Women shifting up a gear: changing family roles
Whether by choice or necessity, more women are reversing roles with their husbands to become the main breadwinner for the household. Helena Frith Powell examines how the changed job landscape in the UAE has affected family dynamics.
Ask practically any expat why he or she moved to the UAE and the answer is “a job”. In fact, you cannot legally move here without one. With your job comes your visa, your health care, sometimes even your accommodation, your gym membership and your children’s school fees.
As Karen Scott, whose husband Tim lost his job as an engineer in Dubai last year, puts it: “Our status here as people is linked to working; you lose your job and you lose your identity. We are all here to work. It is the key to our UAE persona.” This is especially true for men because, more often than not, families move out here for the man’s job. As a woman, it is still not uncommon to be asked “what does your husband do?” Especially if you have children and a decent forehand. But since the credit crunch, the employment landscape in the UAE has been changing. As redundancies last year increased, more women found they had to take on the role of major breadwinner, with varying degrees of success. Karen, for example, found one of the big difficulties was not so much being the main breadwinner, but dealing with her husband’s feelings. “Being made redundant is traumatic,” she says. “It has major repercussions on family life and on your relationship. The ironic thing was that we had moved out here for Tim’s job. Mine was secondary, but I am glad I had it now.” According to Dr Raymond H Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, men in this situation can sometimes feel “psychologically impotent, because they feel they are being unsuccessful at providing for their families”. This is particularly prevalent in a foreign country, as Dr Hamden explains. “The job loss after moving to a new country and cultural environment with little or no host-nation support can be more difficult to adjust to since more effort and major change factors are involved. Job loss anywhere is difficult in itself, but the support of family and friends, and government assistance, can soften the effects and allay fears associated with being unable to provide and protect loved ones.”
When Karen’s husband lost his job, he also lost his status as a person: his visa, for example, and his right to have a bank account. Not to mention his social standing. “I remember one lunch we went to and the hostess asked him what he was up to, adding ‘oh well, you’re a man of leisure these days’. He stormed out,” she says. Karen, a 42-year-old accountant originally from New Zealand, became the main breadwinner for 14 months, supporting her family with her salary as a secretary in a bank. “At that moment I realised how difficult the whole thing was for him.”
Dr Hamden says reversing the traditional male/female roles can cause tension. “We know that men and women are different both hormonally and neurologically,” he says. “Men are made to provide and protect, and women to nourish and bond. You can reverse those roles and man can play ‘Mr Mum’ and women can take on the role of ‘Mrs Dad’, but because there is a contradiction to the neurological and hormonal system, then it can create a lot of vulnerability and tension. It is rather like forcing an extrovert to be an introvert.”
Some families make the transition by choice. Reema Traynor, for example, is one woman for whom this role reversal has worked out well. The 41-year-old media lawyer, who is originally from California but married to an Englishman, was offered a job with twofour54 as regulatory policy director here in Abu Dhabi last July. “It was a really good opportunity for me and really exciting professionally,” she says. “Paul, my husband, and I talked it over and we decided it was the right move for our little family.” Reema’s husband (see his story below) had been the main breadwinner as a project manager at Wembley Stadium in London when their first daughter was born, allowing Reema two years at home with her. He left this job to move to the UAE with his family. “Now it is his turn,” she says. “And who better to look after the girls than their father? I also think it is good for the girls to see their mum in a professional role. I think being a mother is the most important job in the whole world, but sadly it is not given as much validity as other jobs.”
She is grateful that her husband was willing to take on the role of principal caregiver while she took advantage of an exciting job offer. “Paul has risen to the occasion,” she says. “He not only looks after the girls, but he had the whole move to cope with, from furnishing the villa to sorting out the phone and so on, because I didn’t have the time to do it. I live seven minutes away from the office so I always see the girls in the evening even if I am working late. We have dinner together more often than not. Paul will sometimes cook; he makes a mean shepherd’s pie.” Reema doesn’t feel that the role reversal has been in any way detrimental to their relationship. It was a choice they made and although Paul will probably go back to work when their youngest daughter starts school, they are very happy with the way things have worked out. “And anyway,” she says, “we don’t really have defined roles; we are just a team.” But for some expatriates, such as those shaken by job losses in Dubai, it has become a matter of necessity for the woman to work, not a choice. And some men are finding it difficult to adapt.
When Jane Alistair’s husband lost his job as a telecoms analyst in Dubai at the start of 2009, they decided to make the most of it. “Our son was just five weeks old, so we tried to take a positive view and decided he should stay at home with him and I would go back to work,” says the 37-year-old, who moved to this country in 2001. “I didn’t plan to go back to work full-time that soon, but we figured that things happen for a reason.”
While her husband Andrew stayed at home to look after their son and his two elder sisters, Jane went back to running her successful human resources business, which consults with major banks on their HR policies and now employs three other people. It all worked well for a few weeks, but things started to deteriorate between the couple. “I have always worked and been successful, and I think being a successful woman is fine, as long as the men are as well,” she says. “It was never an issue when Andrew was working, even though I was actually earning more even then. I would say that the low point in our relationship coincided with the low point in his career. I think if the roles had been reversed, he would not have reacted in the way he did.” In fact, he had been so ashamed of losing his job that for a long time he told no one. “I had to pretend he was still working,” she says. “It was terrible. The only person I could tell was my best friend. I simply had to talk to someone. There were moments when I just wanted to sit at home and cry.” Obviously women breadwinners are not confined to the UAE. For Anna Blundy, a novelist, a columnist for The Times newspaper and a books editor at www.thebrowser.com, the strain was almost unbearable. “The whole episode was catastrophic for our relationship,” says the 39-year-old, who now lives in Tuscany and whose latest book, The Oligarch’s Wife, is published by Random House. “It is not just about who is the breadwinner or who isn’t, but about one person feeling guilty and resentful and the other feeling over-burdened and resentful.” When they married, Blundy says she never imagined that her husband’s not having a job would be a problem. “In 1998, I was made Moscow correspondent for The Times and was highly paid,” she explains. “I couldn’t imagine I would ever resent Horatio not working. He was working on a screenplay but not being paid. The last thing I wanted to do was to stay at home and bake cakes.” Things began to change when she had their first baby. Blundy began to long for the option of spending more time with her. As she says: “I didn’t realise my heart would break every time I left home.”
Finally she took the decision to “ditch my career” and return to the UK to write novels when she had her second child. “Basically I took a decision to be poor so I could spend more time with the children. It was very hard and made even harder by the fact that all my friends had the freedom to take a couple of years off to be with their children. I am ashamed of this as a woman and as a feminist, but I did start to envy people with a very wealthy partner and big houses who would say, ‘It’s the nanny’s day off; what am I going to do?’ Although I realise that even in my position I was far better off than a lot of other women around me.”
Blundy says that part of the problem was that she felt “100 per cent responsible for every aspect of our lives. It wasn’t as if he said, ‘I don’t want to work. I want to be at home, but you and the children will be brilliantly cared for and I will look after you when you get home from work’. You have to share the load. It isn’t just about the finances.”
That kind of resentment is something many women experience. As Jane, the Dubai-based human resources executive, puts it: “I started to wonder if my husband was making any effort at all,” she says. “I started to feel very frustrated.”
Jane’s husband eventually got a job in Kuwait, and he now commutes there every week. She doesn’t put all the blame on him for the tension they went through, but wonders if she could have done things differently. “Sometimes I think I brought this on myself,” she says. “We maybe should have left the UAE together as a family, but we didn’t because of my business. But I have worked hard to get it to a place I always wanted to get it to.”
Dr Hamden sees this scenario, where resentment is a big factor, quite often. “It’s a case of the woman thinking, ‘If you were a man you’d be earning the money and we wouldn’t be in this mess’, and the man is thinking, ‘If you didn’t think you were a man we wouldn’t be in this mess’.”
For Blundy, things are finally evening out after 12 years of marriage. Her husband has set up a PR consultancy and she thinks he is going to do well. She feels much happier. “It’s evolutionary isn’t it?” she says. “We are looking for wealth and safety, and they [men] are looking for youth and beauty.”
Some names have been changed.
“We moved to Abu Dhabi in September last year for my wife Reema’s job. I was a project manager at Wembley Stadium before we came here. Over the past six years while I was the main breadwinner, I have hardly seen our kids, Yasmin, now aged six, and Orlagh, aged two. I would leave home at 6.30am and come back at 7pm. We discussed it at length and were very positive about the move. Reema is very good at what she does, and I figured I am never going to get this opportunity to be with the kids again. I really think that men miss out. Kids soon grow up and you’re never going to get these years with them again. I can always go back to work; I have been doing what I do for 22 years. But I can never really get these years back with the girls. I do everything with them: the school run, the activities, cooking, you name it. The other day when my parents were over, I was in the supermarket and suddenly realised Orl wasn’t there. She normally goes everywhere with me, but they were looking after her. I turned around to find her and realised I missed her. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. I do take my hat off to housewives, though. I will never ask the question: ‘What have you been doing all day?’ What with getting up, getting breakfast, getting ready for school, arguing with Yasmin about what she should wear to school, shipping them in and out of the car, making sure Orl gets her nap at 12, I never seem to have a minute. I’m a lot more punctual now than I used to be. I’m really happy doing what I do. I enjoy my life. Reema and I still have some business interests in the UK that I look after, but I don’t feel any shame in being a dad, that’s for sure. There is no more rewarding job than bringing up the kids. The positives are endless. One small negative is that Reema’s not with us all the time. It would be nice if we could win the lottery and both stay at home, but that’s not likely.”
1 Try not to turn gentle reminders into nagging. 2 If a bed is not made perfectly or the washing-up liquid has been put back in the wrong place, don’t stress over it. Move on. 3 Do say: You’d look really hot in a pinafore. 4 Don’t say: What have you been doing all day? 5 Write a weekly timetable listing family activities (eg, children’s sport). 6 Plan nightly meals in advance. Write a weekly menu.
Claire Booth is a 39-year-old accountant, originally from Surrey, England, who now lives in Abu Dhabi. She and her husband Simon moved here four years ago. “It was not something we planned or even wanted to happen, really. When we got married we were both earning more or less the same. I was working as an accountant and my husband was a graphic designer. Then he decided to set up his own business. I suppose I should have talked him out of it, but I always encouraged his creative side and thought this would be a nice way for him to get away from all the office politics he hates and have more artistic freedom. I knew it wouldn’t be as secure as his job was, but I thought the upside would make it worth it. It’s not even as if we just had ourselves to worry about; he pays alimony to his former wife with whom he has one son. And we have two children of our own as well. The first couple of months were slow, which we expected. I had a lot of anxiety, but he kept telling me it would all be OK. But it really never was. He got a few clients but no really big accounts. One day in January last year, three clients called to say they were not using any external designers at all any more. I knew then we were in trouble and tried to get him to go and get a job straight away. He just kept telling me not to panic. After six months of hardly any work at all I was at my wits’ end. What would drive me mad, though, was that whenever he did get some work, he’d be so pleased with himself. “I earned Dh800 today,” he would say, neglecting to mention that he’d earned nothing for the past three weeks and actually, if you worked it out on a pro rata basis, that was actually less than a labourer earned a month.
Also, I suppose I wouldn’t have been so resentful if he’d taken charge of everything else in our lives. I was still doing the school run and organising all our shopping and meals. I used to look at him and feel waves of loathing rise in me when I thought about how stressed he was making me and how little effort he was making to change anything. I’m ashamed to say I would sometimes even sneak up on him to see if I could catch him reading the sports pages of The Telegraph instead of trying to find work. I was convinced that he was just coasting and I got more and more desperate. It all came to a head just before my 38th birthday last year. My mobile had been cut off because I hadn’t been able to pay the bill, my children were going to their school play in the wrong kit because I didn’t have the money to buy them what they needed, and I was sitting at home at 11pm about to send his ex-wife her monthly alimony from my personal bank account. Something in me snapped. I told him it was enough. I said I wasn’t prepared to do this any more, and I wasn’t prepared to have my children suffer. I said that from that minute, he alone was responsible for his ex-wife’s alimony and if he couldn’t find it then he would have to deal with her. He looked like a frightened child. I don’t think he expected it at all. He told me he understood and that he would sort things out. He said there was no reason I should be paying it. I don’t know why he didn’t say that a few months earlier; it might have saved our marriage. By that stage, I had got so fed up that I had completely fallen out of love with him. I just wasn’t interested in him any more and wanted him out of our lives. We are still in touch, of course, because of the children, and I am still the main breadwinner, but at least now I just have to support my own family.”
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019