Single mums
Clockwise from top left: Samereen Bukhari with her son; Nilufar Yuldash with her son; and Alison Rego with her daughter. Image Credit: Supplied

“When Ali started going to school and he was learning about family structures and members of the family, he started realising there was something different about ours, and that element left a big gap in him,” says expat mum Samereen Bukhari.

The Dubai-based expat says the conspicuous absence of a father disturbed him. “It was a very sensitive [topic]. I really don't know now how I managed [to explain it to him] but I gave him examples of some our family friends, who had kids who were slightly older, but had similar circumstances. He looked up to them because they gave him a lot of attention. I would say, ‘Look at them, they don't have their Baba [father] with them but the mums are managing. I will be with you throughout, no matter what. Obviously, he goes through that phase sometimes. But over time, I think he has learned that this is how it's going to be and he chooses not to talk about it.”

Bukhari has juggled solo parenting, work and self-care for over seven years. She says it’s a tough job, but family support has helped her rise to the occasion.

Financial aspect

“My son calls my brother baba,” she says. And he’s there to do all those things that a father would generally do with a child – play ball, have a heart-to-heart talk, and soon, show him how to shave. But besides providing a male role model, the family extended other crucial support too. She says: “People don't talk about [the fact that being] a single parent [comes with] a lot of burden with regards to finances. And being a woman, it's even more difficult because you have to get the finances and you have to make sure that your child is going to school [and everything that entails]. Fortunately, my family helped with that [whenever I’ve needed help] – especially when I needed to take a break from my career and shift to part-time work to be with my son.”

Without tag-teaming, it also becomes more difficult to keep an eye on a child’s exposure to media, digitalisation – and therefore safety – and meet their demands. “Kids today are exposed to a lot of stuff. I mean materialistically,” says Bukhari. “Like, when we were growing up, we did not have access to …e-gaming, PS5. Even at school, the model of the education has changed [often they need tablets]. Besides living a very basic decent life, it's quite challenging to keep up with the trends,” she adds.

She offers an example of her now nine-year-old son’s brush with ‘stuff’. She recalls: “When my child started growing up and saw others around he would see other children having [tech and] it became very difficult to make him understand why he would not have [a gadget or phone]. You have to live up to their expectations. And that comes with finances.”

Mum guilt is very closely linked to an impossible 'good mother' standard. If you take a moment to consider what a good mother does and looks like, it very quickly becomes clear that no one can realistically achieve those standards.

- Sarah Babiker

When people talk about single parents, Bukhari suggests, they don’t understand parenting solo. “Sometimes, [the people] are officially divorced or separated; sometimes, the husbands are living abroad,” she adds. This shift in gear helped Bukhari, she says come out of her shell, to stop feeling all alone.

And conversation, Bukhari says, has helped her son define, examine and analyse his own thoughts and feelings. “He's not gone into a cocoon, you know. He's very vocal about how he feels, what emotion. And he lets them out. There are some children who suffer a lot in silence. But he makes sure he puts his mind forward so I know how to tackle the problem,” she says proudly.

The mum guilt conundrum
Motherhood is a tough job, but should one falter – as is inevitable, the very real consequence is mum guilt. This is especially true for solo mums. Sarah Babiker, UAE-based life coach and Founder of More Than A Mother programme, explains: “Mum guilt is very closely linked to an impossible 'good mother' standard. If you take a moment to consider what a good mother does and looks like, it very quickly becomes clear that no one can realistically achieve those standards - vaginal birth, C-section, formula, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, separate crib, stay at home, go back to work, have a clean home, love playing with your children - it goes on and on and on. What happens is that mothers strive for these standards because it's what they've been conditioned to believe is the right thing to do. They exhaust themselves and do things that don't ring true for them because they just really want to be good mothers. Then at some point, the exertion becomes too much and they feel overwhelmed, burned out, or outright exhaustion and end up dropping one of the many plates they've been trying to juggle. When that happens, guilt creeps in to convince you that you are a bad mother for not coping, and eventually get you striving all over again.”
Ask the most important question of all, says Babiker, if you feel guilt start to set in. “Ask yourself whether you are feeling guilty because you have gone against your own values or against society's. If you have gone against society's expectations, then you can let it go because the expectation wasn't yours to start with. If you really have gone against your values, that's totally fine. We aren't superheroes. We're allowed to make mistakes. What you can do is come back to your values, show yourself self-compassion, and repair with your child - that can look like an apology, a conversation, or even a hug (depending on the developmental phase your child is in and the nature of your relationship with them).”

Daily struggles

UAE-based life coach Wafa Khan says that when working with single mums, what really stands out is their own struggle. “See, when they're struggling, they cannot deal with whatever the child is. And even the child is reacting to the mum’s struggle. And that is where they feel helpless.

“Another thing that I see is how the community or the people around them support them, how much support they're getting in, you know, in their daily life, with handling the papers from schools, there's an increasing demand of them to earn more and fulfill needs. They want to put their children in a good school - that comes with a price.”

When mum's struggling, she cannot deal with whatever the child is. And even the child is reacting to the mum’s struggle. And that is where they feel helpless.

- Wafa Khan

The only way forward, to be an effective – and stronger – parent for one’s child, she says, is to work on one’s own resilience. “The best investment a mother can ever do for herself, is work on herself… her emotional needs, psychological needs, because everything starts from there.”

Summer plans are special

Alison Rego, who is Dubai-based single mum, adds that summertime puts a special strain on the budget. “Whether it’s hiring a nanny or enlisting in a summer camp, parents need to consider the extra money needed,” she says. For now, Rego has sent her nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter to India for some vacation time with grandparents. “I miss her more than she misses me, but I try to stay busy. You know, it's also a good thing to be apart from your child sometimes. Otherwise, you don't get to be yourself. So yes, there are negatives but, my belief in life is, with every challenge comes an opportunity for something else.”

Bukhari, meanwhile, takes a deep breath when asked about her summer plans with her son. “After Covid-19 hit, this summer will be the first time I’ll be working a full-time job while he’s off school. It’s a challenging situation for me,” she says.

But in the long run, this return to work will build character. She explains: “I want him to learn and understand that his mum worked hard, and with hard work you achieve things. Things don't come easy in life and should not be taken for granted.”

In previous years, she says, she kept the kids busy – her son and his cousins – by:

  • Taking them to movies
  • Enrolling them in a summer camp
  • Hosting sleepovers with friends and cousins.
  • Get them to do activities that develop a skill such as basketball or football or swimming.

This year, she says: “I have decided to enroll him in educational activities, so that during the day he can develop on those skills as well. Then there are some cooking bakery classes … I would, if he's keen on that, want him to develop on that side. And the rest of the day, like in the evening, over the week, I would put him in different outdoor sport activities. So he's being productive while I'm not around on certain days. Then, there’s dinner and movie or Netflix.”

Nilufar Yuldash, single mum to an eight year old, hails from Uzbekistan. She says summer can be tough on single mums. “Today, summer camps run only until 3pm; before Covid-19, they’d continue until 5 or 6pm. No meals are provided in summer camps, so I need to cook every night and prepare lunch box every morning. In addition, camps are expensive at an average of Dh900 a week, not counting transport,” she says.

“Fortunately, my organisation is okay with me working hybrid over the summer months. I’ll be in office until afternoon and continue from home once I pick up Kamron.”

“In August, I am planning to bring my mum over because I have a lot of projects to focus on so my son can stay home with her,” adds Yuldash.

Mums tend to draw the short end of the attention stick. “When you get into a mother's role, you just focus on that you feel your life is just around being a mother. But I'm a human first, I'm a woman first and I like to socialise, too,” says Bukhari, adding that she does manage to eke out some time for herself and her pals. “A cup of coffee with friends does perk up your mood,” she says. “When I need to go, I send my son over to my sister-in-law’s house (we live in the same neighbourhood). When you are a single parent, having a support system, I think is very important.”

Single and co-parenting

Estranged they may well be, but sometimes mums and dads must co-parent. This is especially true during the holidays. UAE-based Holistic Life Coach Cassie Mather-Reid offers the following tips:

1. Communication is crucial: This is true in all aspects of a relationship and talking openly is the best place to start. If we don’t know something, it’s very difficult to understand, so share your own experiences growing up, and your expectations for raising a family. You should feel able to do so without judgement and offer the same safe space for your (former) spouse.

2. Set some parameters: How we react in the moment is mainly driven by emotion, and it can be hard to respond from a place of perspective. Instead of waiting until your child does something, agree on a basic set of rules to follow as parents.

It’s not always easy to admit things, even to ourselves, and journaling is a great form of expression. Write down how you feel about your parenting journey, then share it with your partner.

- Cassie Mather-Reid

3. Understand yourself: One of the most important things you can do to improve your relationships with your children is to focus on yourself. List the areas where you’re happy, those you may need further support with, and any unresolved issues from the past.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for support: It takes a village to raise a child and support their parents. Everyone benefits when you feel heard and acknowledged.

5. Journal your feelings and expectations: It’s not always easy to admit things, even to ourselves, and journaling is a great form of expression. Write down how you feel about your parenting journey, then share it with your partner.

6. Take a step back: Understand that children will develop their own personalities and make their own mistakes – as a child grows, their personality becomes more clearly defined. They need to feel safe to express themselves even if their character and temperament seem very different to yours.

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