What got us talking…
As well as a massive community of stay-at-home mums, Dubai plays host to a growing number of working mothers – but with awkward school hours and a noticeable lack of part-time employment opportunities, being part of the paid workforce as well as looking after your kids isn’t as easy as it should be. We rounded up four mothers in a quiet corner of Bur Dubai’s XVA Gallery, and quizzed them on how they maintain the balance – while staying sane…
So what do you all do in terms of working, and why?
Jackie: I was an estate agent for 15 years until we relocated to Dubai. For the last two years I haven’t been working, but now Jessica’s in school I’m going to be a lettings consultant. The hours will be pretty flexible – I can do my appointments in the morning when Jessica’s at school, pick her up, work from home and go out again in the evenings.
Sue: I’m a chartered quantity surveyor. When we moved to Dubai, I took nine months off to get sorted. I couldn’t stand not working, I just can’t do it, so now I work full time.
Kerstin: I worked full time before I had children, and then when we had our first child I stopped. About six months ago, a part-time opportunity came up within my husband’s company and it happened to coincide with the time when I was looking to do something extra. My daughter was 18 months old and it was the perfect balance for me – I could work in the mornings and have totally flexible hours, so if there’s a school concert or one of them is sick, I can be at home.
Ulrike: I went back to work full-time when Christina was three months old. It was out of necessity because we needed the money, but it was also out of necessity for my sanity! But now I work from home as a freelance writer.
How do you handle childcare – do you have maids?
Sue: Yes, I have a maid who starts as I leave, and she leaves when I get home, but she won’t drive, so we have to pay extra for school buses for a two-minute journey. We got our maid from a nursery, so she’s got the childcare training – that was more important to us than whether she could iron or cook.
Jackie: I don’t have a maid because you can’t have a maid when you’re not working: you don’t need someone hanging around your house all the time, doing your cleaning for you, you’d go mad! Once I get back into work, it’s a babysitter I’ll need more than a maid, just someone to pick up my daughter and take her home, because as far as I know, maids don’t drive.
Ulrike: If I were to hire a maid now I wouldn’t know where to start, because Christina needs a taxi 24/7 for all the activities she’s involved in. Having returned to work while she was a baby, which most women think is a wonderful time to be at home, I think being at home with her now is far more preferable. She’s going through all sorts of changes in her life, and very soon I’ll lose her completely because she won’t talk to me any more; she’ll hate me! Now is the time to be there, so I can answer what are often difficult questions, instead of pawning her off to a maid who wouldn’t know how to answer – and I wouldn’t want her to have to.
Is there any way of knowing whether your maid will be good at her job before you hire her?
Kerstin: It’s trial and error; you either go through recommendations or you keep interviewing until you feel that you’ve met someone who seems capable. There’s no agent specifically for childcare that I know of, just agents for maids.
Ulrike: I’ve read that there is a school that you can send maids to, where they can learn the basics of childcare and housework. Kerstin: Yes, I’ve done it for my maid. I put her on a first aid course – a friend of mine who’s childless emailed it to me because she thought it was amusing, but although we laugh about it, you can get over the housework thing, but with childcare it’s quite valuable.
Sue: Yes, we were quite specific that we wanted a maid who had her own children.
Kerstin: But a lot of them have siblings, so they’re used to dealing with babies and they’re much more knowledgeable about handling them than I was when I had my first child.
Sue: I was really uncomfortable with having a maid when I first came here, and I still am when I speak to my friends back home.
Jackie: Yes, it’s a weird term, ‘maid’.
Sue: I don’t like my children calling her ‘maid’; it’s ‘the lady who helps’ or the ‘nanny’ – it’s a strange concept to deal with, somebody else in your house looking after your children when you can’t see what they’re doing, and the children are young so you don’t get feedback from them.
Jackie: Some kids actually treat the maids like maids, dropping things down and expecting them to pick it up; I couldn’t stand that.
Sue: When our maid started, we had five weeks where I was at home, so she could see how we ran the house and how we dealt with the children and things like that, but there’s no guarantee after that five weeks that she’s even going to stay. It’s difficult, I think that’s the toughest thing about working here – hiring a maid.
What is it that you like (or dislike) about your work/life set-up?
Ulrike: I love doing my work, because while we all are wives and mothers, we also have to be us, and playing golf in the morning is not me.
Kerstin: I have to say I really enjoy having that few hours out of the home – I need to do something totally un-child-related, to have grown-up conversations – but I’ll come home at lunchtime, by which stage the kids are home. I’m in a very fortunate position where I can have that balance of me-time and getting to see the kids. Sue: The best of both worlds.
Kerstin: Yes, it’s very difficult for women to find that halfway house.
Sue: There isn’t the part-time work here. And there are very few nurseries that can accommodate. I drop my children at nursery at 7.30am in the morning and pick them up at 6pm, but there are very few nurseries here that are open that long; you’ve got to fit in with them. Dubai’s not quite ready yet for the working mum.
Jackie: I get really bored with meeting other mums at the school gate because it’s just the same conversations about the kids every day. And the routine tends to just involve getting up, doing the school run, then washing up, tidying, and then it’s pick up time again. The day goes so quickly, you think, ‘What have I done really? Nothing.’ I mean I’m not into learning flower arranging or Arabic cooking.
Sue: I must admit, though, I’m quite jealous of the mums now who’ve got their children at school and they’ve got four or five hours when, if they want, they can go and play golf, or go to the cinema, or shopping or whatever.
Kerstin: The other thing that’s important is that it’s fine being a stay-at-home mum when your kids are younger, but after a while, women want to go back to work and you’re not very employable if you haven’t worked for 10 years. Everybody knows that being a mother is a full-time job and it deserves respect, but it doesn’t give you any advantage when you’re going to an employer and they look at you and say, ‘Well, actually you’re 45 and I’ve got somebody who’s 25 with the same experience as you.’ I think that we have to be selfish to a degree: if you’d like to go back to work later on you’ve got to be realistic.
What would you say to someone who thought that it was a mum’s duty to stay in the home full time?
Ulrike: I don’t agree with that. I couldn’t have coped being at home all the time, although I suppose if you’ve got two or three children then the childcare would cost a fortune and it’d probably be better to stay at home, because then you’re truly busy. With one, I was going up the wall.
Sue: It’s a personal choice. I just think that for me as a person I couldn’t do it, I’m not patient enough – and I think the children would get sick of me being at home! Some people love it and want to be at home with their children all day every day – great, if you can do it, do it. It’s a personal choice and I don’t think people should criticise either way.
Jackie: I find that people back home keep saying to me, ‘Are you working yet?’ It’s been two years out of 15, and I’m like, ‘No, I’m just taking some time with my daughter!’
Sue: I found when I was at home with the kids all the time that I’d go out with my husband and friends and the conversation would just revolve around children, which is not a bad thing, but my work gives me a lot to talk about besides kids. I did four years at university and worked really hard to get where I am, and I don’t want to let that go. I believe I can go further and further and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. I think the kids pick up on the fact that I’m a happier person for it.
What do you all think of the concept of stay-at-home dads?
Kerstin: [Laughs.] I think it’s a great concept… if you can find a dad who wants to do it.
Jackie: My brother tried it for a little while actually. He thought it’d be a great idea to start with, but he changed his mind after a while. His wife was earning more money, so it made more sense for her to go to work. He was great around the house, but she’d find him lying on the sofa when everything was done, getting fatter. He liked the idea, but it didn’t last long…
Time Out Kids debate team
• Kerstin Spence lives in Umm Sequim and has two kids: Hamish, 3, and Olivia, 2. Originally from Cornwall in the UK, she works part-time in admin and accounts for her husband’s company, and has been in Dubai for three years.
• Sue Thackray, from Sunderland in the UK, has been in Dubai for nearly two years and is mother to two-year-old Flynn and Amelia, 5. She works full-time as a quantity surveyor.
• Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance writer from Hamburg in Germany, and has lived in Dubai for two years. She lives in Jebel Ali with her husband and 12-year-old daughter Christina.
• Jackie Terry has been a Bur Dubai-based stay-at-home mum for two years, but is about to return to work as a lettings consultant. She is from Croydon in the UK and has a five-year-old daughter named Jessica.
If you would like to take part in a debate, email firstname.lastname@example.org