Originally from the UK, Sarah Silvey was a nanny for 13 years and now juggles part-time studying with being a stay-at-home mum to her two boys Felix, seven, and Oscar, five. Sarah has had the same live-in maid since she arrived in 2008.
Karen Stock has been a stay-at-home mum to April, seven, and Beatrice, four, since moving to Dubai from the UK three years ago. She has an occasional babysitter but is considering childcare options as she’d like to return to work.
Samm Schnoor has two children here, Amber, seven, and Sonny, three. She runs her own catering business and has had two live-in nannies in Dubai since moving from South Africa six years ago.
Former nanny Jodi Boys has been a stay-at-home mum since moving to Dubai nearly three years ago from Australia. She has three children, Mia, nine, Chloe, seven, and William, two, and has a part-time maid.
What got us talking…
Living in Dubai with children and without family support can be tough on mums, which is why childcare – be it a live-in nanny, part-time nursery, or occasional hired help – is often a necessity. But with many expats unused to hired help, it’s no surprise they may find the childcare offerings a confusing and challenging prospect. Is nursery better than a nanny? How do you find good nannies? Are there issues with letting someone else bring up your child? We asked four mums with a variety of experiences and expectations, all about the childcare issue over lattes and pastries at More Café in Garhoud.
Is hired help a necessity here?
Jodi: I was working two jobs back home and, with my parents’ help, juggling to bring up the girls. When I first arrived, I refused any help, but soon realised that it made sense. I have a part-time maid who helps with housekeeping and occasional childcare.
Samm: I work, so it’s necessary, but I’m also used to help. I was brought up by a nanny in South Africa. It makes your life less complicated, having someone who can watch one child while you take the other to school.
Karen: I’ve been here three years without help, except an occasional babysitter. I wouldn’t have anyone at home, so why here?
What are the childcare options in Dubai and are they adequate?
Sarah: They call them nannies here but they’re really maids who can become a ‘mother’s help’. Though I don’t work, mine lives in and helps me with housework and occasional childcare. But I wouldn’t use her to do my ‘job’. I was a fully qualified nanny in the UK for 13 years – even as a childminder there, you need qualifications. The best you can expect here is nursing qualifications, which is why I wouldn’t entrust my children full-time to most maids here. I’ve heard of a company that offers basic nanny school for maids – I think that’s a really good idea for mums who work full-time.
Jodi: When you’re putting your trust in someone else to keep an eye on your child, that’s different. They don’t have the same motivation you have. If I had a young child and was working, I’d put them in a nursery. At least you know that they’re in a controlled environment with boundaries.
Karen: Yes, when I worked, my children were in nursery. They’re at school now and I’d like to return to work, but it’s a difficult decision because I’d have to find someone to look after them. I’d worry if they were safe or if they’d been dumped in front of the TV.
Sarah: I would either opt for a qualified nanny – so would probably hire from overseas – or send them to nursery, though you have to be careful with nurseries too. I know someone who works in admin at a nursery school here and she found herself being brought into classrooms to teach if a teacher was off sick, even though she’s not qualified to do so. I would be cross if that was my child. It is possible to work full-time and be a mum here, but you do need support and the problem is, outside of full-time nursery, where do you find that qualified and experienced support?
How do you find the right hired help and what criteria do you look for?
Sarah: Recommendations from reputable families are best. The family’s maid from across the road (they had employed her for 10 years) had a daughter-in-law who was looking for work, and we hired her. I asked for three references though, and spoke to all of them.
Samm: Common sense and initiative are important for me and can be surprisingly difficult to find. I looked for my nanny on Dubizzle – I felt that someone who had the initiative to create and upload an ad would have some common sense. You still have to teach them your way, but basics like common sense are a good start.
Jodi: Recommendation is key. I also deliberately chose a qualified nursery teacher. I’m happier knowing that when I leave the girls with her, she can, and does, do interactive things with them. I think a lot of the decision comes down to gut feeling – as a mother, you tend to get an instinct about someone.
Karen: I only have a babysitter, but even then I was particular. She’s a fully-qualified former teacher, which I feel comfortable with.
What are the main difficulties you’ve faced with your nannies/maids here?
Sarah: Differences in discipline issues mainly. I have a ‘naughty corner’ at home, but the nanny rarely uses it despite my urging. Here, they tend to bribe children – an absolute no-no for me. My maid threatened my son Oscar with fictional characters as a disciplinary measure. I was furious. He was dreaming about it for ages. We have since discussed this and things are better now. I guess different cultures have different discipline approaches and it’s your job as a mother to educate the nanny on your personal values and rules.
Samm: They really have a very different approach to discipline and you have to give guidance. My last nanny used to intimidate my children and would use empty but scary threats. She also used to let the kids run riot at mealtimes, running after them with a plate of food to try and feed them. It was instilling bad habits and I had to stop it. I remember chasing Sonny around with a banana one afternoon and thinking, ‘what am I doing?’
Jodi: It partly comes down to cultural differences – what may seem strange to us can be normal to other families. I’ve been lucky. My nanny is really switched on and I only have to tell her something once.
You often see maids being treated disrespectfully by children here. How do you ensure respect?
Karen: You do see kids being rude to their nannies. I’d be outraged if my girls behaved in that way with anybody, let alone someone looking after them.
Jodi: There are also occasions when your own children, however well behaved generally, can be rude or hurtful to the nanny. I’ve found that having open and constant communication with my nanny about this works really well. I’ve encouraged her to tell me if and when this happens, and now she’ll actually let me know if one of them was rude to her or upset her. I’ll then talk to the kids about it.
Samm: ‘You’re not the boss of me’ is the attitude you often see kids giving maids here. If my children are rude or disrespectful to the nanny, then I pull them up on it and will make them apologise to her. It’s important to have this discussion when both nanny and child are present. I have also made it clear to my kids that when I’m not around, the nanny is boss and what she says goes. Children push the boundaries, especially around someone soft, so there needs to be ground rules that everyone is clear about.
What rules have you needed to set for the nanny and how have you achieved this?
Sarah: One of my big rules is that she mustn’t clean or chat on her phone while she’s looking after the boys. I’d ask the boys afterwards if she played with them, and invariably, they’d say ‘no’ or ‘she was on the phone’ and it annoyed me. Now I won’t let her have the mobile in the house as it’s a terrible distraction when she’s looking after them.
Samm: I set my last nanny rules, but they were often ignored and I’d come home and find her ironing while the kids were watching TV. I realised that simply saying it wasn’t good enough, so with my second nanny, I’ve written it all down – a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in black and white. She’s responded really well, and with encouragement is also engaging more with the kids. I often walk in and find her playing Lego with Sonny.
Sarah: If you clearly outline what is expected right from the start, it’s so much easier. We both refer to a list of ground rules and I know that she knows, so she can’t turn around and say, ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘you didn’t tell me’.
Jodi: Culturally, it’s often very different for them and for you, so you have to teach them your way of doing things. You can’t just expect them to know – it’s a process of education on both parts.
How do you balance treating them as an employee but also as part of the family?
Sarah: When I was a nanny, it was really important for me to be a part of the family, and I’d usually be good friends with the mother. My husband warned me that when we hired a maid in Dubai, I’d need to act more like a boss. My immediate reaction was ‘no’, but I’ve learnt that it’s different here, and that you do need to treat them as a member of staff and not cross that line.
Samm: Yes, you have to be quite harsh or they can take advantage of your generosity or softness. It sounds awful, but I’ve learnt from experience. It used to be that I’d be buying her this or that every time I went shopping and always lending money, but I had to stop.
Jodi: In the West, because we’re not used to being brought up by nannies ourselves, we find it difficult to treat them like ‘employees’. I have a friend who grew up with hired help – it’s a way of life for her and she has a certain way of speaking to them, even calling them her ‘staff’. I think there’s a fine line between having them as part of the family and being firm with them as employees. You can easily get sucked into their problems if you’re too soft.
Karen: This would be a big issue for me if I was hiring. I’m quite a soft touch and I’m sure they’d know exactly how to play me. I’d be the one cleaning the house before they came home and offering to make them cups of tea. Also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable having someone else in my house.
Samm: We all start out like that, but you toughen up quite quickly and realise you have to keep that line between employee and friend.
Sarah: I do feel a bit like a mum to her sometimes… We are quite close, and I do have responsibility for her. I provide her visa and if she needs medical attention, we pay for it. But it works both ways. The fact that she’s our nanny provides me with peace of mind. If there was an emergency at 4am and my husband was away, it’s good to know she’s there, and the good thing about live-in is the convenience and accessibility. If I need her to watch the kids at any time, I can call her.
Can it be difficult seeing your kids close to someone else?
Sarah: Felix likes our nanny and is polite to her, but can take her or leave her. But she’s a really big part of Oscar’s life and he’s very attached to her. He’d be devastated if she left.
Samm: Our last nanny was with us for three years and was a huge part of my son’s life. Then one day, while we were away, she just upped and returned to Sri Lanka without telling us. What bothered me most was that she didn’t say goodbye to the kids, and this was especially hurtful for Sonny because he was so close to her.
Jodi: I think it’s great that the children have another person in their life. The only worry I have is the kids playing you, as the parent, off against the maid.
Sarah: That bothers me too. Sometimes, if I’m cross with Oscar and tell him off, he’ll go and find comfort in the nanny. And I’m absolutely fine with that, as long as she doesn’t undermine what I’ve said. I don’t ever feel I’ll be replaced as their mother – my relationship with my boys is very strong.
Karen: I just wouldn’t like having someone so close to my kids. I’d feel that it should be me that’s around them, not someone else.