Giving birth can be a pretty scary experience for a first-time mum. And for Sumayya Sarwar, the experience took an unexpected turn when "the process happened at lightning speed" in the summer of 2018.
Sarwar, who spends her time between the UAE and the UK, and was in England at the time, found herself giving birth to her daughter in an Uber, while en route to the hospital.
“It was quite funny really,” says the former dentist. “On the birth certificate, the location of birth is the road’s name.
"A lot of people have asked me about the experience and my husband and I were actually quite calm because everything happened so quickly. You realise that it's happening and you just have to deal with it. You are in the moment."
It did leave her with an important lesson, though: “As a first-time mum, I was meticulously planning every detail, but I soon found out that nothing goes according to plan,” she says. “The experience definitely set me up for motherhood by showing me how unpredictable it was.”
It was also an experience that led her to create Mama ME – the UAE's first community app for mums and mums-to-be. Sarwar moved to the UAE in October after the birth of her daughter, and realised that being away from her support network (much of her family lives in Manchester) could be overwhelming and isolating.
During her first year as a new mother, she started doing research on platforms that would help her connect with other mothers. What she found was a gap in the market. "There were a lot of apps tailored for children's activities and to help children connect – but nothing specifically for mums. That is how it all began."
Sarwar enlisted the help of a friend for the technical aspects and set about designing an app that took eight months to develop. The result was Mama ME – a free application that connects like-minded women across the Emirates.
The app clusters users according to geographical location, interest and age of children, helping to connect women who have more in common. It also has a community forum in which mothers and mums-to-be can ask for advice, share information or simply "get anything off their chests" – on topics ranging from breastfeeding and postnatal depression to disturbed sleep and teething.
“Those first few years of motherhood feature such a deep learning curve and not having a network can leave you feeling lonely. This way, even if you do not have your parents or family around, you have other women,” says Sarwar.
The app has a stringent verification process for each user to make it more secure, with Sarwar monitoring conversations to ensure they are appropriate. As she puts it: "I want Mama ME to be a safe space for all mums, a warm and welcoming community for them to browse topics they want to learn more about."
She is definitely doing something right – when the app launched in early April, it got about 200 downloads in the first week. Sarwar had actually planned for a later launch, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing regulations that followed led her to speed up the release.
"Mums usually have meetups and time spent outdoors at playgrounds and the like – but all of this has been wiped away because of the Covid-19 outbreak," she says. "That is why connecting people through apps like Mama ME is more crucial than ever before.
"That sense of loneliness can get overwhelming, especially for mums with young kids. And, as everyone is spending more time on their phones, I thought it was a good time to get the community together.”
While the UAE's creative community has been coming together to provide residents with online services as they self-isolate – from virtual workouts to digital quiz nights and online improv sessions – Mama ME has also been doing its part. The app has been running a series of free live and interactive Q&As on its Instagram, so that mothers can engage with experts such as midwives, child psychologists and counsellors.
“These online sessions have been very well received by the community,” says Sarwar. “It’s amazing to see social media bring together all these experts and create a lovely nurturing female space.”