Steph has had us captivated from day 1- not only through her photographs (we love her photo journalistic style and are incredibly lucky to have her on board as a Sassy photographer) but also through hearing about her amazing career spanning everything from teaching fitness to the Royal Family in Bahrain to selling diamonds, dabbling in holistic therapies and of course now creating the most incredible photo books through her company Nektar. A mama of three gorgeous girls, Olivia aged 14, Lily aged 6 and 9 year old Ruby who was born with Down Syndrome, Steph chats to us about getting engaged to Kiwi husband James after only 2 weeks of first meeting him plus shares a very honest account of dealing with job losses, depression and trying to navigate the crazy world of parenting while dealing with the additional stress that comes with raising a special little girl like Ruby.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?
My name is Stephanie Hamilton, I am Canadian born and bred but moved to Saudi Arabia when I was 23. I met my Kiwi husband James there and after 2 weeks of knowing him I was engaged. Nearly 15 years later we have 3 lovely girls, Olivia 14, Ruby 9 , and Lily 6. My daughter Ruby was blessed with that extra something special when she was born with Down Syndrome. I am the eldest of 6 children and grew up in a house where my mother also cared for 6 elderly people so you could say that there is not a lot out there that phases me!
I started off my career in the Medical field working as a Laboratory Technologist while moonlighting on the side teaching fitness to some of the Royal Family in Bahrain. It has taken years (and still working on it!) but I have found my passion through creating my brand Nektar. I am a photojournalistic/documentary style photographer, Aura-Soma Colour Practitioner, and love teaching workshops to empower people to see the beauty in life and to create the life they desire through the many different tools I have learned over the years.
I published my first book 3 years ago called “Hungry-Feed Your Soul” and have a dream to write a NY Times Bestselling book and sit in Oprah’s garden in Hawaii talking to her about it! I am an eternal optimist who really believes in dreaming big. Two years ago, I contributed to a chapter in a bestselling series called “Adventures in Manifesting-Soulful Relationships” alongside one of the authors from The Secret and 32 other authors so it is really hard for me to give myself just one title as I love doing many things! My ultimate and main goal in everything I do is to show that life is beautiful and incredible no matter how ordinary or mundane it may seem.
My photography is a huge reflection of that in doing my “Day in the Life” Sessions where I capture people doing things they love with loved ones in a very relaxed setting. I wanted to create an experience for people that I would want for my own family and started making beautiful coffee table style books with my images as I worried about my children being handed hard drives in the future! Capturing people and being able to give them the gift of a beautiful printed book of their family gives me so much joy!
Can you talk us through your career pre and post babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?
I started off my career in the hospital and worked teaching fitness on the side when I moved to Saudi Arabia. Once my daughter Olivia was born, we moved to Bahrain and I decided to leave the hospital and take a part time job teaching fitness classes to some of the Royal Family. I then transitioned back to working in the hospital in Abu Dhabi but found it very difficult with a small child so I then started up a very successful business selling Desert Diamonds (many people still call me the Desert Diamond lady! Hilarious!). I worked many of the markets and enjoyed the flexibility and social aspect of owning my own business.
In 2009, I gave birth to my beautiful Rubes who has Down Syndrome. At the time this was a complete game changer for me and it became very clear that she was going to need my full support and energy. I gave birth to Lily just as the recession in 2009 hit alongside my husband being made redundant, so I sold all of my stock and we moved to New Zealand. I struggled to find my feet and spent a lot of the time feeling overwhelmed when we moved. I often wondered if I would ever be able to devote time to doing something I loved. I started to teach myself more about photography as a coping mechanism to keeping myself sane in a world where 3 children and coping with Special Needs and a new environment didn’t feel very sane. My love of photography helped me cope with the uncertainties of parenting Ruby as well as helping me to accept my flaws in life.
I suffered a severe case of perfectionism trying to compensate for what I may have felt that I lost by giving birth to Ruby. Finding myself through the lens of the camera helped to bring me back to reality and to accept and embrace the uncertainties of life. I also dabbled in healing modalities and alternative therapies as a quest to find a way to help myself and my family. This is when I fell in love with Aura-Soma and it’s magical colors. Finding and learning about this amazing system was the lift I needed to pursue taking my hobbies to a professional level. Using Aura-Soma helped me to believe in myself that I could not only start a successful photography business, but also write my first book and help others to find their passion in life through the use of colour. Very powerful stuff!
How do you balance work and motherhood?
I’m not sure I can say I do that with ease! I try my best, like we all do, but there are times that I feel like I am teetering on the edge of insanity so not sure you can call that balance! I guess for me the most important thing is that I have an acute awareness of when things are out of whack. Mindfulness is something that has allowed me to be able to gauge the level of equilibrium in my life. If it feels like chaos, then it must be chaos, and sometimes that’s actually ok! I think we have unrealistic ideals of how we should or shouldn’t feel.If we all allowed ourselves a little breathing space to be real and to allow those negative feelings to come out in a conscious way then the world would be a better place.
I don’t ever pretend to be the perfect mother. I still yell at my kids, despite meditating, doing yoga 3 times a week, and reading parenting books. I am human and have consciously made a decision a few years ago to allow myself to openly feel what I’m feeling without consequence. If I need to cry in front of others I cry, if I am angry, I will say so out loud. I hope that this is the best balance I can give my children by being real in front of them to empower them to do the same. Inevitably parenting a child with Special Needs has always taught me that nothing is ever certain in life, and being adaptable and having a sense of humour is definitely a pre requisite for survival!
I also put a limit of how much work I will take on at any given time. My support network of friends here is also vital. Being able to be real with them gives me the extra energy I need to cope from day to day. Being openly vulnerable and asking for help is liberating. I am also careful how much work I take on at any given time. I have gotten better at learning to say no when it feels like it’s all too much and it feels very empowering!
A great tip I could offer to other Moms out there is to ask yourself one question when faced with deciding whether you want to do something or not. Ask yourself, “Does it feel heavy? Or does it feel light?” Physically you will notice it straight away and get your answer. Why do things that make you feel heavy and feel cumbersome? It is ultimately your choice whether you want to say yes or no….
How do you save time? What are your organisational tips and tricks?
Funny answer for this one… I actually don’t believe in saving time. I feel that we use time or lack of it to make ourselves look busy or to feel self important. If you want to do something, in reality you have all the time in the world to do it. Get rid of what is not serving your purpose in life, stop doing things that you don’t really want to do (yes it is possible!), and then go after what you really want.
People often complain about time and lack of it. What is my experience with this? For years I ran around like a headless chicken simply because I was afraid that if I had time on my hands that people would think I was lazy or unimportant. Once I learned that this idea was a total illusion my entire world changed. I have all the time in the world to do what I want to do, despite having 3 kids, a happy social circle of friends, and running a business. It all comes down to choice and priorities and letting your ego slide…
Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Dubai?
Do what turns you on and ignites a passion within. Don’t settle out of fear of not finding a career or job that you love. Know that you have many talents and that you are more than enough! It is embedded deep in each of our DNA to nurture our gifts and carve out our true purpose in life. Don’t sell yourself short. Find what you love and don’t get into something for money. Do it for LOVE and great things will happen, but be prepared to be vulnerable by putting yourself out there and to work hard. The possibilities are endless, but you have to START somewhere with something….do it now!
Favourite activity with your kids in Dubai?
Having a BBQ out in the desert, an early morning on the beach followed by our local cheesy bread shop. Just the typical simple things that involve nature as my kids would happily sit on an ipad if they could all day!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Dubai?
Chalet (well before it burned down) or Al Mulla in Satwa. We also love Maria Bonita’s Mexican in Umm Suqeim. We also love ordering schwarma’s and having them delivered to the beach.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot?
Living in New Zealand was an incredible experience for our family but it meant we didn’t’ travel outside the country a lot due to finances at the time. We spent all our holidays travelling around NZ and saw some of the most beautiful and breathtaking scenery in the world. The kids always love Thailand, and to be honest, Oman is becoming a favorite for shorter trips as it is much more non commercial than Dubai.
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
I have to be honest. This is something we are working on, and have continually been working on for a few years now. We have been through some pretty unstable times including a few job losses in a short amount of time, depression, and trying to navigate not only parenting our children, but particularly dealing with the additional stresses that come with a child like Ruby.
Ruby is an absolute gem, and an incredible gift to helping us understand our role in life in such a special way, but in reality times can be tough when we live in a villa that is under lockdown and need to be on our toes 24/7. Ruby has no sense of danger so it is nothing for her to go and grab a knife out of the butcher block and make out like she’s Master Chef! She is also a runner and has no inhibitions (part of the beauty of who she is too) about going where she feels like going. This can take it’s toll on both of us and particularly now that my husband travels 70% of the time I feel that I cannot really answer this question adequately.
We are currently going to marriage counseling which I think is a really healthy thing and should be done on a regular basis. I love and respect my husband for all that he does and know there is a mutual respect there. Romance can be interpreted in many ways so I guess for me right now I would say that the trust and respect I have with my partner are the glue of our relationship right now. Communication is also key and this is something that we are working on despite being apart so much.
Favourite date-night restaurants?
Date night? What is that? I’d have to get on the plane in order to make that happen as my husband is always flying to the next destination!! It seems like most of my dates at the moment are with girlfriends so La Petite Maison is always a favorite as you need to go there in a group to really enjoy it! If James and I do go out, we both really love Japanese so Nobu and Zuma have been good choices in the past.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
My mother never really gave me advice in the way of telling me, but I picked up a lot of her tips by being the eldest of our family and observing. The tip that has helped me most is making sure my kids get more than enough sleep. Their bodies are growing and life today is more demanding and grueling than ever before. Kids need sleep, and lots of it. Ruby and Lily still go to bed now at the same time they did as little babies. It helps to strengthen their immune systems and allows their bodies to be full of energy during the day. It also gives me the energy I need in the evening to be able to cope with whatever workload I am dealing with as this is usually the time I spend editing my photographs.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Let it go. All of it. From your worries about post baby weight, to what you’re going to cook for dinner. Your little baby is tiny for a very short amount of time. Enjoy the new baby smell, allow it to sleep on your chest, take a moment to photograph the tiny wrinkles in your baby’s feet. Your to do list isn’t going to get any smaller but your baby certainly isn’t going to stop getting bigger. Take photographs, and lots of them!! Get them printed and put them in books or little boxes with your kids names on them. You can’t bring back a moment once it’s passed. Make sure you capture life.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Being sympathetic when my children are sick. My mom used to say to only let her know if we were bleeding, otherwise carry on! I think that was the 70’s mentality, and I’ve pretty much carried that attitude forward which is not always the best when kids are sick. Working in a hospital also makes you a bit immune to illness I think. I really try my best to nurture them when they are ill, but unfortunately this is not my best quality!
My most humbling mama moment was…
When my daughter Olivia wrote a note to her new baby sister Ruby when she was born with Down Syndrome. She was 5 and it was a little hand written note that said “Wow Ruby. Great uplifting, it is from Olivia”. I can’t even begin to tell you how that brought me to my knees. Here I was trying to find my way through a dark tunnel and this beautiful beam of light hit me. Uplifting, alright… I still don’t even know how at 5 she even knew this word. I still believe it came to lift me up when I most needed it…
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
Allowing my children to experience life to the fullest regardless of their abilities. I want my kids to have a go at anything and everything. I refuse to wrap them in cotton wool and think that you learn best through hands on experience. Safety is always important, but I feel that kids need to explore more than they get to in today’s world.
We recently went to Oman on a dhow trip and as my husband wasn’t with us I realised the only way I would be allowed to swim (the water was the most amazing turquoise colour, there was NO way I wasn’t going to get in!) is if Ruby went in the sea with me. Everyone was in but she refused to go as she was frightened of jumping off the dhow. She had a life jacket on and it took me ten minutes to do it, but eventually we jumped off (it was more like throwing her off and me jumping in after!) and after some time she really enjoyed it.
If I had left her on the boat she would have thrown everyone’s gear in the sea as well as possibly fallen off by trying to hang over the side and watch everyone, so in the end I made a decision that she was going to try it despite her refusing to do it. You have to use your intuition and allow your fears or worries about what others think disappear.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
I am a deep sleeper , and Ruby sometimes wakes at 430 or 5 am and starts singing and banging on her door. She is locked in her bedroom as it is safer for her to be in there than it is to have her roaming at night or go missing in the streets of Dubai at 3am!! I cherish the sleep I do get (as I tend to go to bed late) so I can’t say I stay up worrying. If I do wake up in the night it’s because one of the kids has woken up and the only thing I’m thinking is “When are you going to go back to sleep?” (perhaps a few profanities attached there if I’m honest, there is a book from New Zealand that sums it up quite well called “Go the #$#& to sleep!!!”)
Even when my children have families of their own, I’ll still…
Be capturing them with my camera and cooking nourishing food!! I can’t see myself ever stopping doing what I love! I can also see myself whipping up healing potions as it’s something I secretly love doing, perhaps a little reminder of my lab rat days…my grandchildren will call me Nana the Witch Doctor!
My favourite moment of the day is…
After my kids have had a bath they love a bit of apple cut up on a plate. We sometimes just sit and watch tv while they eat it, or we read a story or sit and talk. Their hair is all wet, they smell lovely, and the only sound you can hear for a few minutes is the sound of crunching apple. I must admit I don’t sit with them every night as I’m often out doing shoots or editing my work, but when I do I feel the most “together” and calm, and they absolutely love this very simple ritual. Apple on a plate….who knew?
I always feel saner after…
Time with my friends, and particularly a good girl’s holiday away! It’s the only time I feel I am not on “red alert” with Ruby and can completely relax and let go. Pure bliss! I also love to rip it up on the dancefloor, there is nothing so good for the soul as a good boogie!
I wish I had more time for…
“There is always time for everything.”
Bedtime is always smoother when…
I give my undivided time and attention to each child individually. A five minute ridiculous story (last night was a farting goose tale), a bit of acro yoga (my girls love playing this game), or doing cartwheels on the grass seems to be what the girls need to know that I can play and be silly just like them. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when we make time for silly games like these things are much smoother!
These gorgeous photos of Steph, Olivia, Ruby and Lily were taken by Natalie Robinson of Natalie Robinson Photography. (Thanks so much Natalie! x)