Domestic bliss?

When a job is lost or a baby arrives, homemaking can become full-time work. But it isn't always easy.

Listening to language lessons while doing household chores can help keep your brain active.
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In a country where many are accustomed to having their laundry folded, beds made and floors mopped, taking up the homemaker's apron can be a tough sell. But pay cuts or the loss of full-time wages in some households are driving people to economise on "luxuries" such as home help. Some find the change from water-cooler talk and power lunches to the silent monotony of housework a traumatic one. Others relish it.

There's something about the lure of a weekday at home that is particularly hard to resist. When I tell people that, having lost my job earlier this year, I now work at home full-time, the response is usually one of envy: "You don't have to deal with office politics. You can get up whenever you want. You're your own boss. I bet your laundry pile is non-existent." For the most part, that's a pretty fair description. But I also know the flip side: the lack of interaction with others, the alienation from the outside world and the boredom of repetitive chores.

Amy Thomson, who lost her job as a visual merchandiser for a Dubai-based home interiors company six months ago, says: "I went from a highly creative and social job that involved meeting clients and creating interior designs to tidying away dishes, doing laundry cycles and having to ask my husband for money. It hit me pretty badly. "I like having a nice house; our furniture all matches and we are both quite clean and tidy, but I found myself starting arguments over things like discarded yogurt pots because I had spent the day tidying the house and felt that my husband, who was at work, didn't appreciate it."

Thomson struggled with the shift in balance that her homemaking had in their relationship. "Before, if there were clothes on the floor, he'd pick them up himself, but now he's started leaving them for me. I find that quite irritating." She secretly believes her husband enjoys being looked after. "He loves me being at home to see him off and have dinner waiting when he comes home. His shirts are ironed and the housework is always done. And it's not all bad. I do enjoy doing nice things for him and looking after him, even though if I had a choice, I'd rather not."

Thomson's iPod proved to be a saving grace. She downloads and listens to French lesson podcasts while she cleans. "At first I put on playlists but I decided to use my time at home to learn a language. I started listening to lessons while tidying the house to keep my brain active." That's a key to being happy at home, says Roghy McCarthy, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. "If you find yourself at home, you should try and make the most of it. You can use the time to discover a talent you never knew you had."

McCarthy says those without career goals or with a set of unrealised ambitions can sometimes become depressed, unhappy and resentful. "In this day and age, most little girls don't grow up saying: 'I want to be a wife or mother.' No boy in the playground says: 'I want to be a husband and father.' They want to be an astronaut or a pilot. Being a stay-at-home spouse or parent is not just about coffee mornings. When you lose your career, you are losing self-esteem, confidence and the self-fulfillment that the career brings. You can lose some respect in the community, and your economic freedom."

Nick Langmead, an Australian who says he made an "ill-timed move into a real estate job" before the credit crunch hit Dubai, says being at home - while difficult at times - hasn't been all bad. "I'd been attracted to property because of the potential rewards, but after four months of not making a single sale or rental, I had to throw in the towel. While looking for a new job I've put more effort into other things like getting fit and eating more healthily, learning Norwegian because my girlfriend is Norwegian, and helping my family around the house."

For Langmead, this goes further than picking up a mop and ironing a few shirts. Since leaving his job he has become a carer for his mother, who was paralysed in a moped accident while holidaying in South Africa in 2008. "My mum broke her back and neck and I have done things like organising carpenters to build a wheelchair ramp, running her to doctors appointments and taking her to see friends. I've also been doing lots of housework and cooking. I like the cooking but not the housework so much. I do the washing up, take the rubbish out and hang out the washing. For me, it's more a case of keeping the place a bit cleaner and discovering those filthy bits that have never been touched."

Langmead admits that while he has been happy to help at home, he would prefer to be working full time. "There have been days with quite a bit of cabin fever. Even though I'm helping my mum and doing all these self-improvement things, I would still rather be bringing in some cash. Being at home hasn't been all bad, though, and it was even quite fun at first. I don't know if I could become a stay-at-home dad in the future. I don't think there is as much of a stigma attached to it but most blokes would rather be the breadwinner."

While redundancy is gender blind, it is usually the woman who takes on the role of homemaker when a baby arrives. Most women will give up work for at least a few months and it's not always an easy transition. "I went from presenting annual reports, reporting to company directors and organising international conferences with some of the biggest players in the industry to making frozen lasagnes and mating socks," says Tara Foster, who lives in Dubai. "I had been in charge of 30 people, taking home a salary that rivalled most of my friends' and driving a brand new BMW. Then I found myself asking my husband for grocery money and spending my days in an endless cycle of nappy changing. Some women adapt easily but I lost my self-esteem and became quite depressed and overweight."

Not all women fear becoming a Stepford wife. Emma Riedel, who runs a party planning company from home, deliberately eschews the services of a maid. "A maid will never do it as well as me," the 31-year-old Australian says. "I stopped working when I had my baby and thought there was not much point having a maid when I was home all day. I don't mind housework; I even enjoy it. I think a lot of people are in for a shock when they go back to their home countries and have to start doing it all themselves again.

"People say it's hard to run a home but it's easy. I tend to do everything quite quickly but then I find myself with little to do. But I would still rather be at home because that is why you have a child: to see those milestones and be there to raise them." Different people will react differently to being at home, and women shouldn't be hard on themselves when they make this transition, says Susan Ayers, a health psychology lecturer at Sussex University in the UK. "This is a massive period of change and adjustment and it is about what is right for both the mother and the baby. Any big change in life has the potential to be stressful but whether women are affected or not is individual. It depends on the woman's thoughts and expectations about being at home.

"Generally, people feel stressed when the demands placed on them are more than their resources to cope. So a woman who is not confident about coping with children and has few people to support her would find it very difficult. On the other hand, a woman who finds coping with children easy, has lots of support and is not confident in her career will find it much easier. Either way, women should prioritise themselves and the baby.

"At the end of the day, happiness is more important than housework."