Working UAE mothers explain the juggling act

Sometimes working mums feel like they need to clone themselves just to get everything done. Here we look at whether it's possible to 'have it all'.
Juliette Alexander and her husband David with their son Trent and stepdaughter Siobhan Jensen. Courtesy Juliette Alexander
Juliette Alexander and her husband David with their son Trent and stepdaughter Siobhan Jensen. Courtesy Juliette Alexander

It's the book on the tip of every working mother's tongue: Lean In. Back in March, the author Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, fired up water cooler conversations across the globe when her book was published. In Lean In, Sandberg examines women's struggles with leadership, dissects the causes of real-life career roadblocks and empowers women to "lean in" to reach their professional goals.

Sandberg is a staunch advocate of the working mum, but admits she struggled to find a balance between family and work. Today she leaves the office at 5.30pm every day (after arriving at 9am), has dinner with her kids and works from home after they go to sleep. Sandberg doesn't believe women can "have it all", but that doesn't mean women aren't expected to "be it all".

"We live in a time when society expects women to do everything from raising children to taking on high powered positions in the corporate world, while looking like a glamour model on the cover of Vogue," says the Dubai-based family and relationship life coach Maria Chatila (

An unhelpful dose of judgement only makes matters worse. In the West, mothers frequently go back to work out of financial necessity, whereas in the UAE working mums can be judged for choosing to work when there isn't the financial need. Indeed, even Sandberg in the US has been criticised for relying on domestic help to keep her house and raise her children while pursuing a career.

The result of trying to juggle a job, family and home means that many women struggle to find any balance in their lives. Chatila carried out a survey on working women in the UAE (98 per cent of whom had children) and found that 83 per cent of women claimed to have effective strategies to balance their lives. In reality, however, the results showed that 73 per cent of women were struggling to find a balance between their work-life and home-life, let alone find any quality time for themselves.

Here, some successful working mothers talk about their attempts to achieve balance in their lives

Houriya Kazim is a UAE national and the country's first female surgeon. Houriya works as a breast surgeon in Dubai at the Well Woman Clinic and runs the charity Brest Friends ( Houriya has two daughters, age 13 and 11.

"It is a challenge being a working mum - and I thought I could do anything. When I trained as a surgeon. I worked 90-hour weeks, studied and had a social life, but that was a breeze compared with what I do now.

"Today I work in the office and then again at home when the girls are asleep. I look after the children and their daily social engagements, after-school activities and home work. And I take care of my husband, my home, look in on my octogenarian dad and run a breast cancer support group and charity.

"I think of my life in three parts: work, family and leisure. I have come to the conclusion over the past 13 years that something has to give and, in my case, it's my leisure time. I am a very hands-on mum and doctor and as a result, there just isn't enough time in the day. You can only delegate so much and, thankfully we can have help at home, but I like to read to my children every night. I like taking them to ballet and tap. I could delegate these mum duties and go to the gym instead, but I choose not to."

Jumana Al Darwish, a Palestinian-Jordanian living in Dubai, is the head of corporate planning and development at Dubai Cares. She has a 2-year-old daughter and blogs at

"I have been juggling my time between motherhood, family, work, community service and social life for the past two years and I have become pretty good at it, but I do not believe I have achieved "balance" just yet. It is something I continually strive for.

"I have to be super organised. My household runs like a company, literally. My husband and I are one team and usually have our week planned to the smallest detail well in advance; from nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, to meal schedules to family outings and date night. Being organised helps us get things done.

"I have also been very fortunate to have a job that has been flexible, as well as a support system from in-laws and friends who are readily available to care for my daughter, Ayla. I have also been blessed to have live-in help whom I can trust with Ayla.

"I think working mothers tend to feel judged in the UAE and the Middle East because society expects the mother to be at home with her child, while the husband earns a living. More women are entering the workforce every day, but that expectation to be 'super woman' remains.

"We are expected to be a perfect mother, a perfect housewife, a perfect daughter, a perfect sister, a perfect friend, a perfect employee. That state of perfection can take a toll on a mother's personal well-being because when a mother is juggling 10 things, there is little time left for personal self-reflection and care. As beautiful as motherhood is, it comes with a great deal of responsibility and a set of hardships. No one can ever prepare you for it."

Juliette Alexander from Australia is an agent for Pastiche Middle East (, has a 10-year-old son and a 24-year-old stepdaughter and lives in Dubai.

"I think it's a lot harder for working mums in the UAE, than in the West, due to the lack of family members and friends to help with childcare. Also, expats aren't used to maids and find it difficult to trust them with their children. The school hours and long holidays make it difficult, with very little after-school care on offer, and you certainly feel frowned upon by others for choosing to work when you don't have to.

"It's difficult getting the work/life balance right. In the past, I lost focus on family and spent all my hours concentrating on my business. One day, a friend put a magnet on my fridge that said: 'The work will wait while you show a child a rainbow, but the rainbow won't wait while you do the work'. It took me five days to even notice the magnet was there. It was such a simple thing but it changed my outlook on work and life. This friend pointed out that my son was growing up quickly and that I was ignoring him. She was right when she said that if I didn't stop working so hard, I'd miss out.

"Since then, I plan my days the best I can because it's so easy to get lost in your work, especially when your business is growing. Now I write lists every night in my diary, or in my phone calendar, of what needs to be done in order of priority, including my child's activities. Then I begin my day going through these lists knowing if I don't manage them all, it's OK.

"I think it's important to include an appointment time for yourself in your daily planning to allow for a gym workout, or downtime. If you don't book that in you will forget yourself, and how can you look after others if you don't look after yourself?"

Lesley Cully from the UK is mum to two girls, ages 8 and 5, and the founder of the Buckle Up campaign (, working to ensure the safety of children travelling by car.

"I'm fortunate in that I can dictate my own hours as I work alone, although I do find it difficult to switch off completely. I try not to talk about Buckle Up at the weekends and when I'm on holiday, but that's difficult if I'm somewhere close to Dubai as invariably someone recognises me and wants to talk car seats. Mind you, that means the campaign is working so I can't complain.

"I am fortunate to have a full-time helper, Dely, who does my housework and also helps look after the children if I need to collect stock, for example. I honestly couldn't manage without her. I also have a company called DinnerTime which delivers all the ingredients and recipes for a family of four for four nights. This means I don't have to go grocery shopping or plan meals, which means I can cook a good family meal in 30 minutes without the preparation and shopping beforehand.

"I do stipulate certain days for presentations and leave two days free for answering emails, meetings and other admin that needs to be done. I try to leave afternoons clear for my children and have stopped going to events at the weekend. It's actually easy to say 'no' when you get used to it.

"I think the 'having it all' mentality is a false one. By saying 'have it all', you are automatically saying that mums who don't work have less and I don't believe that to be true. Some mums like working, others have to. Some mums prefer to stay at home and that's also work. I think it's sad that we are still talking about mums and whether they can have it all - there is never this discussion about fathers. No one ever asks my husband if his work/life balance is OK or how he manages the children while he works, but I'm asked constantly."


Published: July 22, 2013 04:00 AM


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