The early days – with Fatma Guettou

Fatma is a mother of three who changed careers - from a cancer researcher to building companies around her hobby of sewing dolls. We talk about how children and parental leave made her reassess her life, and how she experienced the baby stage.

Becoming a mother and being on parental leave changed her whole mindset and approach to career – and to life in general. The hobby of sewing dolls grew to be more and more fun, and both she and her husband Hamid eventually began to see it as a possible profession.

Today, they have sold thousands of dolls and seem to be getting along as a real team. The third child, Yasmine, is just starting preschool, and soon both Hamid and Fatma will be working with full focus on the company, Watoto arts. Fatma laughs as she explains that the third parental leave has been something of a ‘survival mode’.

“If we hadn’t had the premises, the sewing factory, a stone’s throw from where we live, and a preschool and grandparents in the neighborhood, we probably wouldn’t have made it. I am so grateful that we have it like this.”

The impression you get of Fatma when you get to know her, and by following her and Hamid through @watoto_arts, is that they are a couple who, in the midst of the toddler years, seem to have made it work. That means really working well – that they are happy, in sync and satisfied with life.

first time Unna Baby
Watoto Arts dolls are made from organic materials here in Sweden. The dolls are available in a wide variety of skin and hair colors and can be made according to personal preferences. Pictures from Watoto arts instagram.

-It’s inspiring and hopeful – three kids, a startup and somehow so relaxed and content?
-Yes, but I must admit that life right now is maxed out. All hours, minutes, are filled and there is no room for anything more than what we are doing. Children and entrepreneurship.

Fatma explains that she and Hamid have been together for 20 years this year, and that the stable foundation they are on means that they can both calmly view the toddler years as a phase of shifting focus.

“The relationship is probably on some kind of break. We never have time just us, going on a date or something, but I trust that that time will come back.”

-Having the company as a joint project seems to work well for you?

-“Yes, the advantages are that we are very synchronized and have an understanding of each other’s workload. We manage to share everything. The downside is that, if we have a moment, we talk about the company – evaluating and planning.

Fatma and Hamid had their first child in 2017, second in 2019 and third in 2022. It was during the second parental leave that the hobby grew, and with the third child in the womb, Watoto Arts became a real company. A sewing studio was set up and eventually a first seamstress was hired.

Parental leave and new perspectives

“It may sound so simple, but it has really been a journey! Changing careers like this was not in my world view a few years ago,” says Fatma.

Fatma says that her career plans were in research, and she clearly saw the steps she wanted to take. After a PhD in biochemistry, a postdoc in Germany in cancer research, there were many opportunities. She says that her plan was to return to work soon after having children, but something happened.

-Becoming a mother, and being on parental leave, changed my mindset. I postponed the start of my job several times, and I ended up being on parental leave for a whole year anyway. And once back at work, I was soon pregnant again.

Fatma says that parental leave was her first real break from working life, and that this in itself provided new perspectives.

“Other things became important, I reassessed my life,” she says.

About the early days

For Fatma, babyhood and the challenges that come with it seem to have been taken in stride. She says that she trusted her instincts and did what felt right for her rather than listening too much to outside advice.

“I have wanted to keep my children close, and have co-slept from the start and still do. They have been breastfeeding all the time and I have carried them a lot. I haven’t been stressed by ideas about the child becoming independent and sleeping in their own bed and so on, and when people around me have pointed out that I carry the children too much or breastfeed for too long, I haven’t minded too much.”

-Do you remember anything particularly challenging in the beginning?

-First, I went overdue with my first child by 14 days, and finally went into labor. The whole birth was very ‘chemical’ and it was as if my body never got going naturally. Even though it was very long, a healthy guy came out.

-In the beginning with my first child, my biggest challenge was getting started with breastfeeding. I was not prepared for the milk crate that I was given, and I remember feeling confused about whether that would be the case.

-Did you have any help to turn to?

-Well, I have thought about it afterwards that it was a very abrupt goodbye there after the birth. It was quickly clarified that everything looked good and then they needed to clean the room for the next birth to come in. So we had to go home and figure out how to do things ourselves. It went well but…

-Did you feel a lack of support?

-No, I have a very close family, and they were good support even during the first time as a mother. But in general, I think there is a lack of a nurturing culture in the first period after birth.

“Here in Sweden there is so much talk about being in your bubble after giving birth. You should refrain from too many visits and social events, and just be by yourself. For some, this may be the best thing, but I think there is also a risk of feeling lonely.”

In Algeria, where Fatma has her roots, there is a so-called 40-day culture. It involves serving, caring for and surrounding the new mother for the first 40 days after birth. Fatma thinks more people should know about the different things you can do during this time.

“It can be difficult to stay in your bubble and ask for help or relief from outsiders. You may not even know or see what you need and when. It helps to have people nearby who can see you, suggest solutions and anticipate needs. I don’t think you are made to go through and manage everything by yourself.”

-Overall, how would you describe the period of movement?

-In general, I have felt and had such a good time during the baby period. I really felt like a superwoman after all my deliveries. I’ve been wanting to socialize and really feeling boosted and uplifted by the whole experience of having a baby. Then I’m glad that I’ve been able to take most things in stride and not be stressed out by the fact that there may be other ways some people think you should do things.

Becoming a mother again

Fatma says she was still breastfeeding her first child Navid when her second child Sami was born. She felt no stress or anxiety about welcoming a new child, and once again she emphasizes the importance of the interaction with her husband in this regard. “Hamid was on parental leave with the first for another 1.5 years after the second child arrived, so being able to share everything and do it all together has really been our thing.”

-Was anything particularly different with the second child?

-Yes, with Sami we had to try real worry, because he had several respiratory arrests during infancy. We had to go to the emergency room several times, and it was only when a respiratory arrest happened at the hospital that a doctor was able to see and pinpoint what could be wrong. It turned out that he had infantile epilepsy. Incredibly scary, but nice to know what it was and be able to get the right help with it later.

Otherwise, Fatma says, going from one to two children was not a big change for them. “We widened the bed so that everyone could fit, sort of. However, with the third child, everything suddenly became so maxed out!”

Giving and receiving advice

-Have you received any unexpected or unwanted advice about your parenting?

-A lot! Haha, but I am good at sifting. For example Some people think I carry the babies too much and others think I breastfeed too long.

-Do you have any general advice for new mothers?

-It’s tough with everyday life and that’s okay. There are lots of musts you can remove.

-Anything you would like to say to yourself before becoming a mother?

-Well, a bit the same, like: ‘Let go of some things, now you’re entering a new phase, and a lot of things you can take up later’.

About the children

-What characteristic do you hope your children will inherit from you?

-Haha, I think I can already calculate that they have inherited: Outgoing, social, and creative!

-Is there any stage of your children that you long for?

-“I try to appreciate and embrace the fact that they are small now, but of course I also look forward to them becoming more independent. Not having three who need a ‘hands on’ all the time.

Finally, is there anything that bothers you about motherhood?

-I can never do anything in peace, while my husband can go take a nap, go to the toilet, talk on the phone, whatever – in peace! Never happened to me.

first time Unna Baby
Images from Watoto arts.

If you are curious about Fatma and Hamid’s company and their beautiful dolls, check out their website and follow @watoto_arts on Instagram!

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