gain just yet. 

The nausea lasted for almost five months, during which a lot of things happened. My law firm, King & Wood Mallesons, went bankrupt. As I was pregnant and based in a new jurisdiction, finding another job wasn’t easy, so I started working as a freelance lawyer from home. Suddenly, my world became very small. Not even a year ago, I was travelling multiple times per month, speaking at conferences on women empowerment, and meeting new members of my ‘Lean In’ circle every week. Now, I was stuck in my living room. 

In retrospect, I think that’s what I found the hardest about pregnancy. Everybody is constantly telling you what you cannot do; you can’t surf, you can’t eat sushi, you can’t drink. You automatically adopt a limiting mindset and, while it’s all in your head, it’s hard not to create your own prison. To break out, I decided to start circuit training for moms-to-be on the other side of town. For the first time, at age 35, I was lifting weights.

Don’t Fight Your Body
In general, being pregnant with your first child is a very abstract concept. Something is moving in your belly, responding to jazz music as if it were rock ‘n’ roll, dislocating your hips with its head, and surprising you with its hiccups. 

It was New Year’s Eve, perhaps half past midnight, and I had just arrived in Bali after a lonely eight-hour trip aboard an Emirates flight. I was sitting in a taxi on my way to meet friends and the street was blocked due to the many motor bikes parading to celebrate the first day of the year. As I watched the spectacle from the taxi, I felt it for the first time: “blup” – as if water bubbles were surfacing somewhere in my lower belly. I was almost four-months pregnant then. 

As for pregnancy brain, it’s not an urban myth.

After five and a half months, I started growing uncontrollably. I gained weight very fast, despite eating normal amounts of food. It’s like my hormones suddenly realized the vessel wasn’t floaty enough to carry the package. That’s actually exactly how you feel, as if you have become irrelevant and your body is only functioning in light of what it is carrying. If you breastfeed, then that feeling will last as long as you are producing milk. 

As for pregnancy brain, it’s not an urban myth. Your mind is simply not functioning as it was before. The bigger you get, the more difficulty you’ll have sleeping, hence the less alert you are. 

I gained 18 kilos throughout my pregnancy, and lost almost all of them again in a period of about six to seven months after I delivered the baby. I did that without embarking on any crazy exercise scheme, but I swam regularly. I was surprised to see how resilient my body could be. Lesson learned: It’s better to accept the changes than to fight them. 

The day before my water broke, I lost my mucus plug for the second time. You’re absolutely horrified when this happens. Nobody tells you about it! The mucus plug is basically a plug that seals the cervical canal during pregnancy. It is formed by a small amount of cervical mucus and can look bloody when it comes out. It doesn’t necessarily mean that labor is imminent, but it can be an indication. I lost it for the first time two weeks before the delivery. 

As the puddle of water was getting bigger and bigger on the kitchen floor, I called my gynecologist’s office and was told to go straight to the hospital. The contractions did not increase, so I spent most of the day sitting in the hospital bed watching Netflix with my husband. A myth women tend to believe is that we have to be ready at all times as the baby may suddenly pop out. For most, however, delivery is a very slow process, especially when it’s your first time. So, relax and breathe.

The next day – June 1, 2017 – I was induced and the contractions came. Before they became too strong to handle, my epidural kicked in and my body slowly opened up, unaware of the extent of its stretch. When it was finally time to push, my gynecologist arrived with two midwives. She sat in front of me, while the two midwives stood on either side and my husband held my back. I felt well surrounded and followed her instructions precisely as if she were a coach, pushing me through an extreme sport endeavor. We giggled and laughed at the silly push faces I made. Then I saw his head. With one last push, he came out, completely purple with curly black hair. The moment they put him on me, I did not feel the overwhelming emotions and deep connection that I had heard about. Instead, I was just relieved and grateful that he seemed fine. 

The moment they put him on me, I did not feel the overwhelming emotions and deep connection that I had heard about.

Don’t Be so Hard on Yourself
I learned that you have to grow into motherhood. I remember the first week that Amadeo was born, I had no clue how to talk to him. I actually felt a little bit silly addressing him directly, but then somehow you just roll into it. The more this precious little being becomes the center of your universe, the more it becomes second nature. 

The first few weeks after birth weren’t easy. The constant bleeding, the painful stitched-up cut, the fatigue, my giant body (which my mother wouldn’t let me forget), the painful nipples, and the insecurity due to my lack of experience were nerve-wrecking. It was great to have my parents around, but having them stay for a whole month was definitely too long. As a little family, you need to find your own pace.

Then the nanny arrived. Amadeo was about two and a half months old. In her job, she was used to taking over completely, so I had to tell her that I didn’t mind holding my son. Giving him to her was really hard. For the first time ever, I felt envy. I was afraid that my son would not recognize me as his mother. Thankfully, my friends reassured me that my baby would always know who his mother was. Now, eight months later, I have to say it’s absolutely true, and it’s wonderful. With a lot of things in life, you just have to learn to let go.  

As I was freelancing when Amadeo was born, I had no income during my maternity break. When I started working again, finding billable work was easier said than done. Although I was developing my own practice, I felt as if my magical connector skills were off. My brain was foggy from waking up every two hours to breastfeed and I simply couldn’t remember people’s names. 

For the first time ever, I became financially dependent on my husband, and I hated it. I felt as if I was no longer entitled to anything, not even to speak up (which is very unlike me). As my husband had paid for the car, I didn’t feel comfortable asking him whether I could use it. In retrospect, I know it all sounds silly, but I had to go through this exercise of vulnerability to understand some important things about life and marriage.

A Story of Freedom and Joy
At the start of 2018, I became sick. Shingles, the doctor said, caused by stress and fatigue. Reflecting on it, I decided I needed to vent more. I stopped swallowing my words, and I started claiming the car and the freedom that came with it. Slowly, I became myself again – and perhaps even an enhanced version of that. I learned to live with very little and became very grateful for everything I already had. I began to understand the empowering effect that money could have on women and became determined to build my own business. 

I would say that behind every strong woman there is a community of great women supporting her.

When it comes to doing things for yourself as a new mom (including work), we often refer to feelings of guilt. However, I am not sure that guilt is the right word here. I guess it depends where you draw the line of your personal freedom. I need my own space to grow, create, and ultimately be a role model for my boy. I love spending time with Amadeo and I miss him when I’m away from him, but as long as I make sure to do valuable things with the time that I do not spend with him, I am absolutely fine with being away from him. 

Although the journey wasn’t easy, this is a story of freedom and joy. My days are filled with songs, laughter, and wonder. Entering the world of my little boy, suddenly a bird is not just a bird anymore but a fascinating flying, singing creature. Beach sand is delicious, toes are intriguing, and plants are there to be touched and licked. There is color everywhere; pink turtles, yellow whales, and green penguins!

They say that behind every great man is a strong woman. I would say that behind every strong woman there is a community of great women supporting her. Thanks to them, I was not alone, I was able to process my feelings and thoughts, I stayed positive, and, through all the mist, I was able to find myself again. For that I am eternally grateful.

Janine De Keersmaecker is a lawyer, optimist, surfer, explorer, founder of Serve the City International and two Lean In circles in Brussels and Dubai. After she spent ten years at top-tier global law firms, she started working with legal disruptors to make quality legal support more accessible and affordable. She advises startups and SMEs as well as big corporations around the world. Passionate about community-building, she loves to facilitate real connections. She is happily married to her husband Wim and the proud mother of little Amadeo.