• Originally from Holland, Patrick De Groot has been in the Middle East since 1995 and in Dubai since 2002. He lives with his wife and daughters, Chloe (six) and Jade (four) in The Meadows and is founder/owner of Dutchkid FZCO
• Dad to Cara, aged two, Mike White is a freelance watersports instructor who arrived in Dubai in 2003. He lives with his family in Rashidiya and is originally from Cornwall in the UK
• An executive coach and long-term expat, Nic Woodthorpe-Wright has been in Dubai for 18 years, has three sons aged 16, 12 and two and a baby daughter due in August. He and his family live in Umm Suqeim
• Ian Henderson has lived in Dubai for three years and is Managing Director of Rigships FZCO. Originally from Scotland, Ian lives with his wife and daughter, Rose (three), in Umm Suqeim
What got us talking…
While nobody debates the fact that parenthood is often tough, being a dad in Dubai undoubtedly has its pros and cons. Are you the kind of laid-back father who lets it all wash over you – or are you stressed out with work and struggling to fit parenting into the daily grind? Do you let the maid take on more than her fair share when it comes to taking care of the rugrats? Or, do you step in and make sure the little monsters know who’s boss? We discussed the pitfalls and peaks of fatherhood over a cracking lads’ lunch at the Irish Village.
Is fatherhood what you expected it to be? Or is it harder?
Ian: I think it’s better and worse. It’s more extreme. When your kid is sick, you don’t imagine it will be as bad as it is. But when they’re good and they behave themselves, it’s a great reward. Like most things in life, it’s a challenge – but it’s so worthwhile.
Mike: I think it’s what I expected it to be. But I became a father later in life – I wasn’t some 20-something who didn’t know what I was getting into. It wasn’t a huge shock to the system, but I think that’s because we were older. If anyone ever says to us now that they’re thinking of having kids but aren’t quite sure, we tell them to go for it. It is the best thing we’ve ever done. It adds so much to your life.
Patrick: That’s so true. I saw a chick flick movie the other day and it had a scene where there were these two guys sitting in a park. One guy had three children and the other didn’t have any kids, and the guy who was childless asked the father what it was like having kids. And he replied, ‘The best way to describe it is, it’s awful, awful, awful, awful – and then something magical happens. And then it’s awful, awful, awful….’ (Everyone laughs).
Patrick: But I’ve got two wonderful kids and I absolutely love being a parent – I’ve even made it my business. It’s life-changing – totally. All the long sleepless nights and the burping and the changing – they are a passing trial and once it’s over you just forget about it. It’s gone and you remember the fun bits.
Nic: I became a father in a slightly different way. When I met my wife her children were four and seven. And then we had the little one and we’ve another on the way. So we’ve currently got teenage angst and terrible twos all under the same roof. And guys, believe me, the terrible twos are nothing compared to teenagers! In terms of new parenthood being harder than I expected? Well, you’re warned about the sleeplessness, but you don’t expect it to affect you quite as much as it does. It is utterly exhausting. But somehow you get through it. I don’t think anyone ever says, ‘Oh, I wish I’d never done this.’
What’s harder? Staying at home with the kids or going to work?
Patrick: Until a month ago, my wife stayed at home and looked after the kids and I was at the office. But, she’s gone back to work full time so now I’m the one at home doing the childcare. I never underestimated how hard a job it was for her, but actually living it is something else. There’s a lot more to it than just picking them up from school and giving them something to eat. There’s the constant demand for attention – that draws on you in a big way. Going out to work is definitely easier.
Mike: I’m lucky because I’m very flexible in my work and I haven’t had a set routine for quite a few years. I take Cara to nursery, pick her up in the afternoons and then we’ll do stuff together. If I’m working, my wife collects her. But she is a very easy child. As long as we feed her etc, it all seems to work out.
Ian: I worked from home for a bit and now I’ve gone back to the office after starting up my business, and I’d say it’s easier to stay at home with the kids if that’s your only job. If there are issues of work looming over you and you’re trying to make conference calls and send emails in between changing nappies and shovelling food in, that’s pretty stressful. If you have a spouse who supports you financially, then it’s a great thing to stay at home with the kids. If you’re trying to juggle both, then going to work is easier.
Nic: Yep – I work from home so there is a lot of flexibility, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes I’m torn between needing to work, and needing to do things with the children. Pressure from both sides can be difficult. But it’s also a blessing – because you don’t miss out on anything.
What keeps you sane when you’re left in charge of the kids?
Nic: TV is a lifesaver. You can’t rely on it, but there are moments at home when you’re both busy and something needs to occupy the children. We have a DVD in the car and when we put it on, we don’t even feel as though the kids are with us, which is great! But we are trying to wean the little one off it because if he’s only watching the DVD, he’s not taking note of his surroundings or interacting with us. There is a balance you have to strike.
Ian: I’m not sure if the TV keeps me sane or my daughter sane, but it does perform a useful function if I’m too busy to amuse her. I know it’s a bit lazy – my wife goes nuts if she thinks I’ve just plonked Rose in front of the telly – but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and as long as everyone’s happy, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s good for bonding time too. Rose loves watching football – honest! And I balance it with puzzles and trips to the park and the pool.
Mike: If the weather’s good, most of the time we’ll be outside. If I’m pottering about in the garden I’ll encourage her to get involved with what I’m doing and she’s very happy to do that. She loves to rake the grass with me.
Patrick: When my wife went to work, the best advice she gave me was to stick to their routine. That really calms them down. Obviously, they like to watch TV, although they’ve recently made some unexpected choices in their viewing. At the moment they’re really into cookery programmes and I’ve started taking them to the supermarket to get ingredients and we’ve been cooking in the afternoons. They really enjoy it – and it’s the best thing ever when something they’ve made comes out of the oven covered in chocolate powder. I love the interaction I have with them, rather than just watching them vegetate in front of the screen.
Have you ever had any major ‘daddy disasters’ when looking after the kids?
Patrick: I had a bit of a Fred Flintstone experience the other day when I had to send my oldest daughter to time out. This means, until it gets too hot, that they end up standing outside the kitchen door for a couple of minutes to think about their behaviour. However, I took her out, and was about to squat down to explain to her what she had to think about, when she stepped around me, went back inside and locked the door, leaving me stuck outside… Wil-maaaaa!
Nic: That’s hilarious! How did you manage to get back in?
Patrick: I’m still camping in the garden.
Ian: (Laughs) Well, I got caught breaking the rules by the boss. After some serious discussion, my wife and I decided not to let Rose have a dummy as a baby. We had one or two in the house, but generally we were against it. Then, about two months after Rose was born, I was looking after her when Man U were playing Chelsea on TV. She started bawling during the second half, so I popped one in to pacify her, only for my wife to arrive back in the 88th minute and launch into a huge tirade about dummies and consistent, united parenting, which resulted in me missing a crucial winning goal in the 92nd minute. I was tempted to take solace in the dummy myself.
Do you think expat life allows you to spend more or less time with your kids?
Mike: Certainly, I’m able to spend more time with my daughter. I have friends in the UK who get up at 5am or 6am and don’t get back from work until 7pm at night, so their time with the children is limited to weekends only. Even if I had a full-time job, I think I’d have more time because you travel smaller distances and the way the school day is structured gives you more freedom.
Nic: If you work for a corporation, it’s harder to have flexibility. But back home, the weather’s not on your side, while here it is – and everything is so close by that getting out and doing things with your kids is much easier.
Do housemaids make you lazier parents?
Nic: I think you also have to realise that your marriage is important and that your relationship does benefit from being able to have time away from the kids. There is a balance to strike. Having said that, the last thing you should do is leave the baby with the maid all the time. Then you end up with a horrible situation. I know of families where the child would rather be with the maid than with their own mother. And that’s just awful.
Ian: I think Rose thinks I’m the hired help and that our maid and my wife run the household. (Everyone laughs.) I’m only joking – I think we’re really lucky to be able to live in a country where we can have this kind of help, because we don’t have grannies and granddads or extended family around to help out. I think it can be a very positive thing for families. As Nic said, it helps provide balance. For us it was a no-brainer.
Patrick: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with handing the kids over to the maid to take them to the park for a couple of hours so you can get on with stuff. On the other hand, there’s something amiss about parents who let maids constantly take care of the children while they’re relaxing in the house.
Mike: We didn’t have room for a maid so we put Cara into nursery from quite a young age. We have a cleaner who comes in twice a week who does the laundry and the housework and if we want to go out, we have a regular babysitter who we trust. So far it’s working out really well.
How about getting the kids to help out? Are they spoiled by having maids?
Ian: Rose is only three – so we don’t expect hard labour or anything… although I have thought about that. But seriously, Rose will help pick up her toys after a game if we encourage her. You just have to use a bit of reverse psychology to get her started.
Nic: I’m disciplined about it. The older two have to keep their rooms clean; the maid isn’t allowed in their bedrooms. If the boys don’t do their chores, they don’t get pocket money.
Mike: You’ve got to have the right attitude.
Nic: Exactly. You’ve got to walk the walk when you set the rules so they know what’s what… Unless of course, the football’s on.