The Arab world has very clear and defined lines when it comes to roles within any traditional family.
Part of these lines are an understanding that the husband/father is responsible for the financial upkeep and safety of the family, the decision maker and mediator in any and all family disputes (even outside of his own immediate family).
The wife/mother is responsible for the behind the scenes stuff – having, raising and caring for children. Ensuring their well being, emotional needs and educational requirements are met. She is also the one that helps in educating the children in their roles in society which differs considerably between the son or the daughter and how life works for boys and how it works for girls.
I’m not saying that these lines are drawn in concrete and unchanging – they are – and I know people who have changed those lines, just as I have. But, thousands of years of tradition is very difficult to uproot and replant.
I come from a very traditional Egyptian background. Those roles were defined but I also had two parents who did, whenever possible, try to ensure we maintained our independence (sister and brother) and chose the life that worked for us in the best way that they could. Regardless, the uprooting and replanting can be difficult.
When my wife and I decided that the best option was for me to take on the Stay-At-Home-Baba role, I didn’t think that much about it because it seemed, at the time, that this was a temporary thing – just until our little addition was old enough.
I admit, I wasn’t always honest with my family and only a few friends actually knew what was going on – especially in the beginning.
Why? Because in the Arab culture (well, actually in most societies), when a person does something ‘different’, that creates a big talking point. My wife compares it to a game of Gossip they played as children – kids sit in a circle, a person whispers something to the person next to them, that person has to tell the person next to them and then when it gets back to the original person – everyone laughs because it was so twisted and contorted that there was nothing close to what the original statement was. This is such a great comparison because that’s exactly what this was – daily.
In fact, I actually heard back from a distant family member that they had heard I was going through chemotherapy and dying of cancer and wanted to spend my ‘last days’ with my daughter because my wife was leaving me which is why I went to part-time at night and stayed home during the day. Well, that was a good one because yes, my last days I would want with my kids and my wife certainly wasn’t leaving me because I’m just too wonderful and cute and that could never happen 🙂
This was a game that is constantly played and the stories were different every time. Plus, my friends and family even went to lengths of an ‘intervention’ type of thing – gathering together to tell me that staying home and not working to provide for the family entirely was not something was going to be looked at as a positive thing and I must admit it and change.
I ended up starting my parenting life with my mantra “I know I can”. The world was my oyster. My daughter and I were going to conquer it all.
Gradually, it then started to move to “I think I can” and then a bit more time and it was being cut down to “Ok, maybe not”.
The looks that I continued to get in the mall holding this 3kg bundle of happiness (and the 8kg pink flowered diaper bag) continued as she grew. And, as nice as it was in getting the bit of attention and trying to channel it positively – as she grew – so did my anxiety.
“Get a nanny and get back to work” so I tell them “What if the nanny isn’t good for my kids?” – the response “Get another nanny!”. What? Who says that? Are the kids like a training ground for whoever comes along and you don’t know what they are capable of with your own small children – especially ones that can’t talk yet? Do people do that? Well, yes, I would come to find out. And I would further hear the nightmares from friends who’s children were kidnapped, molested and harmed in ways that you couldn’t imagine. Big Note: This is most certainly not the majority so if you have a nanny, don’t take it wrong – there are so many out there that are amazing.
“This is not the right thing.”, “What are our neighbors going to say?”, “I am telling our family and friends that you are work at xyz company – not staying home!”, “You marry a westerner and you change who you are?”, “You shouldnt be changing pampers”, “What do you do if she gets sick!” “What do you do if your wife gets sick and you aren’t working”, “You have girls – not boys – This is not your job!” “Be a man!” (that one killed me).
Then, I had the very quiet and subtle hints from people. It was whispers at the nursery class and nods to each other toward me when there were functions and I was the only dad. All of these mom’s were gathered in the corner talking about me and not bothering to make it quiet. I just sat in my chair or stood off to the side holding my daughter or watching her while everyone else seemed to part of some exclusive clique that I would never hold any membership in. Note to mom’s – we feel this way and it’s really demotivating when we have to feel like the only kid not picked for a team and we are all adults. It’s kind of nice if you reach out and say hi – we need it.
I was trying to be a man. I was trying to take care of my daughter. I was trying to be her baba. I didn’t need the looks that I was getting.
Then there was the other gender-side of the coin. I most certainly didn’t need another Arab man looking at me with his friends and laughing as I was pulling the stroller out of the car and tucking in my little one all buckled up with a blanket and toy. What was I doing wrong? How many more knife-like stares can I throw back at them and hold up my hands and say “Aywa?!” (Arabic for a loosely termed ‘yes, what?!’ in this case).
I really started to doubt everything after the first couple of years. I doubted my capabilities and I was really to the point of thinking “Ok, maybe not. Maybe I can’t do this”. My family has lied about what I’m doing. My friends, atleast the ones that I kept, still poke jabs at me periodically. When my wife and I met new people, when I told them what I do, it was like I had some contagious disease. It made it difficult for us to make and keep friends because automatically we were different. And, even to this day, we meet people and everything is great until they find out I’m an at-home-baba. No call back after that – although it’s usually because I simply can’t offer any benefit to them ( ‘wasta’) so why bother.
Even the people in our compounds where we have lived – I was an anomaly. I was this freak of nature (atleast that’s how I felt).
When my wife and I went to the US, I didn’t feel this way in respect to being with the kids (I did in other ways but more on that at a different time). There were dads with their kids in arms reach everywhere. There were changing tables in the mens’ bathroom. There were dads sitting at the play place with other dads watching their kids. I thought this was all too weird but really comforting. But, I also knew that we would have to go back home at some point too and I would have to go back to my reality.
It’s difficult as a dad in the Arab world to find a place that fits.
I’m really not complaining and I’m most certainly not ungrateful. I live in a beautiful, evolving and culturally rich part of the world. I’m grateful everyday that I get to be with my girls. I get a chance to be part of their day. I get to be the one they share their thoughts with (atleast until their mom comes home and makes her dramatic entrance into their lives and our family is once again, complete). I get to hear, first hand, how they are doing at school and deal with any potential terrifying moments that may result if my wife tries to reorganize the entire Middle Eastern educational system if she doesn’t get her way when it comes to something she doesn’t agree with in our child’s nursery curriculum.
I’m also the one with the big shoulders that they prefer to fall asleep on. I’m the one that knows which fever medicine works best for which kid and which doctor I like and which doctor I don’t. I know which t-shirts make Mackenzie itch and how much bubble bath capfulls are needed of the pink one and not the purple one (2 and 3 if you are asking).
I’ve been going through the ups, downs, sideways, pain, joy, sacrifice, humour and love the last 6 years. I don’t regret any of it (again, the vomiting thing really has got to be the one thing that should be taken off of the parent list).
I am still battling everyday with trying to find my place. I still get those looks and the mommy-groups are still the same. And, the Arab guys that like to snicker at me when you are all together and watch me struggling to pull out the stroller- well, seriously, you need drop your friends and go and get your kids and take THEM out instead – you might have a much more enriching experience.
But on the other side, I also get those wonderful smiles that come from some moms. And, occasionally, I see a dad dropping their kid off looking about as lost as I used to (and still do) and I run over and give him a quick hint and move on. And bless some educators out there that actually find humour in my situation and take extra time to help me with things, understand situations or sometimes just introduce me to others (Gems Wellington Primary – GWPS – Big shout out to you and 1G because you guys are hero’s!)
We all have the same fears as parents. As dad’s – yes, tradition can sometimes speak much louder than words but can also sometimes do the most damage when we aren’t willing to attempt a change. And, it’s sometimes more convenient not to change and let ‘tradition’ be what it is – especially for me – it works in our favour, right? But, is this what I want the next generation to continue with? Is this how we are going to educate our children to become more tolerant and accepting of others? Because in our part of the world, it isn’t exactly going so well. Maybe teaching our kids something different may shift the earths plates a bit.
This ArabBaba is doing his best to go back to the mantra 6 years ago – I know I can, I know I can. Because I will. I made it this far and I’m not stopping (atleast until they become teenagers – then I seriously may rethink boarding school options in a far away land 🙂 ).