There was an intriguing cartoon in one of the Arabic newspapers last month, around Mother's Day. The sketch showed a young boy holding out a gift. But the intended recipient was not his mother, but the family nanny.
Editorial cartoons are by definition meant to exaggerate the intended message. But I didn't see any exaggeration here. All I could think of, looking at the caricature, was that perhaps this really happens. Perhaps some children do draw more motherly affection from nannies or other domestic servants than from their biological mothers.
As a mother myself, I sometimes lay awake worrying about how much modern families depend on live-in helpers and nannies to raise our children. Observing this trend, that is becoming so very socially acceptable, makes me uneasy.
Too often, I have heard one or another of my friends who is a mother refer to her live-in nanny as the "second mother" to her children.
Time and time again, when I go to the playground with my little girl, I am saddened to notice that I am the only mother around. Listening to the nannies scolding the children of their employer, in a language that the child may not even understand, is unacceptable. Watching one nanny offering not one, but two bars of chocolate to a three-year-old at the supermarket was disturbing.
I looked up the definition of a nanny, and this is what I found: "An individual who is qualified to provide care to one or more children in a family as a service. They usually are qualified and certified in first aid and child development."
A flood of questions poured through my mind as I read that. How many of our nannies fit that definition? Are they competent to teach the right behaviours? Are they trained to treat children in a way that preserves and nourishes their self-esteem?
Of course, there are many capable and loving nannies. However, having gone through countless applications and interviews of potential live-in nannies, I would say the percentage of qualified and certified ones is sadly low. And few of them have any formal training for the work. Yet they all are entrusted with caring for children, and often caring for them for very long hours.
So not only is it becoming acceptable to trust unqualified individuals to take care of children, but the extent to which they are being relied on is also increasing. How much time are our children spending with nannies? How often do we outsource playing with them or taking them out for a walk? In the gated community where I live, I see the same children out on daily walks with their nannies. I see them in the morning, afternoon and evening. And it happens every day.
There is no doubt that the lifestyle in the Gulf region can be very comfortable. So many services are inexpensive and convenient. We choose to send our laundry out to be washed and ironed more often that we would back home. We can also call up the local shop and have groceries for the week delivered right to our doorsteps. It all comes at no extra charge, so who would say no?
But it is rather frightening to find that we have extended this comfort-level test to our childcare, that has such a direct effect on our children and the way they grow up.
Live-in helpers and nannies are affordable in this region, and are easily accessible. However, there are no regulations around qualifications and experience in hiring them. Anyone and anything goes.
I hear it said that having someone to help is better than having no one. But as a person who has long worked in recruiting and hiring people, I have seen first-hand how hiring someone without the right qualifications and experience can often do more damage than good. And in this case we are talking about what parents hold most dear.
There are many challenges to parenthood. There are even more challenges when both parents are working and living in a foreign country, away from their old support networks. There is pressure to balance it all: family, work and play.
But the words on a Mother's Day card sum it all best: "Dear Mummy, I made this clay pot especially for you. It may not be perfect but I hope it reminds you that you are my potter and I am your clay. So please continue to mould me into a beautiful person every day."
I hope the right potters are moulding our children today.
Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on the Middle East