It goes without saying that your children are a daily delight, giving you a reason to smile and feel glad every single day. Family life should be a pleasure, right?
Unfortunately, kids are also gifted in being a constant source of worry and frustration. And opportunities to take a break from your tight-knit nuclear (or worse, single-parent) family are scant. Then there’s the pressure to be a better parent, as if merely surviving sleepless nights, the terrible twos, tweens, teens and everything in-between, with everyone physically intact, were not enough.
Expectations of a happy family life in the 2010s is putting parents and their increasingly stressed-out kids on the rack: the family’s breadwinner is either working late or permanently on call, thanks to the blessing of mobile tech; grandparents are long-distance, elderly or less on-message about nut allergies and the like than parents might wish; the main carer is organising a daily three-ring circus of school, homework, after-school activities and play dates, and is face down in a box of doughnuts by 5pm. Where’s the joy? Satisfaction? Sense of fulfilment? If any of the above describes your home life, it’s time to seek out some fun. Seriously, here’s how.
Move to Sweden
It can only be described as fortunate that couples planning a family don't spend much time Googling the term "parenting happiness gap". The results would almost certainly cause them to reconsider – survey after survey has shown that new parents rate themselves considerably less happy than non-parents. Take, for example, a 2015 study of 2,000 parents in Germany published in the journal Demography, which found that, on average, the effect of having a child on parental well-being in the first 12 months is worse than divorce or even the death of a partner. It doesn't have to be this way, however. A 2016 study of parents in 22 European and English-speaking countries by the University of Texas showed that places with family-friendly social-care policies, such as paid sick and holiday leave, and subsidised childcare, have parents who are just as happy as non-parents. So itinerant UAE folk, when you're considering your next move, Russia, France, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Hungary and Portugal have the happiest parents. The United States, Australia and Britain the least.
Being with baby 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is an extremely dull business. When you’re not changing nappies, wiping up food spills or trying to reason with a small angry face, you’re mashing food and sterilising bottles. Throw in sleep-deprivation and daily repetition, and it’s enough to turn anyone into a basket case. Taking time out minus baby (or toddler or 10-year-old for that matter) is not a self-indulgence, but a sanity-saver. In the beginning, this may mean nothing more than having a hot shower for 30 minutes without the sound of a baby crying or someone shouting “mummy”, but longer-term, it’s about regularly setting aside time to put your own likes, health and hobbies ahead of your family’s.
Be active, not stifling
It’s important to differentiate between active parenting and micromanaging your children’s every move, motivated by a fear that somehow they might become less brilliant people. Even better, forget parenting styles completely and just hang out with your kids, undistracted by phones, work deadlines or putting the dinner on. This is when you realise your 4-year-old says hoppypitamus instead of hippopotamus and parenting becomes (whisper it) fun.
Let them play
Demanding that your kids go upstairs to play with their toys allows them to be creative and develop social skills while giving you time to focus your attention elsewhere. Relax. What’s not to like?
Harness the help of others
I was once beckoned into the darker recesses of the car park beneath Sun and Sky Towers on Reem Island to help wipe sick off a stranger’s back. A slightly fraught mum, holding a small baby, asked me if she had milk stains down the back of her dress. She did, so I commiserated while offering to mop it up with a baby wipe. Did I mind? Not a bit. Parenting requires help from wherever you can find it. Don’t be shy about asking anyone and everyone from grandparents to teachers, or even strangers in car parks, to help lighten the load.
Laugh it off
I learnt long ago not to judge the behaviour of anyone else’s children. Every time I would inwardly roll my eyes and say a prayer of thanks that it wasn’t my child throwing sand or pulling hair, a few weeks later one of my offspring would be the guilty party. If I hadn’t developed a thick skin and a sense of humour about such growing pains, I would never have gone out, let alone had a social life. Nowadays, so long as nothing’s broken – or on fire – I laugh and commiserate with my friends about family ups and downs.