Parental peace of mind
It was the wholemeal muffins that broke Kate Shanahan's spirit. Before her first daughter was even born, and wrestling with the demands of work and pregnancy, she discovered that in addition to taking folic acid and doing the occasional yoga move, she was now "supposed" to be eating home-made oatbran muffins sweetened with orange juice. Or so the baby book said.
"As a first-time parent, I read every single book and I tortured myself," recalls the 38-year-old mother-of-three and co-author of the blog, Mothers on the Verge www.mothersontheverge.blogspot.com.
"I beat myself up constantly because I wanted to match up. Everyone wants to be the perfect mother, but you're only as good as you can be. Who on earth has time to make wholemeal muffins? I just wanted to eat ice cream."
Faced with hundreds of books all preaching a different style of parenting and with little in the way of help, Shanahan - who had her first two children in London before moving to Dubai - found those early days of parenting overwhelming.
This would come as no surprise to the psychologist and director of parenting website www.parentwellbeing.com, Jodie Benveniste, whose new book, The Parent Manifesto, identifies information overload as one of the things that most stresses modern parents.
"We've just got so much more information now about what is important for raising kids into decent adults," she says. "We know more about it so there's that extra pressure that if you know it, then you've got to be able to do it."
Benveniste is not against parenting books altogether, but advocates learning how to filter the information within them.
"The problem is when books start to dictate a particular path and promise amazing outcomes. If it doesn't work for you, you can end up feeling like a failure. You should always filter the advice that you get. You've got to come back to your gut feeling about something - your instinct - and know that it's OK to try something and if it doesn't work, try something else."
In The Parent Manifesto - which Benveniste describes as a "road map and guidebook" rather than an instruction manual - parents are encouraged to start from first principles and work out what kind of parents they want to be, right down to identifying their core values and beliefs. The book suggests writing their vision for parenting into a step-by-step manifesto against which they can gauge any advice they are given.
This approach could be of particular help to expatriate parents. According to Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at HRI in Dubai, not having the benefit of family on tap can lead to a greater reliance on external sources for advice and information.
"Parents who live away from their homeland are much more likely to actively seek out help in raising the 'perfect children'," says Jiwani. "Whether it's parenting workshops, books on child development or internet advice, parents without an external support system are much more likely to consult with outside sources to determine if they are raising their children in the correct manner."
It took the advice of a family member to persuade mother-of-three Colette, who lives in Dubai, to "bin the book" when her first child was born.
"Since then, I have been blissfully ignorant of any published information guides for parents," she says. "They are, after all, largely just someone's opinion. It's really up to the parent if they choose to be swamped by other people's opinions on how they should bring up their children rather than just getting on with it."
Another concern of Benveniste's is the modern obsession with time management, with parents constantly rushing from pillar to post and consequently feeling permanently exhausted. This is a common feature of expatriate life, according to Jiwani.
"Between after-school activities, community involvement, routine activities, socialising and trying to get the children into bed on time every time, parents in the UAE have a lot on their plate," she says.
"Juggling work and social life can also have an impact on parent's family life," says Jiwani. "As parents work long hours, socialising is very much a part of a parent's life and sometimes needs to be done to 'fit' in with social circles, which becomes even more important without the support of extended family to rely on for social experiences. Parents then try to compensate for the lack of time spent with the child through offering them materialistic objects, setting in motion unhealthy expectations." The answer to an overloaded schedule, says Benveniste, is not to practise rigorous time management to carve out more hours in the day, but rather to focus on your mental well-being.
"Emotional management is more important than time management," she says. "We all wish we had more time, but if we did have more, we would cram more into our lives. Instead of seeking more time, we should be more aware of our well-being. If you are calm, focused and confident you will breeze through and be able to deal with anything your kids throw at you."
Infinitely more relaxed these days, Shanahan agrees with this approach.
"We should all try to live in the moment," she says. "All this planning and scheduling stops the potential for spontaneity. There is a certain schedule to be kept, but sometimes it's great to just go, 'Come on guys, let's go and do something fun' - just occasionally to shake it up a bit."
One area in which UAE life does seem to tick Benveniste's boxes is in offering a sense of community. Benveniste provides a focal point for parents in a parenting forum both on Facebook and on her website, but for many expatriates, it is the parents around them who provide their sense of belonging.
"It's a very tight expat community here," says Shanahan. "Because everyone's in the same boat, you make friends and they become very close very quickly. They become an extension of your family."
When she had her third child by caesarean section last year, Shanahan's friends in Dubai rallied round, bringing her food, driving her to check-ups and doing her shopping.
"They made the stress of having a baby fall away," she says.
What parent could ask for more?