Keeping up with the Janeses

A friend of mine showed me an hysterical email this week from her son’s new ‘Class Rep’. I am using ‘hysterical’ in both senses of the word, because firstly, the woman who sent it clearly has some major issues, and secondly it made me laugh uncontrollably that someone has worked so hard to conform to a stereotype that they’ve actually gone one further and become one.

The email went something along the lines of being terribly upset at the rest of the mums in the class for not all committing to attend a voluntary social function, insisting that it was insulting to her as organiser and had destroyed the spirit of the team. Despite the fact that the other mums who said they could go are still going, she has refused to attend, in the process alienating herself and making everyone else feel really awkward and slightly incredulous at the childishness of it all. It’s four weeks into the school year and she’s throwing her toys out of the pram and calling people names. I can only imagine what she’ll be like by International Day.

I’m rather thankful that I don’t run into many of these VIMs (Very Important Mothers). We live a relatively small development in Dubai, that appears to have mostly escaped infection, and due to my inability to be socially fully-functional I’ve successfully managed to befriend a total of zero of these horror show alpha-mums during my six years in the city. Even better, my son goes to the local school that no-one has ever heard of and is American curriculum anyway, so I’ve successfully swerved the typical (mainly) Brit-expat-mum nightmare of early morning fashion parades, pushy class reps and competitive parenting – the ‘Jumeirah Janes’, if you will – in favour of a far more laid back approach with mums who just want to create a community without all the pomp and circumstance and designer maxi dresses.

The term ‘Jumeirah Jane’ was coined many years ago, essentially to describe the non-working expat wives and mothers who hung out in coffee shops along Beach Road and relied on each other for support in the days when it really mattered – when it was a small town and people needed each other. I believe they gave themselves the name. It has altered over time from a rather catchy and fun definition into something of a blanket insult to all mildly unpleasant expat wives who don’t work, get their maid to bring up the children, and then bitch about it over coffee. I hate it when people label me as a Jane. Which has been known to happen, although I’d like to think once they get to know me, they see I’m just not committed enough to the cause to be a fully paid up member. But before anyone says ‘I think thou dost protest too much’, I guess I’ll admit I’ve been around long enough in Dubai to have a little bit of Jane rub off on me. But it doesn’t sit with me easily, and when I recognise it in myself I run my head into the nearest wall at high speed so it doesn’t happen again. Jane is the devil’s work, a beast to seduce even the most normal of women into ridiculous behaviour. It is a constant battle to resist the call of the honey highlights, neutral toned designer wardrobe and french manicures and remain with ten slutty-red painted toes planted firmly on the ground.

Anyway, as a bit of fun to stretch the poetic muscles a little, I put together a ditty in honour of the Class Rep who Shall Remain Nameless, because I think she, along with a few other horror stories I have heard of late, has managed to epitomise for me the spirit of the modern-day Jane, and has served as a reminder once more as to why I will never succumb to Janedom  – or VIMming for that matter. Enjoy.

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM, and I live in Dubai
My husband’s in oil or construction
I’m blessed with four children, a dog and a maid
And with Harvey Nicks and Bloomies to raid
I don’t have much time for a job I’m afraid
So I simply meet friends for luncheon

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM, and I live in Dubai
I have poker straight yellow hair
My forehead’s been smoothed and my arse has been sucked
My boobs have been lifted, my tummy’s been tucked
I’m regularly sanded and waxed and plucked
To look just like the others, so there.

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM, and I live in Dubai
I’m dressed just a shade less than mutton
My sunglasses perch on my head at all times
My iphone is poised to snap fashion crimes
If you see a white Prado it’s probably mine
(But my K-middy accent is put-on)

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM,and I live in Dubai
In a villa that’s been in ‘Ahlan’
My jewellery collection is big on the bling
No Karama for me, my Birkin’s the real thing
I bake cupcakes and daily I go to the gym
I’m a totally friggin’ perfect woman

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM, and I live in Dubai
I am fabulous, witty and rich
I have friends by the dozen to call on for tea
To play status games with surreptitiously
(I am sure that they secretly want to be me
Even though I am such an old bitch)

I’m Jane, I’m a VIM, and I live in Dubai
My career is to be a good wife
With no credit card limit I cannot complain
My identikit friends keep me reasonably sane
I’ll put up with Dubai ’til we move yet again
To the next tax free bolt hole in life

I want to break free

There’s no two ways about it: I want to go back to work. I don’t mean actual work of course; Working 9 to 5 (who ever finishes at 5, anyway?) in some grey office doing the bidding of a boss I can’t stand has never been my strong point and that’s not about to change. And I have a degree to start thinking about in January which will eat up large quantities of time I’m sure. No, I don’t mean I want a job…I mean what I said – I want to work. And I think I’ve finally figured out why I’ve flitted between so many different careers all these years – administrator, manager, writer, theatre practitioner, teacher: so I can do virtually anything on a need-to-work basis whilst remaining resolutely uncommitted to anyone except myself. In posh terms, I believe one would use the term ‘Freelancer’.


Dear patronising Worker Bees: Despite being a stay at home mum for three years, both sides of my brain are working just fine, thank you (Photo credit: TZA)

Of course the word ‘Freelancer’ is partly composed of the word ‘free’ which has several meanings. ‘Free’ can mean uninhibited, or unpaid. So let me be clear. I want to be paid. I don’t want to compromise on the time with my son but I would really like to earn my own money again and feel like I’m making a contribution to wider world once more. And despite my adoring fanbase whom I truly appreciate for all their kind words and encouragement, I am not making it a better place just sitting here faffing about with a blog. Nor is it earning me beans to buy shoes or birthday presents for my husband, who with the best will in the world must be slightly bored with his ‘surprise’ gifts turning up on the credit card.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Never mind that thing about having to use my brain again – despite evidence to the contrary, I use my brain almost all the time, every day. I have plenty to keep me busy and I’m not desperate for company, so whereas I thought I would eventually return to work to be around people again, this is not the reason. No, the reason is I want to have some earning power again, no matter how small. It has great meaning, to be able to earn your own money. It is synonymous with freedom and even the smallest amount would change how I feel. Some of it is about me, of course. I want to buy that dress I saw that would be perfect for Christmas without it appearing on a Mastercard statement for my husband to torture me with. But most of it is about pride, and achievement, and just the very basic happiness that can be derived from buying something with money you worked for. For example, I’d like to take my husband out to dinner and actually pay rather than ‘pretend pay’ with money that he gave me in the first place. I’d like to treat my son. I’d like to send myself flowers, and maybe send them to other people too, to make them happy and because I can. It’s not the stuff mortgages are made of but it’s the little things that I’m tired of not being able to do without relying on someone else to pay for it.

Not working is a curious state of mind. It is not easy to not work. If you’re not careful you start to lose respect for yourself at approximately the same speed that everyone else does. People that work don’t understand that people who do not have lives that are just as challenging. We do all the stuff the people that work don’t have time to do, but that add a little love into the world, like baking cakes or going to sports days or being on the PTA committee or keeping the house standing. Not all of it is fun and there are days when I wish I was in an office with a boss I don’t like, just so that I didn’t have to wait in for the electrician or look after a sick child. But a lot of it is fun, and valuable, and irreplaceable. I would not want to give up the time I have with my son when it’s just us and no-one else, nor would I want to watch the house disintegrate into chaos as a result of me resuming a full time career. And as an expat, I would not want a mere four weeks of holiday to take to see family and friends on two continents, nor would I want to be reliant on a housemaid to look after my child every day because I am not there.

I’ve talked a lot in the past about ‘having it all’ and struggled to find peace with only having ‘some’. I believe there is a balance and the more people I meet the more I understand what the balance is and how to achieve it. The next step is to actually do it. So that’s what I’m concentrating on now, to make the most of the many strings on my bow, new skills and old ones, and get out there and work them. I believe I will get there.

Crisis of conscience and the post summer blues

I have spent alot of time wanting my son to get older. To move past being a newborn, a baby, a toddler – to be the age he is now, really – that perfect moment in a child’s life where they are no longer a baby and have a degree of independence – but everything is still new and exciting and they want to share it with you. What I forgot to consider over the summer is that they move on from this. And if you push the agenda, it will go faster. And now as I see him changing before my eyes, I’m already lamenting the loss of my baby boy and feeling terrible because I think I am making it happen.

The Crystal Ball

The Crystal Ball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so sure I wanted my little boy at preschool this year. He’s a smart kid and a big kid and a September kid, and the school down the road has a September 15th cut off date, so I went right on ahead and put him in. He didn’t cry and he doesn’t look out of place amongst his class, who, it turns out, are mostly aged within six months of each other. But I wonder if I did the right thing by taking him out of nursery. That window where they are so cute and innocent and yummy will close before I know it and instead of putting the breaks on I fear I have sped up the process, making him move away from needing me more quickly than I truly intended. I miss him eating with me at lunch, I miss his little smile and I miss the coziness and security of nursery – and now he is in this big grown up school that I’m not sure I’m ready for anymore.

I feel like a terrible mother for making my just-turned-three year old dress up in a uniform and stay in someone else’s care from 8.30 until 1.30 every day. And yet, what was the alternative? Another year at nursery (which is only a half hour less, btw, and where they also wear a uniform) where he might feel less grown up, but quite probably get bored – and in a class that is one third as big again as the one he is in now, quite possibly be left to his own devices for more of the time? In these terms, he is better off where he is, in a class of 11 children and a wonderful classroom that has far more interesting things to explore than his nursery would be able to offer. So then I swing back and think that maybe it is all in my mind, that he will have a far richer experience where he is and I should just stop worrying. Maybe my judgement on this is clouded, and it is my experience I am missing after all the interaction I had with the nursery. Whatever it is, it’s bothering me. A lot.

I think having had a few weeks with just me and him on the road, there is also the Daddy Factor which is making me extra emotional. My boys have always worshipped each other, this much is certain, but since we got back to Dubai, my son has expressed clear favouritism towards Daddy and quite frankly, whilst I don’t blame him (there are times I like him far better than me too, and this past week may well be one of those times) it is very upsetting to think that all the hours I put in doing my best to be a good mother might be somewhat akin to pissing in the wind. Everyone assures me he doesn’t mean it, and whilst I remain unconvinced (he really has made it very clear) it has encouraged me to try harder at being a super dooper Mummy (I am nothing if not competitive). Dumping him off at school for 5 hours a day doesn’t really fit with that, making it doubly upsetting.

Oh, I don’t know, this is just a big ‘sigh’ of a post isn’t it? Maybe I just have to get back into the swing of things and I’ll be fine. After all, coming back here after nearly two months surrounded by everyone I know and love is a big adjustment for me too and I haven’t really had much time to get my head around that. I need to get to know the school and his teacher and be involved, and then I am sure I will be more comfortable with it all. I need to figure out fun things to do with my little boy when he gets home so that we can still play together and enjoy the time with each other. I need to start doing the ‘school mum’ thing and make some friends, and have some play dates, and figure life in Dubai out all over again. And I need to decide how to spend my own time while he is gone in a positive and productive manner so that I don’t wallow.

But mainly I need a crystal ball to tell me I’ve done the right thing.

Better late than never…a half year review

Well actually the year is nearly three quarters over but the end of the summer and the start of the school year seems like a good time to take stock and make sure there is still time to get the outstanding things done before the year end.

I am feeling pretty good about life actually. Almost to the point of smug,  but I’m not smug, I’m going to be 38 in a week for goodness sake and that is NOTHING to be smug about…no, really I’m just thankful that I worked it out finally this year, how to be an expat and a trailing spouse, and a mother, and not go crazy living in the sandpit.
The trick, I have discovered finally after a mere six years of trying, is to adhere to the Expat holy trinity :
1. Keep busy
2. Keep making new friends
3. Keep making the most of it
Keeping busy has always been the seemingly easy bit, but it would appear that historically I haven’t really been busy at all. I’ve been shopping, which is not the same thing. Now I am hurtling towards the start of a masters degree which will eat up most of my time whilst my son is at pre school, as well as spending my evenings in the pursuit of dramatic excellence. Inbetween times being the most excellent mother and wife of course. I am so fearful of this new version of busy I have (shock horror) started to think things like “when will I get my manicure done?” and secretly worrying I won’t have time for the gym and the occasional coffee in the sunshine, but my husband has reminded me that the hours will expand to fit it all in and I live in hope that he is right. I may have to compromise on Internet browsing and shopping trips but that is probably no bad thing. (god I sound like a spoilt brat).
As my son will be starting his new school in a few weeks I will no doubt be kept busy with this as well. And it will certainly be a time for making new friends. I will have to work hard to overcome my ‘do I really have to be endlessly nice to perfect strangers in the hope of finding one or two I actually like, AGAIN?’ issues, but I remain confident I can add a few new mummy pals to my depleted post summer collection in time for the cooler weather and a myriad of playdate opportunities.
Which leads, of course, to number three: keep making the most of it. We have a while left yet in the old girl that is Dubai before we pack up our kit bags, but it’s fair to say the majority of our years here are (hopefully) behind us and the majority of the hard work of baby/toddler parenting is also (hopefully) drawing to an end. So it’s time to get on with that bucket list.
Our son is three and the variety of things we can do with him grows week on week. Trips to the beach no longer require a flotilla of nappies, specially prepared lunches and endless toys. A bucket and spade, money for a hotdog and a towel are pretty much all that is required to spend several hours on the sand, which instantly makes the proposition a whole load more attractive. Going for brunch on the weekends has become a walk in the park since he stopped napping and figured out the iPad, and weekend evenings have become a far more relaxed affair since he proved able to stay awake without morphing into the devil child by 6pm. I am already dreaming of the moment some time in November when it will be cool enough to picnic at the polo or enjoy a pizza whilst watching the sun go down over the warm waters of the gulf – pleasures denied for the past few years but that I would dearly like to take advantage of before we leave this amazing life behind.
And the sand. The glorious sand. We have visited the desert a lot in a kind of sanitised 5 star hotel fashion, which i have little intention of giving up of course, but this Christmas time I hope we will be able to really make the most of living right next door to it and partake in some carolling, Dubai style, around a campfire amongst the dunes. In fact the build up to Christmas should be altogether alot more fun this year and I am looking forward to a much more relaxed time than the past few years when the business of having a small toddler has stopped us from taking part in many of the festivities.
There are so many things we simply haven’t done yet. There are waterparks to visit and zoo trips to be made and parks to be played in, amongst the beach/pool/desert activities that will fill our winter time and make us glad to be here instead of freezing in the dark damp of those dark satanic mills. We can go to watch the dolphins leap and see the king penguins waddle around the ski slope, and maybe even brave the Olympic ice rink to see if we have a future figure skater on our hands. And hopefully we will get some visitors this year to share all this with us, to make us make the most of it even when we are tired from all the keeping busy and making friends bit.
I guess it goes back to what I wrote at the start of the year. If we can just set aside the annoying bits about living here and be happy about it then it’s a good year done. So, September, and my return to Dubai, do your worst. I have my three laws of expatriate survival and my Q4 2012 Bucket list and I’m ready and waiting to come and get you.

Pink ticket weekend

So, last week, if you couldn’t tell by my post, included flying back to London to sit in a pub all day with my newly-turned-40 friend without the trappings of husband or toddler in tow. It was the first time I had left my son overnight since he was born, and despite some angst during the first few hours of the flight (which included me having a paranoid Jodie Foster moment and a quick weep in the toilets) I quickly adapted to my short-lived freedom and had an absolutely fantastic weekend.

You don’t realise how much your life becomes at one with motherhood until you don’t have to do it for a few days. Firstly, I was on time for everything. The only time I was late  it wasn’t because I’d had to make a last minute stop at the toilet, or because my son had the wrong shoes on, or didn’t have his preferred book in the car, or just plain didn’t want to go somewhere – it was mainly because I was having too much of a good time at the previous place to leave. Time takes on different dimensions with a child. As does the whole business of travelling around. I marvelled at just how fast I could get from the plane door to south west London with only hand luggage to think about, and zipping from Clapham to Chelsea to Hammersmith in high heels and with only a handbag to carry was the sort of breeze my dreams are usually made of.

Another revelation: I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. I didn’t have to get home in time for pick-up/lunch/dinner/bath/bed, and I didn’t have to think about the fifteen different meals that needed shopping for, preparing and cooking. I just had to decide what to wear (not difficult, see the ‘hand luggage’ mention for details) and leave the house, eat when I was hungry and come back when I was too drunk, too tired, or both. It doesn’t sound much but it’s a massive thing when you are used to always being on the clock. I managed to see more people in 48 hours than I will in 10 days when I next travel to London ‘en famile’.

Which leads me to the third monumental experience I’ve not had in well over three years and couldn’t possibly consider usually: All day drinking. What a revelation that I can still manage a full day in the pub. Admittedly I probably didn’t drink at the same pace as I did a few years back but I was pretty in awe of my constitution and ability to remain coherent, and better still I didn’t have a hangover the next day. That was probably the sensible mummy bit kicking in though. As well as the wine and the vodka there was a fair bit of water consumed. Let’s face it, you can’t erase that petrified feeling of coping hungover with a toddler in a mere two days.

clapham junction railway station sign

Beware of the pigeons

So it’s fair to say I had a fabulous few days, they were well earned and really needed. My son and husband survived without me and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again (although jury’s out on just how often my other half will put up with my absentee parenting). I missed them both immensely of course and the smile I got from my little boy when I saw him on Monday morning lit up my world. But the biggest downside was the most unexpected: waiting for the train at Clapham Junction to take me back to the airport, a pigeon unloaded onto me and my suitcase. Disgusted, I reached into my bag to find a wipe, only to realise that I didn’t have any with me. I used my Sunday Times to get rid of what I could and had to suffer the gross-out factor of bird-poo covered hand for the next hour until I was able to wash at the airport. The motto of this story: even if you should leave your child at home, always remember the wipes.

You know you are creating an expat brat when…

I’ve been poorly with the ‘flu over the weekend and so instead of getting some much desired family time I’ve spent most of the past few days curled up in a ball shivering. Whilst flaked out on the sofa I stumbled across this blog post about ‘Things you never said until you lived in Dubai’. It got me thinking about writing something myself but I couldn’t face the computer. Then my husband and son got home from Dubai Mall and – hey presto! The work was done for me.

Me: Where did Daddy take you for lunch?

My son (aged not-quite-three): We went to the Armani cafe

Me: Did you?! And what did you have to eat?

My son: I had a wagyu beefburger and fries and dip dip, but the dip dip was too spicy so I asked the man and he gave me some nice dip dip.

Me: A wagyu beefburger hey? Wow, aren’t you lucky?

Having picked myself up off the floor and raised an eyebrow to my other half, who claimed that ‘all the other restaurants were out of kids food’ I realised with a cackle of amusement and horror (I told you I was feeling ill) that we were indeed raising our own little expat brat. So here for your pleasure are the top 10 signs you might be headed that way too:

English: Dubai Mall

Mummy is this our new car? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. They automatically turn left when they get on the plane

2. ‘Lamborghini’ is one of their first 50 words

3. Princess manicures are a Thursday afternoon ritual

4. Their 3rd birthday party cost more that your first car

5. They refuse to wear any polo shirt that doesn’t have a horse sewn on it

6. They think all beaches come with free ice pops and a man that sprays you when it gets too hot

7. They are on first name terms with the staff at the Polo/Golf/Beach club (or indeed, all three)

8. You buy them the cute little housework set from ELC and they leave it outside the maid’s door

9. They can operate Skype before they are out of nappies

10. They think gold and silver are part of the colour spectrum

I believe the children are our future…

I seem to be quoting Whitney a lot these days. I have no idea why, she was only ever relevant to me during a particularly terrible set of Modern dance lessons I had in the mid-80s, when our teacher choreographed ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ so badly it shall forever be remembered as ‘the step-ball-change dance’. The next time I paid any attention she was dead (Whitney, not my dance teacher, although she might be too for all I know) and it was Glee season 3, and now suddenly I’m full of big ballads and bad disco dancing.

Anyway, I digress: what I really wanted to write about today was on a slightly more serious topic. We have just made some huge decisions on my son’s schooling, and the weight of the responsibility sits heavier on my shoulders than I ever imagined it would. The worry that you will somehow fail your child because you didn’t give them the best start in life they could possibly have is, I suspect, a pretty universal one. However I do think that expats have it particularly hard when it comes to deciding where and when to send their children to school.

When we came to Dubai we were a newly wed couple with absolutely no responsibilities to anyone except ourselves. It didn’t occur to me for a second that I would be here long enough to a)have a child and b) have to send him/her to nursery, never mind school. So I didn’t really pay a lot of attention, even when I got pregnant, and even though I was actually a teacher for crying out loud.

But now, as my son approaches his third birthday, it is crunch time. Schools here generally start accepting students from aged three, a full year before the UK equivalent of Reception class (if you’re from the US, it’s the equivalent of a Pre-KG class). They are fee-paying and predominantly run for profit and there is a severe shortage of places at the popular ones. And so the problem is, if you don’t put them into these schools at aged three, you may well miss the boat.

What is the idea on the blackboard?

Schools can be a little pushy here. Drawing by Olivia from Arabian Ranches, aged 3.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People here seem to enjoy having lots of babies. The city is teeming with toddlers. The population naturally seems to thin out as children get older but many schools in Dubai are ridiculously over-subscribed at Foundation stage level.  To get into the top ones you have to register them at birth or be married to an Emirates pilot. It is horrendously competitive and nerve wracking to say the least, that you may have to take your second, third or even fourth choice of school because you waited until their first birthday to think about it. Schools can get pretty pushy about things too and over the years it has become the norm to assume that you must pack your child off to school as early as possible in order that they succeed in life. One particularly cunning plan recently employed by a very reputable school here has been to open a nursery, and then send an email to all the parents who are on the wait list for future academic years indicating that it doesn’t matter when you applied, priority will be given to the children who attend the nursery. So if you can send your child to school shortly after the umbilical chord is cut, you should probably get a place.

Which is why we have gone against the crowds and instead chosen an American school in the rural backwaters of Sports city.  Despite a plan to accept students from aged three all the way up to 18, the school is relatively new and still undersubscribed, giving it a more local feel than the other giant behemoths that operate here. It is three minutes from our house versus the half hour commute I would have to undertake four times a day to take him anywhere else. It doesn’t come with the usual snobberies nor does it subscribe to the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos that frankly seems a little harsh to be putting on a child barely out of nappies. Instead it appears to genuinely embrace individuality, and childhood, and the sheer enjoyment of learning. To top it all off, it is the nicest, cleanest, friendliest school I have visited, with some of the best facilities. It might not enjoy the ‘Outstanding’ status of some of the more popular schools but I’m pretty sure my son will benefit in other ways from a cosy class of 15 for the first two years of his academic career – and at the same time absorb an American culture and education that, being of dual nationality, is important to us that he have, and not something that he would get from an English school in Dubai (or one in England, for that matter).

I am pretty confident we have made the right choice and now my attentions turn to the UK, to look at securing him a place somewhere that I am equally sure of. The conundrum for many expats is you never know how long you’re staying or when you’re going to leave. So you have to plan properly for a future in two different places and ensure that your child receives the best potential possible start in life on opposite sides of the world. You need to believe that the chosen expat school provides an educational experience equal in all measures to that of one at home, and you need to ensure the school you choose if or when you return home is going to be the right environment to help your child cope with a huge and often overwhelming change in circumstance. We have chosen to apply to private schools particularly to try and avoid potential issues that relying on screaming into the state school system at the 11th hour may throw up. But private schools in the UK come with the same personality disorders as they do here. I am already put off by a couple of them because they display precisely the same kind of horrid, faintly sit-com-esque middle class snobbery I have seen in Dubai. However, I have high hopes that the others I am visiting will prove to be just right. I really hope so, because if he is happy at his Dubai school, one of the most vital and potentially traumatic decisions we will face making in the future will be transplanting him to a new one in a place he is completely unfamiliar with.

It’s another thing no-one mentioned when we moved to Dubai. And they didn’t mention it when we became parents either for that matter. The responsibility to ‘get it right’ is always huge, but extends further – much further – when your child is an expat. It’s so confusing to know what to do. Our son was born and raised (to date) in the Middle East, and we (his parents) come from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Where will he call home in the future? How will he identify himself? Which education system should he follow? Will it even matter to him or to anyone else? How will it affect him, when we eventually do pull him away from everything familiar to him, from everything that he calls ‘home’, because it is categorically not our ‘home’?  I guess only time will tell. In the meantime, we hope that the decisions we make are the right ones, and do what all parents do: Our very best.