Meet Laura. She’s a mom of three who has been raising her kids in Abu Dhabi, where they moved for a work opportunity for her husband. What they thought was a short one or two year opportunity, has turned into a much longer stay. No surprise — parenting while living overseas has brought unique and interesting lessons. I know you’re really going to enjoy getting to know Laura. Welcome!
Hello from the other side of the world! My name is Laura and my husband Jeff and I are raising our three children (Adele – 8, May – 6, and Robert – 1) in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Jeff teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), and I am a mother and a baker. We’ve lived in Abu Dhabi for five years, but are months away from returning to my hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Until then, welcome to our not-forever home!
In 2014, my husband was in the last year of his PhD in Political Science in Rochester, NY. We knew that the academic job market was such that if you got a reasonable job offer, you took it, regardless of where the job was. I would say to myself, “Please don’t let us end up in the South. Please don’t let us end up in the South.” No offense to the readers in the South, but I’m from soggy Washington State and I can’t stand the heat! Oh, irony of ironies. We ended up in one of the hottest places on earth.
When Jeff first heard about a post-doc fellowship at NYUAD, I flat out told him not to apply. As a Jewish woman, I had no interest in living in the Middle East. I didn’t know if it was safe, not just for Jews, but for women, or Americans, or even just safe in general. Basically, I knew nothing about the UAE. And unfortunately, I had a lifetime of casual anti-Muslim pop culture propaganda to influence my opinions on the region (boo!). It wasn’t until I had lunch with my sister-in-law, and she told me how formative her boyfriend (now husband)’s childhood years spent in Egypt had been, that it opened my eyes to the potential for a family adventure.
I am no stranger to living abroad. I met my husband while we were both exchange students in Munich, Germany in 2004. I was there to study German and Austrian art and he was studying the politics of the EU. The star-crossed coincidence is that we were both college students in Portland, Oregon at the time (I went to Reed College and Jeff went to Lewis & Clark), and our hometowns in Washington are a couple hours away from each other.
We reckon that we may have competed at the same debate tournaments in high school, but didn’t meet until we were seated next to each other at a café in Munich. That’s why we had our wedding rings inscribed with the German word bestimmt, which was our take on the Yiddish concept beshert, which means destiny or “meant to be.”
We were married in 2008 while Jeff was doing his first Masters degree at the University of Chicago, and we had our two girls while he was doing his PhD at Rochester. Before having kids, I worked in the art world in a variety of positions, but knew that I would stop working as soon as I became a mother. Staying home with my young children is of the utmost importance to me. We somehow made it work as a family of four on a grad student’s stipend (read: loooooans).
Adele is my precocious first born. At eight years old, she has recently been assessed at the reading level of a 16 year old. She desperately wants a guinea pig, and to live on a farm…in Alaska…in the 1880s. This comes from reading the Little House series over and over, and watching the Pioneer Woman with me (that’s our special just-the-two-of-us thing). Or she just wants the exact opposite of the life we have here in Abu Dhabi.
May is our middle child, and she is a beaming ray of sunlight. She is our family clown (that’s the nice way of saying it; usually we call her a troll) and I hear her giggle ringing through the apartment at all times.
Robert (Bobby to me and Bear to Jeff) is currently 14 months old and was born here in the UAE (but no, that doesn’t grant him citizenship). Randomly, my Abu Dhabi OBGYN was an American woman who used to work at the very hospital in Rochester, NY where my first two babies were born. What are the chances?!
Bobby is pure, fat love. He has a halo of platinum blonde curls and bright blue eyes and is the most Scandinavian looking Jewish child you’ll ever see (which he gets from his dad). One of his first words was “Batman,” I kid you not, because his sisters discovered that singing the Batman theme song from the 1960s would stop his fussing. He’s at the stage now where he’s starting to understand and respond to the things we say and that’s the beginning of my favorite age range — from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 — when literally everything they do and say is magical and hilarious.
Not to make a baby seem all lullabies and butterfly kisses — my husband and I haven’t slept in 14 months, and Bobby now insists on feeding on both breasts back and forth like a boob smorgasbord, which is super awesome in a Muslim country where women are often covered head to toe.
Bobby is with me all day while Adele and May attend Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, a British International School (Jeff’s work benefits cover private school tuition, which is approximately $20,000 a year per child). Adele is in Year 4 and May is in Year 1. In the UAE, children start formal school at age three. Adele was three when we applied for her admittance, and they asked for her school transcripts and letters of recommendation. For a four year old!
On the application, we stretched the truth and wrote that Adele had been “homeschooled,” and that her teacher (me) gave her very high marks! The families at Cranleigh are some of the richest people in the world, and there are limos that do school drop-off and pick-up, which makes me feel like a Troop Beverly Hills scene come to life.
May has had children of the royal family in her class for two years, and when we attend their birthday parties and I’m rubbing shoulders with rulers and my Jewish daughter is holding hands with a potential future Arab ruler, I can’t help but think, THIS IS SO WEIRD. HOW DID I GET HERE?
Speaking of, back to why we decided to move to Abu Dhabi: money, same as every other immigrant here. Frankly, the oil rich Middle East has the financial resources to offer academics that other schools just won’t anymore — and when you’re a single income family, that’s mighty important.
The post doc fellowship was supposed to be for around two years (which I now know is a long standing joke in these parts — every ex-pat’s story begins, “I thought I was only going to be here for one or two years…”), but after one year here, we loved our life and wanted to stay longer, and Jeff changed jobs within the university from research to teaching.
The university offered us on-campus housing when we first arrived (a housing allowance is also included in Jeff’s contract), which I thought we wouldn’t want long term, in order to preserve the separation between work life and home life. However, because we knew nothing about Abu Dhabi (we never visited), we decided to try living on campus until we found our footing.
The university was moving from downtown Abu Dhabi onto a brand new campus the year that we came, so we were the first people to ever live in our apartment in one of two faculty residence buildings.
For many of the new professors who were coming from NYU in New York City, even a two-bedroom apartment seemed enormous! But we were coming from a house in upstate NY, so it was downsizing. My girls went from having their own rooms plus a playroom to sharing a bedroom.
However, the open-concept kitchen/dining/living room area with a wall of windows made the space feel larger than it is. I never wanted an open kitchen — even though the rest of the design world decided that was a modern must-have — because I am a really messy baker and there’s consistently a layer of flour covering all surfaces.
But I will admit that it has been extremely useful while my kids are little, so we can keep watchful eyes on each other. And no bones about it, I love my massive 12’ kitchen island.
We decided to stay on campus because of how easy it made our life at a stage when it’s not even easy to find time to take a shower. My husband’s office is a five minute walk from home (and from April through November, when temps regularly spike up into the 100-120s, he takes the elevator down to the parking garage and then back up to his office so he never has to walk outside).
I can’t overstate what a luxury this has been. If he’s not in the middle of teaching a class, he can run home to help with any little thing I need — from moving the laundry into the dryer, to picking up the girls from school, or coming home for dinner and bedtime and then going back into the office to finish work.
Jeff is a true co-parent while somehow also working a full time job. Without his help, my domestic workload would be so much more of a burden. With his help, I am able to find the joy in motherhood.
I should note here that we are highly unusual in the UAE in that we don’t have any domestic staff. Almost everyone we know employs someone to watch their children, clean their house, cook their food, and/or drive for them. The average annual salary of a nanny is $5,880 with one day off a week. I have a lot of strong opinions on the subject of exploitation and the devaluation of the domestic, which I am always happy to discuss over a cup of coffee.
We have so many amenities on campus, including two coffee shops, two children’s play rooms, a small children’s book collection (and get this — there are no libraries in Abu Dhabi and the “bookstores” are 90% toys, so, whoa are we lucky), a playground, a faculty-only swimming pool (so your students don’t have to see you half naked), student dining options, a convenience store, a gym, every art resource you can imagine, and access to lectures and performances. Funny that I led with the coffee shops. I guess you can tell my priorities.
What we do not have is green space. There are patches of grass here and there, sprayed within an inch of their life to keep scorpions at bay, but nothing big and flat enough to kick a ball around. We have literally invented our own game called Hall Ball where you stand on opposite ends of a hallway and try to bounce a teeny tiny rubber ball past each other. I long for the day when I can open up a door and let my kids run into a backyard.
Campus is also very isolated. From the outside, NYUAD looks like a spaceship landed on the surface of Mars. There is nothing surrounding us other than greige sand, construction sites, and the highway that connects Abu Dhabi to Dubai. Further afield on the same island (Saadiyat, which is being developed as Abu Dhabi’s cultural center) are the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, several sprawling luxury resorts and cookie-cutter housing compounds, as well as the girls’ school. But nothing is walkable unless you dare to walk on the side of the highway, because pedestrianism is a concept seemingly foreign to this driving culture.
Because we thought we were only going to live here for a short time, we decided not to bring any of our belongings with us. We donated most of our Rochester furnishings, and kept only the sentimental items that would fit in our minivan — which my husband drove across the country to store at his parents’ house in Longview, Washington.
We flew to Abu Dhabi with just a few suitcases of clothing, children’s books, and our kitchen knives. A trans-Atlantic move is a good way to find out what stuff is most important to you!
We decided not to bring anything too precious in case it were damaged or lost, or any Judaica, even though I knew that was something that we would not be able to find abroad. I had read that anything Jewish or with Hebrew writing on it could be confiscated at the airport and we didn’t want to risk it. (This turned out to be an exaggeration.)
The university included relocation benefits, and we spent the shipping allowance on an IKEA shopping spree when we got here. We bought every single item of furniture that we thought we would need, and when it was delivered, it looked like nothing. Our white walled, white floored apartment looked so empty. I did not want to waste money on anything that we would only use for such a short time though, so I didn’t rush out to buy more. And what we did buy was so basic. It met the bare minimum of our needs as they were back then.
You are in such a different mindset when you buy furniture that is meant to last a lifetime versus a short stay in a foreign country. I wanted the cheapest furniture that looked and felt passable (so not the cheapest Ikea chair, but maybe the second or third cheapest). The upside to this approach was that we could design the entire apartment to be child friendly and suitable for the exact ages that our children were then. We didn’t need to think “would this be something that Adele would still appreciate as she becomes a teenager?”
At ages 4 and 2, those girls liked pink and so everything in their room was pink. I knew we would do lots of messy arts and crafts on the dining room table, so I picked out chairs that were plastic and easily washable, and a white couch so the slipcover would be bleachable.
The downside to this approach is, of course, that we were wrong. It’s not just that we’ve ended up staying much longer than we originally planned, and the girls have totally grown out of everything that we first bought, but I was naive to underestimate how long even one year is. A year or two when considered in a lifetime seems like a blip. But when you are in the middle of it — living it, raising small children, adjusting to a very foreign life so far away from everybody and everything that you know — one year feels like an eternity. I completely underestimated how important STUFF is.
It really hit me when I went over to a friend’s villa for coffee and I complimented a lovely wooden box in her living room. It was a family heirloom filled with plaster animals that her grandfather, a dentist, had made for his young patients. Such a unique, personal thing, and I realized that my children didn’t have anything with any age or story. Later I visited another friend and when I walked into her house, she had a stunning gallery wall of family photos going back generations. These things are important. They make us who we are, or at least they share the visual story of who we are. I learned the hard way that surrounding yourself with things that you love and are important to your family will absolutely affect your mood.
So I let go of the proto-Marie Kondo minimalism I had going on and got to work feathering our nest — but on the cheap. The easiest way to add personality to our apartment was to decorate with the children’s art work. Is there anything more beautiful? (That said, I’m a ruthless thrower-awayer of their crap as well. You have to be, or else you’ll end up buried under a haystack of their doodles and the never-ending projects they bring home from school!)
Two of my favorite pieces of art in our home are the oversized IKEA canvases that I gessoed over and let the kids paint: Adele and a friend painted the large-scale hamsa/Hand of Fatima during a play date, and Adele and May worked together to paint Bobby a bear with blueberries for his first birthday party.
The other really special piece is the camel bust that my husband made for me. It was originally a cardboard moose head that he gave me as a gift for Mother’s Day. I decided a cardboard moose head wasn’t good enough for me, so I told him to try again! Haha, being married to me must be a delight. Well, he did try again, and he papier-mâchéd on top of the moose to make it into a camel. We’ve named him Jamal, which is related to the Arabic words for camel and beautiful.
For other low-cost art, I’ve repurposed party decorations (the paper flowers in the girls’ room and the stars in the master bedroom and hallway), used Christmas decorations for lamps year-round, hung Arabic educational posters, and mounted a lot of local textiles on the wall to add color and texture — and sometimes I take them off the wall to wear!
The one place we were willing to spend money was on rugs, because I know they will last forever, and we can use them in any house (but also, is it possible for someone to have a rug addiction?). They are just so beautiful.
I’m also a sucker for any uniquely Middle Eastern looking object that will make me seem like a super sophisticated woman of the world when we move back to the States. I’ve collected bowls from Morocco, vases from Iran, an antique Tunisian coffee pot, and a platter from a Palestinian artist. That platter holds my challah for our Shabbat dinners every week.
The true beauty of life in Abu Dhabi is that almost every friend you have comes from a different part of the world. I have especially benefited from meeting women of different Arab backgrounds and across a spectrum of religious identities. I feel that the predominant culture is British, but maybe I just feel that way because my kids go to a British school and have developed British accents from their teachers (I’m only going to allow the BBC on the television when we move home to preserve their adorable accents!).
I thought we would speak fluent Arabic after living here, but that’s not at all the case. Arabic lessons are required in the children’s schools, but it’s almost impossible to hear or practice on the streets. Even the local Emiratis have to switch to English to shop or order food at a restaurant.
But the country is a melting pot. On the first day we arrived, I took my girls for a walk across campus to explore our new home and on that one walk, I counted 20 languages being spoken. I feel so happy that, even if my kids don’t learn to speak another language fluently, they will always, always know that difference is normal.
Because the UAE is made up of so many ex-pats, it’s been very easy to make friends. No one has any extended family living nearby, so we’re all forced to turn our friends into our ersatz family. I’ve celebrated Christmases with Scottish, Swiss, Indian, Malaysian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Canadian friends.
I’m a bit of a misanthrope, but I have never been around so many women that I love. The faculty residences on campus are basically grown-up college dorms. Instead of bedrooms with communal kitchens, we have our own apartments, but with communal social spaces. Many of us leave our doors open all the time, and kids have the safety on campus to roam freely in and out of each other’s homes and play spaces.
I started letting my kids go out on their own at 5 years old, and we have other kids waltz in to see if my girls want to play, which I think is super awesome and makes me feel like I’m living in a 1950s sitcom. After the children go to bed at night, we mothers often meet in a lounge on the top floor of my building to drink a glass of wine and eat cookies.
Two years ago, my next door neighbor and one of my best friends had to be out of town for her son’s birthday. I promised to make him a birthday cake with a mother’s love, and it turned out well enough that I decided that was a service I could offer to all my friends. I know not everyone has the skills, time, or interest to bake, but everyone deserves to eat delicious treats baked with love!
Because I only bake after my kids go to bed, I named the project The Midnight Bakery (influenced also by “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak). It has been an excellent creative outlet and source of pride for me.
If I could lift up my life here and move it to the evergreen forests of the Pacific NW, I would. We will be leaving Abu Dhabi shortly, trusting that everything will work out for the best, as Jeff does not yet have a job lined up. He will be leaving academia and most likely looking for a job in data science. It is just time to go home.
There are so many things about the USA that we miss and that living abroad has taught us to appreciate more. There are little things, like Grape Nuts and second-hand shops, and much bigger things, like First Amendment rights. Our children deserve the time to get to know their extended family and vice versa, and May, who has essentially lived here for her entire life, has never seen a tree’s leaves turn colors in the fall!
I want my children to remember how much I love celebrating all holidays (Burns Night! The solstices! Ramadan!), and the traditions we’ve established as a family, from quiet reading time every night after Bobby goes to bed, to Taco Tuesdays and Shabbat dinners, to completely made up ones like making a single mustard donut for Hanukkah.
I also hope they remember the quirks of Abu Dhabi, like how pork products are hidden behind secret doors in grocery stores, finding camel skeletons in the desert, or how, instead of snow days, a really strong sand storm can cause school closures. I hope they remember learning to bake with me, collecting shells at the beach, and how spectacularly diverse International Day at their school was.
And that’s the main thing, of course. I hope they remember the friends they have made here from all over the world. I am so grateful that social media will allow us all to stay in touch!
I hope they forget how lackadaisical I am about cleaning the floor and putting away laundry. I hope they forget how much time their father spends on his phone. (I’m probably on my phone even more, but that’s like really important stuff, so never mind that!) I hope they forget how sad they were whenever we had to say goodbye to visiting family or when their best friends moved away — which happens all too frequently in this nomadic community. I really, really hope they forget how much I yell when I get stressed, and actually, I just really hope I learn to stop doing that.
If there’s one thing I’ve tried to teach my children, it’s to question everything, and think independently. We discuss politics, religion, and gender roles at the dinner table, and I hope they’ve learned from watching me that one of the biggest ways a woman can challenge the patriarchy is to be comfortable in her own body. I’m all about smashing the patriarchy (it says so on my door, so you know I’m a badass), but I also love to make themed lunch boxes for my kids. I don’t shave my legs, but I love to wear lipstick and crazy big jewelry.
I think I’m a good mix of a modern, liberal woman who wholeheartedly embraces the domestic in a really old fashioned, but non-religious way! I lean towards a Waldorf education philosophy, but minus God, and add in vaccinations. Are there any others like me? Sometimes I feel really alone in this motherhood philosophy!
I struggled to find an answer to the “What do you wish someone had told you about parenting?” question. I mean, there’s so much that I didn’t know. I didn’t know how astonishingly hard the first year is, how the sleep deprivation will push you to every breaking point you have, including testing the marriage that you assumed was rock solid — but I also know that there’s no way to ever prepare for that life change or to even begin to comprehend it until you’ve experienced it.
So I asked my daughters what they wish I knew about being a mother. They said that they wished I could understand that they are their own people. They’re so right, and I am very guilty of treating my children like miniature versions of myself. They are a part of you for nine months, and then so physically connected for another two years, and then in a blink of an eye, they’re not anymore.
I think, especially as a mother of daughters (my son is pretty little, so I have no idea yet what he’ll throw my way!), I can definitely see myself falling into the trap of assuming that their experiences of life are going to mirror mine, and that they will like what I like, and respond to situations the way that I would, because they’re MY daughters.
Adele, in particular, looks so much like me, but we’re polar opposite personalities. I’m an extravert and she’s an introvert. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and yet, it is so frustrating! How can I help her be happy when I don’t understand the way she experiences the world? But that’s just it, right? She doesn’t need my help in that way. I know she has to live her life and mature into whomever she’s going to be, just like I did, just like we all did, but it’s hard to let go of our babies.
Thank you, Laura.
I think it must be so fascinating to live in house that is basically attached to your place of work. On the one hand, the convenience can’t be beat. But on the other hand, it must be challenging to take a mental break from your job when it is literally an elevator ride and few steps away. And I assume having your neighbors also be your colleagues must present it’s own set of challenges.
It must take a lot of courage to move your young family overseas to somewhere you’ve never been and somewhere that is so different from where you live currently. (I can’t imagine two more different places than the Pacific Northwest and the Arabian Desert!) But I love what Laura shares about how great it’s been to meet families and kids from all over the world, hearing different languages as you walk through your neighborhood and celebrating and sharing holidays with people of different ethnicities, nationalities and religions. What amazing lessons Laura and her kids must be learning about living in a global community, simply be being enmeshed in so many cultures and backgrounds.
Ceramic platter made in Hebron (similar)
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org