There were stacks of dirty laundry piled all around the house, suitcases that needed emptying and no food in the fridge. Amelia was exhausted from the long overnight flight back to Dubai from the UK. Her husband Mark was at work and her two children Maddie, eight, and Ben, six, were full of energy. “What are we going to do today?” they asked, emptying cupboards and spilling toys and glitter pots across the floor. Amelia, 36, burst into tears.
Mark’s work commitments meant that they’d taken their trip alone to see relatives in the UK for the summer holidays. It had been great to visit everyone but they’d all slept in the same room at her sister’s house and after four weeks living in a cramped home and out of suitcases, Amelia had been desperate to get home. Only she now faced more than three weeks of the scorching summer holidays stretching out in front of her, where she’d have to keep Maddie and Ben entertained at their Jumeirah home.
Mark, 38, would be at work all day and their live-in nanny still wasn’t back from her month-long trip home to the Philippines.
“I stood in front of the washing machine and just couldn’t stop crying,” Amelia admits. “I love my kids, but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get through the rest of the break with them.” Amelia isn’t alone. A 2012 UK survey revealed that four in 10 mums dread the school holidays, and spend the whole time wishing the days away. Working mothers face a complicated childcare juggling act and the guilt that they can’t be with their kids, while others have been jumping through some very expensive hoops to keep their children entertained.
If, like Amelia, families take a holiday abroad, they are faced with a stressful plane journey and a disruption to kids’ routines, which can be more than challenging.
“Maddie didn’t sleep a wink on the plane and I had to deal with plenty of eye rolling from other passengers as she fidgeted around,” Amelia admits. “In the UK, we were all jetlagged, bunked together in the same bedroom. The rest of the time the kids were over excited and out of control.”
Back in Dubai, Amelia phoned other mums to set up play dates and discovered that many were still away. “I’d never felt more alone,” she admits. “I hadn’t realised just how much I relied on school, the nanny, or their term time clubs to help to take the strain.”
It’s still a taboo for mums to admit that a long summer holiday with their children is a challenge. Amelia admits that before the holidays started she and a lot of her friends were looking forward to the upcoming break, forgetting that it doesn’t all go smoothly.
“I couldn’t wait for a lie in during the week and not having to prepare school lunches or deal with the traffic on the school run,” she says. “I thought I was lucky going away as I didn’t need to worry about summer camps, or the heat.”
An editor of a popular UAE website reveals that their summer camp page is the most viewed during the school break, with mums asking lots of questions about sport camps, music tutors and lessons. Parents are trying desperately to fill the endless free time – while avoiding revealing they can’t cope.
“Halfway through the holidays, there are mums saying they can’t wait for school to start again but they wouldn’t outright admit they’re struggling,” the editor admits.
She goes on to say that Dubai mums are no different to those all around the world and they want to give their children the chance to experience as much as they can.
“There are lots of options for children in Dubai, with play areas, summer camps and activities such as go-karting, rock climbing and ice skating,” the editor says. “Many have the opportunity to attend up to four different summer camps, and benefit from being able to go skiing one day, and spend the next on the beach.”
But along with all these opportunities, and the expense, mums are feeling the pressure of providing top-class entertainment for their kids. Full-time mum of two, Tara, certainly does. Her sons, George, 10, and Mo, six, are also quick to tell her they need to pack in the fun during the school break. “When my boys go back to school, their teachers always make them stand up in class and share their stories from the holidays,” Tara, 41, of Al Barsha, explains.
“It’s supposed to be a fun thing – but all through the summer, they’re tallying up what they’re doing like it’s a competition. I spend more money than I can afford making sure they have something to say to make their friend’s jealous.”
Dr Vanessa Bokanowski, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist (children and adults) at Wellbeing Medical Centre (www.wellbeingmedicalcentre.com) admits that in an affluent society such as the UAE, there is a tendency to set standards too high. Not everyone can take off for the entire summer to some exotic location.
“Expensive summer camps in foreign locales, fancy destination holidays and luxuries getaways are all fantastic but they shouldn’t be a means to compete with other mothers,” Dr Vanessa insists.
She says a crucial part of the summer break is trying to get your children to understand the value of family time. “There will be points when time or financial constraint will restrict things you do. The sooner kids understand this, the better they will be able to cope when they grow up,” Dr Vanessa says.
During term-time, Tara usually fills the weekends with day trips, knowing by Sunday she’ll get a break from the constant chatter and demands from the boys. During the holidays, it’s endless, and with the searing heat of the summer sun, she quickly loses her patience.
Tara might be a loving mum, but even she gets sick of seeing tons of kids crammed into every café, restaurant and attraction.
When Tara recently met some other mums for coffee, they only made her feel worse. “They told me their holiday was amazing and they were dreading getting back to the school gates,” Tara says. “I couldn’t help but be angry at their smug attitude and devastated that I was obviously such a terrible mum. I certainly wasn’t relishing spending 100 per cent of my time with the boys – but there was no way I was telling them that.”
Ironically while mothers are running themselves ragged to make kids happy they could be risking their own health and well-being. “The multiple roles a mother has to play can be very challenging,” Dr Vanessa admits. “They like to display a public image of being the perfect mother, capable of balancing everything.
“This can leave mums exhausted and burnt out. It’s important they understand that in order to provide their families with the best, they need time for themselves.”
Dr Vanessa says the key is planning ahead and getting your kids used to a quiet time. Every second doesn’t have to be filled with activities. “Peaceful reading sessions or doing short bursts of school-based activities will keep their minds sharp while ensuring that they aren’t constantly over-stimulated.
“Boredom and spending time on their own are essential life skills. The sooner kids learn to understand this, the easier they’ll adjust to adult life,” she explains.
Mum Tara is convinced that her usually well-behaved sons become feral during the holidays. “Usually they’ll eat meals nicely and play well together but I spend most of the holidays yelling at them and scrubbing the floor where they’ve thrown food,” she says. “They’re like different kids.” That’s because during the holiday, children’s routines are disrupted. They’re staying up late, eating more unhealthy options and often spending more time in front of the TV and computer. This is going to change your child’s usual behaviour.
Specialist Paediatrician Dr Delia Fayyad, from the Wellbeing Medical Centre, says you just have to adapt.
“Children too, need a break from a hectic school schedule just like adults need a break from work,” Dr Vanessa explains. “While school is the source of learning and development that all children need, it can often be a stressful place too. School breaks are a great way for children to engage with their parents and siblings.”
Dr Delia says school breaks are an essential time for all the family. “A holiday is a memory. And childhood memories are an essential part of everyone’s growing years. Those days spent with mom and dad, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, help children forge a deep bond with their families, which is ever more important in a day and age when we have to constantly compete with a gadget or gizmo for the attention of our loved ones,” she says.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important this downtime is for the mental and physical health of the entire family unit.”
But it’s OK to look forward to an end to this downtime, says the editor of a UAE website. It’s normal for mothers to long for a return to school, a return to normality, especially after a long break. Mothers who experience these feelings should know that they are not alone and there is no need to feel guilty, she says.
“It’s only natural that adults want to return to their own routines, and school provides a safe environment that is essential for the growth and learning for their children.”
Mum Amelia recently confided in a friend that she had a countdown on her computer for the start of the new term and she was amazed at the response. “She said she felt exactly the same way and it made me feel so much better!” Amelia explains.
“When the next school break comes round, I’m going to be a lot more honest, and admit to more mums that I’m at my wits’ end. I think I’ll be surprised how many of them will say ‘me too’.”