by Hayley Doyle
Until the age of 28, I was a British girl who had lived in Britain my whole life. Yes, I’d made the move from my hometown up north to the Big Smoke and done a bit of a yo-yo-living between London and Liverpool. Becoming an expat in Dubai was a whole new ballpark. You know the story. Young and single, I moved out initially for 6 months to experience something different. Fast forward seven years and I had a thriving business, a husband, a baby on the way and a whole bunch of friends from all over the world who had become like family.
But what happens when you stop becoming an expat, and decide to go home?
I’m currently five years into a life in London. It’s remarkably different to my Dubai life. For a start, my first child was born shortly after we relocated. I was faced with juggling motherhood and running a business overseas with no help. I have two children now and closed my business in Dubai two years ago. Still. Being an expat never leaves you and, perhaps, due to a global pandemic, I think about that life more often than I expected to when I made the decision to exit.
So, what have I learnt about the transition? And, with hindsight, what do I wish I’d known?
No Maternity Pay…
In the UK, I have always been self-employed. This status was frozen when I became a UAE resident, but very easily reactivated with one phone call. However. To qualify for statutory maternity pay, I needed two years of accounts to show my earnings in the UK, and it had to be the previous two years. So, I got no money and therefore had to find a way to keep my business running with a newborn baby! I’d be hanging out in coffee shops with other new mamas, all on a year’s maternity leave, but I’d be on my phone answering emails with a baby on my (sore) boob between chats about sleepless nights and total brain fog. Before I moved back, I thought two things; Firstly, I’d get the maternity pay, that there was a loophole or box I could tick to qualify. And if that didn’t happen, I could work when the baby sleeps because newborns don’t really do that much, do they? Oh how wrong I was on both accounts!
Clean and Easy…
Dubai is squeaky clean. It glistens. A mall wall is so shiny that you can treat it like a mirror. I have to admit, as lovely as this is, I would find myself thinking that this was all a bit soulless. A bit fake. I missed the gritty realness of London, of the UK in general… Until I had kids. I adore areas such as Covent Garden and Shoreditch, or an old country pub, but it’s a nightmare if you need to change a dirty nappy. Cafe and pub toilets are either up or down a dark narrow staircase and I’ve changed many a nappy on a cold public loo floor. When I first returned to Dubai to mix business with pleasure, my son was just three months old. I saw the malls and hotels in a brand new light. The baby changing facilities were immaculate, spacious and so accessible. There were ramps everywhere. Over the past five years, I’ve stood at a bus stop or been on the school run and let my mind wander to Dubai where the streets are pristine… But only for a second, of course, as I try to prevent my kid from stepping in dog poo!!
Beware, People Judge…
“Oh I’ve never wanted to go there,” is the most common thing I hear when I tell people I used to live in Dubai. Not everybody is so quick to judge, of course, some are very interested. But many - and I admit, many strangers or acquaintances - will jump on me asking why on earth I chose to live there. “There’s nothing there,” they say. “You can’t drink,” they add. You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. Five years on and I still hear it. The British media doesn’t help as I think they’ve played their part in painting a cynical picture of Dubai. But I have no patience for this attitude. Dubai gave me everything I could have ever wished for, and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I don’t mean this in a superficial or material way at all. I mean the connections: the people from different cultures; the places I was able to visit; the children I worked with from all over the world. My mind was opened up to things previously never on my radar. I ran a successful business - a performing arts school - as a single woman, supported by other incredible women. I fell in love with a wonderful man and who also happens to be a creative. We have two beautiful children. And we live in a lovely home that we built simply by meeting, working and living in Dubai. Only last week, one of my ex-students contacted me on social media to say thank you for my classes and how they have helped him to set up his own business. Another recently contacted me saying, “I don’t think you realised how many kids you helped grow in confidence in Dubai.” And I’m sure to remember all this the next time somebody inevitably pulls that judgemental face at me for living in such a place!
This will depend on your industry, but a successful career in Dubai doesn’t always translate into a successful one in the UK. The demand for jobs and the competition is so fierce. And it’s simple. There are more people. I always got the feeling that companies in Dubai were open-minded, prepared to give somebody a chance if they got a good feeling about them. I even changed careers for a while and didn’t have to intern or suffer financially. I was paid a decent salary. But the UK market is very different. I know people who have been very disappointed to not move forwards in their career on their return, having to take more of a sidestep. For me, I’d mindfully prepared myself for huge changes because I was embarking upon parenthood (although nothing actually prepares you for that, right?!), but finding freelance work is still much harder - even now - than it was finding it in Dubai.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot…
We don’t need to talk about the heat in Dubai. So let’s talk about the heat during the summer months in the UK. Non-Existent, you say? Hit and miss, perhaps. But when a heatwave hits… WOW. You can’t sleep. You can’t think straight. You simply can’t escape it. Unless you go to Sainsbury’s and hang out in the frozen food aisle. This summer has been very mild in the UK, apart from an intense heatwave in July. But I had a baby in summer 2016 and another baby in summer 2019, notoriously - and unexpected - long, hot months. The hospital was so hot that my feet swelled, something they never even did during pregnancy! 2018 saw a UK heatwave that went on for so long that all the grass in the beautiful London parks turned yellow. Pushing a pram in that heat, knowing that the coffee shop you’re heading to won’t have AC, or your home might be slightly cooler because you’ve kept the curtains closed all day, is, like I said; intense. And unproductive. Many people say, “Hey, at least you don’t still live in Dubai!” But seriously, the heat is easier in the sandpit. You can escape it without hiding naked in a dark bunker with an ice cold flannel.
You Will Wonder If It Ever Happened…
Just before I left, one of my closest friends in Dubai said to me, “When you’re home, you’ll look back at your Dubai life and it will hit you. Maybe not straight away. But eventually, it will hit you.”
How right she was. These days - five years after leaving - I look back on my Dubai life often. Very often. And it has hit me hard. Did all that really happen? The rooftop bars, the casual meetings in a world famous skyscraper, the rehearsals in a five-star resort, the pool days, the browsing around the old souks because it was ‘something to do’. Getting ready for a brunch was like getting ready for a wedding, often to celebrate just being in Dubai, because, why not? I guess the option of not being able to jump on a plane and visit has elevated this. But the longer I’ve been back, the more and more I reminisce and miss it. I ponder whether my kids would have a better life there or here, met with conflicting thoughts. When I left Dubai, I wasn’t that sad because I felt like I’d been-there-done-it-got-the-t-shirt, plus I was bursting with excitement to reconnect to my London life, my Liverpool life, and starting a family. But time has tricked me. I was once an expat, and now I’m not? I remember standing on the beach, looking out beyond the Burj al Arab, and thinking, ‘I’m so far away,’ and this gave me a kick, made me excited every day, even when things weren’t going too well.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love my present life at all. I do. I am confident of my choices to live in London and bring my babies up here. The list is endless regarding what I adore. But unless you chat to another fellow expat, it’s hard to talk about it and find a connection with someone who isn’t. You’re telling them an anecdote. You might be boring them. Seven years is long time to live somewhere - especially somewhere as unique as Dubai - so I guess I talk about it often. Thank goodness I met my husband in Dubai because at least we can bore each other senseless with our expat memories!
So, I really thought that once I left, I wouldn’t look back.
But I do.
And if there’s one thing I feel overwhelmingly, it’s gratitude.