Meet the single fathers of UAE
They may be in the minority, but these men - who are taking on the challenge of juggling full-time provider with full-time parent - are worth celebrating every day, and not just on Father's Day
The reality of the lone parent is not a new one to the modern-day reader. But more often than not, it is the single mum that's lauded for her relentless struggle to make ends meet. The single dad? He languishes in her shadow. That disparity in demographics has a lot to do with mothers usually becoming the primary caregivers in split families - but it is no less reason to celebrate the minority: those superdads that singlehandedly juggle the dual roles of full-time provider with full-time parent. Father's Day has just passed us by - celebrated on June 21 in the UAE - so here's a shout-out to all the fab dads who're giving their kids every reason to look up to them.
Ali Ramadan, 39
Dad to: Two girls, aged nine and five
There was a time Lebanese expat Ali Ramadan had a very "caveman or flowchart" approach to life and opinions. Not anymore. As single dad to two young girls below the age of 10, the 39-year-old found his life turned upside down when he and his wife split in January last year. Now, it is all about finding the very fine balance between being main breadwinner and main guardian. And, of course, more complex opinions. "It's no longer enough for me to tell the girls a dress looks good or bad," relates Ali, in a conversation peppered with excellent humour. "I have to comment on the colour, and the material, and the fit, and whether their nail polish complements their skin tone, or their accessories go with their hair."
Self-deprecating jokes notwithstanding, he admits the learning curve has been steep, with the dad-of-two picking up on several skills he'd never had to know before: like fixing the girls' hair, ironing, baking Mac 'n' Cheese - even offering sage advice when the girls have "issues with their besties", and becoming a formidable expert in debating which shaving foam, glue or detergent powder can help create slime that's bouncier or fluffier [parents of junior school kids will know what he's on about].
More than anything, he's been able to better appreciate what a two-parent partnership brings to the parenting equation. "I never got it back then: how much work it was to take care of the kids' meals and studies, and keep the house clean," says Ali. Even the balance of 'good cop' and 'bad cop' is a tightrope: where once they split those roles, Ali today has to embody both - which can lead to some confusion for the girls. "If I suddenly have to go from fun mode to discipline mode, the 180-degree turnabout does puzzle them a bit, and they wonder: 'Where did the clown guy go?"
Ali's parents are his lifeline, helping him out with the kids when he has to work during the day - something he's unspeakably grateful for. His employers too have been very understanding of his requests to leave work early on occasion, if the kids have a doctor's appointment or a swimming class to attend. The emotional toll can get a bit much at times. "I'm out of my depth every day," admits the Dubai-based operations support manager. "It's like being on constant standby, which can be stressful."
His kids used to have questions about "why mommy [who they saw on weekends] wasn't sleeping in their house" - and Ali has been working to explain things to them in age-appropriate ways over the years. "Single parenthood is not something I'd wish upon my worst enemy," he says. "It's tough to see the girls having to adapt to something that's not their fault... even though they've been very resilient so far." He is apprehensive about the future, when the girls may need support in ways he believes only a mother can provide. But he's taking it one day at a time for now. And though he hasn't ruled out finding a new partner, he knows it will involve a very selective process.
Despite the taxing nature of his days, he says he can never deny the little joys: of playing with the girls, watching movies with them, opening the door to have two little bodies hug him tight, arguing with them about keeping his beard ("They want it off, and I may have to comply!"), tucking them into bed, and - what has become a key element in their lives - reading them their bedtime story at night ("during which they transform into the world's number one critics on how stories should be told!").
To single dads or just dads, he offers these maxims: "Spend as much time as you can with your kids. Appreciate your partner - or the next one. And never take anything for granted."
Giorgios Retsinas, 39
Dad to: Two boys, aged five and four
For American expat Giorgios Retsinas, taking on his boys was "the most natural, effortless decision in the world" when his marriage had 'run its course'. "There was no second-guessing required; my former partner and I discussed it and it was clear that I was better placed to be the primary caretaker (as she travels 90 per cent of the time)," says the 39-year-old. And that was that. "The boys were so young at the time that they didn't really notice the difference."
A typical day in the Retsinas household sees the boys wake up at 7am, indulging in some play time with their dad for 30 minutes, before he prepares their breakfast and readies them for the school bus at 8.30am. After they return from nursery at 3pm, Giorgios talks to them about what they did in school, followed by nap time and homework or Greek lessons. Evenings see them head out to a play area before it's time for a shower and bed.
"I've been fortunate that my work allows for a lot of leniency where hours are concerned," says the corporate communications director, who travels to Dubai a couple of times every month on business. Occasionally, he'll have to work on the weekends, but he takes the boys to the office on those days - and neither his employers nor the kid's mind.
What's tough are his absences, when he has to travel for work. "They understand when I'm not there, but they have no concept of how time works yet. A week and a fortnight are both the same to them. My younger son, for instance, refers to everything as 'yesterday', so will always ask, 'Baba come home yesterday?'" Those moments are amusing, but being away from them is hard, says Giorgios, whose mum steps in to help whenever he has to travel.
Has he had to answer any tough questions about family dynamics yet? "My younger son asks questions and answers them himself," he explains. "He relates absence with work. So if I'm not around, in his young mind, I'm not at the gym or with my friends - I'm at work. So, for him, he believes if mama is not around, she's at work. There is truth to that to some degree... But that conversation will take its course when it's appropriate."
Giorgios says he has had to become far more efficient after the split. "Every decision I make always ties back to my children now. When you have a partner, you can go, say, for an errand without a second thought, but I'm very mindful of the boys now. It never used to matter if I came home at exactly 3.30pm, but now the kids know that, as soon as they get out of school, it will only be a matter of minutes before they see my face. So there's a lot more structure and consistency to everything now - which has made me a better person."
Parenting, as a whole, is very challenging, but Giorgios consciously practices a lot of mindfulness because he knows he's 'raising two little men' - and that puts everything in perspective. "I remind myself that no matter what the challenge, these boys are mine. All they know is me. They interact with other people, but their core, their rock, is Baba. So, the example I set for how I react to challenges or treat people around me is going to significantly change how they see the world."
In a partnership, there's a balance: one can take the load off when the other is down. But as a single parent, Giorgios says there are no days off. "If I'm not modelling good behaviour in the face of difficulties, I need to re-evaluate what I'm doing. So, every morning, I remind myself that my situation is about more than me. Knowing that can really help you rise to the occasion, as need be."
Atul Dhawan, 50
Dad to: Two sons, aged 22 and 18
When Atul Dhawan parted ways with his wife of 17 years in 2009, he had just one condition: he would not part with the children. The kids were 13 and 10 at the time. Having won primary guardianship, he says, "Hardly anything else changed in our routine. We'd always had a full-time help and driver at home. So, the boys' routine needs were not impacted in any way." That's not to say the youngsters weren't affected by the split - but Atul's approach is very pragmatic. "Which child will not be affected by a divorce? But that's just life sometimes."
The entrepreneur says he's 'heartless' ("I'm the Charlie Chaplin kind of guy, who loves dancing in the rain so no one can see his tears") - but the colourful pen holder his younger son crafted in school that now sits in his office desk drawer suggests otherwise. There's also a tiger showpiece he keeps on his desk - a souvenir picked up for him by his son during a cricket tour to Kenya - not to mention, the two fake Mont Blancs to go with the pen holder. "He knows they're my favourite brand and that I always carry two at a time. He couldn't afford the real ones, so he got me replicas."
A regular day, back in the day, would often see the Indian expat wait 30 minutes for the school bus with his sons every morning. When they shifted neighbourhoods, he dropped them to school every day, even though their driver was always at hand. And in the evenings, he insisted on sharing a meal with them. "Even if I had official dinners, I'd make sure I sat with them while they ate, no TV or gadgets, just the three of us, before attending the engagement," says Atul, who has called Dubai his home for the last 26 years. "I believe families that eat together stay together. It never happened during the years prior to the divorce, but I made it a rule after. They were just a few minutes of interaction, but I treasured them."
Today, the boys are all grown up and have 'flown the coop', so to speak: the older one is an aspiring Broadway performer living in New York, the younger pursuing a professional career in cricket. "They're living their dreams - and that's all I ever wanted for them: to ensure that they can stand on their own two feet. I believe they can, and I'm proud of them for that."
'Exhausting' is not a word he'd use to describe his journey so far. "It's been challenging, yes - but that's the responsibility I took on by bringing them into this world. I know single parents who go so far as to say, if they could do things over, they wouldn't fight for custody. The boys and I have had our fights, but the choice to keep them would be one I'd make 500 times over." The rewards are in the moments. "It's the moments of human interaction that matter," says Atul, who owns Sakshi Advertisting & PR in Dubai. "Nothing else. And if the boys - both of whom are talented - make it big in their fields, that will be 'reward' enough for me."
If anything, he says, the challenge of single parenting was made less daunting by his mother, who herself became a single parent at the age of 42, and who modelled "an ever-smiling spirit" in not walking away from her own three children in that situation. "I saw the strength with which she kept the four of us together, even when there was barely any money in the house. She taught me to take my responsibilities head on."
Now, after nine years of singledom, the 50-year-old has just tied the knot - and he is elated. "My friends kept telling me I 'lost' nine years of my life. I never saw it that way. It wasn't a 'sacrifice' for me, because for all those years, I never wanted a companion. I was happy with the boys. Now that they are grown, I feel I'm ready for companionship again - and they are happy for me too. That's just the way life has rolled."
Our favourite single dads on the big screen
Pursuit of Happyness (2006) - Don't we all love a good true story? Will Smith's portrayal of entrepreneur Chris Gardner's struggle with homelessness and single parenting tugged at heartstrings the world over. His incredible determination to make ends meet is one that single dads everywhere will relate - and raise a toast - to.
Finding Nemo (2003) - The title gives this coming-of-age animation film away. Marlin is a widowed clownfish whose paranoia provokes his son, Nemo, into 'running away'. But Nemo is soon captured by a scuba driver, and Marlin must enlist the help of a blue tang fish with a serious short-term memory to get his son back, as he learns some heavy-duty parenting lessons along the way.
Despicable Me (2010) - Supervillain Gru adopts three girls, his sole intention being to use them as part of a nefarious scheme. Naturally, things don't go as planned. Between ballet classes and bedtime stories, he finds himself becoming a sucker for their boisterous ways. Bonus points to this dad for being willing to love these girls 'to the moon and back' - literally!
Three Men and a Baby (1987) - Does this count, considering it's three single men co-parenting a child? We're going to say yes, just because it really was an adorable comedy. not to mention the biggest American box office hit that year. Three bachelors find their happy lives interrupted by the arrival of a baby on their doorstep. Gotta love how they give up all other women as they now have eyes for 'one girl only'.