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Last Sunday afternoon, six-year-old Nina Deshais was busy rummaging the house for scarves, old T-shirts and even garbage bin liners. She had just hit a brainwave on how to make the day exciting for her family. Once she found the things she needed the little fashionista got busy – creating dresses, skirts, and tops and choosing accessories and shoes to go with them.
Later in the evening, the living room morphed into a catwalk as Nina began modelling the creations with her mom Svetia, while her little brother Enzo, 5, turned photographer.
‘The session went on for four hours after which we settled down for a cup of tea, tired but happy,’ says Svetia.
‘These are really troubling times with the stay-at-home rules being strictly followed, but it has given us the special opportunity to show her how much work goes into a design before it finally gets on catwalk.’
As parents of three kids under the age of 10, the work-from-home (WFH) situation has thrown the professional lives completely out of routine for senior wealth manager Svetia and her business director husband Gaetan, based in Abu Dhabi.
But the couple admits that there are many positives arising from WFH; like breakfast with kids in the garden, playing games, dancing, exercising and leisurely bath times with candles.
As a policy they never had a TV so the kids are left to choose ways to amuse and keep themselves entertained.
‘We are going freestyle with parenting so far,’ laughs Svetia. ‘And I’m sincerely impressed with their creativity. They play shop store with teddies, monopoly games, crafting, colouring, drawing, preparing handmade presents and snack for us. They show us what they do at school like Zumbini and tai chi.’
Ever since she was three, Nina loved modelling and she aspires to be a fashion designer. This stay-home period has provided her with enough time to give vent to her creativity.
While the kids are busy with their games and studies, the parents get busy with WFH.
Svetia has set up her office in the spare bedroom while Gaetan has shifted his work space to the garden hoping ‘I will get a good tan’. Sometimes the kids – they have three including Raffael, 8 - join them and pretend to be working with note books and make believe phone calls.
Homeschooling duty has been assigned to Gaeten, who is French as the kids go to a French school; Svetia, who is a Slovakian, doesn’t speak French.
Initially, being in charge of administration led to many hitches for Svetia. ‘Lots of material needed to be printed and we had no printer to start with. So we went to buy one. Then setting up online logins and getting our heads around three different classes, while receiving too many emails and parents/teachers Whatsapp messages. It was hard to keep up with it all, it was overwhelming. Time management is still an issue. Homeschooling three kids while both working full time is very hard,’ she says.
In retrospect the couple have realised that they are spending more time listening to their kids and playing more with them. ‘The kids love it as they are at an age where they ask lots of questions about life and its meanings. They are very happy having us home. We can much feel that,’ she says.
For the Deshais, the biggest learning curve from the situation is the realisation that it makes more sense to invest time into being home rather than constantly chasing events in the town. ‘Also we are definitely saving more as we are buying less; we appreciate every dirham during these very volatile times,’ says Svetia.
They are very grateful to their nanny of seven years, Marrieta de la Luna, who has risen to the challenge of managing a full household round the clock.
The next family assignment they are planning is to go through their ‘memory luggage’, which consists of childhood photos, wedding cards, important little presents, school-time memories, love letters et al. ‘The kids are going to love going through them and revelling in the little anecdotes connected to them,’ she says. ‘Even we are looking forward to it.’
Prayer and play
During a regular pre-Covid workday, Yasser Favas and his wife Fairuz Basheer would rush to work by 8am, munching on something they’d just grabbed from the fridge. These days they wake up to the smell of delicious homemade bread wafting from the kitchen – made by their 13-year-old daughter Farah.
The Indian couple, who run their own logistics company, have been living in Dubai for the past 15 years. Initially the work from home situation, posed a lot of problems such as reducing the number of employees coming to work in the office and identifying and installing proper systems to work in the new environment.
‘Our staff has been very cooperative to adapt. Due to the technology available and lots of IT companies offering their services, we have been able to cope quiet well so far,’ says Favas.
‘Then there was the problem, which is the tale of every household the world over today,’ adds Fairuz, ‘getting the kids to adapt to online learning. Farah, who is in grade 8, has managed by herself but the younger one, Fanan, grade 4, still requires a lot of support. I have to help her while thwarting off the efforts of my son Fariq, age 4, to distract us.’
Over the past few weeks, they have realised that as a family all of them have become a lot more supportive and cooperative. The girls make their own breakfast every day after surfing for new recipes. Since Farah enjoys baking, she whips up desserts and cakes, ‘which adds to my calories but I am not complaining,’ says Fairuz.
The sisters have also found novel ways to entertain their kid brother with dominoes, jenga and archery. Fariq, on his part, provides perfect comic relief when he sees his parents are stressing about something. This has also been a great time for Fairuz to dust away all the books she bought but never had time to read.
As for Favas, although he has not been able to attend prayers in a mosque, he has realised that this episode has just brought him and his family closer to God. ‘We pray in congregation five times a day and spend some time reflecting on spiritual things,’ he says.
For Fairuz this has been a period of mixed emotions. ‘There is the anxiety of the future on one hand, but on the other it has made me realise how much we miss spending time with our loved ones,’ she says.
Another silver lining is that people who assume they are busy and don’t contact each other are now checking on each and every friend and family member to see if they are safe. ‘The social distancing has erased the mental distancing,’ she says.
‘We have very limited control over our lives. We tend to believe everything is in our hands: our home, our business; and that nothing can stop us from achieving our dreams. But this situation has made us realise our true priorities: that it is people who enrich our lives.’
A slower pace of life, sans the pressure of the daily grind, has certainly proved beneficial for Abu Dhabi-based couple interior designer Kat Wightman and her husband Jamie, a CFO of a company.
Normally they would all wake up at around 6am and leave for school and work at 7am. Getting back home would sometimes be later than 6pm, and after a quick dinner, rush off to get ready for bed and make sure things are organised for the following day. Kat admits that most days she would be too exhausted to cook anything imaginative and weekly meals were mostly repetitive.
‘Now setting our alarms for 7am seems such a luxury! Mornings are less hectic. Breakfast has even time for eggs on toast, bed making and showers. I have time to think about meals, choose recipes, organise my kitchen cupboards – I feel much more in control of my home now I have time to spend it there. I’m really enjoying cooking from scratch – we even made bread the other day as we are not going out too much to buy fresh produce,’ she says.
Earlier it used to be a weekend treat to have lunch together as a family but now they eat all meals at the kitchen table. Jamie spends his afternoons practicing cricket with the kids and is very involved with the math tuition as it is his forte.
In the evening, they put on The Body Coach and do the work out of the day.
‘I am reading with and to each of the children every evening – with no pressure to rush through a book, I’m really enjoying being able to give them each this time as childhood is short and in a few years I’ll be ushered out of their bedrooms I’m sure!,’ says Kat. ‘We are also enjoying the television a lot more as with a later start we can enjoy and catch a few episodes of a Netflix series!’
As for work, while Kat relishes wearing casual clothes and the lack of need to put make-up on, Jamie is simply loving wearing shorts everyday (instead of a suit) and taking official calls in the garden.
In terms on authority, Kat claims she is still very much in charge, while ensuring that work is being done by all members of the troop.
Sometimes the kids do miss their friends and sports as they can’t even pop put for a little while. But the parents try to make up for it by engaging them in various pastimes. ‘One thing we have really enjoyed is completing jigsaw puzzles – just finished a 2,000-piece one that nearly got the better of us!’ says Kat.
The Wightmans believe that by slowing down, they have all bonded immensely. The children sit down to listen to audiobooks together, Lego masterpieces are strewn everywhere, teddy bears have very vital roles in their daily play. ‘I have time to answer their questions as I have nowhere to be or anyone to see. And their lives have been made even better by me not asking them to clean up,’ says Kat.
‘I feel much more in tune with my children’s capabilities in terms of their school work and I’ve observed their reactions to challenging tasks and have admired their resilience and perseverance. Being forced to stay at home all together makes me very grateful for the little family I have.’
Dubai-based couple Ganesh Ramanathan and his wife Sheena was mostly busy with their work and business travels. For their son Gautam, 17, and daughter Diya, 10, school and extracurricular activities occupied their time.
When stay-at-home rule kicked in, it brought all four of them together to work under one roof; it was a first-time experience of creating boundaries of space and time.
For Diya the initial remote schooling days were met with a few technical challenges. ‘She would barge into my newly created office space in the master bedroom tearfully demanding immediate support in the midst of an important video call. I have had to excuse myself from meetings to support her need to submit an assignment immediately. My colleagues are understanding as everyone is sailing the same boat,’ says Sheena, who is the COO of an auditing company.
They solved the issue by moving Diya’s study desk right next to my Sheena’s work space. ‘Simple doubts were thus resolved immediately before they become a last-minute crisis. Since she has a Google Meet call at the end of the day with her teacher and classmates, she has grown to understand the importance of not interrupting when mom and dad are on business calls, says Sheena. ‘Another challenge was managing the varying break times and demands for more interesting snacks than fruits.’
The family cherishes the extra sleep time in the mornings and eating lunch together. ‘Evenings have changed dramatically though,’ says Sheena. ‘Kids used to be busy with friends outdoors and school work, we used to dine at different times and sleep at different times given conflicting schedules. Now, our timings are more aligned. We eat dinner together and spend time playing either a board game or chilling in the garden.’
The carom board has found its way out of the cupboard and Mastermind and badminton have become family favourites. They have group video chats with close friends to ensure they keep in touch.
‘Dad and mom are spending more time cooking than ever before as kids are demanding something different and special for dinner every time,’ says Ganesh, who is the Regional Head of Financial Crime Risk Assurance in a bank.
As a gymnastic enthusiast, Diya misses her classes and conscientiously practices gymnastics daily at home. Gautam has converted his room into a ‘smart’ room where he delegates all menial tasks such as switching on the lights, playing music, charging the phone, etc. to Google. ‘It’s a pity Google is not yet “smart” enough to clean his room!’ says Sheena.
Sheena has learnt three main lessons from this whole experience. Firstly, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Secondly, don’t take anything or anyone around you for granted. And finally, kids are more resilient than you give them credit for.