Being an expat parent presents tough challenges no matter how old your children are, says Philippa Kennedy.
From a distance: the problems of expat parenting
It's 1am and I can't sleep. I'm tucked up in bed at my home in Dubai, eyes wide open, wondering what's going on at my daughter's 30th birthday party back home in the UK. Around about now they'll be running the video clips Katy's friends have put together for her. I wonder if she's having a little sob. I'm getting a little weepy myself. It's part of the life of a long-distance expat mother and it doesn't get any easier as we all get older.
I got a call from my elder daughter two months ago, asking me to film a short message on my phone or camera for the big night. I'm a bit technically challenged so it was quite an ordeal to upload my Happy Birthday wishes to a Facebook website from which Holly could download it again and feed it into the montage of clips. I also spent a whole day watching cricket, about which I know next to nothing and care even less, in order to waylay the British television presenter Chris Tarrant (he hosts the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and get him to send Katy a message, which he very sweetly did. As usual I was overcompensating for not being able to get home for the party.
My Dubai adventure started when my husband's work brought him over here and I felt that I should be there to support him. We've been apart before when he was working in Africa and, at that time, I felt I had to stay in the UK to see Katy through her A-levels. This time the girls are grown up with lives of their own. I love my life in the sunshine, but it just isn't possible to be at home for every big milestone such as the 30th birthday. To make up for it I made a big effort with presents, all bought well in advance and lovingly wrapped and left in a pile on a home trip. I spent far more than I should have done and several days on the phone tracking down a pair of mock croc Jimmy Choo wellies. You have to develop a wheedling charm on the telephone so that some shop assistant you've never met back in London will be persuaded to help you. I'm developing skills I never knew I had.
I find myself flying home more in my third year as an expat than I did in the first. At the beginning, when it was all new and exciting, the girls came out three times. The trouble is that they don't always want to come to Dubai during their precious holiday time and it's too hot in July and August when they both like to go away. It's not always convenient for them to take time off work when I fly home. That has an upside as well as a down, because it means I have to be better organised. I try to do special things with both daughters, such as going to a musical with Holly (a mutual love) or driving down to Dorset where Katy has bought a home with her fiancé, Fred.
My husband and I are thrilled that they're getting married, but now the guilt at being so far away is kicking in big-time. On the plus side, it has meant that Katy has a completely free hand at arranging the wedding. On the minus side, I'm overcompensating again with just about everything from who's coming to the wedding, to how much is being spent. Thankfully, Katy is insisting on a modest wedding and talking about having blue hydrangeas in Ikea buckets instead of expensive flower arrangements, but I find myself insisting right back that her wedding must look and smell beautiful.
On the last trip home we visited the venue and it was perfect. All I had to do was write a cheque for the deposit and we spent a lovely mother-and-daughter afternoon in a bridal shop picking out a dress. Back in Dubai, I find myself wandering around Satwa on my days off, looking for material for bridesmaids' dresses or searching Dragonmart for fairy-lights and star cloth to dress up the barn where the wedding will be held. I'm dangling a pair of air tickets in the hope of a visit in the autumn, and although I can't bear the thought of travelling at Christmas time - battling through hordes of people at airports - I think we're going to have to grit our teeth and do it because the girls have been so good with my elderly mother-in-law and there's no way she'll get on a plane at the age of 91.
People always say you're only a few hours' flying time away if there's a problem, but every expat parent will know the way the heart leaps when the phone rings at an unusual time. You think there's been a car crash, somebody's ill, or there's been another disaster. It's something you just have to live with. Several friends say they don't mention illnesses to sons and daughters away at university until they've been given the all-clear. It's a dilemma, though, and you have to consider how your kids would feel if something went wrong and they didn't know a thing about it. "Keeping your voice cheery on the phone when you're just about to go under the knife is quite an art," said one.
Big phone bills go with the territory and most long-distance expat mothers don't begrudge the money spent. Youngsters who grow up in Dubai tend to have a network of friends all over the world, so the phone bills make fascinating reading. My Australian friend Annie says it's one of the joys of expat motherhood. "As my son grew older, the joy was in meeting his expat friends and seeing them all grow and thrive in everything from academics to music to sports. The friendships matured into life-long associations which scattered into many countries, with lifestyle decisions and careers based on an expat upbringing in Dubai. As a mum though, one of my significant memories was developing viral pneumonia on holiday in Australia, and feeling very down and a long way from 'home'. My son rang from Dubai and spoke to me in such a way that I could feel that big warm hug right down the phone."
Not being there for their minor dramas is horrible but often you feel worse about it than they do. My girls laugh at me when I mention the guilt trips and Katy reminded me of something she said in the days when I was "on the road" as a reporter and frequently travelling abroad. I had asked anxiously if they minded and she said: "Oh stop worrying, Mummy. We think it's cool. Anna's mother only ever goes to Sainsbury's."
These days, being so far from home does seem to be a reversal of the natural order of things. At this stage in our lives it should be the kids leaving home to go off and see the world and not the parents, but it does keep life interesting for all of us.