How Oman's mums are missing out

As country's progress demands more working women, foreigners are being accused of having too much influence on next generation.

MARCH 28, 2010, OMAN: A foreign housemaid with two Omani children she cares for. Ali Saleh for The National
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MUSCAT // Rawhia al Adawi, a 34-year-old mother of two, acknowledges that her two daughters, one eight years old and the other just 14 months, are closer to their Indian nanny than to her. As an assistant branch manager for a commercial bank, she admits she has little time to attend to the needs of her two daughters. Instead, they spend at least 10 hours a day with their nanny.

"I don't see them until half past four in the afternoon after work. I only have time to help my older daughter with her homework and they both go to bed at 8.30," said Mrs al Adawi, who works from 8am to 4pm five days a week. "We have just four hours the whole day of mother-to-daughter interaction." Her concerns are echoed by Omani working mothers across the country. Rapid development in the last 30 years means that many young mothers are going out to work, leaving their young children in the sole care of foreign housemaids. Many families are concerned that foreign nannies are influencing their children's lives through beliefs, ethics and actual parenting practices.

Mothers say that, within the home environment, this might mean speaking in a language other than Arabic, threatening religious beliefs and changing traditional behaviour from eating habits to how their children view relationships. For Mrs al Adawi, these cultural conflicts mean that she fears her children, although raised in Oman, will grow up to acquire some aspect of foreign cultures. "Their language acquisition is muddled up. The nanny speaks to them either in Hindi or broken English or a combination of both. I speak to them in Arabic and the result is one total confusion in the way they express themselves," Mrs al Adawi said.

Some mothers are concerned their children are growing up in a cross-religious environment. Fatma Farhan, a mother-of-four, was both surprised and upset when she saw her six-year-old son kneeling in prayer next to her Filipina nanny when she walked in her bedroom. "I was surprised that my housemaid was trying to secretly convert to Christianity a very young child when she knew that we are a Muslim family," Ms Farhan said.

Batool Lawati, a 32-year-old nutritionist, was furious after she came home early from work unexpectedly and saw her Indonesian housemaid cuddling her boyfriend in the living room in the presence of her five-year-old daughter. "What kind of influence will this be to my daughter? Even my husband and I don't hug when the children are around," Ms Lawati said. She packed her bag and sent her home a month later only to replace her with another foreign nanny three weeks after that.

"What else could I do? I still need a nanny and I cannot throw away my career to stay at home," Ms Lawati said. However, housemaids brush aside the criticism, saying they give more values to the children than their employers acknowledge. One nanny said the parents are often jealous because the children often prefer the housemaids to their own mothers. "Yes, there is bound to be a slight cultural influence but mothers make a big thing out of this because the children love us more than their mothers," said Ganga Menike, a 44-year-old Sri Lankan housemaid said. "It is natural because we do everything for them and spend all the time with them,"

Some nannies say they help families discipline their children and even give private tuition to help with their studies. "Omani parents are busy with their office jobs and don't have time to discipline their children. We do that and even tend to their schooling needs like homework and exam preparations," said Anita Fernando, a 28-year-old Filipina nanny and a high-school graduate. Government figures put the number of housemaids working in Oman, a country of 3.4 million, at 100,000. Many believe the country's economic shift over the past three decades has changed the traditional family unit. Married couples now increasingly prefer to live alone and not in the family homes they grew up in. With mortgages, utility bills and private education to pay, young parents need to go work to raise enough money.

Elderly Omani women said grandmothers used to help to raise the children and blame some of the concerns over foreign nannies on this disintegration of the traditional close-knit extended family. "Thirty years ago, married couples lived with their parents and children were looked after by their grandmothers while young mothers do the cooking and the housework," said Maryam Saadi, a 74-year-old grandmother living in Muscat. "Grandmothers were responsible for teaching youngsters local values and familiarising them with local traditions. That has changed because young girls are now educated and pursue careers of their own and live in separate houses,"

While psychologists agree that young children are being influenced by foreign cultures, they say that parents must set aside time during the weekend to be with their children. "I see many working parents going shopping during the weekend instead of spending quality time with their children. They use the time off from office to reward themselves rather than bringing the family together," said Zainab al Ajmi, a child psychologist at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.