I was enviously eyeing a Khaleeji couple having a carefree meal at a hotel as I was yet again trying to explain to my son the merits of eating a good breakfast. My envy turned into anger, however, as I saw the couple's children being fed by two maids at a distant table. Suddenly, the screams and the abandoned stroller in front of our room made sense. Of course… the children slept with their maids while their parents went out partying in the evening.
The Gulf has certainly changed. It is no longer man first followed by wife and children; it is man and wife, or mother and mobile, followed by a maid laden down with shopping bags while struggling to look after the children. Many societies lament the break-up of the nuclear family. I was reading an item in a Western newspaper a few days ago that claimed the two poles of contemporary child rearing are neglect and overindulgence. Yet while many families here are guilty of the same, I have not seen such levels of outsourcing of parenthood to compare with those that can be found in the countries of the Gulf. The whole thing becomes a fashion statement, where children are dressed in designer clothing and are chauffeur-driven to buy fast food.
Imagine how confusing and frustrating all this must be if you are a child. You wake up to two mothers, one whom you learn to call Mama, but who always yells at the other (let's call her Roselyn). Roselyn is the one who feeds you and dresses you, and gives you any amount of French fries and candy when you start to yell. When Mama carries you or takes you out with her, it is Roselyn who sits next to you in the car as you go to the mall or to visit grandma. At the mall, it is Roselyn who takes you to the playroom with the other children. The trouble is, Roselyn will leave one day, and you will never see her again.
If having an army of helpers at the house shows off wealth, then perhaps more money should be spent on a qualified governess. But again, if a governess is too good with the children, and is young and educated, a possible outcome might be wife-replacement. Regular maids in local homes come from deprived backgrounds, most are illiterate and overworked - not exactly a threat to marital life, and not even close to suitable to raising children.
When did the full responsibilities of parenthood become so unfashionable here? I have seen children in Gulf homes turn to their maids and not their mothers when hurt or afraid. If you cannot be bothered with feeding your children, or tucking them up in bed, why have them? There is pain and sacrifice in raising a child, but that is compensated by overwhelming joy when a child talks, walks, learns to ride a bicycle, or even laughs. Children will never receive total and unconditional love from maids. When it really counts, when there is a trade between acquiescing to junk food in exchange for a quiet chat with a friend; or grabbing a few minutes of freedom instead of insisting on good table manners, a child becomes a priority only to his parents. If children grow to respect television and worship games consoles, and their needs are answered by robotic maids - what values do we teach them?
In the large cities of our neighbours - such as Cairo or Damascus - I see young boys and girls on the streets helping their parents carry vegetables. They walk to school, or even play in the neighbourhood park. It is not beneath anybody to carry groceries; at least one learns how to pick a good head of lettuce and check the price of bread. Muscles, the otherwise disused body mass surrounded by layers of fat, get used, too.
Most importantly, our children need to learn some of the realities of life. You would think that city life toughens children, but the kind of sheltered existence so many lead in the cities of the Gulf never allows them contact with a challenge; they never learn how to be responsible. How many children with dedicated maids make their own beds? Scarier still is the thought of confused identity and lost cultural values.
After my irritation in the hotel restaurant, my son was delighted to point out similar scenes as we walked around the shopping malls. We saw so many that I decided to buy a digital camera so that I could capture some of the worst incidences, and maybe even put them on show at some stage. Like it or not, my son will learn his table manners from me. Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman