A study about German mothers who quit their job to have more time for their children showed that most mothers were using this time for their own recreation instead. This caused a German tabloid paper to label them as „lazy mothers“, which resulted in a heated public discussion about motherhood and the lack of either mother care or respect for women’s personal needs. As for people in the Arabian Gulf, they would probably never have such a discussion in the first place.
Many things have changed since I moved to Bahrain more than 16 years ago. The culture shock that I had initially expected as a typical German was relatively mild, because Bahrain turned out to be quite a wealthy and well developed country. Furthermore, soaring economic developments (with its highlight of the arrival of Formula 1 have made the assimilation to Western standards firmly established in this small kingdom island.
The living standard of the middle class is quite remarkable. The number of family homes that are much bigger and more luxurious here than in Germany, for instance, has risen dramatically. Usually, the inhabiting marriage partners drive each their own car. While the number of working women and mothers is on the increase, the number of children per family is reducing with each generation. The average number of children per family used to be six to eight children two generations ago, but young mothers these days would like to have three or four children at maximum, some are even content with only two, although children these days are a lot less work intensive for mothers, at least in this region. How come?
The relative low population rate in this part of the world makes it necessary to hire workers from abroad. Most of these foreign workers come from the Third World, because their salary expectations are very low compared to the local labor market and they are easily recruited due to the lack of complicated labor laws. Among those foreign workers are also cheap housemaids who only demand a fraction of the salary that a local worker would work for. Consequently, almost every household starting from the lower middle class is able to afford a housemaid and/or nanny, who will take care of the house and children.
As a result, more women are able to find a job and at the same time have children, if they choose to do so. More than in Western societies, children are almost exclusively the job of the woman. Further, maternity leave in the Gulf region is only 45 days, which means that already 6 weeks after childbirth working mothers usually go back to their job, many leaving their baby in the care of their housemaids. Even if a woman chooses to stay at home as housewife, most households still have a housemaid as the houses here are very big and difficult to manage on one’s own. Besides, why should a woman struggle to cope alone with such a big house if her husband can afford to provide her with a housemaid and/or nanny?
It has to be mentioned at this point that these „nannies“ are hardly trained but mostly unskilled young foreign women with little or no English or Arabic language knowledge from a poor African or Asian country. Their only „qualification“ might be having children on their own. Further, the local working conditions of these domestic workers often resemble those of slaves in the old times that enable Arabic working mothers or housewives with well-earning husbands to enjoy more leisure time without having to look after their children themselves. Higher living standards combined with changed views on the necessary effort investment of mothers in times of wealth and increased personal demands are important here, which perhaps have led the Arabic society to accept such child care situations as inevitable side effects of modernization and development.
The human species is a habitual being and thus most women have become so accustomed to their housemaid and nanny services that they cannot imagine a life without the comforts they enjoy through their domestic servants‘ work. Mothers and their children depend on themselves only during the dreaded time between departed housemaids that have finished their working contract and the arrival of the new servant girl, which may well be the cause of a variety of serious domestic crisis in some families. The children, of course, are also very used to these housemaids, so that they often have become spoiled, because the housemaid is the one who tidies up their room and toys, cleans up any of their mess and takes care of all sorts of other unacceptable or even labor rights violating services.
It happens that some children do not see their mothers very often whether they go out for work or not. As a former teacher in a private school I often witnessed the results of such lack of contact time between mother and child. In one of my English lessons I wanted to elicit the word „mother“ from my first grade students with the following questions: Who takes care of you at home by helping you to prepare your school bag, or washing your clothes, or cooking your lunch? The answer was quite clear, it was the housemaid not the mother who would do all those jobs alone. One of my students, however, informed me that his mother who was a housewife could not do all of these jobs because she had to sleep till noon and go shopping in the afternoon. Well, so much for my intention to use what I considered the traditional mother role in my language lesson.
Nevertheless, this experience made me think. Is it only the woman who neglects her role as mother because of her convenient substitute in a wealthy and modern society? Does not also the lack of commitment from the father, withdrawing himself from the daily energy-consuming and exhausting childcare, contribute to this situation? On the one hand, childcare seems to be everywhere the expected priority of women. On the other hand, traditional expectations and task distributions are not easily adjustable to the development of a modern society. This is also true for modern Arabia despite traditions or conventional mother role expectations. Nannies are not employed to watch TV all day and they are part of the status symbol in wealthy Arabia. Therefore, it might be high time to redefine the mother’s as well as the father’s role and their new relating tasks. Luxury and wealth come at a price, which often has to be paid by the children, who should consider themselves lucky if they see their parents for an hour or two a day.
However, such tabloid headlines as seen in Germany of so called „lazy mothers“ are absolutely unthinkable in this part of the world. Even though if the childcare situation in modern Arabia may one day result in a public discussion for the sake of the children and not least for society as a whole (if not for some poor domestic workers), such harsh open criticism seems not acceptable in this part of the world. Reflecting about how the German Press (rightly or wrongly) dealt with the „mother-subject“ in such a provocative and argumentative writing style, I often get the impression that self-criticism is not yet considered part of modern development in Arabia.