Fathers in Dubai

June 21 is Fathers' Day in Dubai. <em>Time Out</em> meets four very different dads and asks them about their life and chiildren

Jack Bunker
Jack Bunker
Jack Bunker
Jack Bunker
Melvin Santos
Melvin Santos
Stephen Somanader
Stephen Somanader
Rami Farook
Rami Farook
Jack Bunker, from the US, is a stay-at-home dad

We moved here in August 2008 because my wife Gina was transferred here with work. We thought it would be an adventure for the girls (Carmen, four, and Olivia, seven). I had my own law firm in the States so I assumed I’d be able to slide into a job when we arrived – but then all the law firms stopped hiring. I sort of became a stay-at-home dad by default.

A typical day begins at 5.30am, when we get the girls up, then I drop Gina at work and the kids at school. We don’t have any home help so I’m responsible for the cooking and cleaning. I’m also working on a novel and doing some freelance writing, which I do while the girls are at school. Carmen finishes school at 12.30 and Olivia’s out at 2.15, but the schedule’s so scattered what with all the after-school activities that myself and some other stay-at-home dads I know will take it in turns. So I make one more trip in the afternoon, come back, make dinner, maybe take the kids swimming, then go and pick up my wife, come back and put them to bed. It feels like I drive about 8,000 miles on Sheikh Zayed Road every day!

My social network is pretty much rooted in the children – I met everyone I know here either through school or Gina’s work, where most people seem to have kids of roughly the same age too. I certainly wouldn’t have met the other stay-at-home dads I know if it weren’t for school – plus the birthday parties, which seem to happen like every 10 minutes!

I don’t generally get any bad reactions when I say what I do – but then I don’t really get many chances to talk about it as I don’t get out that much – I stay up at my little garret doing my thing. Every once in a while we’ll be at a party and someone will say, ‘Oh, so you’re a “stay-at-home dad”, huh?’ and roll their eyes, but I think my wife gets crosser than me; I’m not really worried about what people think.

There isn’t much about Dubai culture that makes my life more difficult than if I were a stay-at-home mom. I guess there are little things, like today I accompanied the class to the Dubai Aquarium and when we were done, I said to a Pakistani mother that I was going to go and get some keema and did she want to come. I had my cousin in town and she was with me so it was fine, but I couldn’t have asked if I’d been on my own. There are some other mothers who are western and perhaps with them it wouldn’t have been a problem, but with some cultures it can be awkward.

I don’t tend to get too stressed doing what I do. I put my back out a couple of weeks ago and had to stay in bed. Gina was doing the running around for three days and she came back a little frazzled. I said from the bed, ‘So, not quite what you thought!’ She was like, ‘Can you just hurry up and get better?’

A lot of people here seem to just let their kids run wild – if my wife and I go out with other people and their children, we come home and say, ‘How did we get so lucky?’ I’m not sure if it’s because they’ve got nannies who are afraid to do anything in case they lose their jobs, or if it’s a cultural thing. I’m from the south of the US and even now there are people who expect their kids to say ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’. Because of my background, we take a much harder line on stuff like interrupting people and listening to mommy and daddy.

Kids always want to push boundaries but if it’s a free-for-all then you’re not doing them any favours. Fortunately, my wife and I are on the same page with that. My dad was a marine, and so we were expected to be respectful and tow the line. I really hope the way that my father brought me up is manifesting itself in my own fathering skills. He’s a great dad – he raised me and my sisters alone and made a lot of sacrifices for us. He was always there. I would love for someone to think that I did as good a job as my father.

If I were offered a job tomorrow, financially speaking I’d have to take it, but I’d be very cautious when choosing who to hire to look after the kids. I’ve seen some pretty awful things out here, for example the nanny will be at one end of the pool yapping with her buddy while a little toddler that can’t even swim is playing by the edge of the deep end; Gina also saw a nanny slapping a one-year-old baby the other day, so we’ve formed some pretty strong ideas on what we would and wouldn’t allow.

I was older when I had kids; I’d been around for a while and you look through the lens differently when you’re in your 40s than you might when you’re in your 20s. I teach my kids to listen to me, and with that skeleton, everything else falls into place: you need to study, you need to have manners, you need to try new things. But nothing can stop the worry, it’s relentless. As a lawyer, you hear about so many bad things that should never have happened – cars going through manhole covers, irons falling off things. When you think about how many bad things are out there and how dangerous everything is, you can feel an overwhelming sense of dread; it can paralyse you.

When I was a young man I always used to want sons, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for anything. Their sense of affection is just indescribable. I know everyone says, ‘You have to be a parent to understand,’ but you do. People told me that for years and years, and now I know what they’re talking about. It’s just great. When people talk about children placing limitations on your lifestyle, your freedom to get up and go, that’s honestly bullsh*t. Just 15 minutes with these guys cancels all of that out. I can’t remember anything that happened before being a father, it was just a blur. Becoming a dad is by far the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I really am the luckiest person in the world.

Melvin Santos, from the Philippines, is a housekeeping office worker

I have two kids: Elvin John, nine, and Annika Alexxandra, eight. My daughter gets angry with me when she has to write her name out because it’s so long! Elvin is a mother’s boy and Annika is a daddy’s girl and they do fight sometimes. They live in the Philippines. I go back for a month once a year, and I always take them gifts.

My daughter will come rushing up saying, ‘Daddy daddy daddy what have you bought me? This is mine, it’s all mine!’ and my son will look upset and say, ‘Daddy, where’s mine?’

When I lived back in the Philippines, I took care of the kids while my wife, who’s a teacher, went out to work. I did everything – cooking, cleaning, childcare… We actually married in 2000 when my wife got pregnant, and we rented an apartment because my mother didn’t like her! I’m 43 but in my mind I’m only 30. Venus, my wife, is 32 – so there’s quite a big age gap. I was lucky when we had our kids because the doctor was a friend of mine so we got a discount. When I first saw my baby, I thought: I’m a man now, because I have a son. Then I saw him – he was a good-looking guy!

I moved to Dubai because I had heard you could make more money here, but really I make about the same as I would in the Philippines if there was a job available over there. When you don’t have a job, it hurts in your heart because you want to be able to give your family the best. I have so many dreams, but my biggest is for both of my children to be able to go to college, which was the main reason for me coming here. That’s why I only had two children – it’s difficult to put them through school.

I speak to my family every three days, and at the weekend I go to the internet shop and web chat with them. When my kids see me on the webcam they always wave. When I came here, I didn’t even know how to use a computer, so it’s pretty exciting. I always tell the children, ‘Take care of your mummy.’

Last time I went home I took my son a PSP and my daughter a Gameboy. They were very grateful and they never stop playing on them. It was a lot of money for me to spend – I earn very little and have to share a room with 12 men. But when you have children, you do all you can to spend money on them.

My wife and children live with my parents now (my mother finally likes Venus!) but they’re very old so we have to pay all the bills for the household. The Filipinos who come here think that Dubai is a land of honey, but look at my room here. There are 12 of us sharing, and only one bathroom. We sleep in bunk beds. I’m the oldest in the room so they respect me – they call me ‘kuya’, which in our language means ‘eldest’. No one else in my room is married. My wife wants to come here to visit, but I told her, ‘Don’t come here. It’s difficult when you stay in one room like a tin of sardines.’

If I could teach my children one thing, it would be to stay in the Philippines, even if they’re poor. When you’re away from home, you miss your family so much, but the Philippines is like one big family. Every time I go home, my wife begs me not to come back to Dubai. I tell her I’ll just be here for one or two more years, then I’m going home for good.

Stephen Somanader, from the UK, is a full-time engineer working on Dubai metro

We moved over here in 2006 because I’d got a job working on the Dubai metro project. I usually leave home at about 8am and get back by 6pm, but I sometimes work late or over the weekend if it’s busy. The kids (Luke, four and James, two) get up as early as 5am and when I come home from work they’ll have a bath, then dinner, then story time, so I do get to see a fair amount of them – I’ve got quite lucky with that. Sometimes I’ll play squash or go with Tracey, my wife, to see a film once we’ve put them to bed. It can be exhausting but you’ve got to make yourself get out or life will pass you by.

I must admit, getting home at the end of a long day can leave me even more stressed – like tonight, when I came in the door and they were filthy, and I knew you were coming with a photographer. Sometimes I wish it was like the 1950s, and I’d come home to a glass of whisky and sit and watch everything going on around me, but it doesn’t work like that!

I occasionally feel a bit jealous of Tracey as she gets to do cool things with the boys during the day, but she’s got a tough job. I’m sure she must resent the fact that I’m able to escape every day. I think every couple has the same issue. I see weekends as my break from work while she sees them as her break from the kids, and it can be difficult to balance the two, but we do it quite well by taking it in turns to have a lie-in and so on. We spend the whole weekend with the kids and at the end of those two days I’m absolutely exhausted, so I definitely don’t think she’s got it easy.

We resisted having live-in help for a long time. We didn’t have full-time help when Luke was born because we wanted to raise the kids ourselves. When James was born in June 2007, we still only had part-time help for the first six months but it became too much. I was really against it because I didn’t want somebody living in our space, but we’ve arranged it so Tracey is the mother and Ruby, our help, does the cleaning, cooking etc. We occasionally use her for babysitting but that’s about it.

Tracey had a career in charity work and publishing before she had Luke, and we did discuss the possibility of me being a stay-at-home dad – but now I’ve seen what it’s like, I don’t think I’d enjoy it!

I try very hard to instil in my kids politeness and respect for others, always thinking of others and not being selfish. You see some real little monsters here. I’m a mellow guy but if I ever see my children being disrespectful I just go wild. I don’t want them to turn out like that. My wife is the same. Before we got married she understood my values and I understood hers, and that’s transferred to our parenting methods too. My own parents were very family-focused and so are we. There are a lot of families in Dubai where the mum and dad are quite extrovert and gregarious, going out and doing their own thing. We know people who leave their children and go away for weekends.

For my birthday we were considering going away for a weekend, but it just wouldn’t feel right without the kids – probably because of the guilt! Since Luke was born, Tracey has been away from him three nights – when James was born and for a wedding. Some people would say we’re too clingy, and I sometimes think we should focus more on quality time than quantity of time, but we couldn’t have fun without them. That’s just the way we are.

My priorities have definitely changed since becoming a father. I used to play a lot of sports at the weekend, and I basically had to give that up. Compromises have to be made, and you feel tired a lot of the time, but that’s part and parcel of being a parent. It’s worth it for the sheer joy you get from doing the simplest things with them, being proud when they achieve something, sharing new experiences with them, laughing with them.

It’s very important that our sons always think of us as home. Despite having British passports, they’re ‘global citizens’. We plan to be travelling away from the UK for some time, so they need to understand that home is not a physical place, it’s wherever we are – and I hope they’ll always remember that.

Rami Farook, a Dubai-born Emirati, owns Traffic design gallery in Barsha

My children, Jude, four, and Omar, two, were born on the same day two years apart, but they have completely different personalities. Although Omar’s going through his ‘terrible twos’ phase, he’s actually a very peaceful guy. Jude, on the other hand, is tough and gets angry easily. She’s my best friend. We have a very special relationship; I even took her on a two-week trip around art shows in Europe while she was still in diapers. My relationship with my son is more playful – we chase each other around and that sort of thing. Jude is a normal girl in the sense that she likes her Barbies and princesses, and Omar has got a bit of a thing for cleaning! He’s got baby vacuum cleaners, mops and brushes and is always trying to help the maids clean the house.

We all live in the family home – there are four generations under one roof. It works well as the kids like spending time with their grandparents. Living with the extended family isn’t as bad as you’d think: no one gets into anyone else’s business. My grandmother worries about whether everyone’s eaten enough but that’s it. Plus it means my wife and I can go out without worrying about childcare.

We’re very lucky to have extended family here. Most expats don’t have that, so instead their social circle is bigger. We’re the opposite: we have more family around us than friends. When we’re with the children, we don’t really mix with other nationalities, but my wife and I attend gallery openings, so we do big time.

A typical day in our household begins at about seven. We all sleep in the same room, in two king-size beds – it’s cute! Omar wakes up at 7am sharp; he’s my alarm. The funny thing is that us guys are energetic and the ladies are the lazy ones, so Omar and I are always up first. It’s not an Emirati thing to share a room, my sister has kids the same age and they have separate bedrooms, but we just like it this way. Once we’ve woken up, we’ll all eat breakfast, the nanny will change Omar’s diaper, I’ll take Jude to nursery and head off to work and Omar will spend the day with his mum.

She’s actually just started her own business at home, designing abayas, but whenever she goes out to buy material, she’ll take the kids with her. I get home from work by 6.30pm most days, and then we’ll play in the garden, eat dinner and put them to bed by 8pm. It sounds boring but that’s just how it is.

We do have a nanny but she plays the role of an assistant. If the kids’ mum wants to have a 15-minute break, she’ll hand the kids over to the nanny, but that’s about it. In terms of how we teach her to treat our kids, I’m more straightforward than my wife, who’s a bit shy. I believe that as long as you say it in a very clear and respectful manner it’s fine. But honestly we’re lucky.

Our nanny is smart. She knows what she’s doing, to the extent that she actually helps me out by practising the alphabet with my daughter in the week when I’m home too late to do it. I would say that having a nanny was a defining characteristic of Arabic parenting, except that nowadays I think it’s just a Dubai trend. I go to Spinneys and whether the parents are Lebanese, British, Indian, everybody has a nanny now.

At first, when we just had Jude, I used to get really stressed out, but I’ve realised that the more stressed out you get, the worse it is. Now, the louder they get, the more chilled out I get. I’ll still give them a time out or threaten them, but it’s all done in a very calm way. I think I give my kids more time than my dad gave me, although he was a good dad. It’s small things that make the difference, for example I have two days off each week while my dad only had one. We also do this monthly UAE break where we’ll go to Abu Dhabi or stay in a hotel in Dubai, which I never had when I was growing up.

My dad was the type of guy who, like me, had a lot of responsibilities at work but when he was home, he was at home. When I’m at home, I try to be very focused, I avoid bringing work into the house. But I spent more time with my mother than my father when I was growing up, so I have taken a lot from her in terms of how to be a parent. Weekends are really on my kids’ agenda, although I don’t pick activities that will only make the kids happy – we choose things that we’ll all enjoy, for example last weekend we all built a soccer goalpost then played together.

Frankly I’m not the kind of dad that buys loads of stuff for my kids, I think their mother spoils them more than me. I’ll take them out once a week and buy them either a toy or a book, but I won’t take them anywhere silly, we’ll go to the Early Learning Centre where they can buy something that’s good for their minds. The great thing is that they usually pick a book rather than a toy.

The worst thing about being a parent? The pain that you feel when something goes wrong. You worry so much about them, especially when they’re sick. But the best thing is knowing that you’re always going to have someone that loves you; those kids are going to love you as long as you love them back. It’s a fact. And the more I show them love, the more they give back to me. Of course I love my parents but this is different: this is a human being that you’ve known from the day they were born. You see how they take bits and pieces from you. Like the other day, Omar came up to me and said ‘Yo yo!’ I was shocked; where did he learn that from? So I answered ‘Yo yo’, and he said ‘Awww man…’ It was the cutest thing – and he learned that from me!

I want my children to grow up without being constrained, to do whatever makes them happy. Like with Omar and his cleaning – go ahead, clean man, whatever! It’s in his character, they have to be honest to themselves. I want them to know that they can do whatever they want to do.

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