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Alternative parenting blossoming in the UAE

The once societal norm of mum, dad, 2.4 kids, a pet and a white picket fence is being contested. Alongside the rapid growth of the UAE, a myriad of not-so-ordinary parenting situations are blossoming. From home schooling to distant parenting, from stepchildren to single mums and stay-at-home dads, Samantha Dobson discovers that there are many ways to successfully raise a loving family

  • Dennis Hennessy: “I can’t imagine a more important job”Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • Miraflor Abache: “As the sole breadwinner, I have to be practical”Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • Anabel Carter: “Nurture can be equal to nature”. Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM

“I can’t imagine a more important job”

Although still something of a rarity, having dad as the house-spouse is on the rise worldwide. In the UK, for example, women are the main breadwinners in nearly a third of all homes and the number of stay-at-home Dads has risen tenfold in the past 10 years. Here in the more conservative Middle East however, being a househusband is still often shrouded in assumptions (that dad has lost his job), pity and even shame. But a recent survey by on working fathers in the UAE found that 42 per cent place family as the top priority in their lives. A stay-home dad, then, could well be the envy of many fathers who work long hours and have little time to spend with their children.

Househusband Dennis Hennessy, from the UK, considers it a privilege to accept the challenges of modern day parenthood as his full-time job. The decision to relocate from the UK to Dubai in 2006 was not because he landed the job of his dreams, but because his wife Karen did. Karen is now director of operations for the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) and Dennis is the stay-at-home Dad of their 13-year-old daughter Grace.

“My day starts at around 6am when I make Karen and Grace breakfast and fill the lunch boxes. Karen drives to Abu Dhabi and after dropping Grace at school, I go to Pilates, walk the dog and manage the household chores, such as making the beds, shopping and cooking. I’m also very involved with Grace’s school – not only am I chairman of the advisory board for the Dubai British School I’m also actively involved in the afterschool art club and volunteer at various art and DT workshops… I have an MA in Fine Arts. I myself was unhappy at school but being involved in Grace’s education helps to remind me what a positive environment a school can be.

“I kind of stumbled onto my career path back in the UK in a way that has shaped my views of fatherhood and education. As the middle of nine brothers and sisters, I struggled at school and eventually left, aged 14. I was working for the local council (in a job I hated) when I met Karen. We were married and it wasn’t until I turned 30 I discovered my IQ is 149 and that I am dyslexic. This was an important turning point in my life - it taught me that it’s ok to be different – something that I’ve needed in my sometimes-ridiculed role as a househusband. It’s a practical arrangement - Karen is happiest as career girl and breadwinner while I prefer the domestic role. It doesn’t matter to us that the traditional roles are reversed.

“Very often for men work defines who you are and the same can be said for a stay-home Dad. I’ve never been one for conforming, but in my role as househusband I feel valued; I have a very close relationship with Grace that I cherish and Karen constantly reminds me our lifestyle couldn’t continue without my domestic contribution. I could work, but why? We don’t need a bigger apartment or a faster car. To me no amount of money or climbing a corporate ladder is worth the positive relationship I have with my family. Without a ‘proper’ job I don’t suffer from any identity crisis. I’m Dennis, a person and not a gender. Right now my career is taking care of my wife and my daughter. I personally can’t imagine a more important job.”

"As the sole breadwinner, I have to be practical"
Parenting from afar is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of being an expat in the UAE. But for many it is the only option for a better future for their children. Miraflor is from the Philippines and has been living in Dubai for the past five years. Her three daughters aged 6, 7 and ten years are in the Philippines being cared for by their father. A qualified Montessori teacher, Mira can’t get work in her home country, plus as an assistant teacher at a local nursery, she can earn up to three times more here than she could back home. Her secret, above all else, is to focus on her goal and to keep positive.

“For me the first year was the most difficult. I missed my girls so much and I cried a lot. I still feel very sad being away from them but in the beginning it was almost unbearable. I have since found ways to cope and ways to connect with them. Working with children was painful at first because it was a constant reminder that I’m apart from mine. But I soon found it to be reassuring - to still witness all the stages of childhood development despite being away from my own. It helps me feel I’m not missing out too much.

“As a mother and the sole breadwinner I have to be practical. It’s quite simple - if I don’t work there is no income and my children will not get the education that’s vital for their future. My husband was working with me here in Dubai but after just six months he had to return to the Philippines for medical reasons and he is still unable to work. In a way it is a good thing as our girls at least have one parent with them. Most of my salary I’m able to send home to run the household and pay the bills and schooling. The rest we save. Our dream is to start our own family business back in the Philippines.

“Recently I have moved in with a Filipino friend who lives in Sharjah. I have to travel to Dubai each day but I’m able to live for free because after work I home school her two children and help her out. Weekends I also pick up extra work, sometimes face painting, or babysitting. My goal - to save enough money so that I can be with my family again soon is what keeps me motivated.

“For my husband the challenges are great, too. There is stigma for him not working in the Philippines. And for my girls it isn’t easy – they are often teased because their father braids their hair or because their mother is never at school meetings. For us, it just makes our relationship stronger. Even though I only get to go home once a year I keep in constant contact with them – over the phone and internet, I’m still able to watch my girls grow and also participate in parenting decisions. I constantly reassure them and explain the reasons why we have to be apart. They understand and in our own way we are all working hard towards our goal of being reunited again, for good.”

“I strive to be a positive role model”

Raising a child can be challenging under any circumstances, and without a partner, the load can appear more than doubled. Tricia Evans, mother to 14-year-old Sian, lives in Dubai and admits that being a single parent may be tough at times, but it’s far more beneficial to focus on the advantages. As a self-employed business coach and writer, Tricia is also on the Board of Governors for local charity Gulf for Good, as well as the chairperson for the parents’ group at Sian’s school. Single mother she may be, but Tricia is far from alone.

“I’ve been a single mum for 14 years, since Sian was four months old. That was never the way I intended it, but I guess things we don’t expect happen to us all! As a result of being a single parent the biggest driver in my life, without a doubt, is raising my daughter. I also have a motto that I live by ‘Be successful on purpose’, which applies to everything, not just parenting. So I don’t waste too much time on what might have been.

“Perhaps the hardest part of being a single mum is making it work financially. I’m self-employed and I have always worked from home; even when Sian was born I didn’t really stop, I just worked around her. I adore being a mum, but I have always known that I would find being a full-time stay-at-home mum too restricting. My work not only pays the bills and gives us a great lifestyle, it also gives me an enormous sense of purpose. I had Sian late – at 41 - and she was an IVF baby which makes her extra-special. I really treasure motherhood and have been actively involved in every stage of her childhood. I’m even thoroughly enjoying her teenage years.

“I strive to be a positive role model for Sian, and that includes being financially independent and contributing to the community we live in. I spend at least one day a week in my roles for Gulf for Good, and for the parents’ group at Sian’s school, JESS Arabian Ranches, which I’ve been actively involved with for the past 11 years. The only way I can fit it all in is to delegate. I don’t pretend to be super-human and attempt it all alone. Instead I concentrate on what is important to me - the things that only I can do – such as raising my daughter and running my business. For the rest I rely heavily on my wonderful support team – my PA Lynn, and my housekeeper and driver. I also have a rock solid base of friends here in Dubai, and an extremely close-knit family in England, Wales and Singapore.

“Perhaps the greatest advantage of all in being a single mum is that with no husband and one easy child, life is amazingly uncomplicated. There is one set of rules, we have no awkward dynamics, and no parenting arguments. As a result we have a very peaceful and respectful relationship and household.”

“Nurture can be equal to nature”

With the increase in divorce rates worldwide, parenting step-children is hardly out of the ordinary (according to recent statistics, forty per cent of Americans today have at least one step relative). The transition into a ‘blended’ family may be fraught, but according to Brit, Anabel Carter, with a little extra patience and understanding parenting step-children has its own rewards. Resident in Dubai for the past 15 years Anabel met her husband Joe ten years ago. Joe, divorced, is father to two children Jaimie (now 18) and Harry (now 14). Anabel and Joe have since had their own son Jack who has just turned five.

“I knew that marrying Joe meant accepting his children as our own. Even though they are not biologically mine, it’s important to both Joe and I that they are treated as equal to our own son Jack. Harry lives with his mother in the UK and comes to us for holidays. This was the case for Jaimie too, our eldest daughter, although we are delighted that she has decided to come to Dubai and live with us this year to complete her A-levels.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s easy - as with any sort of parenting step-children can be challenging at times. The distance hasn’t really helped family cohesion but we have learned to embrace it. Over the course of our seven-year marriage there has been a range of emotions from them both - from resentment towards their father to blame and rejection of me. There has been frustration and certainly jealousy when Jack was born. But I expected this and even consider these emotions to be quite natural – a step-mother is after all an easy target.

“There are a few ways I’ve learned to deal with it. The most important tool is the strength of our marriage. We support each other and that serves not only as a role model for future relationships for our children but also keeps both Joe and I positive and moving forward. Another priority has been to develop a constructive relationship with Joe’s ex-wife. Joe and I met when they were already divorced so there is no reason for animosity. She lives in England and when we do have contact it’s for a common aim – the welfare of the children, although I’m careful to never undermine her authority as their biological mother. From early on the children learned that rules are different in our household and it’s important we stick to them. There is always an adjustment period when they come to us and this is the time to be especially vigilant and consistent in sticking to our routine, no matter how hard. More than anything we must be seen to be fair – what Jack gets, the others are also entitled to.

“I have always been careful to manage expectations. I insist on mutual respect and slowly over the years a bond is emerging. Take the time to get to know them, as with anything in family life it’s worth persevering. The rewards are great. I do feel an unconditional love for my step-children and it proves to me that nurture can be equal to nature. There are even rare moments of perfection I cherish. Occasionally when we are all happily seated around the dinner table I catch a glimpse of Joe grinning, the proud husband and father of a contented and loving family.”

 AMINAH COOPER, MOTHER OF FIVE (23, 17, 16, 13, 9)

“It’s more than an education, it’s a lifestyle”

A growing number of UAE parents are finding an alternative to mainstream education: their homes. The fringe home school movement has grown from a handful of families back in 2005 to more than 300 families across the UAE. While it may not work for everyone, home schooling can have many advantages: no waitlists, financial flexibility, conveniently portable for transient families and, perhaps most compelling of all, home school parents simply believe they can do a better job.

American mother of five Aminah Cooper lives in Sharjah and has home-schooled all five of her children intermittedly over the past 20 years. Aminah currently teaches her 9, 13 and 16 year olds. Her 17 year old graduated in June this year and her eldest daughter, 23, now lives in America. “For our family home-schooling is a perfectly natural option. I helped my children to walk, I encouraged their first words, I taught them to read and write. The continuity is logical - Mum is here to feed them, love them, teach them and learn with them.

“It helps that I studied Early Childhood Education at University. When we first moved here eight years ago, I worked as a teacher at a private school in Sharjah. At the time two of our children were enrolled in the same school for grades four and five. I loved my job but I became increasingly frustrated with the quality of education my own children were receiving. I found I was supplementing their syllabus after school until, in the end, I decided to pull them out entirely and do it all myself. For five years I did a full day teaching at school then came home and taught my own children into the evening hours. It was very tough on us all and eventually I resigned. Childhood is such a precious time, it’s over so quickly and I felt I was missing out by working. As a teacher I’m aware that no matter how dedicated a professional educator may be, it’s unlikely they will offer the same commitment to a child as its mother.

“I’m the first to admit that I’m no super-mom. It can be chaos at times. The biggest downside has been finding the ‘me’ time, which I’ve successfully managed to acquire over the years. My children have gradually become confident, independent learners who require patience and guidance throughout their journey. I’ve no doubt the time invested has paid off.

“To our children, home is not school but a learning environment. We don’t stop learning just because it’s lunchtime; discussions flow over the dinner table, we may take spreadsheets to the supermarket, or microscopes to the beach. Education is all around us and if delivered in the correct way children just absorb it all naturally, like sponges.

“The way I see it, at school children have very little time outside of the classroom to actually socialise and when they do their time is greatly limited. This is quite the opposite for a home-schooled child. DUNEHA (Dubai Northern Emirates Home School Association) is the home education support group I’m very involved in. With more than 100 families registered, the group provides a wide variety of monthly educational trips and events that keep home-schooled children sufficiently ‘social’.

“It’s challenging at times but I have no regrets. Home schooling works for us – it’s more than an education, it’s a lifestyle.”