The first night her newborn twins were home, Mimpikita’s Nurul Zulkifli thought her dreams were over.
Facing breastfeeding difficulties and two screaming babies, the founder and designer of the homegrown fashion label was a bag of intense emotions. It was the busy Raya period for her label, and because the self-professed workaholic had never been away from the office like this, panicked texts had also been coming in all day for her counsel.
“At one point, on that first day, my husband said ‘Nurul, seriously, stop looking at your phone!’ He was screaming at me, and I was crying, and people kept asking ‘Nurul, what do we do? What do we do with this and that?’” she remembers.
“I was crying and thinking: There goes my dream. Mimpikita is gone. Just like that. On the second day, I put down my phone. I told them that I can’t do anything anymore – it is beyond my control. Here I am in pain, and I’m struggling, I just cannot. I let go.”
Unprepared for baby, let alone twins
The 36-year-old is known for her professionalism and drive when it comes to the modest-wear fashion house she set up with her sisters Amirah and Syahira in 2008.
But when it came to preparation for a baby or two, Nurul said she was extremely unprepared for what was about to happen to her life.
She was an entrepreneur who happily worked 7 days a week and worried about everything being executed well. Although she had been struggling to conceive for 10 years and has been public about her fertility challenges, Nurul said she did not read any baby preparation books or attend any prenatal classes as she was deep in the throes of work.
By her own admission, this was a huge oversight, as she was already “not really into kids.”
“Can you believe it? I did not really help my sister when she had her baby or help to change diapers. I delivered at 37 weeks, three weeks before Raya. So imagine the craziness at work! I had to deliver people’s orders – I was still working up to the night I was admitted into hospital.”
On a scale of 0 to 10 of how prepared she was for a baby, Nurul said she was probably a ‘2’.
“I had the barang (things) but mentally I was not prepared. And then the maid tak sampai (had not come), and I did not book a pantang (confinement) lady! Somehow, I was pretty sure that we could all manage – I had my sisters, I had my mum …”
The day of labour
When the babies came, Nurul and her husband didn’t know what hit them.
“The first day was okay because the babies were inside the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). But I was struggling with breastfeeding. I thought I would have been able to do it easily, so I had not asked anyone or read anything. The nurse asked me to express milk on that first day, and so I thought okay, perhaps I’m just not used to it.
“But on the second day, my babies were screaming! They screamed and screamed, and they were so small, and I was thinking ‘Why can’t I feed you?’ My aunties were telling me how to do it, and everyone was touching my boobs. I was struggling with not one but two babies, and even though they were teaching me how to do tandem feeding, I couldn’t even manage with one!”
Her emotions were overwrought, but Nurul said she did not cry in front of many people.
When she had more privacy, however, the tears did not stop flowing.
“I was crying, crying and crying. My dad said ‘What is wrong with you, you are not like this, you are strong!’
But I said I could not breastfeed and my babies were both screaming. Everything was such a struggle.”
Many, many tears
She had stayed in the hospital post-partum for five days, but when she returned home the breastfeeding difficulties continued and the babies continued to cry non-stop. In her household, nobody knew how to handle anything formula milk or milk bottle-related, so when formula was finally purchased in the end, nobody knew how to give it to the babies.
“On that day, at 8pm, I called the nurses and said ‘Please help me’. My friends also told us to feed the babies with a cup as they did not yet know how to feed from a bottle. I was scared and feeling so guilty about giving them formula.
“It was bulan puasa (fasting month), and my mum and my dad were tired. It was just my parents and my husband and I at home. I remember one night we had not slept at all and the babies were still crying at 4am. I asked my husband to fetch the breastmilk I had pumped, and he dropped the milk! He was screaming and crying and saying sorry!
When she saw her husband crying, Nurul decided she had to control her emotions.
“I just could not cry. And I saw that my mum was tired, so I asked my mum and dad to sleep. I had no milk, so I had to give the babies formula. And at 5am, they finally slept. I remember holding my husband’s hand saying, ‘We did it’. We closed our eyes. And then one of the babies cried again.”
Taking Care of Her Mental Health
Nurul remembers those newborn days as extremely dark. She ended up mixed feeding her babies but received comments from those closest to her that made her feel guilty about not being able to breastfeed them fully.
“But at the time, I was like, ‘Whatever’. I had been crying every day. Crying when I ate. I felt like it was the end – there goes my life, my business. In the mornings I would feel hopeful but come lunch time I would feel down again.
“I thought ‘Do I really love my own kids?’ I still remember thinking and feeling that, and I hate that. Yes, I hated that period.”
It took a lot for Nurul to stand up for herself to overcome these baby blues.
She had been staying in Johor Baru with her mum, and her husband went back to KL to work. “I was crying, and I wanted to go back too. I told my mum I was so depressed, and I just needed to go out.
By the third or fourth week, she had returned to KL and ventured out to her own shop despite her confinement period. This made her feel better.
“I just had to. Some people can (do this). But not me. I remember my mum asking me why my sister could do it all. I told my mum ‘Syahira is Syahira and I’m Nurul. I’m not her.’
It’s not that I’m bad, it’s just that I am not used to this. And to have two babies at one time, it was too overwhelming for me.”
Trial by Fire
Looking back now, how did Nurul cope with all the strain and struggle?
She said she kept reminding herself every day that she would be okay, and that it was a matter of getting used to the routine. After confinement and back in KL, she said she felt much better.
“I think the guilt will never end. But when I’m out, having my coffee, I feel better. And then I can play with them better later. There will always be judgment as well, but I don’t really focus on that.
“Some people say ‘Why do you leave your kids with the maid?’ I think if you feel you are okay to handle your kids on your own, then go ahead. But I cannot. Of course, I have time with my kids, but when I’m working, I need to work.
Finding a Balance
The entrepreneur makes no qualms about the fact that she still has her dreams and that she is still ambitious.
“I want things to go my way and for things to be successful, whether it is my family or business. Whatever it may be, I think we have to find a balance. I always asked God to give me children, and of course, I am a workaholic, but I don’t want my life to be all about this. I love my business but when I go home, I focus on my family.”
As to what she would offer as advice after all she’s been through?
Nurul thinks mothers shouldn’t be scared of telling people when things are not okay.
“I understand that people don’t like to be told the negative or bad side of things. Or that people prefer to keep their problems to themselves. But it’s about sharing. There are always flaws, the struggle is real. Don’t be afraid to say that it isn’t perfect, you aren’t perfect.”
Oh, and one more thing, she grins.
Prepare yourselves for motherhood and the newborn phase properly, expectant mothers!
By Laych Koh, Liyana Taff and Murni Roslim
Photo credit: Nurul Zulkifli Instagram