The ‘expat mum’ is often portrayed as a pampered being who packs the kids off to school then spends the rest of the day shopping, lunching, working out in the gym or beautifying herself in the spa. The reality, however, is often very different, particularly in the current economic climate where many mothers are either seeking work or worried about remaining employable.
Returning to work can be tough for anyone: even a few months out of the loop can take its toll on your confidence. But for mums, who may have taken a couple of years or more out to take care of their kids, the thought of returning to the workplace is enough to bring them out in a cold sweat – no matter how determined they are to get involved again.
Many fall at the first hurdle – updating the dreaded CV. Though we all wish we had a magic wand, in practice it can take many hours of thinking and typing to perfect your resume and application letters. Those hours are well spent, however, particularly in a highly competitive market where it’s critical to demonstrate that you have the skills and confidence to do the job better than any other applicant. You need to take stock of your many and varied achievements, both in previous employment and elsewhere in order to build confidence before you start networking and attending interviews.
That means thinking hard about the new skills you’ve acquired as a mum. You may need to think outside the box – for example, many mums think unpaid work has to be listed in a separate section in the resume, but this is definitely not the case. In fact, prospective employers don’t really care whether or not you were paid, provided you can articulate the skills and strengths you developed as a result. Unfortunately, ‘washing Timmy’s PE kit’ or ‘drying Sarah’s tears’ are not skills you can put on a resume. But if running a baby group or organising a birthday party are the best recent examples you have of your ability to manage people or events, find a way to include them, perhaps by asking friends to write you a testimonial.
It’s also important to consider what kind of work you’re really looking for. Do you really want to be constrained by the daily grind of nine-to-five (or six)? Flexible working – if you can get it – may be the answer.
For Nicky Baker, a career break made sense when her kids were small but, once the youngest started nursery, she felt it was time to return to work. A mum of three and a former teacher, an opportunity arose to provide maternity cover at her children’s school.
‘I thought it was a good way to see if I could juggle everything, without committing myself to a permanent role. The school allows me to still be the kind of parent I want to be. For example, they recently arranged cover for me so that I could attend my child’s sports day.’
Ann Felton, however, was less fortunate. Having worked full-time as a pediatric nurse before coming to Dubai a year ago, she was keen to find a job here, but it has not been straightforward. With three teenage daughters, flexible working hours and holidays were a must, but nursing jobs in Dubai simply don’t offer these kinds of benefits. ‘I’m having to seriously think about giving up nursing,’ admitted Ann. I will probably look into voluntary work. I can’t sit here and do nothing; I want something to put on my CV.’
For many mums, the affordability of domestic help here makes returning to work a far more attractive proposition. ‘In the UK, 70 per cent of my earnings as a teacher went on childcare and all our weekends were spent doing chores,’ says Nicky. ‘It was stressful and really tiring. Weekends here really feel like weekends.’ Yet many women have concerns about the childcare options available in the UAE. Ann explains how, in the UK, au pairs are trained in first aid and childcare. ‘It was a respectful relationship; we invested in our au pairs.’ Is it the same with live-in maids here, though? Possibly not – Nicky acknowledges that if her youngest son wasn’t at nursery, she might not feel so comfortable returning to work full-time and leaving him all day with their live-in helper.
There are other options, though. Mardi Grey-Byrne admits to needing to have ‘a hundred things happening’ to be content. Clearly, becoming a full-time mum was never on the cards, but at the same time, Mardi didn’t feel comfortable delegating the parenting responsibility of her baby girl to someone else. The high-powered roles with lots of international travel that she’d once enjoyed no longer appealed. She decided to start a business. ‘It allows me to be the kind of parent I want to be, and I realised there are thousands of women out there with a similar story.’
Armed with the experience of implementing a part-time and flexible working scheme for a former employer, Mardi, along with business partners Karen Jones and Robert Duce, started Xpat Partners, with the aim of matching women with organisations offering flexible and part-time work. Their business idea may be simple, but it’s highly innovative in Dubai’s fledgling job market and has been welcomed with great enthusiasm by mothers keen to fit in work around school drop-off and pick-up times, as well as by employers trying to find the right staff.
Another ‘mumpreneur’ is Claire Fenner, who started her own business, a monthly magazine called Easy Living, in June last year. Having tried part-time work (which she says, in practice, often seemed more like full-time), being self-employed has meant that she gets to see more of her two boys. ‘Previously I was at work from 8am to 6pm. Now I can pick up Jack from nursery, even though I’m busier than ever! I don’t go anywhere without my BlackBerry and I check emails on the run. I always knew I’d have my own business one day, I just never knew exactly what it would be.’
But, if these success stories have you weeping into your kid’s pyjamas at the unfairness of it all, take heart. Mardi has some very practical advice to mums concerned about staying employable while taking a career break: ‘There are plenty of options other than paid work – volunteering, full-time education, training and so on. My best advice is to maintain your network, because the best people to talk to once you do decide to return to work will be the people you previously worked with. Keep in touch with what’s happening in the business world.’
Even that is getting easier in Dubai thanks to people like Claire, who is also the co-founder of a new group called Heels and Deals. Specifically aimed at women who are entrepreneurs or considering starting their own business, Claire estimates up to 70 per cent of its rapidly growing membership are mums. Speakers so far have covered highly practical business topics such as networking techniques, personal branding and online marketing. You don’t have to be a member to attend, but there are significant membership benefits in the form of discounts on various products and services.
Another group (if you know of others, please let us know) is the established IBWG (International Business Women’s Group), which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Its members include working women of all ages and backgrounds. Regular breakfast and lunch events are held, which enable members to network without sacrificing their precious family time.
If you’re tempted to re-enter the workplace but also daunted by the prospect, if the job you had before becoming a parent no longer appeals, or if, like Ann, due to the different employment conditions and opportunities here, you need to rethink your career options, consider enlisting the help of a professional career coach or counsellor. Perhaps you are keen to try something new, but not quite sure what to do, or how to make it happen? A coach can help you formulate and research your career ideas, design career goals and implement your own ‘personal marketing’ plan.
Whatever you decide is the best option for you right now – a full- or part-time job, retraining, changing career, starting a business or focusing full time on your children’s development and needs for a while – rest assured that you are not alone. Somewhere out there in Dubai there are other busy mums in the same boat.
For networking opportunities, visit www.heelsanddeals.org or www.ibwgdubai.com to find out more. Looking for part-time or flexible work? Check out www.xpatpartners.com. Nicola Supka provides career coaching and consulting services for individuals and organisations. Contact her on 050 114 2980; firstname.lastname@example.org.