x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When I was just a little girl: four women take measure of their lives

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you make it? Apparently 47 per cent of women didn't. In the first of a two-part series, Laura Collins looks at childhood dreams and adult realities.

Zee Gilmore
Zee Gilmore

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you make it? Apparently 47 per cent of women didn't. In the first of a two-part series on women and their aspirations, Laura Collins talks to four women about their childhood dreams and adult realities

Few would look at Chantal Shalhoub's life and see anything but success. An honours degree from one of Britain's most respected universities had been followed by a career of uninterrupted advancement with some of the biggest names in international banking. Barely into her 30s, she had been promoted within the French bank for which she worked to manage a team of 11. She had a smart flat in central London, its window boxes filled with blooms, and a future mapped out - more promotions, more trips to Paris, more bonuses.

She was living the dream. Trouble was it was somebody else's.

Last year, after a decade or so of trying to convince herself otherwise, she finally admitted that fact, tore it all up and started again.

"My life was appropriate," she recalls. "It's the sort of thing that you say at a dinner party and it makes sense to everyone - 'What do you do?' 'Oh, I work in the City.' It's safe. But I always found myself sitting at my desk wondering what else was out there.

"It was a gradual process of realisation but I just knew that I didn't want to be sitting behind that desk in another 10 years' time. And I knew what it was I did want to be doing. It's what I'd always wanted really."

As children we confidently rehearse the mantra "When I grow up I want to be a..." We fill in the blank with a variety of grandiose ambitions. We dream of being rock stars, Olympic athletes, ballerinas, authors, actors, vets, doctors, astronauts... If it can be dreamt, we dream it; more than that, we mean it.

So how many of us, if invited to a party where the dress code was to come as what you wanted to be when you grew up, would come just as ourselves, just as we are? How many of us are what we dreamt we would be? And, if we are not, why are we not?

According to a recent survey carried out by the British recruitment firm Monster.co.uk, when it comes to living out our childhood dreams, 47 per cent of us got diverted somewhere along the way. And women are more likely to be in that situation than men.

That is not to say that every accountant who once dreamt of being a pop star, or the IT specialist who planned to be an international jewel thief, still actively hankers after that dream. It all depends on the nature of the dream and our reasons for not fulfilling it.

The Dubai-based life coach Yasemin Demirtas says: "Some childhood dreams are fantasies really and not connected to a deeply held value. Like, 'When I grow up I want to be a princess.'"

Tell that to Kate Middleton.

Others, Demirtas says, matter rather more because they are "the early manifestations of our values which are most present and alive when we are small as we are more free". And, in the case of many women, less conflicted about the simple fact of having dreams and ambitions.

Turn the page for the stories of three women whose dreams have transformed their lives in the UAE - and to learn what career change Chantal Shalhoub has happily pursued.

Anna Fels is a practising psychiatrist in New York City and author of Do Women Lack Ambition? She interviewed dozens of women on the subject of their childhood dreams and how they did, or did not, relate to their adult lives.

"Compared with the wordy, ambivalent responses these women had given about their current ambitions, their childhood ambitions were direct and clear," she says. "They had a delightfully unapologetic sense of grandiosity and limitless possibility."

As women grow up, Fels asserts, they become far more likely than men to shift credit for success elsewhere and to underestimate their own abilities. "Often they refuse to claim a central place in their own life as they re-evaluate," she says.

Sometimes, of course, re-evaluation can be healthy and necessary. Sometimes realising that we need not, or cannot, be bound to our original dream opens up the possibility of dreaming new ones. Today 35-year-old Zee Gilmore looks back on her recent communications role at Dubai's The Children's Garden (TGC). Owned by the respected school management company Taaleem, it is the first multilingual preschool in the UAE, teaching children ages 2 to 5 in English, Arabic, French and German. Gilmore adored that job. She was fulfilled and happy. But it absolutely wasn't what she dreamt she would be doing "when she grew up". In fact, she was "living her dream" when she met TCG boss Birgit Ertl and, as she puts it, realised that someone else's dream might be better than her own.

"I've always been fascinated by words," Gilmore says. "My family are great verbal communicators. At school in England I discovered I loved writing and telling stories. That's what I wanted to be - a writer.

"I came to Dubai in 2004 to write a guidebook. Once published, I returned to launch a magazine but that didn't happen, so started freelancing. Then I met Birgit, who had come out to set up her dream. Just listening to her I remember thinking, 'You know what? I want to help realise that dream more than my own.'"

It isn't, she says, that her own dream has been abandoned, but rather that "it's been shelved so it can evolve. You start off with one dream and then through the course of your life you have various experiences and conversations. What you think of the world, what you want out of life changes. Once I added that greater experience to my dream I found that my dream matured".

For Gilmore, much of the joy of writing was the collaboration with others and exchanging exciting ideas. That part of her dream - of who she wanted to be - is satisfied with the work she does now aligning people's spines and coaching NLP, continually honing her original dream to suit her own evolution.

Holly Stevens's childhood dream has found a similar sort of expression in her adult life - though on the surface the life she envisaged and the one she leads today could hardly be more different. As a child born in Richmond, Surrey, UK and raised in Wimbledon, south London, she once imagined that by now she would be married, with children, living in rural England and a practising veterinarian. Today, as she puts it, she is a "single social butterfly living in the desert and loving it".

As members benefit manager for the exclusive private members club and concierge service Quintessentially, she has travelled to some of the most glamorous places, and parties, in the world. Her career history includes working for MTV, living in Australia and looking after a variety of celebrities and recording artists.

"I love what I do," she says. "But I do sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I'd gone down a vocational path. I wanted to be a vet from the age of about 5 until I was 16 and realised I just wasn't very good at the subjects you'd need to actually qualify. I was more into the thespian side of things, art and English. To be honest I didn't think I was bright enough to do the six years at university."

Instead Stevens did something that, according to Demirtas, is a key part of being fulfilled regardless of whether you are living out your childhood dream in all its minutiae. She identified what it was about being a vet that really inspired her and realised it was as much about helping people as treating animals.

"My family home was always full of strays that had been taken in," says the 28-year-old. "We're a family of helpers and rescuers. I guess I have a need to help and a lot of wanting to be a vet - other than loving animals obviously - was wanting to help people. So I try to inject that into my working life by including some sort of philanthropic element in it and my personal life, too. At MTV we supported HIV awareness a lot. On Boxing Day last year I found a stray kitten which I nursed back to health and found a home for.

"If I had to go to a party as my childhood dream I'd still put on a little white lab coat and get out the stethoscope. But I love what I'm doing now, too, even though it's wildly different from anything I could have imagined as a child."

That difference can be liberating. Some childhood dreams are not so much expressions of what we truly want, so much as indications of the limits we wrongly place on our own capabilities or options. Wendy Shaw has lived in Dubai for 11 years and has transformed her life in the process. She has shed what passed for childhood dreams, but were in fact limitations, in favour of something altogether more rewarding.

"As a little girl growing up I dreamt of having the big white wedding, settling down and having children," she says.

By the age of 25 she was on her way there: "I'd had the big wedding. I'd just had it with the wrong man."

Shaw divorced at 27. Soon after she was struck down by a debilitating mystery ailment later identified as the legacy of a back injury sustained, but never diagnosed, in childhood. "I was flat on my back for about two years," she says. "I went into a very deep, dark depression. I'd been working as a cook but had to stop. It felt like everything had fallen apart but looking back the truth was that my life had been going in the wrong direction."

For Shaw, 45, it was the beginning of a process of reassessing what she actually wanted out of life and what had stopped her from achieving it. She retrained in IT, got a job working for a large chain of hotels in London and, two years later, took a leap into the unknown and moved to Dubai. She took a course in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and it was to change her life.

"I realised through NLP that my childhood dreams had actually been based on my notion that my ambitions weren't all that important because I was a girl," she says. "It was just the way I had been raised but it impacted on so much of my life." Today she is an NLP trainer, happy and fulfilled in a way she never was before because, she says, "I came to realise that my idea of my future wasn't really about me at all. I thought normal was what I wanted but I've created a comparatively abnormal life - no husband, no children - and it works for me."

Back in London, where once she would have measured her success according to targets met and spent a weekday afternoon in a series of meetings, 35-year-old Shalhoub's life today is far more simple and far more satisfying.

What she really wanted to do while she progressed in her banking career was cook, and that is what she is now learning to do. In September, after work experience with Michel Roux Jr at the celebrated French restaurant Le Gavroche, she enrolled in Leiths School of Food and Wine in west London. One day she hopes to set up her own cookery school near her family home in Godalming, Surrey.

"My mother used to make the most amazing Lebanese and Middle Eastern food when I was growing up," Shalhoub says. "My father was Lebanese but he died just before I was born. I think it was my mother's way of keeping him in our lives. It's a huge part of my childhood.'"

Her decision to quit a secure and highly paid job for her dream was not one universally understood, but dreams seldom are.

"I'll never forget the look on my managers' faces the day I resigned," she says with a smile. "It just sort of rendered everyone speechless and when one of them did manage to say something it was like: 'Sorry... you're leaving banking, you're walking away from your career to... cook?'

"My family thought I was bonkers at first. They'd tasted my food and honestly, at the time, I really wasn't a very good cook.'

But she is learning and working to convert her dream into her reality.

'When I cook I feel really calm, peaceful," Shalhoub says. "Last week I cooked for a dinner party with guests including Lord Heseltine, Lord Saatchi and Lord Rothschild. I had to pinch myself. I made a soufflé with a little tomato compote in the middle. I stood and listened for the sound of spoons scraping on the bowls as they ate it. Every bowl came back empty.

"Moments like that are what it's all about."

Next week: The women who follow their dreams.