South African mother Liezl Venter received 45 days of paid leave as a teacher at a semi-government school.
With the maternity leave beginning last month, a week before her delivery date, she also plans to add another two-and-a-half months of unpaid leave to extend the time with her newborn son.
But she knows that paying the bills won’t be easy during that time.
“Unfortunately it is my job that brings in most of our income, and taking unpaid leave puts us under a lot of pressure,” says the 31-year-old.
Having a baby is an exciting life milestone, but with the cost of nannies, nurseries and baby equipment to factor in, it involves a hefty financial outlay.
Expectant mums are often faced with a difficult dilemma - can they afford to put their career on hold to spend more time with the new arrival or should they accept the maternity leave offered by their employer?
Australian accountant Nicola Smith turned down the 45 days her Dubai-based employer was offering; instead she chose to pause her career for a set period of two years, and make financial cutbacks elsewhere in the family budget to compensate.
“Many mums moan about the lack of maternity leave here, but for many expats, the lifestyle and financial gains here make taking a career break an option,” she says. “We’re still managing to save and live life comfortably, but we have cut down significantly on meals out and brunches, which were a regular activity with friends before baby. We’re just generally more careful when spending money.”
However, with looming price rises on the back of VAT and stagnant salaries cutting a hole in people’s budget forecasts, a career break is a luxury many mums in the UAE cannot afford. A study by Bayt.com earlier this year revealed that 83 per cent of UAE respondents have experienced an increase in their cost of living, while less than half (44 per cent) received a pay rise to offset increasing costs in 2016.
While Dubai and Abu Dhabi government employees have had maternity leave extended from two to three months, and have the option to add annual and unpaid leave to extend it up to 120 days, private sector employees do not have the same luxury.
Businesses in the UAE’s private sector are not obliged to offer more than 45 days maternity leave, and women who have been working for less than a year only receive half pay.
Last month, Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, called for private sector companies to offer women better maternity leave and flexible working hours to ensure they stay in the workforce.
For Abu Dhabi teacher, Kaajal Dimlaye, who is six months pregnant with twins, 45 days of paid leave is less than she had hoped for. "I'm terrified of going back to work when they are so young," she says. "I have to see the school year out until the first week of July, if I don't want to lose my four years gratuity. Then my plan is to stay at home."
Another soon-to-be mum admitted she was considering using sick leave when her maternity leave runs out to spend more time at home with her baby. “Sick leave is only 15 days full pay, 30 days half pay and then 45 days unpaid, and I’m not sure how long I can get signed off for” admits the Abu Dhabi-based resident, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s really stressful trying to sort it out as I don’t know how much money I’m going to lose.”
Staying off work for longer boosts both the mother and child’s health; according to a 2016 study by McGill University, increasing paid parental leave is associated with decreased infant mortality, less postpartum depression and more breastfeeding.
Some private companies in the UAE recognise the benefits, and have also chosen to up their maternity allowance - last year, both Dubizzle and Omnicom Media Group Mena bumped it to 90 days.
But while covering the cost of taking time off is a challenge for new mums, when it comes time to returning to the workforce, there is the added financial burden of childcare.
Some nurseries in the UAE accept babies from as young as one-month with costs ranging from Dh6,000 to Dh65,000 per year, according to Souqalmal.com. Many mothers, however, rely on a domestic helper for childcare, with the average monthly wage for a maid in the UAE currently Dh1,830, according to a new study by Dubai-based migrant wealth managers GoRise.
Fortunately for Ms Dimlaye, employing a full-time nanny isn’t necessary yet, as the grandmothers are willing to pitch in. “We’ll save on childcare as my mother-in-law will be here for three months, then my mum too - we don't want to leave them with a stranger,” she says.
Sruti Sandeep, from India, who works for Abu Dhabi MMI, gave birth to her son in January, and while she forks out for a nanny to look after her son whilst she is working, she cuts costs elsewhere.
“Instead of buying baby items in the malls, we use web stores for better shopping at better rates,” she explains. “I’ve found mumzworld.com, desertcart.ae and sometimes souq.com much more affordable than buying from stores here. I’ve even bought my baby booties and caps online from China. You can bulk-buy items this way. I recently found a baby swimming tube for Dh70 in a mall, and bought the same one for US$4.5 through the Chinese store Aliexpress, which offers free delivery to the UAE.”
Catalin Voicu, a wealth manager for Takaud Savings and Pensions in Dubai, who has recently become a new dad, recommends planning months ahead of the delivery date for big-ticket items “like baby strollers, carry cots and car seats,” he says.
Ms Venter adopted this strategy ahead of her daughter’s delivery last month. “We managed to buy a really beautiful second hand stroller in great condition on a Facebook group, for a quarter of the price than in the shops,” she says. “We also started buying packs of diapers with our weekly grocery shop when I was pregnant, to build up a collection, so we wouldn’t feel that financial burden. We also plan on using cloth diapers from three months old, to save money.”
Using cloth nappies is a prudent financial move. Babycenter.com estimates that disposable nappies in the United States cost US$72 per month with cloth alternatives only US$19 plus a small increase in water and electricity usage.
When it comes to the birth itself, for many the costs of delivery are covered by insurance policies. However some policies impose limits on the cover provided and others have waiting periods – such as nine to 12 months after taking a policy – before coverage kicks in. While health insurance is now compulsory in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, not all insurance comes with maternity cover; for those paying their own way, the best option is an antenatal or birth package where a hospital offer discounts on a set number of visits to an obstetrician as well as essential tests.
According to Mr Voicu, health insurance coverage is one of the most important parents should plan for in advance of the delivery. “Level of coverage, direct billing with medical units and monthly or annual costs are the most important factors to take into consideration,” he says, adding that "some packages don’t cover pregnancy in full - they may put a low limit or exclusions," - something you can top up yourself.
For Ms Sandeep, all expenses for her delivery at Universal Hospital were covered in Abu Dhabi except for the Dh500 admission fee, which she didn’t begrudge paying. “Back in India, if you don’t fall within the low income category, then you have to pay for all the expenses towards your delivery,” she says.
But post birth, those in the UAE who wish to have a midwife visit them at home must stump up for the privilege. “We’ve hired a private midwife to come once baby is here, to help with feeding and checking the baby,” says Kerry Coulthart, a Dubai-based mum from the UK, where free midwife home visits are routinely offered to postpartum mums. Ms Coulthart has paid Dh2,600 for six home visits. “It has been worth it to get the best aftercare,” she says.
Expectant mums can also enlist the services of a Doula for non-medical pre and postnatal support. Child Birth Education and Doula Services in Abu Dhabi say their doulas charge Dh2,000 to Dh5,000, depending on the service required.
Ms Smith says when she gave birth 10 months ago, her health insurance covered everything except the epidural she opted to have, which set the couple back Dh2,000. “I knew this beforehand and was happy with that,” she says. “I had three midwives and a doctor deliver me, a catering team to bring me and my husband food throughout our two night stay, and a nurse and midwife on demand. I would have received nothing like it in Australia.”
But one expense that did come as a surprise were her baby's vaccinations. Although mandatory vaccinations are free in the UAE's local government-run clinics, Ms Smith found appointments hard to come by.
"On two occasions, we had to pay to have my sons vaccinations privately, which cost Dh1,300 each time," she says.
Mr Voicu also recommends saving time and money by identifying good paediatricians during pregnancy, as not all offer direct billing with insurance providers. “Then you will know where to go later down the line when your baby needs a doctor,” he says.
Catalin Voicu, a wealth manager for Takaud Savings and Pensions, offers his tips to avoid overspending in the early months of having a baby:
• Ask around: Most of us have within our network friends or colleagues with existing experience in parenting. Don't be afraid to ask them about their experiences and learn from their mistakes.
• A newborn shouldn't be a fashion icon: Keep a happy baby in cosy, synthetic-free clothes. Don't forget how fast they grow and how easy it is to waste your money on items they never end up wearing. Newborn clothes such as the all-in-one body suits often come in sets of three. As you won't always find all the desired colours and patterns in one set, retailers know that it's very likely you will then buy a second set of three. Don't fall for that.
• Set out a monthly family budget: While there are plenty of budgeting apps on the market, a simple Microsoft Excel sheet allows you to have a clear view of the income and expenditure, while you can easily forecast for the worst-case scenario, based on your spending behaviour. We know that starting in January, most goods and services will have a 5 per cent added value tax. To be on the safe side, forecast all monthly expenses for 2018 with a 8.15 percent increase (inflation plus VAT). This new added cost will have to be taken out either from your savings, or your entertainment expenditure.
• Don't overspend on rent: Let's face it - until six months, it's unlikely your child will need their own room. There is no point moving to a bigger home with higher levels of running costs yet.