For our Motherhood Around the World series, our sixth interview features Kera Thompson, who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband, McSean, and three kids, Owen, 6, Asher, 4, and Elena, 1. Here are 12 things that have surprised her about being a mom in Abu Dhabi...
At 18 years old, Kera was living in Utah when she met a cute guy at a party. “We got engaged within ten days and got married within six months,” Kera says. Over the next six years, they had two kids, and although they were happy in Utah, they were both interested in living abroad. So, when McSean found out about a job doing data analysis for the Abu Dhabi government, they jumped at the chance. At the time, Kera had never been out of the country. “The international terminal at the airport was enough to freak me out,” she laughs. “When we arrived in Abu Dhabi at 9:30pm, I walked out of the airport, and my glasses immediately steamed up. It was over 100 degrees. The smells, the air, the landscape…I was totally overwhelmed by how different it was."
But after four years in Abu Dhabi, Kera says, unequivocally, “I love it here.” The family lives in a large, three-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city, overlooking the ocean and the corniche, the bustling ocean-side promenade. “I love the city lifestyle, the travel opportunities, the international culture. I love feeling so close to the other side of the world.” This year, Kera founded Interwoven, an online shop featuring pillows, rugs and throws made by local artisans. “Abu Dhabi is all about opportunity. The city is developing at a crazy rate. It has inspired me."
McSean’s job contract ends this winter, so the family will likely return to the States. “I’m scared to go back to Utah and feel like this was my fifteen minutes of world experience,” Kera says. “I love Utah—it’s a great place to raise kids—but it will be hard to return once we're experienced something so different. It will be a big transition.”
On the city's big changes: Abu Dhabi’s history is fascinating. Forty years ago, the place was a desert. Nothing but sand and Bedouins—tribal clans that had been living in tents and herding camel for thousands of years. Then they find oil, and all of a sudden the locals are wearing couture clothes, driving Lamborghinis and living in glamorous villas. Abu Dhabi suddenly became one of the richest cities in the world, and if you’re a native Emirati, the government will give you land and money to start a business...
...Still, if you drive a couple miles out of the city, there’s sand as far as the eye can see and people living traditionally, as if the city doesn't even exist.
On the desert: We’ll sometimes drive an hour outside the city to camp in the desert. We stay at a site called “Two Trees,"since it has the only two trees for miles and miles. We get there at sundown, otherwise it’s unbearably hot. We cook outside and sleep in tents. Last time we went, we woke up in the morning and panicked at the sight of 40 camels galloping towards us. Luckily, they stopped running just before they trampled us, but my kids were literally nose-to-nose with the herd.
On dealing with the heat: It gets unbelievably hot here. Today it’s 122 degrees outside with 100 percent humidity. How did people manage before A/C?! Historically, people here just turned their clocks around—sleeping during the day and working and socializing at night. Emirati culture still comes alive at night. It’s very typical to see whole families—infants and toddlers included—strolling the corniche after midnight. Kids ride their bikes in the dark. My local friend regularly texts me at 2am, when her whole family is up. The tricky part is that they’ve also had to conform to the Western clock because of business. It causes a lot of problems. You can’t stay up all day and all night. My sons’ teachers say that kids will fall asleep in class, and I’ve seen local children acting very unruly because they’re so overtired. I think people will figure out how to make it work with time. My kids still go to bed at 7:30pm.
On (super) malls: In Abu Dhabi, the mall is the place to be. When we first arrived here from Utah, it was 10pm and we were jetlagged, so my husband, who had already been here for a few months, was like, “Let’s go to the mall.” When we got there, it was absolutely enormous and packed with people. There are at least six giant malls within a five-mile radius of our home and more being built every day. They’re all trying to be The Biggest, and they’re all designed to be a one-stop for everything. They have skating rinks, bowling alleys, supermarkets, amusement rides…and they’re open late into the night, since that’s when most locals do their shopping.
On hiring help: I’d never hired a nanny before moving to Abu Dhabi, but now we have full-time help. Our nanny, Tsega, is Ethiopian, and she helps cook, clean and take care of the kids six days a week.
Most domestic help comes from outside the country—Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines or Bangladesh—and it’s extremely affordable. People here say “nanny” or “housemaid." Everyone—both locals and expats—has a housemaid, and often a driver. I’ve seen everyday Emiratis with a maid for each child!
I realize this is a controversial subject for some American women. Among the women I knew in Utah, it was common to have five or six kids and take care of them full-time, with no help. I felt real pressure to have a beautiful meal prepared every night, vacuum lines on the carpet, kids looking like they stepped out of Crewcuts—all while having perky breasts and wearing size 6 skinny jeans. For me, that was impossible. I felt like I was constantly failing. Soon after we moved to Abu Dhabi, our middle child, Asher, was diagnosed with autism, and we hired Tsega because I just couldn’t keep up. She swept in, with her soft gentle voice and impeccable cooking and cleaning skills, and saved us. She gave me TIME! Time to focus on my kids individually; time to actually have date nights with my husband; time to start my own business. Having full-time help has been a huge benefit to living in this city, and it’s something I’ll be sad to give up.
It’s worth mentioning that there has been some local controversy here about housemaids being worked too hard. For example, the Ethiopian government recently stopped allowing the UAE to recruit Ethiopian maids because of reports that they’re literally being asked to work day and night, seven days a week, by local families. I can only speak to my own experience, but we talk often to Tsega about her hours and pay and are very careful to make sure feels she is being treated fairly. I truly feel like she is part of our family and I adore her. Right now we’re paying for her to take computer and English classes so that when we leave, she’ll be in a position to move forward with her career and send more money to her family back home.
On befriending local moms: Most of the “mom friends” I’ve made are expats from around the world. I don’t have as many Emirati mom friends—maybe three. When I have gotten the chance to speak with Emirati women, they have been very friendly. But Emirati moms are rarely out alone with their kids during the day. Local moms usually only bring their kids to parks at night, along with the whole extended family. Typically 15 to 20 people will gather with a grill and meat and make coffee and smoke shisha (a water pipe filled with flavored tobacco) while the children play. It’s wonderful and warm and very family focused...but my kids are already asleep when it’s happening. Recently I met a young, single Emirati woman who owned her own business; at first glance she was totally intimidating, but once we started chatting she was so cool.
On being a woman in Abu Dhabi: It’s definitely different to be a woman here. There are lots of rules, which, from a Western perspective, can be frustrating. For example, while I was pregnant with Elena and went to the local hospital for routine visits, my husband would have to sit in a separate male waiting room. It bugged me, and I would end up waiting in there with him, and the other men would look at me strangely. There are also special grocery lines and buses designated for "women and people with disabilities."
On Emirati fashion: Emirati women look and smell amazing. I cannot stress this enough. A typical Emirati woman wears an abaya, a gown that covers her entire body, and a shayla, a long scarf that covers her hair and sometimes face. A progressive woman might have her bangs peeking out, but that would be frowned upon by more conservative families. Most women use oud—Arab incense—in their closets to scent their abayas, so you can literally smell them coming from ten feet away. It smells so good. Bags, shoes and watches are big status symbols here since the rest of a woman’s clothes are covered up. You’ll see women in abayas carrying huge Louis Vuitton bags and wearing six-inch Louboutin heels. The abayas are generally tailored to each woman and sometimes a woman will purposely have hers tailored to swing open a bit so you can see her gorgeous designer clothing underneath. Their makeup and eyebrows are perfect. Having hair on your body is completely unacceptable. There is a laser hair removal place on every block, and everyone, even men, gets waxed.
From a Western perspective, I have complicated feelings about the fact that some women are so covered, since I wonder if it takes away their identities. But I know that many women are proud to wear the traditional dress. It’s a status symbol, and usually, the more beautiful you are, the more covered you are supposed to be. It’s supposed to preserve the purity and honor of the wearer.
Although Emirati women dress traditionally, the United Arab Emirates is a progressive, modern, Western-influenced country, with people from all over the world. So you see people dressed in all different ways. You're expected to dress modestly in public areas, especially during Ramadan, but Westerners don’t always heed that rule.
On food: My favorite local snack is shawarma, which is chicken or beef from a spit, mixed with pickles and garlic mayonnaise and wrapped in a warm pita. I also love cheese maneesh—warm Arabic bread with melted cheese. They’re sold at restaurants every 500 feet.
Like in the U.S., however, obesity is a growing problem here. Kids eat lots of packaged, sugary snacks, which are available at every corner store. One of Owen’s friends opened his lunch box at school, and it was just filled with Ding Dongs!
American fast food is very popular. There’s McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s...even a Shake Shack! But there are some subtle differences. None of the chains serve pork; Subway has a Chicken Tikka Masala sub and McDonalds has a McArabia, which is a chicken patty in a pita.
On school: There are public schools here, but only Emirati children are allowed to attend. All expat kids—and some Emirati children, including the royal family—go to private schools. My oldest son Owen attends GEMS, which is part of an international chain of schools. We're lucky that my husband’s job pays for the school, which is about $11,000 per year, per child. It’s more as they get older. Owen’s friends are mostly Arab, Sri Lankan and Indian. I love that the emphasis of the school is on “world citizenship.” By the time they reach middle school, students are taking school trips to Tanzania and Kenya. They go to India for basketball tournaments. By the time a student graduates from GEMS High School, he’ll be fluent in Arabic, he’ll have traveled to at least five countries and he’ll have friends from all over the world.
The school is great, but there is little system in place for kids with special needs. Talking openly about children with disabilities is considered taboo. It’s taken me four years to find the right programs for Asher. Autism rates are on the rise here, just like they are in the U.S., but there’s still little movement to help kids on the spectrum.
On driving “safety”: There are no car seat or seatbelt laws here. You will regularly see toddlers with their heads peeking out of sunroofs or moms holding their infants in the front seat. The government and the car companies are trying to educate people about the dangers, but the most locals (Emiratis as well as people from countries like India and Egypt) believe that a mother’s arms are the safest place for her child.
On parenting style: The Emirati parenting style seems more laid back than the American style. Parents here are more willing to let children be children—to let them run around and be a little wild. You see kids on their own more often here—going to corner stores or out playing soccer. At the mall, young children are running around, often without a parent in sight. Here, I don’t worry that I’ll be judged if my kids misbehave. For example, I wouldn’t think twice about taking my kids out to a fancy restaurant. Even at the nicest places there are always little kids running around and lots of babies in strollers. Sometimes they’re screaming and loud! It’s taught me to let go a bit with my boys—to trust them more and allow them to make mistakes so they can grow.
P.S. Motherhood in Norway, Japan, Central Africa, Northern Ireland and Mexico. Plus, why French kids eat everything and babies sleeping outside in Denmark.
(Thank you to my friend and writer Lina Perl for help reporting and interviewing. Skyline photos at top by Dave Yoder for National Geographic)