Dubai-based single moms talk about solo parenting

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MUMMY AND ME: Abbie Kadom with her son, Yousif, aged seven
MUMMY AND ME: Abbie Kadom with her son, Yousif, aged seven

Celebrating the spirit of motherhood through the eyes of a few Dubai-based brave hearts who found themselves taking on the parenting trail - solo


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 16 Mar 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 24 Mar 2017, 11:06 PM

Not too many people wake up and decide they'd like to raise their baby on their own. By death or divorce, single motherhood, usually, tends to be a situation you're thrown into. If motherhood is the 'toughest job in the world', single moms say: try slugging it out on your own.
As the UAE gears up for Mother's Day this week on March 21 (yes, we're two months ahead of the rest of the world), some of Dubai's own been-there-doing-that single moms talk about finding strength and happiness in the midst of trials, especially when it's them "against the rest of the world".

'I'm proud of myself - and I want to tell the whole damn world'
The first thing that strikes you about 35-year-old Abbie Kadom is her unreserved willingness to talk about her life story, warts and all. No anonymity or 'initials-only' requests, no feeling sorry for herself at all. She abounds with life, laughs and insights - a truly stark contrast to the half a dozen other women we asked who preferred to decline (for their own reasons; and we can respect that, of course, but the disparity really was like a breath of fresh air!).  
When Abbie separated from her husband in 2010, she was the first person in her family "for generations" to get a divorce. She didn't know how to cope and nobody around her did either. Trying to raise her son, Yousif, by herself in the Middle East was not a practical solution, so she returned to Canada, where she'd lived most of her life before first coming to the UAE in 2000. It was terribly isolating. Her immediate family was still in Dubai, but Abbie soldiered on for four years, relying on daycare facilities and government-assisted programmes to look after her son during the day while she worked to keep their two-member family unit afloat.

In 2014, not wanting Yousif to grow up without any memories of family, she decided to return to the UAE. She got a job as an office manager at APCO Worldwide and worked out a co-parenting schedule with Yousif's father, who sees him once a week, while she remains the primary caregiver. Abbie is honest and admits that, perhaps a few years ago, she would not have been okay to talk about her journey thus far. But she's not ashamed anymore - because she's no longer looking at what was; she's looking at her son and what can be. "I'm not saying this because I'm his mum, but he's so well-rounded," she beams, unable to keep the pride out of her voice. "He's an athlete, an A+ student, popular with his peers."

It's a pride that comes from a sense of achievement, an uphill battle well fought. "When you get divorced, your self-esteem gets annihilated. I never thought the day would come when I'd be secure. My home is small and my car is old, but they're mine. I got my job on my own qualifications; not through wasta [influence]. I came up from zero with a baby, at a time when I just wanted to die. So, yes, I'm proud of myself - and I want to tell the whole damn world."
If you're thinking single parenting should be more of a breeze because it's 2017, you've obviously not had to figure out a way to attend an important client meeting while showing your face at your kid's school play at the same time. "The hardest part about being a single mum is stretching yourself," says Abbie. "I cannot be everywhere and it breaks my heart to make these choices sometimes. On Thursdays, after school, all the moms at Yousif's school go to the park with their kids. I can't because I'm at work. I tell him it's okay, to go with the nanny, but it kills me to not be there with him when all the other kids get to be with their mums."

It helps greatly that her managing director is extremely understanding of her situation, and allows her to work from home if Yousif is sick, or leave a little early if the kid has a homework project he needs help with. With five single moms across the APCO UAE offices, Mamoon Sbeih, managing director for the Arab region, explains why the firm doesn't share the usual reservations most employers do about hiring single mums. "Our people are our most important assets. When you find really good people, you figure out a way to make it work. Like other single mothers in our office, Abbie's first priority is her son - just like my greatest priority is my family and my three sons. Technology today helps us balance work and family priorities much more easily. But ultimately, it's about trust and communication - two areas in which I find all of our single moms are experts."

Despite the current cutthroat economic climate and the constant focus on bottom lines, Mamoon insists organisations can - and must - find ways to support this often-scorned segment of society. "Experience as a single mom is something to be rewarded, not penalised," he feels. "In my view, their ability to juggle the massive amount of responsibility involved with being a single mom and working full-time is something that sets them apart from many other colleagues."

For Abbie, the guilt that comes from the constant multi-tasking can be overwhelming. "You're never fully present in the moment because you have one million things to take care of - work emails, soccer practices, birthday parties, new shoes." So, she tries to compensate in little ways - like waking up at 5.30am everyday just so she can make Yousif breakfast (even though his nanny could do it). "I go to his games and cheer along with the other dads, though I'm not a soccer mom. I dislike video games too - I'm a girly girl - but I do these things with him because I don't want him to think he missed out."

The seven-year-old has a lot of questions - and he gets a lot of questions too - but if it's one thing he's sure of, it's his mum. "He's so proud of me," she laughs. "The other day at school, his friend commented to him about how strong his dad looks. Yousif told him, 'My mom is stronger.' It's moments like that that make you go from suicidal lows to mountain-conquering highs."

As of now, Abbie's biggest dream is for her son to graduate from university. "That's when I'm going to know I did it. I wouldn't wish this on anyone - being a single parent of a newborn. But there's something to be said for raising another human to be respectful and kind, someone who advocates doing the right thing - all on your own. That's who my son is going to be - and it's going to be worth everything."

WE ARE FAMILY: (from left to right) Tara Roux with her son, Zen, who  is now 18; Jaya Rajan (far left) with her daughters, Sandhya and Sheetal; (below) Sameera Ameer is single mum to Lana, 8, and Sasha, 6
'Supporting your family all by yourself - that's something you should own'

British expat Tara Roux has "been through a lot of pain" in her life. Her son, Zen, was born three months premature in 1998, severely dyslexic and weighed just 1.2 kg. But it was also during this time that she had to deal with splitting from her first husband. Though she has since remarried and had two more kids, she says her solo-parenting days made for a very emotionally difficult journey, recalling how she spent her 45 days of maternity leave by the baby's incubator at Al Wasl Hospital, praying he wouldn't die. Despite a trying three-month stay at the hospital, during which Tara had to return to work, Zen survived; today, the 18-year-old is doing very well for himself, studying digital arts in the UK.
It's a phase in her life Tara says she can never forget. For two-and-a-half years, the duo was on their own, living in a flat in Karama. "As a single mum of a child with challenges, I realised I only had myself to rely on, so I drove myself pretty hard," says the entrepreneur, who now owns her own salon, Kalm Holistic Beauty, in Dubai - a position she uses to empower other single mums.

Of the 33 staffers in her employ, 70 per cent are single mums. "I didn't start out saying I was going to do this for single mums," she clarifies. "But once I began recruiting people, I realised that a lot of the women on my staff were in that situation." Today, the 44-year-old says she consciously tries to hire single mums over others - even if they're a little less qualified. "The thing I've noticed about single mums is that they work really hard, because they really need the job. Recruitment is about skillsets but skills can be trained. I'm happy to take in these women, build them up and give them the training they need, because at least in that way, we can help them help their families."

Almost all of these women come from the same background, leaving their kids behind with family in their home countries in order to eke out a better future for them. Cris, one of the girls at the salon, is all praise for her boss. She has three kids back home. "I've no real connection with them, but sometimes, when you choose something, you have to give up something else," she says bravely, before composing herself and returning to a customer.
"I used to really envy other mums, when I saw them spending time with their kids," Tara admits. "'How come I can't have that?' I used to ask. But then I'd remind myself that my priority was making sure Zen had the best education possible, and that drove me to keep going."

The slogan at the salon? Girl power! "I'm constantly telling them to be loud and proud," says Tara. "They're in a tough situation - but they're also supporting their families all by themselves. That's something they should own."
Her biggest takeaway from her own experience has been self-preservation. "I wouldn't want to relive any of it but I wouldn't want to change anything either, because learning to be a single mum in my twenties made me a really strong and responsible person. It's because of that I know I can handle anything that's thrown my way."

'I fought like an iron lady'
Indian expat Jaya Rajan lost her husband to a massive heart attack in March 2003. Overnight, she found herself a single mum to her daughters, Sandhya and Sheetal (20 and 18 at the time), and at the helm of her husband's signage business, Echo Graphics. "Our sponsor was very kind, and let me choose what I wanted to do going forward," she recalls. With all their money frozen at the bank after Rajan's death, a mountain of formalities to deal with and visas to sort out, Jaya was totally lost.
While her husband was still alive, there was a point when he started teaching her how his company's workshops functioned. "He'd push me to learn the processes and I used to be very angry, because I didn't like the workshop setting." But when he passed on, she found herself facing the very real possibility of taking charge of the company in order to survive. Trying to convince clients to trust her was a whole other ball game. "People were sure that the company would shut down within three months. I don't know how it all came together. No one was there to help, but it's been 14 years and I proved them all wrong."
It was her kids that drove her to achieve the near-impossible, says Jaya, who put both her daughters through college. "Rajan gave us a standard of living that I felt I had to maintain for my kids. This was something I was very clear about. And it's something I believe I've done."
The first year after she took over the company was a nightmare. "Giving 30 people their salaries and trying to clear the company's liabilities was really stressful," she recalls. "While Rajan was alive, I was more of a friend to my daughters, than their mother. But during that first year, I used to be a terror, and they used to say they wanted their old 'Mumma' back, not this new one." The tide turned in a couple of years, and Jaya gradually learnt how to handle the world of business - even if it meant doing things she'd never done before in her life, like working 48 hours at a stretch on sites (without going home) to meet project deadlines.

The conversation is a distressing one for her, and she struggles to keep the waver out of her voice. "It's been a journey with a lot of happiness but a lot of difficulties too," she says. "I lost my husband. I had to climb the professional ladder without changing the atmosphere for my children. We went through so many ups and downs but we haven't fallen apart. I've never spoken about it so talking about it now opens up a lot of wounds."
A cancer survivor, Jaya has been in the clear for the last 12 years. Both her daughters are working and the older one is married. At 64, she has no credit cards ("only debit!"), and these days are devoted to slowing down a little and enjoying life more with family and friends. "I fought like an Iron Lady," she asserts. "I have no plans to retire or leave Dubai. If I go, I go from here, like my husband. I still look after the business, but I'm taking more of a back seat now."

'Let go where you can afford to'
When one spouse is out of the picture, it would be practically impossible for any single mum to survive solo parenting without some form of support - either from relatives, nannies or a flexible workplace. But what if parents work out a co-parenting arrangement, where responsibility for the kids' upbringing is equally shared? That's what British expat Sameera Ameer credits with helping her take care of her girls - Lana, 8, and Sasha, 6 - while also founding her own business, Wild Child Designz.
The 33-year-old split from her husband when Sasha was a year old and Lana a little more than three. That initial period - "when you're trying to parent the kids the way you want to, while also grieving the loss of your marriage" - was incredibly difficult. Sameera didn't have any immediate family here either, which only compounded the challenge. "I wasn't working at the time, because I wanted to spend those crucial early years with my daughters. A couple of years later, I went on to design my own collection of children's furniture - and Wild Child Designz was born in June 2014. But I don't think I'd be the mum or entrepreneur I am without the help of my extended 'village of helpers' i.e. the kids' dad and his family as well as my wonderful nanny."

Ensuring a loving, stable upbringing for the girls is something both parents in this equation strive for. "Both of us come from similar backgrounds and see eye-to-eye on how we show them love and give them stability. Our parenting styles are very similar and this helps to minimise any confusion for the girls."
Initially, the girls didn't have that many questions, but that is beginning to change. "As they were very young when we split up, they got used to going back and forth between their dad and I from the get-go," she explains. "The questions are increasing now, but we're always ready to answer them in the most age-appropriate way. Their dad and I get along well, so this helps immensely."
Sameera is aware that her family's current status of peaceful co-existence may well be the exception than the norm. "Most exes don't get along," she agrees. "It's very individual to each couple to work out what arrangement suits them best. The way we do it, it works for all parties concerned. The kids are happy to go over to their dad's place and they're just as happy to return to mine. The situation is not ideal, but we remind them that they're very loved and are our first priority."

For those finding it tough to work out such an arrangement, she says, "It's easy to focus on why you're separating rather than that there's two kids involved who didn't ask for this situation. You need to work out what's best for them, so I guess my advice would be to let go [and compromise] where you can afford to."
A lot of the healing process centres on the way forward. "We need to find other doors to open when one door closes and to keep persevering, even on days it all seems worthless. Unfortunately, the only way to become better at that is by actually going through it. It is only by being put out of one's comfort zone that we can evolve and learn."

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