x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A very different long-distance relationship

Robert Carroll's debut Dad matters column about the roughly 1,036,800 parents that are created every day with the birth of their babies.


Six every second: that's how many babies are born in the world. Since it usually takes two to make one, roughly 12 parents are created every second. That's 720 every minute; 43,200 every hour; 1,036,800 every day. Yet, until my daughter Astrid was born in April this year, I would have had trouble naming more than a handful of this abundant breed. There are my own parents, of course; uncles, aunts and parents of friends. In general though, the people I spent time with were childless folk.

There is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that if a person sees a bright green car, they will then start to see more cars of that colour. The number has not increased - awareness of them has simply been piqued. The same applies, I have found, to parents. In the three months since I joined this not-very-exclusive club, I have identified more parents than in the last 30 years. At work, the people are the same, but I find myself having different conversations. Talk has turned to sleepless nights and feeding regimens. The world is full of secret parents. People whom I thought I knew quite well - not friends but solid acquaintances, people I talk to every now and again - pipe up with unexpected advice or anecdotes about their own children.  

Living in Abu Dhabi, this effect is amplified. Continents and time zones stand between families. Often, parents in this city are defined not by a beaming or screaming body clinging to them, but by fragments of memory, snippets of conversation and dog-eared photographs. Sat on a bench in a shopping mall clutching my daughter, a man who would otherwise have remained aloof smiles at Astrid and starts talking to me. The conversation turns to his own children at home - not in a villa a few kilometres down the road, but thousands of miles away in the Philippines. His is a common story. Children are at school in the home country or the other parent is unable or unwilling to move to Abu Dhabi. Whatever the reason, families are fractured.

It is a strange state of affairs when doing the best for your children involves leaving them for weeks, months or even years on end. Yet many people in the UAE have made this difficult choice. Astrid lives here with me now, but for the first few weeks after she was born, our atomic unit of mother, father and child was split. I had to return to work and mother and child could not travel without Astrid's first set of vaccinations. I paced the streets and the malls, a parent without my newborn, feeling a bit like an amputee who still feels a limb even though it is not there.

Technology lessened the gap. The internet has indeed made the world a smaller place, but grainy webcam images and stuttering murmurs over computer speakers are no replacement for the real thing. These days taking a flight may be akin to hopping on a bus and you no longer need to book an international phone call with the operator. Still, a brief glimpse into the loneliness of the long-distance parent was enough for me.

The world's counterfeiters have turned their attention away from sunglasses, handbags and electronic gadgets towards something much more humble: nappies. After asking around about the newest and the finest in environmentally friendly waste management systems for my daughter, a friend recommended Bumgenius. These brightly coloured, well-designed nappies can be washed and used again and again. They proved very difficult to find. All the high-street shops had sold out and were awaiting deliveries. My daughter had been delivered, so I turned to the online auction website eBay, and found an apparently reputable seller with plenty in stock. When the nappies arrived, one was fine but the other had melted. Its material had undergone some kind of chemical reaction leaving it blistered, bubbled and useless. The company's website held the explanation: many fakes are on the market and we had unwittingly acquired one.

How far does this racket stretch? In the shady alleyways of global metropolises, such as London, New York and Hong Kong, are nappies being traded from suitcases along with shiny watches and mobile phones? One thing is certain: in these unsettled times the business model is sound. While the popularity of the latest contraptions waxes and wanes, there will always be another nappy to change.