Family life can be hectic and exhausting, so the prospect of an extra pair of hands around the house can be tempting. Having another person to clean, cook or look after the children might not always come cheap, but at least it is readily available in the UAE and within reach for many, including expatriates who could only have dreamt of such support back home.
This kind of service can revolutionise family life. "I now have the time and the energy to be with the kids, play, go swimming and so on, rather than just plodding through the daily chores," says Carly Jeffries, a mother in Abu Dhabi. "It also means I have the opportunity to keep fit and spend quality time with my husband."
There are a number of different options when it comes to home help. Some choose to hire a maid who will help with the housework and the children; others prefer to employ a professional nanny whose duties will revolve solely around childcare.
As the costs vary, so does the service. Sponsorship costs around Dh5,000, a medical card a further Dh300, and a monthly salary ranges from Dh800 to Dh2,000. Legally, you must provide one return trip home every two years. Sponsored maids usually live in quarters attached to your accommodation and they mainly come from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. For a nanny, you can expect to pay from Dh1,500 a week and she will work around 50 hours a week.
It's not hard to see why many expatriates, particularly families, embrace the idea of some extra help. "Babysitting is the best bit," says Jen Simpson, a mother in Dubai who has hired a live-in maid. "Last night, David and I popped out for a swim when the kids were in bed. Other evenings, we spontaneously go out for dinner. I could never have done that back home in the UK. And the wonderful thing is that when I go out, I don't need to leave any instructions; our maid Rose knows our routine and the needs of the kids, so it's very easy."
For some mothers, domestic help enables them to keep their careers on track. "Having a nanny has meant I can go back to work with the minimum of disruption to my daughter and myself," says Ana Walsh, of Dubai. "If I were still in Spain, my daughter would have been in a nursery from nine months, which is much more complicated than having a nanny at home. It doesn't matter if she has a temperature or the car breaks down, our nanny can still look after her."
Inevitably, it's not all sunshine and roses, and teething problems may occur. To get off on a good footing, it's best to set ground rules from day one so everyone knows where they stand and no one is disappointed. "Communication is key and the family should make their expectations clear right from the beginning, so that there are no misunderstandings later on," advises Jana Valabikova, a representative at Nannies Incorporated (www.nanniesinc.com), an agency with offices in Dubai, London and Paris and which places experienced professional nannies and maternity nurses around the world.
"It is important that the family is clear on what they want - whether they need a carer to follow instructions or they want a proactive sole-charge nanny who will be able to advise and offer guidance on childcare issues as well," she says.
Sometimes problems occur despite the best intentions. "Many families make the mistake of asking nannies to start on a long trial basis without a visa and the nannies feel insecure about their futures and start looking for other jobs," explains Julia Lutsenko, manager at Nannies Dubai (www.nanniesdubai.com).
To prevent this happening, she suggests: "Always ensure that legal aspects are dealt with promptly, such as visas and medical tests, and make sure that you treat your nannies with the dignity and respect they deserve. After all, they are caring for your children."
Although it might feel odd having a stranger in your house, many families adjust quickly. "We've had a live-in maid since I gave birth to our daughter," says Ros Porter, of Dubai.
"She's brilliant and takes great care of our baby. We see her as an au pair rather than a full-time slave, which is how many people see their maids here. If you want the best care for your child, you should treat your maid like a human being and not expect her to work hours you wouldn't expect someone to work in your own country."
This is a key point: everyone needs some free time.
"A common mistake is to expect the nanny to immerse herself completely in the family life and to be available non-stop," says Valabikova.
"Families need to maintain a friendly and honest yet professional relationship with their nanny. This means the nanny should not be taken for granted and her basic rights as an employee should be respected."
Indeed, if you want a successful outcome, you should consider the needs of your home help as well as your own. If she is new in the country, she won't know anybody and may get lonely and homesick. Take the time to talk to her every day, help her to make friends and take her out with you.
On the legal side of things, you should be aware that hiring a domestic helper on a casual basis could land you in hot water. You can be fined Dh50,000 for employing a worker who is not sponsored by you, or is on a visit visa, or who is paid on a cash-in-hand basis. The person you hire could be fined Dh100,000 and face the possibility of imprisonment.
Most families have good, happy experiences with their maids and nannies, particularly when they hire through professional channels. The ideal scenario is when your live-in help really becomes part of the family. "When my son, Ben, drew his family tree at school last week, Rose was there too, it was very sweet," says Simpson.
As Valabikova puts it: "A happy nanny means happy children."
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