I’ve just spent the last hour patting my daughter’s back so she’ll fall asleep. Her eyes will close, and I think it’s time to ninja roll off her bed and crawl towards the door, then they’ll fly open and she’ll stare into my very soul, accusingly.
I know which floor tiles are to be avoided, exactly how to close the door, then the baby gate, lights in the hall turned off, dogs in the kitchen in case they bark.
Every night this goes on. My tummy rumbling for dinner, new emails unanswered, arm numb from the weird angle I have to lie in.
This is the stuff I didn’t know about before I had children. The tiny details of a parents’ life, when in the moment you’re frustrated and bored, but looking back, it’s heaven.
It’s craving more than 45 minutes of sleep when they’re a newborn, then staying awake to watch them doze, in total disbelief that you created that little person.
It’s messaging a friend at 2.45am for advice, or furiously online shopping for the product that will fix your baby. Or your boobs.
It’s a fleeting moment, when they’re in the back of the car in their carseat and it hits you – you now drive a sensible motor. There’s a child in it. That child is yours. YOU ARE A PARENT. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!
It’s meeting friends for coffee and starting 59 conversations but not finishing a single one.
It’s that small smile of recognition and ‘been there’ to a fellow parent as their toddler planks on the supermarket floor.
It’s never leaving the house without wipes and raisins strapped to your person. At all times. Bribery and cleaning are the cornerstones.
It’s groaning as a toddler climbs into your bed in the early hours, but then relishing the scent of their hair as they share your pillow.
It’s the laundry, the never-ending laundry.
It’s the shock you get as clothes get small, and legs grow long, and somehow in one day they can look older. Like proper children and not your babies anymore.
It’s a book read so many times the words come to your when you’re stuck in traffic or doing a presentation at work, almost slipping out.
It’s realising that things will never be the same again. Your selfish, lazy days are over for the next 18 years at least, and even when your kids move out, they take your heart with them.
I don’t know what I was expecting from parenthood – sure, less sleep, more soft play, less money, more toys.
When I was pregnant I read a quote by Elizabeth Stone, who said “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. And how true it is. How vulnerable we are. Everyone knows our weakness.
It’s a classic trope in action films – the bad guy make threats against the good guy’s family, forcing his or her hand into doing whatever they want. And now I get why it’s such a cliché – because it would work. It would work for me, and I’d do anything – literally anything – to protect my children.
No-one warned me about this. The worry. The fear. The preoccupation with ‘something bad happening’. The dark underbelly of everything good and magical about parenthood. And I suspect it becomes ingrained in us, from pregnancy when the baby doesn’t kick as much as you think they should, to talks about gap years and travelling alone when they’re older.
So what’s the answer? Maybe it’s just understanding that every mum feels the same sometimes, and that it would be a worry if we didn’t.
It’s being real, and being connected, and those smiles of recognition and support, whether in the supermarket, or in the form of a like on an Instagram post that made you nod along.
And it’s talking about what happens behind closed doors, so we don’t feel so alone when we’re lying on the floor, breathing as quietly as possible, wondering when we can move again.
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A survey by Norton has revealed that children in the UAE are among the youngest in the world to receive their first mobile device, with age seven being the average. And 66% of parents have admitted that they worry about spending too much time on their own phones. I confess I’m one of them.
Folks, we’re in unchartered waters. We’re the first generation of parents who are raising children in a truly digital age. Granted, when I was a teenager the soundtrack to technology was the agonising noise of dial-up, only for my mum to yell up the stairs that she needed to use the phone before unceremoniously cutting me off from my instant chat. I think her main concern was that I wasn’t doing my homework, while today it’s all a bit more… complicated.
Remember we used to say ‘BRB’ online? We don’t do that anymore, because we’re online all the time. Emailing, chatting with family, paying bills, ordering food, studying, looking up recipes, watching TV, reading maps and so it goes on. We live in the internet more than ever before.
So where does that leave our kids? In some ways, they’re unbelievably lucky. Last week my four-year-old asked me about the sun, and after six seconds of me dispensing my knowledge we looked on YouTube and found an age-appropriate five-minute video that we could watch together, pausing while she asked questions. We both learnt something.
And when it comes to entertainment, frankly I don’t know where I’d be without cartoons at my fingertips to keep them occupied while I get ready in the morning, or we all need some sofa time at the weekend. Gone are the days of five television channels and three hours of child-friendly programming in the morning before the horseracing started. Now, there’s a seemingly endless list of characters, stories and fantastical places to capture the imagination.
So this isn’t about demonising the internet, especially when it comes to our kids. In fact, Norton’s survey also found that more than half of parents in the UAE believe mobile technology and mobile devices can help foster children’s problem solving and learning skills (62%), with almost three-quarters (72%) saying that children being in charge of their own devices teaches them responsibility. It’s not all bad news.
This is about starting a conversation – one that has probably been going on in your head for a while, with ideas and concerns niggling you. I’m not going to lay out rules, but let you know what’s (mostly) working for us. And I want to know what you’re doing too. So we can help each other figure it out.
Worryingly, Norton’s research also found that children in the UAE desire mobile screen time more than sweets, and that children in the UAE spend more time in front of a mobile screen than playing outdoors (although in the summer I can’t blame them). On average across the UAE, children spend close to two and half hours of their leisure time on mobile devices every day, close to an hour longer than the average amount of time spent playing outdoors.
Honestly, these numbers are just going to go up, as game and app developers learn more ways to hook us in, as choice of shows and channels continues to grow, and as more of daily life migrates online. So we’re at a critical stage.
My kids (age four and nearly two) aren’t at the age I dread – the teens – when online can take a darker turn with cyber bullying, but this stage has issues too. I’ve spoken to the experts at Norton for some guidelines, and they’re a great resource if you have worries or questions about screen time and the internet for your family.
Here’s what we’re doing:
Whenever possible, watching together. I want to see what my girls are enjoying, need to see if it’s appropriate and some shows have topics that are great jumping off points for bigger conversations about topics like friendship, family, travel and the environment. Of course, some are just garbage.
Which brings me to minimal YouTube videos with those awful children unboxing toys, playing with slime or moving coloured plastic around. HATE. IT!!!!
The kids can only use devices in communal areas like the kitchen and living room.
We try to limit time to 1-2 hours a day, and no screen time after 5pm. Sometimes they watch less, sometimes it’s more. We’re human.
But when we say enough, enough.
As they get older, I want an open dialogue about what they’re watching, so we need to start talking about what’s happening online now, even if it means I know a weird amount about seagulls thanks to Puffin Rock…
And I’m on my own mission to reduce the time I spend on my phone in front of the kids. I want to be present.
My children are happy, healthy and active. They’re engaged in the world around them, and that includes what they watch and consume online. That’s normal now – though I realise in ten years’ time an expert will point out that we had it all wrong! For now, we’re just doing our best.
So what do you do in your home with your kids? What has worked, and what was a big fat disaster in your house? And what are you worried about?
I’d love to know, so please comment below, and let’s make this post a resource for other parents.
Confession time: I mock my husband A LOT for his planning. He’s the king of Excel, with our holidays, family meet-ups and more, all plotted out in colour-coded glory.
But guess what? It works. So that shuts me up.
In 2017 he created a huge (A0) wall planner for our kitchen, and it helped a huge amount for coordinating daily life. I shared the link for it, and have had a few people asking for an update (you can imagine his delight) – so it’s back for 2019!
Here’s a free basic wall chart for you to download and take to the printer (complete with UAE weekends blocked out):
To download, just right click in the new browser bar, then ‘Save As’ (or if you’re on a Mac select ‘File’ then ‘Save As’) and it will be saved to your Desktop, then emailed or put on USB to take to the printers (we used DESCO and had it put on foam board).
It looks like this, and can be printed up to A0 size.
With many Dubai households having two people that contribute financially, finding a childcare solution that works for the family is something of a priority when the baby arrives.
The nanny vs nursery discussion is one to have with your partner, and it’s essential to weight up the benefits and potential drawbacks of both before deciding, not least because both options are expensive. On the emotional side, as a mother returning to work you need to feel confident in the person or people looking after your little one.
So how to find your Mary Poppins or the perfect place? Read on…
What’s right for you?
There are many factors to consider: do you have space in your home for live-in help? Is there a reputable nursery nearby or close to work, and if not are you able to take the time to drive to one? What makes more financial sense? Would you get jealous of a nanny spending time with your child? Will a nursery offer the timings you need, including holidays? Only you can answer these.
Finding a nanny
As with most things in Dubai, word of mouth is the best way to find some help. Ask around your friends and colleagues, post on Facebook and keep your eyes and ears open for families leaving, who are looking to find a family for their nanny.
You may need to interview several women to find the someone who will work happily within your home – a lot will come down to personality, as well as experience, plus similar expectations in terms of work and salary. The rule of thumb seems to be that live-out help is paid more – approximately AED500 per month – to cover costs of accommodation. Salary will depend on experience and duties, with those who can drive commanding more. Different nationalities have different minimum salaries so check with their embassy.
There is the option of hiring through an agency by looking through CVs or videos before conducting phone interviews (the agency will charge upwards of AED6,000 for their services), or from a family that is already in the UAE. Either way, they will be on your sponsorship and you will sign a two-year contract, pay a deposit of AED 3,000, and around AED5,000 each year for her employment visa, plus charges for registration, medical checks and Emirates ID. You also need to provide health insurance, and for peace of mind send your helper on a first-aid course.
In 2017 a new law was passed to ensure that domestic helpers are provided with 30 days of paid annual leave, a return ticket to their home country every two years, a day off each week, and 12 hours of rest per day, to include eight hours of consecutive rest. They also have the right to retain their own personal documents such as passports.
What to ask
Everyone’s requirements will differ, but these questions should help when you start interviewing potential help
What is your current visa situation?
When does your passport expire?
Why are you leaving your current job?
What do you like and dislike about the job?
How much experience do you have?
How long have you worked with your previous families? Ask for references.
How old are the children you have cared for?
Are you married and have children yourself?
Do you have any dependents (eg elderly parents) in your homecountry?
Do you have any family in the UAE?
Do you like pets? This is only relevant if you have animals, of course!
Are you qualified in first aid? It might be useful to ask what she would do in a specific situation, like if your child started choking.
Do you do any additional part-time work? Remember that this is illegal.
What dishes do you like to cook? Can you follow a recipe?
What is your day-to-day routine like?
Do you have any allergies or medical conditions?
Finding a nursery
Forget any ideas you might have about nurseries being sad, tired places in village halls; some nurseries in Dubai boast amazing facilities from mud kitchens and swimming pools to organic veggie patches and the latest technology.
As ever, asking friends for recommendations is a great start, but there’s no substitute for visiting as many as possible for a tour and to meet the teachers. You’ll need to decide on your budget, and if the location that works best for you and what hours you’re looking for as there’s a huge range, from just offering mornings to full days. Some offer food as part of the fee, so look for that if it would save you a packed lunch-related headache each morning.
Nurseries don’t tend to be as over-subscribed as schools, and you should start looking around six months before your child’s first term starts.
What to ask
What hours do you offer? Is there scope for flexibility?
What is the curriculum?
What ages are welcome?
Is FS1 available?
How is the day structured?
Are meals provided, or what is sent by parents?
Is there a waiting list?
Do you offer childcare during holidays? Or camps at extra cost?
How many staff are in the room and what’s the staff:child ratio?
What are their qualifications?
What security measures are in place at the nursery? What about first aid and a nurse on-site?
What is the illness policy?
How do you help children settle in?
Which schools do you have a relationship with?
Do you offer sibling discount?
Are there any after-hour activities or clubs?
Whether you decide to go with a nanny, who can play one-on-one with your baby, make meals throughout the day, keep an eye on nap times and discuss everything in-depth with you, or a nursery, where they will be socialised with other children outside of the home, the most important factor is trust. You need to be confident that you’re leaving your child in the best possible hands, so don’t compromise.
“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job” said Annabel Crabb. And I’ve had a few (okay, many) dilemmas about being a working mother over the last four years. But do you know what makes the difference, when my eldest is hanging off the door handle begging me not to leave, or my baby cries as I put her down? The fact I’m doing this for my family. Even though it doesn’t always feel like it. From earning money that contributes to their education, care and food, to setting an example as a woman in the workplace, and feeling fulfilled because I love my career (and I know I’d resent them if I didn’t work) to relishing every moment that we do have together, I refuse to feel guilty about it. No matter how many people make me try.
The last 10 years have been a bit of a whirlwind on the work front. I arrived in Dubai with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and a few years’ experience on a magazine, and found myself writing and editing guide books to the city, before moving into magazines, where I was Deputy Editor of What’s On for three years. It was full-on – a small team, adventures, travels, celebrity interviews (Usher put the phone down on me), long hours and more dining al-desko than I care to remember. I learnt a lot. Enough to stay with the same publishing house and launch a title myself, called GOOD.
It was my first baby, and I put my heart into it. I had an amazing group of female colleagues around me, and it had so much soul. Readers loved it. We helped people. It felt, well, good.
Then within six months I got engaged, married and pregnant in quick succession. My world tilted on its axis, my identity shifted. I was elated but wondered how all of this would work with a baby in the mix. In short, it couldn’t. We tried. My boss – a mum of two – and I devised a plan, with family-friendly hours after my three-month maternity leave, but I felt too torn. I felt I couldn’t deliver at work part-time, and I missed my daughter, so resigned to go freelance.
Freelance is scary. You don’t know where the work is coming from – or if it will come at all. So you say yes to everything at first, and inevitably end up with a bottleneck of deadlines, and it’s hard to plan time, or spending. But it’s flexible, and that’s what I needed. I was writing, blogging, doing some voice-over work, and asked Dubai Eye, a radio station I contributed to as a magazine editor, if they had any shifts for hosts. They did, so I got behind the mic on the other side of the desk, and did that too.
What has unfolded, effectively changing careers at age 36, was never the plan. If I’d strategised, wrote a mission statement, on how to get my own radio show every afternoon, I don’t think it would have happened. But that’s where I’m at – each morning I drop the girls off at school and nursery, have a couple of hours to myself (in theory to exercise, but more often than not to go to the supermarket, reply to emails and get a quick breakfast with friends) before heading to the studio, where have a great team, who both make me laugh, and make me sound good. Then I come home by 5.30pm to the girls, for bath and bedtime, for monkeying around and stories.
A friend once told me that I should make sure I’m the first thing they see in the morning, and the last at night, and I try to keep that promise. My eldest calls me every day at 1pm when she gets off the school bus, and I’ll always take that call. The radio is on in the kitchen every afternoon – they hear my voice and ask questions about my work when I get home. It’s lovely that they can do this.
I don’t know what work-life balance is – and I doubt if even exists. We’re lucky to have an amazing nanny, Loreta, who gives me time, head-space and confidence to work, safe in the knowledge that my kids are in the best possible hands when I’m not there. My husband and I try to have the odd night out (still home by 9pm). I see friends. I do yoga. I read. I look at houses in the South of France that I can’t afford. It’s life.
Is it perfect? Is anything? But when I look back at this crazy time in our lives, I’ll know that I was doing this for me, and I was in it for my family.
Written with the support of LinkedIn as part of their #InItTogether project.