• Kate Bowery, who does marketing for BabySouk and comes from Sydney, is mum to 16-month-old triplets Hannah, Thomas and Zach. They live in Jebel Ali and she and her husband have been in Dubai for four years.
• Fellow Sydney girl Jodie Hampshire has three children whom she adopted from Sierra Leone: Solomon, three, Augusta, six, and 13-year-old Ella. She owns kids’ clothing brand Aunty Ollie and has been in Dubai for two-and-a-half years, currently residing in Jumeirah.
• Full-time mum Suzy Walker has been in Dubai for two years and lives on the Palm Jumeirah. Originally from London, she has three kids: Harry, 11, Louis, eight, and Brontë, six, who was present at the photo shoot and charmed everyone with her good behaviour and cheeky jokes.
• Deborah Williams, a postnatal midwife working at Cooper Health Clinic, lives in Al Safa and has been in Dubai for three years. She is mum to two-year-old Matthew and Amy, six, and we have Deborah to thank for thinking of this month’s debate topic!
What got us talking…
The differences between men and women are immense, baffling, and can sometimes seem insurmountable. The majority of our generation has at least heard of, if not read, the modern woman’s dating survival guide Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and, though we hate to admit it, it makes a lot of sense. But just how young are we when these fundamental differences begin to manifest themselves? Are biology and psychology to blame, or is it all down to a pinch of societal expectation, a sprinkle of culture and religion and some enthusiastic stirring by the media? We gathered four mums, each with mixed broods, together at DIFC’s Capital Club to chew the cud (and some rather tasty pastries).
How much difference do you notice between your boys and girls?
Deborah: Matthew is active from the moment he wakes until he goes to bed and he’ll find danger anywhere. Amy would quite happily sit with her dollies. Before I had him I thought talk of gender differences was a load of rubbish, but it turns out it’s true.
Kate: Although my triplets all have totally different personalities, the boys are into play-fighting and they were the first to walk, whereas Hannah’s very much the viewer. She’ll watch them and laugh, but she definitely isn’t proactive.
Jodie: We call Solomon Mr Titanium Head – he’s only three and he has the hardest head I’ve ever felt in my life! Girls are much more emotionally complex, I think.
Deborah: Amy’s language and ability to express herself developed a lot quicker.
Kate: I agree. Hannah spoke first and she’s more independent – she insists on feeding herself, and the boys are happy to have help. Also, they were premature and when they were in neonatal care, the nurses told me Hannah would be out quicker because she was a girl – and they were right.
Deborah: Yes, there’s medical literature to back that up.
Jodie: We obviously are the stronger sex after all!
Do they get given gender-specific toys?
Kate: I buy the same things for all my children but other people will buy them more gender-specific toys and now that they’re getting older, the boys naturally gravitate towards the cars.
Jodie: My girls dress their little brother up as a princess, but he just says, ‘I’m a kung fu princess’ – he does his ‘boy thing’ while dressed as Princess Fiona!
Deborah: There’s only so much you can put down to what we coach them to do. Amy’s got a kitchen kit but Matthew will use the wooden ladle to shoot people!
Suzy: Brontë isn’t interested in fighting games, but she had a friend over yesterday and the bickering – I’ve never seen anything like it! The boys just don’t do that.
Deborah: There’s a lot more negotiation and reasoning involved with girls.
Do media influences have anything to do with gender differences?
Suzy: The media has a big effect once they start to watch TV and go to school, but until they’re about two you can shelter them from everything and they still develop differently.
Kate: If my helper was dressing the kids up, she’d put Hannah in a princess costume, but probably wouldn’t dress one of the boys up as a princess. I wonder if that’s because, through her perceptions of the media, you don’t get boys dressed up as princesses?
Suzy: Louis’s nine-year-old cousin came over and kept dressing up as a girl. Louis just couldn’t accept it at all. At first he was in hysterics but then he became really concerned and kept saying to me, ‘Why is he wearing a skirt?’ I said the whole point of dressing up was that you could be someone else, but he just couldn’t see that it could be normal and OK. I don’t know if that mindset has come from school; it hasn’t come from home.
What are they talking about at school aged eight that’s making him so judgmental already?
Kate: But now I think about it, mothers do impose stereotypes: Hannah has hairclips, but the boys are really jealous and want to wear them as well!
Jodie: I guess we play a part in that because you wouldn’t let them go to school wearing hairclips – it’s the difference between allowing them to express themselves and protecting them from being completely ridiculed. Solomon likes nail polish and the girls will say, ‘Nail polish is for girls,’ and he asks me why – but I don’t know! Why is it for girls?
Deborah: My husband’s already told Amy off for putting makeup on Matthew.
Jodie: If I came home and Solomon was wearing my high heels or whatever, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised because he has two older sisters. If he wanted to wear them to school I’d say it wasn’t a good idea, but in general I’m so relaxed about that kind of stuff. It might bother my husband, though.
Suzy: I agree, I think Duncan would be a bit like, ‘Put your trainers back on and get on the rugby field!’ I couldn’t care less – it’s more about wanting to protect them from the outside world.
Do you bring girls and boys up differently in any way – for example, would you try and ‘toughen up’ your boys?
Suzy: Duncan does. Louis is an exceptional sportsman but if he falls down during a game he tends to want to give up. Duncan’s just like, ‘Get up!’ Whereas, as a mother, I wouldn’t do that – and I know Duncan wouldn’t either if it was Brontë.
Kate: I agree; Grant definitely favours Hannah that way. But we’re all sitting here saying it’s our husbands and now I’m now wondering if I do it too!
Jodie: Solomon whinges a lot and I tell him to stop it, but if he was a girl would I do the same? Of course, for the sake of my ears!
Deborah: There’s a whole industry around how to raise girls and boys but you just do what you think is best as a parent.
Jodie: It’s not so much about boys and girls as what the individual child is like. How kids play and deal with the world might be determined by gender, but what they need in order to be strong and feel loved will vary by child.
Suzy: I remember when my second boy was born I thought: OK, at least I know what I’m doing with boys. But then he was nothing like the first one!
Do you find boys more difficult to deal with because you’re a woman?
Suzy: Harry’s a pretty good child, but now he’s getting to that pre-adolescent stage, there are things I genuinely don’t understand – his lack of emotion, for one. He’s getting a bit cool, and the male/female thing is obviously going to be a problem. Even if Brontë’s awful I can relate back to when I was a teenager and at least try and understand where she’s coming from.
Jodie: I explained how the body works and stuff to my 13-year-old daughter, but I can’t imagine doing the same with a boy.
Are you more likely to treat boys and girls differently once they’re teenagers?
Kate: Probably – which is a terrible thing to say, but in some ways inevitable.
Deborah: I don’t know if I will. In terms of educating them about biology, I won’t have an issue talking to my boy because I’ve always done it as a job.
Kate: When you’re doing it as a job you talk about it in a very factual way, but when it’s your own kids you could get a bit tongue-tied.
Jodie: I think I’ll set the same rules for what they can do, but naturally you worry more about girls because the consequences of things going wrong are different.
Deborah: I’d like to think I’d treat Amy and Matthew the same, but you don’t know until you get there. Again it’s down to intuition and what the child’s like.
Does being in Dubai make any difference to the way boys and girls are treated?
Suzy: There are so many women here who are obsessed with getting their hair and nails done, and when Brontë’s friends come round they’ll talk about their trips to the nail bar. I know it’s not their fault but the princessy way that some girls their age behave makes my stomach curdle – but I see it as another challenge to eradicate that. I haven’t really noticed any difference with the boys, though.
Kate: When we’re out and about we get stopped a lot because I’ve got triplets. The comments pretty much go, ‘Hannah you’re a pretty girl; you’re so blessed to have two brothers as they’ll protect you.’ It’s an automatic pigeonhole.
Suzy: I found the same and I always felt really upset for the boys because they didn’t get a look-in, not even a hello. How does that make them feel?
Kate: It’s interesting, though – when I met Brontë today I said, ‘You’re wearing a beautiful dress.’ If a boy came in at the same age would I have said, ‘That’s a lovely T-shirt’?
Deborah: In terms of when they grow up, there are definitely different expectations because people often have more ‘traditional’ roles in Dubai: a lot of mums don’t go out to work, they look after the children, which would be less common in England. I’d like Amy to have a career and I sometimes wonder if she thinks girls don’t do that.
Suzy: I stay at home and look after the children. I mentioned my old job to Harry the other day and he said, ‘What – did you have a job?!’ I thought: They think I’m completely useless! OK I’m a mum but that’s not a job to them, he probably thinks I just swan around playing tennis all day.
Deborah: Little girls play on their femaleness a bit more, too – Amy can really turn on the tears.
Jodie: Yeah, my five-year-old can put it on so easily – but sometimes that’s quite useful. We were on a plane recently and my family hadn’t been seated together. I said to her, ‘If you want to cry, it’s OK’ – and she started crying, all the hostesses came running over and the seats were sorted out!
Suzy: Brontë practises her ‘sad face’ in the mirror, too. Maybe she’s hoping some gallant young gentleman will sweep her off her feet one day!