Adventures in babysitting

For parents who need to have their little ones watched during the workday, adding nursery fees to your budget is crucial.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - June 7, 2010.

PERSONAL FINANCE: Nimo Abdi (cq-al), 35, plays with her children Zain Harvey (cq-al), 3, center in her lap, and Nawal Harvey (cq-al), 2, left, at the Bright Beginnings Nursery in Abu Dhabi on Monday, June 7, 2010. "Where we live, we're very lucky. We have the park, the pool and other free facilities," said Abdi, who works at the British Embassy on how she and her family save. "The beach is a fantastic place to go to for free." Amy Leang/The National

Managing the financial demands of nursery care is a struggle for many working parents. But for Maria Le Roux, a mother of two, it's not only a monetary burden but also an emotional issue. The 36-year-old South African, who earns Dh32,000 a month as a human resources team leader for an Abu Dhabi-based oil and gas company, spends Dh5,300 a month on childcare. While husband Martin commutes to his Dh35,000 a month job as an electronics systems engineer at Dubai International Airport, Mrs Le Roux, who has been in the UAE for 12 years, drops her four-year-old daughter, Zoe, at a Dh1,800 a month nursery in Al Mushrif.

But the childcare costs don't end there. Because she cannot leave work to pick up her daughter in the afternoon, she spends an additional Dh1,500 a month on a driver and Dh2,000 a month on a nanny to care for Zoe and the couple's 17-month-old son, Jean-Marc, after nursery. It's a roller coaster of a day for the mother and daughter, but Mrs Le Roux says she has little choice. "There is a financial need for me to work and send my daughter to nursery," she says. "Life is increasingly expensive here and if I don't work we wouldn't save anything in this country.

"Once I've paid the child-care costs, the Dh19,000 for our four-bed villa, the utility bills and the shopping, my salary quickly disappears. But I need stimulation, so I want to work and there are very few well-paid part-time jobs out there." When Zoe moves to primary school in September, Mrs Le Roux faces even more expenses as her son will start nursery at the same time. "I'll be paying nursery fees as well as Dh38,000 [a year] for school and my driver wants to charge Dh2,500 [a month] to pick them both up, so I don't know what I'll do."

Mrs Le Roux's situation is not unique. With the credit crunch still very much on, more mothers are returning to work to make ends meet at home. In the past, nurseries traditionally closed by noon and were shut during the holidays, but the increased demand for year-round care has prompted extended hours and some institutions now stay open for 12 hours. But returning to work also means earning enough to cover the childcare costs, with nurseries charging anywhere from Dh30,000 to Dh65,000 plus for year-round care depending on the child's age and the number of hours they attend the school.

Hummingbird Nursery in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) offers a 12-hour service from 7am to 7pm year round at a cost of Dh66,480 a year. But despite the hefty price tag, the demand is there. "We look after 50 children and offer long hours for the convenience of parents," says Kieny Watts, the general manager of Hummingbird. "Because we are located in DIFC, mothers can pop in during their breaks and some come to breastfeed, too. And while 75 per cent of our children stay from nine to four in the afternoon, some stay 12 hours a day."

Hummingbird opened last March, but it was not the first Dubai nursery to offer an all-year programme. Jumeirah International Nursery in Dubai, which takes children from six weeks to four years, has accommodated working parents for several years and only opens their baby class to working parents. "Fifty per cent of our parents both work and while we've always accommodated working parents with extended hours and summer camps, we introduced the all-year programme to reduce the fees for full-time workers," says head teacher Janet Thompson, who has run the nursery since 2001.

"I've seen a huge jump in the number of working mums in the last five years and since the credit crunch hit, there have been more mums trying to get back into the workforce just to sustain their lifestyle. I used to stand at the door and watch alot of mums go off to the gym whereas now they're off to work." Lisa Hollis, a teacher and mother-of-two from the UK, has been sending her two-year-old daughter, Evie, to the nursery from 7.30am to 5pm since January last year at a cost of Dh12,850 a term to enable her to work at a nearby secondary school. She plans to send her four-month-old daughter, Olivia, to the institution in September, which will increase the term's fees to Dh25,080 with a 5 per cent sibling discount.

"I never liked the idea of keeping Evie at home with a maid; I wanted a more sociable environment," says Mrs Hollis, who has been in the UAE for five years. "And she really loves it and goes off happily every day. "Next year will be expensive for us. We sat down and worked out the possibilities of whether I should stay at home or not, but I earn Dh17,185 a month and even though we will shell out Dh75,240 in fees, we would still lose Dh130,000 if I quit work."

While finding a nursery to accommodate her working hours was relatively easy for Mrs Hollis, the process is not always straightforward. Of the 210 UAE nurseries registered on the Ministry of Social Affairs online portal - 78 of those are in Dubai and 41 are in Abu Dhabi - many still close during the holidays, which increases the demand for nurseries with extended hours. "We have a huge waiting list because very few Abu Dhabi nurseries offer afternoon programmes like we do," says Jo Shaban, the managing director of Bright Beginnings Nursery, which has branches in Al Mushrif and Al Merhaba. "We asked our parents what they wanted and extended the day by two hours about three years ago."

Nimo Abdi, a British mother of two, moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband, Adam, a director of sales and marketing for a hotel chain, last September and waited four months for places at Bright Beginnings for her son Zain, three, and daughter Nawal, two. "Finding somewhere that could accommodate my hours was hard," says Mrs Abdi, who works in human resources for the British Embassy and spends more than Dh40,000 a year on nursery care.

"The fees take up most of my Dh11,000 salary but if I take a career break, it will make it harder to get back into the workforce later on. "And though my husband's Dh25,000 package comes with schooling, housing, car and health insurance, it doesn't cover nursery fees. The hotel industry is not that secure at the moment, so it's good to know my salary is there to fall back on." But long hours away from home for both parents and children can leave little quality time together, while parents also have to deal with the emotions of leaving their child in someone else's care.

"I always feel guilty leaving them," says Mrs Le Roux. "That never stops and it only gets worse when the second child comes along. We don't have a family life at all during the week. I get home around six, feed and bath the kids and put them to bed and that's it. "Sometimes I think, 'maybe I should work for less', but then you've got the financial stress of how to make ends meet. I live here to make life better financially, so my plan is to make the emotional sacrifice now and then return home in two years' time for a better quality of life."

Mrs Shaban, from Bright Beginnings, says the nursery does everything possible to help parents who struggle with the separation. "We encourage our working mums to bring their kids in at least a month before they go to work to get them settled," she says. "And we allow parents to drop in whenever they can during the day, especially if a mum is still breastfeeding." But for some parents who both want to work, simply finding a nursery they can afford is a problem.

Marie Macmillan, a British mother of two and former sales manager, pulled her children out of nursery at the end of 2008 because the fees swallowed up her Dh7,000 salary. "The fees shot up by 33 per cent and there was no point working at all," she recalls. "To send both of them cost Dh6,000 a month and on top of paying for the hire car I needed to get to work and nursery, there was nothing left. "Even though I was upset at the time, I now have a fantastic relationship with my children and I wouldn't have missed that for the world."

Mrs Macmillan, who arrived in the UAE in 2005, may have gained some valuable time with her three-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son, but some mothers have too much time with their children. "I was very depressed when I took time off and stayed at home for six months," says Mrs Abdi. "I needed a break and so did they. Working makes me a better mum because I look forward to seeing them at the end of the day and they definitely get more out of nursery because there's so much going on."