Mohammed El-Arian was a highly successful CEO of a major US investment firm, PIMMCo, who enjoyed all of the trappings of success. He dined with Barack Obama at the White House, he flew the world in his private jet. One day last year, however, his world changed when his 10 year old daughter handed him a list of the 22 significant milestones in her life that he had missed because he was ‘busy’. He quit his job immediately and has devoted the past eighteen months to his family. While most of us are not in a position to resign, a lesson can be learnt for all of us.
Most expatriate fathers are the primary bread-winners in their family. The nature of expatriate life, in particular here in Dubai, means that expatriate males are often experts and high-fliers in their field of work. This, inevitably, means long working hours, being available 24/7, gruelling and relentless travel, in addition to huge amounts of wearing responsibility.
They do this for their families as well as for themselves. Their career success allows their children to grow up in a safe environment with everything money, the latest technology and development can provide. What their children do not have though, is the company of their fathers.
The trade off is inevitably, that in order to stay in their demanding and relentless jobs, fathers must sacrifice more and more time with their families - and ultimately their children. Work conferences, meetings and project deadlines do not respect school dates: the play, the assembly, sports day, even the birthday party will frequently be missed.
It is true - there may be compensations: some children go to dream places like Mauritius or the Maldives for expensive holidays. Limo rides and days at Ferrari World are possible and the family may all be together; but there are too few bike rides, cooking or working together to make something out of wood . During the whirl of activities these fantastic holidays offer, is there time for the family? Is a mindboggling trip an optimal place to have quality time with children?
Quality time – what is it anyway? Does it exist, or is it just another product of our need for faster and more focused results ? Can one pack unconditional love, parenting and fun in an hour a day? Really?
The fact is that the generation of children reared with the concept of “quality time” has not grown up yet, so the true effects are not known.
One thing is sure to follow, if this is what they grow up with, how much less will they be giving their own children when the time comes?
The children of Dubai are used to their fathers constantly on their phones or laptops. Up to a point this is inevitable. It is also true that due to the excellent childcare available to many families in the form of nannies - and increasingly drivers - this time may actually be more here than elsewhere. However, is it well used and could more be done?
• Is the time freed up by not fetching and carrying children, or cleaning the bathrooms translating into time spent together?
• Does the family make an effort to eat at least 8 meals a week together – this could be breakfast?
• Do fathers free up, phones off, 2 hours each evening to fully be with, listen to, read to, hang out with their children no matter what?
• Are there any activities undertaken that are done together, such as participating in a sporting or musical event, playing a game with each other, cooking or tidying etc? (Driving them to football, swimming, golf, tennis etc and picking them up later does not qualify here.)
• Does the family occasionally go to the movies together to watch the children’s choice, or opt for a meal out based on their choice of venue?
If the answers to the above are mostly negative, more could certainly be done. Fathers, could you try to -
• leave the office in time to have 2 hours with your children each evening before bedtime? This may mean that it is still during “working hours” in territories you are dealing with, but perhaps you could organise yourself in such a way that these hours are made up either earlier or later in the day. With some juggling this is entirely possible. If this becomes the norm, then the odd business call that inevitably has to intrude on your time with your children is quickly forgiven.
• read to or chat with your children sometimes with no “ulterior motive” - meaning that there is nothing you are trying to find out or tell them? You could just want to hear their news. If they tell you about their concerns listen only. Do not offer solutions or common sense. Given a cuddle and a listening ear, it is amazing what good sense children can come up with by themselves. And it does not have to be a one way enquiry, you can tell them a bit about your day, your concerns, your grievances. This teaches them frequently more about life than many an hour spent at school.
• Give your children and their mates lifts sometimes. The juiciest office gossip is dry fodder compared to what you will hear; what you find out about the things your children get up to!
• Try to be there to tuck them up or wish them good night each evening – not hanging off your phone, waving to them – there, fully, for them, even if you have to phone someone back 5 minutes later. There are only very, very few instances where calling back is not possible.
• If you are away on business, call them regularly and reliably at bedtime. Make it a ritual. Try to speak to them during the day on days away too – be part of their lives even when you are not physically there. This matters more than the nice present you may pick up: the present will be forgotten, the feeling that they mattered to you will not. In your mind you probably realise that expensive gifts do not compensate – make the time to be able to offer the alternative: your companionship and time with you.
• Most fathers could afford to do the morning school run, but rarely do. Although this is not the best hour of the day to spend with children, it is a chance for a quick chat, a silly song or just to remind them how much you love them.
• Prioritise time with your children, you can make it up afterwards, if something is truly that urgent. Do not believe that you can make it up to your children later, at the weekend, during the holidays, over the summer. Believing that more time is just around the corner is a fallacy – life is not slowing down. Children grow up, and their vision of themselves and how they fit into your life is shaped every single day. An 8 year-old has already had 2981 days – how many of these were you actively part of?
• Finally – what is busy? There is a disease called business – it stops much of happy human interaction. Two potent antidotes are presently available:
- supplemented by organising schedules to support the former.
The choice is yours. Make the right one for your family every day.
Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.