x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

For single mums, every day can be a challenging puzzle

Single mums are faced with a litany of difficult decisions as they go it alone balancing work, family and budgets.

Dubai, 12th March 2011. Trudy Cook a single mum with her daughter Ava (2 1/2 years old) at their residence. (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)
Dubai, 12th March 2011. Trudy Cook a single mum with her daughter Ava (2 1/2 years old) at their residence. (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)

When Trudy Cook started a new job in Abu Dhabi eight months after giving birth to her first child, she felt as though her world was breaking in two.

Ms Cook left her daughter, Ava, in the care of a maid who had only been living in her home for two weeks. Even though she was desperate to stay at home with her baby, she had no choice.

With her relationship with Ava's father in tatters, the sales and marketing director needed to return to work. She made the hour-long commute from her home in Dubai to her new position at a luxury five-star hotel in the neighbouring emirate.

"I loved being at home with Ava," recalls the 39-year-old Australian. "People said I was a career girl who would be back at work within two months, but I was still breastfeeding at eight months. And I still remember that day I walked out of the house, leaving my baby with a maid who had just moved in."

Ms Cook's difficult decision to return to work is something many single-parent families must face. While supporting a family is hard enough for a couple, the challenges faced by just one breadwinner can be an entirely different matter.

According to a recent survey by Euromonitor International, 50,000 households in the UAE make up this unique demographic. Meanwhile, according to the study, the number of single parents rose by 8,000 from 2005 to 2010.

For Ms Cook, the lack of family support meant her return to the corporate world was short-lived.

Struggling with the six-day week, long hours and the daily commute from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, she quit after eight months and instead chose a more low-key position as general manager of hotel apartments in Dubai.

"The new job meant I was doing nine to five, five days a week and not committed to entertaining in the evenings," she says.

"It's a completely different role and I miss my old job so much, but I had to sacrifice it for Ava. I can't work for a five-star chain travelling, entertaining and managing a team of 25 anymore. I have to pick up Ava at school and be home for her in the evening."

Since the split with her husband, Ms Cook says she has shouldered all of the load, both in terms of daily responsibilities and providing for their daughter.

Susan Reynolds, the author of One Income Family and Everything Personal Finance for Single Mothers, says the biggest hurdle for women such as Ms Cook is also the most obvious - living on one income is twice as hard.

"It's a whole new ball game on your own and the loss of a husband's income makes a huge difference, and the impact will be felt immediately," says Ms Reynolds.

"Single parents have to face up to the fact that their financial life has changed dramatically and that they are now responsible for how much money comes in and how it is utilised. Learning to live a scaled-down lifestyle is now your reality and the only person who can improve your financial prospects is you."

Chelsea Gregory, another lone parent, says the reality of living on one income hit home hard after she found herself suddenly single. During her pregnancy, Ms Gregory was forced to fend for herself after her baby's father left her and offered no financial support.

"It was a huge shock and I still don't think I'm over it even two-and-a-half years on," recalls the 34 year old, who first moved to Dubai in 2006 from Australia. Ms Gregory's difficult financial situation was compounded by the fact she had not worked for two years, with her ex-husband serving as the family breadwinner.

After returning to Australia, where she studied for a diploma in photography, she made a risky decision by returning to Dubai.

"I had no money and no job and ended up renting a small studio for Dh7,000 a month to begin with," she says. "It was a difficult time, but I had confidence in myself and my ability."

Ms Reynolds understands the challenges faced by Ms Gregory. During her nine-year marriage, the writer says her husband made all the financial decisions. When they split, she felt thrust into an uncomfortable role.

"It's alarming how many single mothers surrender financial decisions during their marriage and often end up having no idea how much money they had, how it was really being spent, or how to budget," she says.

"Even though I was lucky to have a father who paid child support, it wasn't enough to meet all our expenses. I spent the next decade struggling, running up high credit-card balances and making fearful rather than smart financial decisions. Eventually, I had to dig myself out of a hole, but at least it forced me to take the financial reins and be far more responsible."

While Ms Gregory has tackled her situation head on - she has since secured a good job and now lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Dubai - she says affording her lifestyle is still a struggle.

"By the time I've paid the Dh105,000 rent, the Dh2,000 on utilities, Dh4,000 on groceries, Dh2,500 for my car and insurance and Dh2,000 for my nanny, I can't really save," she says.

To stay solvent, Ms Gregory operates on a "cash-only" basis, refuses to own a credit card and has not taken out any loans except for her car.

For Shana Clucas, a 49-year-old mother from South Africa, ensuring her teenage daughter, Kayla, has everything her friends have is important. "I don't want her to lose out because she comes from a broken home - I want her to have what all the other kids at school have, but I'm the one who has to foot the bill because I haven't got that joint-income luxury to provide for it," says Ms Clucas, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Dubai's Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

"If I go shopping with her on a Saturday, she can cost me from Dh2,000 to Dh3,000 and her shoes never last longer than three or four months. I don't know what she does to them, but I'm forever buying new shoes."

Ms Clucas's desire to give her daughter everything is often referred to as "guilt buying", says Ms Reynolds.

"Emotionally, a lot of single mothers overspend out of a sense of guilt that their children's father doesn't live with them - even if the divorce or separation wasn't their idea—and especially if it was," she says.

Spending money on children, she adds, compensates for this, but children will be far happier if you give them love and attention.

Ms Clucas, who moved to the UAE in 2003, says the financial support she receives for 18-year-old daughter, certainly helps pay for expenses, such as school fees, which cost Dh58,000 a year.

But it comes nowhere close to covering them all.

"Even though my husband is very generous, if I phoned up and said Kayla wants x, y and z, he'll say, 'Well that's not part of the agreement.'

"And now with Kayla about to go to university, we are entering into a grey area as the agreement ends at 18. All of a sudden, I have to make a contribution to her education because this falls out of the well-defined agreement we had."

Although financial planning is a consideration, most single mothers agree the figures are only one part of the story.

In fact, Ms Cook says the emotional challenges have worried her more than the financial. It has been a difficult road, but succeeding despite these hardships has made the journey worthwhile.

"That look she gives me when I pick her up from nursery is the biggest reward," she says. "There is a connection there because I am her lifeline. And the best part about being a single parent is that I call the shots, I make the decisions and I decide what we do."