x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Why bigger is better when it comes to having families in the UAE

The UAE lifestyle offers lots of opportunities. For many, all the support systems make the decision to have more children an easy one. Five couples in Abu Dhabi explain why they have gone for larger broods.

From left: Liam, Matthew, Nicole, Micah and Eric Barton in the garden of their Mangrove Village home.
From left: Liam, Matthew, Nicole, Micah and Eric Barton in the garden of their Mangrove Village home.

Being outnumbered by your children is a big step. For a start, if you're in a majority as parents (or at least level), you might win the odd argument. Added to which, the little blighters can cost a fortune from hatching to matching (one hopes they have left home by then). According to recent research, the cost of raising a child from birth until the age of 21 has soared in the UK to around £210,000 (Dh1.21 million). In the US it takes $200,000 (Dh734,580) to get them to the age of 17.

But in the UAE, most families get help with those costs. For many expats, negotiating a package to help with school fees is high on the list, though not a given any more in these straitened times. But housing or a housing allowance is often provided and there is also medical insurance and sometimes a car allowance to ease the burden.

For Emiratis, the Government is generous. Emirati families are given a choice between a house or land with an interest-free loan to build a home. Also, there is universal health insurance for all and a pension fund that supports the family after retirement.

Life as a family in the UAE is good: the sun shines, the commute is smooth, houses are clean, and pretty much everything you want to buy is on the shelves. With the kids happy at school, there often seems to be spare time to wonder if it wouldn't be nice to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet again. Indeed, it seems more and more people think so and are having another baby, taking advantage of the family-friendly environment.

For many expats, the birth rates in their own countries are low, so what makes them go against the grain when they move here? Many say it's the ease of lifestyle. For those thinking of having three or more children, most issues are already in the "pro" column simply by living in the UAE.

Traditionally, Emirati families have been larger. One Abu Dhabi-based Emirati mother of five, Mrs Neaimi, remembers that in the 1970s it was common to have seven or even 12 children. "People also married younger and had more time," she says. However, it was more dangerous before maternity hospitals (such as the Corniche Hospital, which opened in 1978) came along, and miscarriages and infant mortality rates were higher. As the country was developed, healthcare improved dramatically, along with education, which traditionally reduces family size as women join the workforce and establish careers.

"Having children is always a sign of positive perception of the future," says Dr Afshin Pour Mirza, specialist in obstetrics, gynaecology and foetal medicine, but he adds that "sometimes I feel the boredom of the Jumeirah Janes contributes to the initial idea for further pregnancies".

The factor of the mother's age is still an issue but as Dr Mirza points out: "Previously, mature mothers were reluctant to have further pregnancies at a later stage in life. However, now with new diagnostic methods, ladies are more reassured about the health condition of the unborn child without going through invasive procedures."

Confidence in the educational system is also high. There are schools for all the international curriculums, and standards are exemplary and places fought for. Children born to expats do have peculiar pressures and one is that they live in a bubble. The ease of their parents' lives means that they don't need to struggle much and that some life lessons elude them. They are tidied after, taken to school and chauffeured around town to all the many amenities on offer. The perils are that once they leave here for a less-protected environment they may not have the independence and street smarts to flourish.

Brendan Law, the headmaster of Brighton College, which has newly opened in Abu Dhabi, is focused on helping children develop into independent adults. "We believe in the spirit of independence and one of our biggest challenges is to encourage parents to believe in their kids," he says. "The biggest limitations on children are what adults impose on them". To foster independence he is teaching younger students to navigate the campus, with supervision, and to learn to enter the school by themselves.

"It is our collective faith in the children that will turn into the self-belief they take with them when they leave us," Law says. "Little steps now will turn into more significant ones when they are older."

Five Abu Dhabi families talk us through their reasons for adding extra bundles of joy.

Nicole and Eric Barton, American

Tall and slim, hiding an elegant baby bump, her fourth, Nicole has adapted easily to life in the UAE's capital.A psychotherapist, she came from Chicago 13 months ago with her husband, who works in financial services. Their boys - Liam, 7; Micah , 5; and Matthew, 3 - are expecting a sister in February. The family live at Mangrove Village, a compound off Abu Dhabi Island, and love it for its community, the pool and its other amenities.

Why four? We wanted a large family and life is so easy here, the decision didn't take long.

Best bits Services are cheaper such as a maid and gardener; cheap gas for a large car, making life much smoother, seamless. Shopping is straightforward, and work hours are the most positive change for us. In the US Eric had a day up to four hours longer and is now home for a family dinner. We can also enjoy our evenings together and are not encumbered by household management.

Worst bit The school commute is longer.

Added bonus Every weekend is an adventure, like we are on extended vacation.

 

Dave and Kristy Warneford, Australian

The "Warnies" moved to the UAE from Sydney in 2008 with three children. Both 36, Dave, a property developer, and Kristy, a graphic designer, married at 24. They love the ease of living here, the safety of compound life and the ability to make friends. They live at Liwa Village, Al Rowdah.

Why four? Our family evolved relatively slowly, in increments. First there was Mali, now 9, and then Archie, who is 8, arrived. We loved having two, so having three was easy. Then came Ivy, now 4. Going to four children was a big consideration. Dave was keen but I needed a bit more time, so Darcy, our 4-month-old daughter, arrived four and a half years later. We're both close to our siblings and we wanted that for our kids. Also, by starting young, we had the energy for more, and by the third child we had already mastered multitasking.

Best bits The space issues of a larger family were already sorted as we already had a seven-seater car and a villa. Also, Dave only works five minutes away so we all have much more time together and we get to enjoy it. Weekends, especially, are good for us. We have more family time and it's creating a lovely bond between us all. In Australia, weekends are busy with sports and activities, whereas it's more relaxed here, more about spending time together.

Worst bit Being pregnant here was horrible. You're stuck indoors all the time. I was also scared about giving birth but it all went really well.

Added bonus Having Rupa, our lovely maid, doesn't just help with the cleaning etc but it means that my husband and I can go out by ourselves in the evening. All in all, we love living here for the family life. We're cohesive as a unit.

 

Jim and Corinna Anderson, British

The Andersons, both 36, arrived in the UAE just over three years ago with their two children, Maddy, 6, and Johnny, 4. Jim is a naval architect now specialising in marine consultancy, and works much closer to home than he did in Surrey, UK. This means more time for the family, especially during the week. Corinna finds they have much more freedom here and that they can organise their lives better. A third child had been on their minds and they were happy with everything, so the time was right. The family lives in Al Bateen.

Best bits Weekends in Abu Dhabi are not as busy as in England, with less time being spent travelling to see relatives, for instance. The M25 (the motorway that encircles London) featured heavily in our lives. Now, friends have become much more important, and they live locally. We have time to swim and play tennis, and spend time together as a family. Living in a capital is great for my work as an English language teacher. So if I wish to take the occasional class later on I'll be able to, and still be a full-time mother.

Worst bit Jim reckons international travel will become more expensive. You can get stuck here as it's easy to have more children, but then you worry whether they will fit back into your rabbit hutch back in London.

Added bonus Giving birth at the Corniche Hospital [baby No. 3, Sammy, a boy, was born a couple of weeks ago] was as much a pleasure as at a top hospital in England. Choosing the hospital I thought: "If I wanted a job in a maternity unit, with great staff and plenty of experience with emergency cases, where would I choose?" We made the right choice.

 

Noor Al Ramahi, Emirati-Jordanian

Noor Al Ramahi was born in Abu Dhabi to Jordanian parents and is married to an Emirati company director. The couple have four children - girls Jana, 8; Zein, 5; and Haya, 2; and a boy, Mansoor, 3 months. They met while Noor was at university in Jordan and have been married for 10 years. They were engaged for a year and a half, and waited until she had finished her degree in civil engineering to get married. "I still remember when they came for me," she says. "His brothers came to my father's house and asked him for my hand." The family live in Khalifa City A.

Best bits It is easy to raise a family here as there is lots of help and family and friends. Three of my sisters and my parents live in Abu Dhabi. Life here is so multicultural and the children are in the British system at Al Yasmina. The British system is a very interesting way of learning and the children then become multicultural. We have to make sure that we all speak Arabic at home to keep them fluent. The weather is great and we love the beach - except for the summer, when we find it too hot, but then we go away for a month, taking the opportunity to travel to Europe or Asia. My husband and I love travelling.

Things to do with the kids There was lots to do as a child as we lived on an oil company compound. Then, there wasn't much for a long time but now there are places to go such as Zayed Sports City and Al Forsan. The quality of instructors is very high. General interest in sport is increasing in the UAE; people know about and play more sports, like rugby. Party planners are on the increase, with lots of choices for venues and themes nowadays. It is so nice for the kids. We're going to more and more parties outside nowadays and we like it very much.

Worst bit Healthcare needs some improvement, but we are getting there. We are very excited about the arrival of the Cleveland Clinic.

Added bonus Living here all my life, I know where everything is and it is all close by. The longest drive is from Khalifa City A to Marina Mall and that's only 30 minutes. Also, driving here is better than in Jordan. There is no real traffic and there are rules.

 

Nuha Abu Hijleh, Jordanian

Nuha Abu Hijleh is one of five children and her Jordanian husband, Naser Wadi, one of seven, and they have three children: Seif, 13; Layan, 12; and Zeyad, 10. They lived in Singapore for five years but were worried that their children were not learning enough Arab culture, so moved back to the UAE in 2005. Although Nuha was teaching the children Arabic at home, it was not enough, as the children were still writing English from left to right. The family live in Khalidiya.

Why not six? I learnt that lesson from my mum.

Best bits Abu Dhabi lives in me. Wherever I go, I'm always looking to come back to Abu Dhabi, I love it. It is in me. It's where I had my first job, my first child and, of course, my wedding.My three children are close in age so we have no problem entertaining them. They even share friends. We live by the beach, the Corniche is beautiful and the kids can go skating, cycling, walking. In the summer they hit the beach and in the winter we can sit on the balcony - it's a pleasure.

Worst bits The medical facilities are good but could be better. The Corniche is an amazing hospital, the best, but others need to be the same standard. Socially, for children and families, it would be great to have community centres, somewhere where the kids can play sport inside, like basketball and tennis. Or like the new Al Bateen School's sports hall, but all over the city.

Added bonus Al Bateen School is very multicultural with other pupils being British, Emirati, American, Jordanian. Being multicultural is good: their mind is open, which is a good thing. The school has a great after-school programme and the indoor gym is fantastic. The building is amazing, the facilities are amazing. It is very early but the "book cover" of the school is great.

 

Facts and figures: Families and children around the world

Largest family in the world (94 children) An Indian man, Ziona Chana from Mizoram, has the largest family in the world with 39 wives and 94 children. They live in a 100-room house and his wives sleep in dormitories. Running the house with military precision, the oldest wife, Zathiangi, organises her fellow partners to perform household chores such as cleaning, doing the laundry and preparing meals. For supper, they often pluck about 30 chickens, peel 60kg of potatoes and boil up to 100kg of rice.

Most children born to one couple (69) Officially recorded in Russia between 1725 and 1765, Feodor Vassilyev's first wife gave birth to 69 children. In 27 confinements, she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets. All except two survived infancy.

Mother with the longest interval between babies (41 years) Elizabeth Ann Buttle of Wales had two children, Belinda and Joseph, which is not noteworthy in itself. However, Belinda was born on May 19, 1956 when her mother was 19. Joseph was born on November 20, 1997 when she was 60, an interval of 41 years and 185 days.

Most surviving children from a single pregnancy (8) Known as "Octomom" by the media, American Nadya Denise Doud-Suleman came to international attention after she gave birth to octuplets in January 2009. She already had six children at home and regularly appears on TV talk shows to talk about her life.

Birth rates per woman

Australia: 1.78
Europe: 1.5
India: 2.62
Jordan: 3.39
Kuwait: 2.64
Saudi Arabia: 2.31
UAE (including expatriates): 2.4
UAE (Emiratis only): 4.6*
US: 2.06
UK: 1.91

Source: CIA World Fact book estimates, 2011.
* The National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority, 2005