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A letter to all expectant mums: Five things I wish I’d been told before giving birth

 

Photo: Teilhard Scott

Photo: Teilhard Scott

As the birth of my first child approached, I knew I had it.

I had it nailed, motherhood. I had read every pregnancy and childbirth book I could find. I’m a journalist – I read constantly and research things for a living, and this was no different.

I’d researched my birth plan (gas and air first please, epidural a last resort, try to avoid an episiotomy); the right equipment (the bouncer, the play mat, the Baby Bjorn and the buggy I didn’t yet know how to fold); and the strategies (at all costs, avoid rocking your baby to sleep – shush, pat, shush, pat in the cot ad infinitum instead.)  I was clearly onto a winner.

And yet, twenty four hours after my son had been delivered by caesarian  – that section in the back of What To Expect on breech deliveries had come in handy – I felt like I was on the losing team.

Despite my detailed examination of breastfeeding diagrams, I had completely failed to get my son to latch. He lay in a cot next to me crying, and the nurses said he’d probably need to be given a bottle.

All of the depictions of childbirth I’d read about and watched were a million miles away from an operation I’d found frightening, and post-operative pain worse than any I’d previously experienced. I’d almost fainted trying to sit up, and my husband and a nurse had pretty much had to carry me to the toilet. After which, they’d fanned my face as waves of nausea gripped me and refused to let go.

When friends visited in hospital I pasted on a smile and I look reasonable in the photos of the event, but I know the truth. I was drowning in what I perceived to be my failure. I was not ecstatic and full of the joys of my new-found motherhood; I was petrified, out of my depth, and finally facing up to an unavoidable truth – my life had just changed absolutely, and there was no way back.

I remember feeling very angry with the mothers I was close to. Why had no-one told me this was how I would feel? The books I’d read focused largely on the pregnancy and the birth, but stopped abruptly after the delivery. I realised I knew loads about growing a baby, but pretty much nothing about how to keep one alive. Or, when it came to it, how my life was going to change, and how best to deal with it.

Recently, a close friend in her 40s told me she was expecting her first baby. I was delighted for her, of course; almost six years on from the mind-fog surrounding my son’s birth, I know that motherhood is a glorious gift, one I’m incredibly lucky to be experiencing.

But I also decided to tell her the truth. As she sat opposite me in a restaurant, eyes sparkling with delight, I made a choice to be honest. And she’s still talking to me, luckily.

So, here it is. Here’s what I wish someone else had said to me before I became a mother. If they had, I’d have realised that I wasn’t alone, and that’s a powerful thing.

It’s ok to be a bit crap

Some mothers just look amazing. There’s a woman who drops her child off at my son’s school every day, whilst carrying another one in a baby carrier, and pushing two more in a buggy. Four kids, and she still wears nice clothes and manages to look like she hasn’t got dressed in the 60 seconds between nappy changes and cleaning breakfast from the floor.

Meanwhile, I know my clothes are often covered in child-detritus, our buggy is covered in mud, and my brain is so addled that I regularly forget things and have to return home to get my son’s gym kit, despite the fact that he needs it on the same day every week.

Letters from school asking for costumes for assemblies and plays make me come out in a rash (I feel sufficiently guilty to still attempt to make things rather than buy them, but I’m not sure how long my son will continue to tolerate this – my last attempt at a beard was an airline eye blind with cotton wool buds stuck on it.)  And then there are birthday cakes. I try to make these too, and I have cried Every.Single.Time. Mostly with laughter.

The thing is, most mums feel like this most of the time. That mum with four kids probably feels the same, and Lord knows, she definitely has an excuse. Be gentle with yourself. Love your kids with all your heart and they’ll forgive you most things (hopefully.)

Breastfeeding is very hard for some people

Both my mother and mother-in-law were breastfeeding advocates, so I felt an enormous pressure to feed my baby myself. And of course I’d read the books and knew the significant benefits. But Lord, I found it so hard.

I know women who’ve sailed through the whole thing.  I guess they have nipples that point out perfectly to help the baby latch, a baby without a tongue-tie and a lot of support in the beginning stages.

It turned out that my journey was a hell of a lot more complicated, though. It was only with the help of a dedicated midwife, silicone nipple shields and a breast pump that I managed to keep it up for nine months. I also turned to mix-feeding – supplementing with formula twice a day – and it worked for us. Sometimes it’s reassuring to see the milk disappear from a bottle – either formula or pumped – and absolutely know that your baby is getting the nutrition it needs. They don’t say that in the books, but there you have it.

Your career will probably to take a knock

I remember thinking that having a baby would be a great break from my career. I know! How bonkers is that. I had a very demanding job working shifts, and I was tired and stressed. I believed that having a baby might give me a new calling, and a reason to step off the treadmill. Little did I know that I’d actually miss it. I discovered that my job had defined me far more than I thought; I’d worked hard for years to get where I’d got to, and it really meant something.

By contrast, I realised my new job was motherhood, and that I really wasn’t very good at it.  It’s a 24 hour job, seven days a week, which you can never resign or take a sick day from. It’s poorly paid and it’s pretty thankless until your little one begins to interact with you, so that’s quite a few months of mopping up sick, poo and wee without so much as a giggle.

The realisation of all of this made me want to return to my old job quickly, but I also realised that motherhood had made that tricky. If you earn less than your partner (and of course individual situations differ), it’s natural that you will probably be the one who has to find a job that works around childcare.

One of you has to, at any rate, and in my case, it was me. You’ll need to find a job that allows you flexibility for kids’ sick days and school holidays, and that works around childcare options. Often, those jobs are not as well paid as your previous one, or as high-ranking.  On the plus side, stepping off the career treadmill can turn into a blessing – you get an opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that can be lots of fun.

Great expectations, March 2010

Great expectations, March 2010

Your night life is dead for the foreseeable

When my son was a few months’ old, I ventured out to a mums’ coffee morning. Everyone else seemed to know each other and they were densely packed together in tight groups, but I managed to perch on the end of a table and the two mums nearest to me gaily asked if we were planning to have another baby. I looked aghast. One of them laughed and said “Well, my life was ruined already, so the second one was easy”. She and her friend roared with laughter. I didn’t find it funny.

Now of course I wouldn’t say my life has been ruined (reader, we had a second baby, and I still have friends and a job) but golly, my social life is unrecognisable.  

To give you an idea – we just went to the cinema for the first time in FOUR YEARS.  In order to go out after dark, we now need to kid our five year old son that we’re staying in (he has the ears of a bat – he can detect a babysitter from miles away) AND justify the cost of someone coming. Plus we can’t leave until the children are in bed, because they are very fussy about who does their bedtime routines. So anything that starts before 8pm like, you know, concerts and plays – they’re out. For years.

Anti-depressants are not an admission of failure Motherhood is the biggest adventure of your life, but like all adventures, it’s full of highs and lows, and for some, those lows are intense. The muddy cocktail of hormones you experience immediately post-birth causes many women to weep, but if it lasts longer, seek help. Several months after my son was born, it became clear that my baby blues were something of a permanent feature. A doctor put me on a low dose of an anti-depressant, and while admitting I was struggling made me feel like a failure, the pills themselves made me feel hugely better, very quickly. I was a better mother because of it, and I now strongly advocate more provision for mental health support for young mothers. Post-natal (and ante-natal) depression are both very real, for many women. Don’t feel embarrassed. Please.

So there you have it. That’s what I’d have like to have known before I embarked on motherhood. It’s certainly true that some women, the lucky ones, find only joy in motherhood, and that is a wonderful thing. But this is for the others, the ones who stumble a bit, who trip and fall before finding their feet.

Two very important things I’ve learned: Motherhood is a constantly evolving skill that cannot be learned from a book, however much you read. 

And it’s also an incredible gift – but one that may just take a little longer to unwrap than you imagined.

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The green grass of home: Five things I’ve noticed since moving back to Britain

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We’ve now been back in the UK for just over two months, and I’ve written my final post for Telegraph Expat. In this one, I list five things I’ve noticed since my return to Britain.

It’s been a huge pleasure to write for the Telegraph, but as I’m no longer an expat, I’m heading onto pastures new. Exciting challenges await.

Edited, September 2016: As the Telegraph has now deleted its expat blogs section, here is the piece in full:

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We’ve now been back in the UK for two months. When we were still living in Qatar, I often speculated about how we’d feel by this point. I suggested that life might feel a little dull after so many adventures, both good and bad, over the past six years; a little monochrome rather than technicolour. I also wondered whether our country would feel alien to us after so many years away, and whether I’d feel lonely, starting again in a new place with no supportive network of expat friends to fall back on.

It turns out I was wrong on all counts. Granted, moving continents with two children in tow and establishing said family in a new (unfurnished) house, a new school (little lad) and a new job (big lad) in just a couple of weeks had its moments (I never want to see an Allen key again), but we are loving being home.

The UK doesn’t feel alien at all, although it does feel a little like we’ve missed a couple of episodes of a long-running TV series; Austerity Britain part 1 and 2 have been shown already, but we’ve still got several episodes left to run, so I guess we’ll catch up in the end.

And my worries about loneliness were pretty much swept away on the first morning of my son’s new school when lots of his classmates’ parents introduced themselves, handed me kids’ party invites and invited me round for coffee. Similarly, lots of old friends got in touch and I’ve been gradually reconnecting with them.

Settling back in easily, however, does not mean I’ve been oblivious to the enormous change our daily life has just undergone. Here are just some of the differences I’ve noticed.

Multifaceted weather

Only in the UK can you experience several different seasons in a day. Yesterday, for example, it started off really chilly, then it rained, and then it was warm and sunny. A few days ago, we had hail, in June. (It was the first time my son had seen it. He picked pieces up and was distressed when it melted.)

Coming from a country with just two seasons – winter and summer – I’d forgotten the unique challenge of dressing for British weather. I am the mother at the school gates who consistently dresses both herself and her children wrongly. Baking hot but wearing a jumper, jeans and boots? Pouring with rain, and then discovering that neither child actually owns a raincoat? Yes, that’s me.

I am also the crazy woman who stands outside in the rain, inhaling deeply. This phenomena also occurs when someone nearby is mowing a lawn.

Fresh fruit and veg

One of the first things I did when I got home was to buy some English strawberries. To a palate accustomed to air-freighted fruit with an eye-popping air mile history, they were astonishingly lovely. Then I indulged in Jersey Royal potatoes, which were such a joy after the tasteless Saudi-grown variety we used to buy.

Granted, it was possible to buy good quality produce in Qatar, but it was hugely expensive, and not an everyday option. So since coming home, I’ve experienced the reverse of the “Doha stone”, the common weight-gain many experience when settling into expat life there.

Instead of dining out all of the time (a pretty cheap option in Doha) I’m now indulging in, and craving, fresh fruit and vegetables. My body is thanking me.

And then of course there’s the joy of getting it all delivered via online supermarket shopping, something many British expats crave in Doha. I’m fairly certain my five year old does not miss being dragged about Lulu once a week, consistently being refused chocolate.

Healthcare

Private healthcare in Qatar was a double edged sword. It was pretty easy to access – you could just walk up to a receptionist and request an appointment with a GP, or even a specialist – but its quality was incredibly patchy, and I always had the niggling suspicion that treatments and medication were being prescribed for profit reasons rather than because I actually needed them.

The UK’s cash-strapped NHS by contrast has a very tight fist, and I recently had to fight to continue to be given a medication I’ve been on since I was 21. I’ve also had to re-adjust to dealing with pharmacists who adhere to incredibly tight regulations on what they can and can’t sell over the counter; my days of buying the contraceptive pill without prescription are definitely over, although given the benefits of medical oversight in this regard, I’m rather glad.

One huge negative I’ve spotted since coming home, however, is dentistry. How on earth does anyone get their teeth done in this country without going into debt? We’ve actually registered with a local NHS dentist to try to get care at a decent price, but the first date they can give us is in August. I made the appointment in May.

Lush greenery

This is a predictable one, of course, but it’s been so significant a change for us that it warrants a mention. Before moving to Qatar, I’d never have stopped to marvel at an enormous oak tree, or the blossom on a cherry tree, or the curve of a meandering river, or the freshly-mown stripes on a lawn. My son did a football course over half-term in the tree-lined playing fields of a local primary school. Sitting down in the sunshine waiting for him to finish, I shed a little tear.

Living in the desert for six years has truly made me appreciate the wonders of nature. Hell, I even love it enough to want to don my dusty trainers and go running outdoors for the first time in years, so it must be good.

The cost. Oh, the cost.

Moving back to the UK from Qatar is rarely going to be financially beneficial. It was a lifestyle decision for us, and we were prepared for a squeeze on our finances.

Having said that, it’s still a shock the first time something breaks down and you realise that instead of the cosy expat renter’s solution of simply calling maintenance, you have to pay for the fix, and ooh, it’s gonna cost yer. It will also, it turns out, take at least a week for the engineer to turn up.

Then there are cars. Our time in Qatar means we have no no-claims bonus, and this year’s insurance has been painful.

Having said that, while doing the maths when buying our new car, we’ve realised that the cheap fuel in Qatar wasn’t such a steal after all. Our gas-guzzling Ford Explorer in Qatar might have cost us a tenner to fill, around a quarter of our fill-ups in the UK, but it was actually four times less efficient than our new car.

Mind you, our Golf is, err, somewhat smaller, but this bit of maths magic does make us feel a bit better when we’re averting our eyes at the petrol pumps.

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Expat life in Qatar has made me treasure my vote

polling-station1-300x164One month after my arrival back in the UK, the country went to the polls for one of its most unpredictable general elections in living memory. My participation in it made me realise how much I value the ability to influence the way the country I live in is run, and also brought a lot of aspects of expat life in Qatar into sharp relief.

Edited, September 2016: As the Telegraph as now removed its expat blogs section, here is the post in full:

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There are many differences between Qatar and UK life that I’d anticipated; things that were so obvious they weren’t even really notable, like the safer roads, the cooler but frequently disappointing weather, readily available booze, hayfever, tutting pensioners, tax.

Then, there are the more unexpected ones.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day in Surrey; trees laden with white and pink blossoms, grass lusciously green from recent rainfall, crowned with a polished blue sky. The sort of day you pine for when you’re an expat, but then quickly deny the existence of, guffawing about how it always rains, nay, drizzles everyday in England.

We were driving past a local park on our way back from a sojourn at the supermarket, gawping at the aisles full of ready-meals, bacon and locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, as Gulf-based expats (and recently repatriated ones) are wont to do. And there, reclining in the shade of a tree in the park, was a solitary woman reading a novel. And I realised that in our six years in Qatar, I realised I’d never once seen anyone lying down in a park reading a book.

This is probably because we’d usually frequented Aspire Park in Doha, where lying down is actually banned. Unaware of the rules (which aren’t actually written down anywhere, and which are given to frequent change) we’d attempted to rest in the park in the early years, only to be instructed by the ever-present security guards that it was in fact verboten.  It’s also because single men aren’t actually allowed in Aspire Park, unless they’re dressed in sports gear and running or speed walking, so that’s half of the human race also excluded from the whole reading in the park thing.

The right to vote

Thinking about Aspire Park and its plethora of opaque regulations, I realise one of the things I most appreciate about being home. I am simply grateful to live in a country with transparent rules, and for having the right to speak out about, and vote for, the way in which the country in which I live operates.

I’m writing this just after the UK’s general election, and my Twitter feed is a mix of jubilation and downright anger. The UK has spoken, and naturally for some, it’s not the voice they wanted to hear. As a former expat, my feed is populated with lots of Qatar based Brits, and I’ve spotted several tweets along the lines of  “we’ve got a few rooms free if anyone wants to escape Britain.”

For aggrieved British expat voters who, we must assume, primarily voted for a socialist party which believes in a strong welfare state, an enthusiasm for Qatar’s way of doing things seems to me to be an anachronism.

Qatar is far from a democracy, and the voice of the many is not heard. The country does hold elections for its Central Municipal Council, but its role is only advisory, and only Qatari citizens are entitled to vote. And barring royal intervention, no single expat in Qatar will ever be able to vote in these, because Qatari citizenship is only passed on via the male line. There is no qualifying residential period, no citizenship test to pass.  My two children were born in Qatar, but they are not Qatari. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in the country or how much you’ve contributed; you will never be a citizen, and it will never be your home.

Immigration restrictions

Indeed, Qatar’s immigration policy is a UKIP dream; every expat’s life there is tied to a particular job, and they must leave when it ends. The country also stops immigrants bringing their families into the country unless they earn more than 10,000 QR (£1782) a month, a simply unobtainable amount for most of its low income workforce. And those workers – toiling for six days a week in the burning sun, many in debt to people traffickers, not seeing their families for two years at a time – have no minimum wage and earn less in a month than most Brits would spend in one trip to the supermarket. Additionally, a vast swathe of them, the country’s domestic workers, are not covered by Qatar’s Labour Law and can theoretically be forced to work seven days a week.  A Labour heartland Qatar is not.

But perhaps this reaction to the election is not so surprising. After all, life in Qatar for the average British expat is very comfortable on the whole. Equipped with a well-regarded passport and qualifications that are highly prized, most live in larger homes that they could afford in the UK,employ a cleaner or a nanny, dine out regularly and travel to exotic locations for holidays without a second thought.  At its best, it’s an easy, luxurious life for those lucky enough to have the right job and the right passport.

But I realise now that during my time in Qatar I was constantly anxious about the ever-changing rules, which were like shifting sands underneath my feet. I was also aware that I had very few real rights. All expats in Qatar know that they could be on a plane in a matter of hours if their sponsor decrees it should be so. Many are also so worried about the power of shadowy, apparently omnipotent, forces policing the internet  that they won’t openly criticise the country on social media at all.

Shifting regulations

Expats also know that many of the issues that affect their daily lives – like the curriculum taught to their children, their access to government healthcare, visa requirements for family visits, their alcohol license, their ability to leave the country when they choose – could be altered or rescinded at a moment’s notice, often with no official announcement being made.

Simple things like private school term dates are often altered by the government at the very last minute, for example. Last year, my son’s school was forced to move its half term break with just a month’s notice.  And until recently, several private heads of British schools were telling me that they feared they’d be forced to scrap their Christmas holiday entirely to bring themselves into line with Qatar’s state school semester system. There have now been promises made that this will not be enforced, but as with everything in Qatar, this could still easily change.

Of course, Qatar has every right to run its country how it sees fit, and to decide who is allowed to live and work there, and for how long. I’ve just realised that I’m not very comfortable with the way it operates, and that the UK suits me more.

I’m in the honeymoon period of my return home, of course. Sooner or later my country’’s determinedly bureaucratic “computer says no” attitude to paperwork will get me down, I’m sure. However, I’m also pretty certain that my ability to put a pencil cross in a box in a booth in my local primary school, thereby influencing the election of a candidate to represent me at parliament – such an historic act, unchanged for generations –  will never get old.  Similarly, my rights to protest and to speak my mind without fear are dearer to me now than ever.

We may now have less cash, a vastly smaller place to live and an eye-popping fuel bill, but we’re home, and in control of our own destiny. I might go and grab a book, take it to the park and have a snooze there to celebrate.

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Four new Telegraph blog posts and a big announcement

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There’s big news from me in my most recent Telegraph blog post. It turns out that almost six years to the day after I first stepped off a plane in Doha, I’m going to be flying back to the UK for good. It’s been an incredible adventure, and I’ll miss all of my friends here tremendously, but as I say in the post – it’s “time.”

Some other recent Telegraph posts for you: My reflections on Doha’s horrendous road congestion; my views on the country’s litter problem; and my opinion on the difficulties facing expat women who want to work in Qatar.

Enjoy!

Update September 2016: Since the Telegraph blogs have been removed from their site, this is my post about our decision to leave Doha in full:

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The end of our expat adventure is nigh

When I arrived in Qatar for the first time in March 2009, I pretty much wanted to leave immediately. If you’d have given me an airline ticket and told me to head straight for the airport, I would have done it. After all, I’d just resigned from a job I loved, had bid farewell to many people I loved, and had flown thousands of miles to begin a new life in a country I’d never visited before. It’s understandable I found the early days rather tricky.

We were accidental expats. My husband’s previous company had gone bust towards the end of 2008, and as the credit crunch hit the UK, potential new employers stopped hiring. This meant that job offer from Qatar, a country with supremely solid financial credentials (and that’s an understatement), was too good an offer to turn down.

The fact that we both knew it was the right choice didn’t make our expat early days any easier, however. I was homesick, culture shocked, baffled and lonely in equal measure.

To be frank, I’m a rubbish expat. I’m terrible at change, and I need routine and familiarity to feel secure. I remember feeling back then that it would somehow have all been easier if I’d known the date of my eventual departure from Qatar. Granted, I knew our time would be counted in years rather than weeks, but I still felt that knowing the expiry date of our expat lives would give me comfort.

As time went on, however, I learned to live without my cosseted departure date. I ceased to view my stay in Qatar as an extended holiday, and began to put down roots, albeit shallow ones. Tick-tock went the metaphorical clock as we moved homes, travelled, made new friends, had first a son, then a daughter, and generally went about making a new life for ourselves. Before we knew it, six years had passed, and I’d stopped thinking about how long we had left here. We were just focusing on the present.

But now, that clock is about to be stilled. In less than three months, we’re going to be boarding our final flight out of Qatar and heading home to the UK, where a new job for my husband awaits. Our expat adventure – and that’s certainly what it’s been, an adventure – is nearly over.

As we’ve broken the news gradually to friends and family over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself saying, over and over again, that “it’s time.” I do genuinely feel as if we’ve reached our own personal expiry date in Qatar, a phenomenon that many of my friends can relate to. Whether it’s for a short while or a very long tenure, everyone has their own personal limit, and I know that we’ve reached ours.

That’s not to say that we hate the place. On the contrary, I’ve grown to feel that Qatar has become my adopted home, appreciating its charms and benefits whilst simultaneously acknowledging its pitfalls and faults.

The clock was always counting down to our departure, though, whether we willed it to or not. Even if you are born in Qatar and live here all your life, if you’re an expat, you must leave when you retire. The phrase ‘adopted home’ implies permanence, but under the country’s (soon to be revised) employment laws, you have no choice but to leave if you lose your job and you’re not given permission to apply for another one. Any feeling of security and stability in Qatar is more a badge of your own innate optimism rather than something rooted in reality.

It’s an odd feeling, living out my final days as an expat. The countdown clock is finally reality, and as soon as my husband’s resignation was submitted, the country ceased to feel like ‘home’. The protective film I’d layered around me to represent security peeled away, and I started feeling like I’d already moved on.

Now, my head is full of British things – houses, schools, cars, mobile phone contracts, furniture, and that rather alien concept known as tax. In an echo of how I felt when I first arrived, part of me wishes I could skip the notice period and hop on a flight tomorrow, but the rest of me knows that’s not what I want at all.

This final three months will be an opportunity to say goodbye to all that we’ve built up over the last six years, not the least of which is an incredibly tight circle of friends – that much fabled ‘expat family.’ It’s also an opportunity to fulfil our Qatar ‘bucket’ list, the things we’ve always meant to do here, but haven’t ever got around to doing.

It also gives us much needed time to shed most of our possessions, as we’re aiming to return to the UK with just suitcases. We’ve giving a lot away, but also experiencing the flipside of the expat “I’m just popping over to see what you have that I may want to buy” phenomenon, so often the source of second-hand finds in our own home.

It’s also an opportunity to eat our way through our kitchen cupboards, although I don’t reckon we’re ever going to finish the buy-one-get-one-free two litre bottles of vegetable oil I bought before Christmas. My husband also pointed out that I’ll need to drink at least three cups of tea a day between now and April if we’re to finish all of our supply. No problem, I said. I’m British; that’ll be a doddle.

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An expat’s possessions, and Doha’s ‘broken’ roads

Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

Muhammad Kamran Qureshi/Flickr

Here are two more Telegraph blog posts for you – the first about the true value of an expat’s possessions, and the second about Qatar’s ‘broken’ roads, a post I wrote following a particularly depressing week on Doha’s dangerous streets.

The first post was also published in the Telegraph Weekly World print edition.

Enjoy!

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Two new Telegraph blog posts: Giving birth in the Qatari desert, and The arrival of winter

mangroves

I’m now back writing again after a rather momentous event, the birth of our second child – a little girl – at the beginning of August.  Luckily she’s a very good baby and allows Mummy some time to dedicate to her passion. I love motherhood, but I also love having a creative outlet, so I’m enjoying blogging for The Telegraph about expat life.

My first two posts following my daughter’s birth have been about The Cuban Hospital (the rather unusual location for her delivery) and about the very welcome arrival of winter in Qatar.

I hope you enjoy them both.

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Precious family time in Doha during Ramadan – my first Telegraph blog post

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I was recently asked to become a regular blogger for The Telegraph’s expat section. My first post is about Ramadan, and the surprising upside to being stuck indoors with very little to do for a month.

I’m expecting our second child very soon, and I’ve realised that Doha’s heat and Ramadan’s restrictions on day time activities have led me to focus even more on my little family – a real blessing.

Update September 2016: As the Telegraph has now removed all expat blogs from its site, here is the post in full:

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Precious family time in Qatar during Ramadan

Many non-Muslim expats choose to leave Qatar for Ramadan. The reasons for this are myriad: almost all food outlets are closed during the day, and it’s illegal to eat or drink in public; the entire country essentially shuts down every afternoon, with most shops and offices closed; alcohol sales are banned; and road conditions around sunset require rally driving skills and nerves of steel, as fasting drivers speed to reach their iftar meal.

We’ve done similar in years past. Primarily, we’ve flown out to escape the furnace that is summer in Doha.

Ramadan moves annually, migrating backwards in the calendar by around 11 days each year, and for the past six years or so, it’s fallen in the most uncomfortable of Qatar’s seasons. From June to September it’s far too hot to go outside for the much of the day (our garden thermometer is currently reading 42c in the shade), and given that Ramadan this year falls neatly at the beginning of school summer holidays, you can see why a non-fasting family might choose to exit stage right.

Not us this year, however. Due to the impending addition of another Scott to our current family unit of three, I’m grounded. Quite literally, as it happens – pregnant women are unable to fly late in their pregnancy, so in Doha I must stay until our little one makes an entrance.

I’ve had plenty of people commiserating with me about the “miserable timing”, and I must admit to some pangs of jealousy caused by photos shared on Facebook and Twitter of Wimbledon, green hills, rural pub lunches and garden barbeques.

And yet, despite Doha’s oppressive heat and the restrictions of Ramadan, there’s a certain magic about this time of year here, even for a non-Muslim expat like me. Muslim friends of mine say they see this month as an opportunity to step off the hamster wheel and pause for a while, focusing on family life and reflection, and I must say I’m also beginning to see it that way.

As we enter the final few weeks of our life as a family of three, I’m beginning to appreciate the lack of distractions. Faced with nowhere in particular to go in the afternoons, for example, we’ve baked cookies, walked (waddled in my case)around empty (but blessedly air-conditioned) malls, and simply sat down to watch TV together, taking in the tennis whilst munching on ice-lollies.

And when my son helps me to mix the dough, holds my hand on the sofa or screams with laughter when my husband throws him in the air (and this happens frequently in our house) I am remembering to treasure that moment, to tuck it away and keep it safe.

I’m learning that a period of what essentially amounts to house arrest can have its benefits; when you’re about to embark on a period of huge change, being made to stand and stare for a while can be a blessing in disguise.

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Saving money while working in Qatar – a two-part series for The Telegraph

money

I recently wrote a two-part series of articles for The Telegraph giving advice to expats about how to save money in Qatar, a country which is becoming an increasingly expensive to live in.

I offer lots of suggestions to keep spending in check, including:

  • Making use of all available discounts when eating out by seeking discount clubs, books and websites – like QgrabsThe Entertainer and Voucher Clubs;
  • Timing big purchases like a second-hand car for the end of an academic year, when many expats leave Qatar for good;
  • Being wary of reductions in the value of car insurance coverage as your car ages –  this can make buying an old car a false economy in the event of an accident;
  • Taking a trip to the seasonal farmers’ markets with friends to save money by buying produce in bulk, then splitting it up;
  • Making full use of the second-hand market in Qatar, which is always busy due to the high turnover of expats here. Online groups like Buy It, Sell It, Swap It, Qatar on Facebook, classifieds on Qatar Living and garage sales are sources of many gently or barely used items;
  • Planning to buy expensive items like clothing, children’s shoes and specialty foods while traveling outside of Qatar, to save on costs (depending of course on baggage allowance)

You can click here to read the first part, and here to read the second.

Credit: Photo by Patrick Gage / Flickr

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‘Qatar will pay back your efforts if you give it half a chance’

Ray Toh / Flickr

Ray Toh / Flickr

My latest article for The Telegraph is up. In it, I give tips on ways to settle in to expat life in Qatar. It’s never an easy transition, but I argue that the more you put in, the more you get out of the experience.

I’ve known many people who’ve refused to give Qatar a chance, and they’ve been miserable as a result. If you’re about to move to Qatar, or have just moved – make sure that isn’t you!

You can read the article on the Telegraph site here, or for your convenience, the full text of the article is below.

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Last year, a fellow British expat left Qatar after a brief spell. He’d hated it. He’d tell anyone who’d listen about his time in a country with “nothing to do”, an alien culture, terribly congested roads, and even more terrible driving.

When questioned, however, it became apparent that he’d essentially spent two years on holiday. He hadn’t travelled outside of Doha’s city boundaries, nipped back to the UK whenever he could, and spent his weekends at expensive brunches at five-star hotels, bemoaning the lack of other activities on offer.

All expats in Qatar know several of these people, and dodging their negativity is one of the primary skills of life out here. Meanwhile, the rest of us know that although life in Qatar is often challenging, a little effort made to settle in reaps huge rewards.

Settling in, it must be said, is not the same as feeling at home. Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship laws mean that no expat can ever gain permanent residency, and many expat adventures draw to a close with the ending of an employment contract.

With that in mind, here are some ways to make the most of your time in Qatar, however long or short it might be.

Keep busy

A “life” in Qatar will not come to you – you need to go out and find it. Fill your free time with activities, and you have vital momentum when you have a “Doha Day”, when the city’s frustrations seem insurmountable.

Whether your idea of fun is yoga, amateur dramatics, kite surfing or silk painting, there’s a class or group for most tastes and abilities. Time Out Doha (timeoutdoha.com) has useful listings.

Also, make sure you spend time being a tourist – there’s much more to life than your office and your nearest mall. Visit Doha’s museums, watch the Qatar Philharmonic play, hire a dhow, have dinner in Souq Waqif, visit a hotel beach for the day or go dune bashing.

Soak up the atmosphere over dinner in Souq Waqif, Doha, with its myriad of little streets containing shops, restaurants and cafés (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Qatar also hosts many high-profile sporting and artistic events year-round which are often relatively easy to get tickets to, and fairly cheap – keep an eye on local papers and news website Doha News (dohanews.co) for information.

Finally, if you’re moving to Doha with your spouse, and you haven’t got a job lined up, don’t shelve the idea entirely. Not working can be a pleasant change for a while, but most long-term Qatar expats find that a job – be it casual, full-time, or simply volunteering – is a great way to enrich their experience, make new friends, and, crucially, give them purpose.

Make new friends

One of the nicest aspects of expat life is that people are generally open to meeting up.

“Abandon your British reserve,” advises Katy Monvid, who’s been in Doha for four years.

“You don’t have to meet someone three times before you ask them round for a coffee.”

Although not every acquaintance will turn into a lifelong friend, there are lots of ways to boost the chances of finding someone you connect with. Online groups can are very helpful – take a look at Internations (internations.org) and Meetup (meetup.com) where you can find a group called Qatar Expats.

If you have children, Doha Mums (dohamums.com) is also a valuable resource for advice and activities, with regular coffee mornings and dinners planned every month. There is also a myriad of specialist interest groups on Facebook, which turn up in a simple search.

Dealing with homesickness

We all suffer from homesickness sometimes. For an instant Doha pick-me-up, seek out British comfort food in the form of a traditional roast at Garvey’s, fish and chips from the L’wzaar stall at Katara Cultural Village (katara.net), or wander around the Megamart supermarket and the Marks & Spencer food section picking up imported treats. Or, for a longer-term effect, go against your instinct, and stay in Qatar more, advises Danish expat Rene Juncker.

“The common factor for many people who never really settle in is that they all jump on a plane back to their home country at any given opportunity. I call them The Inbetweeners,” he says.

Connect with local culture

If you never chat with a Qatari during your time in Qatar (and trust me, I’ve met people who haven’t), you’re denying yourself the opportunity to learn more about your surroundings; a vital part of settling in.

Many expats say they struggle to make local friends, but it doesn’t take much to break the ice, says author Christine Gerber Rutt, who’s currently writing a guide to settling into expat life. “I made a Qatari friend in a coffee shop,” she says. “That was about two months ago, and we see each other about once a week now.”

Meanwhile, I was invited to a Qatari wedding by a bride I was sitting next to in a beauty salon – we just got chatting, and suddenly she was handing me a wedding invite. I had a great time.

Hopping into an SUV to do a bit of dune bashing can help with the frustrations of expat life (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

If you’re shy, take to Twitter – there’s a community of Qataris on there who are very welcoming. One of them, Alanood Al-Thani (@al_anood), has this advice: “As a local, I would say, don’t be afraid to ask, and above all don’t assume. If something’s weird, question it and find out why it’s like that.”

And for a fun perspective, check out the iLoveQatar YouTube channel, #QTips (youtube.com/user/iluvqatar) where friendly locals Hamad and Khalifa guide you through various aspects of Qatari life.

Find your favourite places

Finally, there’s tremendous satisfaction in finding a corner of Qatar you like, and calling it your own. For ideas, take a look at community portal JustHere’s Make It Home section, which includes a great guide to public parks (justhere.qa).

Whether you pick the dunes, an open green space, a beach or the camel racetrack, having an open-air bolthole is a great way to make peace with your new life – which, despite its frustrations, will pay back your efforts twice over if you give it half a chance.

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Going solo in the Gulf – what single women need to know

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Recently, I was commissioned by Telegraph Expat to write an article giving tips to single women who are considering moving to the Gulf to work. They asked me to speak to women about their experiences, and give them 500 words – I ended up writing more than three times that, as the subject was such a broad one.

Here’s the result – interestingly, despite living in different countries, the four women I spoke to shared similar experiences and had similar views – they all felt that their expat lives had been enriching (both financially and culturally) but also challenging, particularly when it came to dating.

It’s proved a popular story – it’s the most read in the section currently, and a precis of it was Doha News‘ most read story yesterday.

So far, commentators have suggested that advice about the availability of contraception would have been a good addition (if I’d had the space!) Anything else to add?

Here’s the full text of the piece:

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Families are the foundation stone of Arab society, and so it follows that the Gulf region is extremely family-friendly. Make the expat move with a spouse and children in tow, and you’ll slot relatively easily into a life filled with play-dates and school runs, and make friends through both.

However, moving to the area without a spouse and children can be a daunting and sometimes isolating experience. And if you’re a woman, plunged into a society where men vastly outnumber women, and where marriage is the norm, it’s even more so.

Recently, two high profile cases have cast a shadow on this particular lifestyle choice.

The alleged murder of Lauren Patterson in Qatar and the alleged rape of Marte Dalelv in Dubai gave female expats pause for thought, demonstrating a – fortunately, rare – dark side to the sunshine lifestyle in the Gulf. Examples like these inevitably provoke questions, and so we spoke to four women who’ve lived and worked in some of the most popular destinations in the region – the UAE, Qatar and Oman – to find out what life is really like for a single woman living there.

Safety

 

Firstly – should those considering a move be worried about their safety? Liana Liston, an accountant based in Dubai, believes not. Like all of the women we spoke to, she feels that the region is essentially safe, with a few caveats.

“Everyone knows that if they misbehave they can be sent home,” she said. “But like anywhere, if you’re going to get drunk, just make sure you and your friends look after each other. Although rape is very rare statistically, the woman is also sometimes accused in rape cases in the UAE, so it may be higher than reported.”

 

Beth Howe, a British journalist who lived in Qatar for four years, argued that while the rate of assaults is quite low, harassment is fairly common.

“At some point you’ll probably be followed in your car or at the shopping mall,” she said. “I had my bottom pinched in the supermarket on my very first evening in Doha. My father had lived in the region before me and he told me that if anyone did something like that, I should make a big fuss – so I yelled! The man apologised, then ran off.”

Social life

If your chosen destination is Dubai, winter sun destination par excellence, you’re unlikely to be worried that your free time will be dull. However, the same can’t be said for sleepy Muscat, according to Serena Evans, who lived in Oman for three years.

“It’s a little like Groundhog Day – which one of the five bars shall we go to tonight?” she said. “Lots of socialising takes place at home. The only way to spice things up is to abandon your British stiff upper lip. I heard one person saying to a complete stranger ‘I need some friends, I just got here, fancy going for a drink?’ No shame in that whatsoever.”

Although smaller than Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar also have thriving social scenes, but, as Beth Howe pointed out, there’s life outside of the numerous clubs and bars.

“Now is the time to try something you’ve never done before” she said. “For example, Qatar has an active dive club, or you can take up yoga or have tennis lessons. All of these will make you friends and help you feel socialised.”

Dating

You might be single when you arrive in your new host country, but you might not wish to spend the rest of your life cooking romantic dinners for one. However, given the Islamic faith of the Gulf states, the whole issue of dating is, inevitably, a tricky one. Extramarital sexual relationships are illegal in the region, and kissing in public can also land you in trouble. So, how to negotiate this potential minefield?

“It’s definitely safe to date, but avoid public displays of affection,” advised financial risk manager and TV presenter Rachel Pether, who lives in Abu Dhabi. “It’s also illegal to live with someone of the opposite sex who is not your husband, but the police turn a blind eye to it generally.”

Aside from these concerns, finding a suitable single man also seems to be tricky for many. Despite a glut of dates (40 in just two years in Dubai) Liana Liston, author of blog datingdietingdubai.blogspot.ae, is still looking for love.

“Meeting single men for dating is easy, but finding the right one is hard,” she said. “I’d only recommend living in the Gulf if you would be happy not to meet anyone to marry here. It happens sometimes, but it hasn’t happened to me. That could be my fault, of course!”

Meanwhile, Serena Evans found that tracking down a suitable man in Muscat was “almost impossible”. “There were hardly any single western men in the city,” she said. “And I never dated a local. Omani men, on the whole, are happy to date western women but not to take them home to meet the family.”

Serena also came across many a married man pretending to be single, a point also raised by Beth Howe. “Many have left their wives and wedding vows in their home countries,” she noted, adding that for those who do find a single man to date, the very nature of expat life often leads to heartache.

“The transient nature of this part of the world often leads to relationships ending after a short time, and rather abruptly, and it can all be very painful,” she said.

Dress

In all countries in the region, modesty is the watchword when it comes to dress. Muslim women will feel right at home, but non-Muslims may struggle initially with the adjustment. As a general rule, aim to cover up shoulders and knees, and in some places, clothes covering up to wrists and ankles may be required.

Dubai is the most relaxed city in the region when it comes to clothing, although local campaigners are trying to change these attitudes. Other cities have stricter social rules.

“Abu Dhabi is much more conservative than Dubai,” said Rachel Pether. “I would never show my shoulders or my knees in the office. The beach and night clubs are a different matter, but carry a scarf or cardigan in your bag for a quick modesty check for your journey home.”

Oman is more conservative still, said Serena Evans: “Clothes I thought were appropriate on arrival, I didn’t wear six months in. The more covered I was, the more comfortable I felt. People are not used to seeing bare arms and legs – they stare for novelty, much more, I think, than to be sleazy, which westerners often don’t understand.”

Accommodation

Most of the women we spoke to said that although living alone was a perfectly safe and acceptable option, they felt happier finding a flatmate.

“Living by yourself obviously grants you independence, but parts of life in the Middle East are challenging, so it’s good to have someone to come home to, share a glass of wine, and discuss your day,” Rachel Pether explained.

Serena Evans was the only one of the four women we spoke to who chose to live alone.

“The area I lived in was very expat, and felt very safe” she said. “I had a maid and a part-time gardener. Both were concerned about my safety and looked out for me, but not once did I feel threatened.”

Work

Given the region’s immigration laws, all single women moving to the area will do so for work. All of the women we spoke to enthused about the career opportunities they had, combined with the financial benefit of a tax free salary.

It’s not all plain sailing, however. Serena Evans urged potential expats to take a reality check when considering their new lives abroad.

“Expat life seems very glamorous, but everyone has the same problems that you have at home, just in the sunshine,” she said.

“There were times when it was a normal part of my day to leave work and sit in the car and cry. I’d say that the good points in Muscat far exceeded life in the UK, but the low points were much worse.”

Rachel Pether, however, feels that moving to Abu Dhabi gave her career a real chance to blossom. “One of my favourite parts of the UAE is the emphasis it places on career development,” she said.

“Entrepreneurship and self-development is actively encouraged. Here, more than ever, I feel that it is never too late to become the person I want to be.”

Overall, the top tips from the women we spoke to were:

  • Get in touch with someone who already lives there to get an idea of what to expect
  • Make sure your employment contract is watertight. Have a contingency plan in case things don’t work out
  • Check you have good medical insurance. Local government health care standards are not the same as in the UK, and private care can be expensive
  • Make sure you know where to go for emergency medical care as soon as you arrive, and find someone who can act as your local next of kin
  • Invest in a few wardrobe staples that will cover your shoulders, elbows and knees
  • Consider finding a flatmate to share bills and keep you company

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