It takes two to make any relationship work. Unfortunately, society has a hard time believing that.
There’s just so much pressure on women to do it all, feels Rachel Sparks, a Dubai-based PR and marketing executive and a mother of two, Ayla and Ruby, aged 2 years and 10 months respectively. Her parenting journey with her husband was initially fraught with much trouble, after their first child was born. “I think our society at large and cultural backgrounds really led us to believe that parenting is mainly a mother’s responsibility,” explains Sparks, who is a Canadian national, while her husband is Canadian-Lebanese.
Bringing up two children was much harder mentally, physically and emotionally than she could have ever imagined. Nevertheless, after much discussion and clarification about the delegation of duties, her husband and she found a way to strike a balance. Elaborating on how they tackle daily tasks as a combined front, now, Sparks says, “He does the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and we divide the bed-time routines, manage meal-times and morning routines together. He really stepped up after our second child was born, because I was doing almost everything alone with our first, which led to a lot of suppressed anger and resentment. I was on maternity leave and he was working long hours. So it was assumed that looking after the child was just my responsibility.”
Sparks is much more at ease as there’s now an equal balance of parenting responsibilities. “He’s much more aware of the mental load that goes into the daily routine,” she says. The couple hired help and also had family stay with them. “It gave us breathing room, as we had an extra set of hands. We could go out together as a couple and have somebody trustworthy stay with the kids, as they knew the routines.”
Breaking the myth that children always turn to ‘Mum’
It’s a misconception to believe that the child already knows from early on that the mother is the primary caregiver, says Hima Mammen, a consultant psychologist at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics, Dubai. “Parenting can be a shared responsibility right from the beginning. From the very early days, it’s important that the responsibilities gets established.” She does acknowledge that sometimes new fathers feel helpless and don’t know how to contribute, which leads to the mother being more involved from the beginning. However, communication between the two parents is crucial, so that the mother isn’t burning out and feels burdened by the responsibility.
Mammen adds that setting a pattern for the shared tasks is not just important for the child, but for the couple, too. So they can let each other know when either is falling back. Moreover, they need to communicate that in a respectful manner and not be accusatory. She said that it would negatively impact both their relationship and the child.
A father’s perspective
Saad Aqueel, a Dubai-based communications consultant and PR professional, takes it a step further. The father of two-year-old Manha Ahmad finds it rather unreasonable that a mother should take on all the parenting responsibilities. He notes from his personal experience that when both parents play an active role in their child’s care, it strengthens the bond between the couple. “It also benefits the psychological well-being of the child,” says the Indian expat.
While his wife, Mariya Mukhtar, a homemaker is glad that she gets to spend significant amount of time with their daughter, she’s also grateful for the division of responsibility. “Despite his busy work schedule, he ensures that he spends quality time with her, engaging in playful activities, and taking care of her personal needs like changing clothes and sheets.” She notes that his weekends are completely ‘dedicated’ to Manha. “These seemingly small actions are instrumental in forging a strong bond between them,” she says.
Say ‘thank you’
Parents, mostly mothers, tend to feel like they’re not doing enough. There’s always something more, they believe.
Sparks can’t evade the overwhelming ‘mum guilt’, something that her husband doesn’t quite share. “He won’t feel guilty about being away, even travelling for work for months on end. I feel an enormous amount of guilt if I even miss a bedtime.” Nevertheless, he frequently encourages her to take breaks, to recharge and restore her energy.
Sharifa Yatim, a psychologist and behavioural analyst, from the Dubai-based Sharifa Yatim Center of Rehabilitation, emphasises the importance of keeping communication lines open between parents first, before anything else. “It’s important to show gratitude to each other. A mother, often, doesn’t hear those words, ‘Thank you for doing what you do’. ‘Thank you for doing this’.” These words wield a power of their own, and act like a comforting balm to both the parents.
Yet, what society also forgets is that being the mother is just one of the roles that a woman plays. As much as you try to convince mothers of this fact, it might not completely sink in. “But what you can do, is keep reminding them,” says Mammen. “They have different roles. They’re employees, teachers or bosses, so much more. Yet, they might neglect their own identity. They do it for the first few months after the child is born, but then if it goes on for years, they forget a part of themselves. When the kids go to college and it’s just the two of them at home, it begins to hit hard. Before the realisation comes, they need to keep being reminded of who they are.” If they don’t, they begin to feel a void.
He [husband] does the school drop-offs and pick-ups, and we divide the bed-time routines, manage meal-times and morning routines together. He really stepped up after our second child was born...
Women play many roles
The void is incomprehensible otherwise, and overpowering. In order to avoid this, a mother needs to be reminded of the other roles she does play in her own life. “So they can return to the parenting role when they feel refreshed, and not drained. Raising a toddler, or being with a teenager can be draining. We need to be realistic, and not idealistic being a mother or a father,” explains Mammen.
Both parents are going through different journeys and need to appreciate each other more. “It’s important to tell each other that they need a break. It’s not something to feel guilty about,” explains Yatim. The couple would have different ideas about bringing up a child, owing to their own childhood experiences and cultural backgrounds. This could potentially lead to a lot of conflict. This needs to be resolve and worked on, or else it could lead to problems.
Divya Menon (name changed on request), from Mumbai, India, recalls how conflicting opinions over child-rearing exposed the fissures in the relationship with her husband. After marrying a neurologist from Calicut, Kerala, at the age of 25, the couple settled down in Bengaluru. Soon after their marriage, they welcomed their first child. “We started fighting about how to raise the child. Our first fight was when he left for ten days after the baby was born. He went to be with his friends, and meet family, while I was struggling to learn how to look after the baby.” The fights grew far worse, as after the first few months, she started giving the baby milk from the bottle, occasionally. “He wouldn’t hear of it, and the fights grew really ugly,” she says. “He didn’t want anyone to come and help us, and refused my parents’ help.”
Menon felt drained, exhausted, while trying to look after her child as well as deal with a broken marriage. “He didn’t want me to work at all, which is different from what he said before marriage. He said that ‘it was best’ if I stayed home. He said that the child would need me for another seven years.” Finally, Divya decided that it was time to separate, eight months after the baby was born. She and her daughter live separately, now.
Taking turns and helping each other out
Before their child was born, Dubai-based couple Kanessa Muluneh and Remco Coerman were at first adamant that they wouldn’t readjust their lives for the baby. “We had no idea what we were talking about. In the first few months itself, our lives were consumed by Memphis [their first-born],” says Ethiopian expat Muluneh. Her husband is Dutch. Acknowledging that parenting is a joined effort, they also sought the help of their own parents. “Everything is 50-50 in our household. We are both equally important when it comes to running our household,” says Muluneh, saying she had no problem in asking for help from her parents.
It’s important to show gratitude to each other. A mother, often, doesn’t hear those words, ‘Thank you for doing what you do’. ‘Thank you for doing this’.
The couple have hectic and busy professions. Muluneh is the entrepreneur and CEO of a UAE-based fashion brand, while Coerman is a business consultant. Nevertheless, they make it a point to include their children in all aspects of their lives. “Sometimes I even bring my children along when I am doing photoshoots for work.” Muluneh and Coerman have two children, Memphis and Malyche, aged five and three years old.
On the other hand, Houda Naji and Casper Tribler found a way to raise their children despite their exhausting professions. A couple from Dubai, both of whom work in the tech industry, have had a daunting time raising their two children, Sofia and Julia, both aged 14 and 10. When their first daughter was born, Naji, a Moroccan national, resigned from a corporate job and opened her own digital agency to have more flexibility and time with her daughter. “She is a successful business owner, but being a mother has always been her top priority. And as for me, being present for my family despite my work responsibilities is crucial,” explains Casper, a Danish national.
They do not have full-time help, so they work doubly hard to ensure that the girls feel safe and understand that they can discuss everything with their parents. “We have learned to prioritise and manage our time effectively, ensuring that we are present for important events such as school plays, playdates, afterschool activities, and weekend quality time,” says Naji. Acknowledging that parenting is overwhelming, the couple say they take turns and help each other out, so that they can attend to their daughter’s needs.
Parenting a child with special needs and medical history
It’s a journey to acceptance.
Most of the time, parents with children of determination or children with medical conditions, go through several stages of “grief”, which vary in each case. After the child’s diagnosis, there are many factors to be taken into consideration, starting with ensuring that both the parents are on the same page.
“When the child does get diagnosed with a condition, the parents undergo a lot of grief. It’s as if they lost a child. Each parent goes through their own cycle, so it does affect the way they invest in their child, as well as the time,” says Yatim, saying that they need to be emotionally ready before building their parenting skills. “They need to understand their own life, their lifestyle, their professions and job requirements as a family, and only then we address the question of who is doing what.”
The attitude of the family is key to the child’s growth, including their response to the diagnosis, to the process of treatment, and cure, if at all. The child would respond to the environment and they will only learn through the experiences ensured by both the parents. “Teach the parent how to respond, and the child will learn. If one parent is doing something, and the other doing something else, it affects the child,” she explains.
It must be a shared responsibility, though Yatim notices that there have been several cases where it is the mother who has to take days off to meet practitioners, rather than the father. Not wishing to generalise, she notes that she has also seen many hands-on fathers. “Both parents need to be very open with their employers and let them know that they have a child with special needs, which will take a lot of time. Otherwise, they will be burnt out,” she says.
Ways for parenting to be a shared responsibility, as explained by the experts
• Respectful communication: Be honest with each other about what you are feeling first. Discuss your expectations. It can also get emotionally exhausting, especially for new mothers, so practice sensitivity. Each person might have different approaches to parenting, owing to their childhoods, which might initially lead to disagreements. Look for the middle path, and work to resolving conflicts, rather than letting it build up.
• Rethink your goals and reassess your priorities: Both of you might have had different plans for the future before the child was born. Take a look at your finances, see what is viable and what isn’t. Plan ahead, as a team.
• Make a list of the child’s needs
• Delegate responsibilities, who is doing what. For instance, if the mother is responsible for feeding, the father handles diapers.
• Plan your days off: If both parents have hectic professions, they need to see how they can divide their days off. For instance, if one parent has flexible timings, they can pick up the child from daycare, take him for medical appointments if needed. The other parent can book in advance for other school events, like a parent-teacher acquaintance.
• Appreciation: Remind each other that both of you are doing a good job, even if it’s for the smallest things. Be realistic, not idealistic. It’s alright, if you can’t always spend time with your child. As mothers suffer from a lot of guilt, fathers need to keep letting them know that they’re doing well.
• No shame in seeking help: It’s alright if you want to hire help when the load gets too much.