Like every other mother during this awful lockdown, I wake each morning and my first thought is one of sinking dread.
Dread at yet another day trying to drag a truculent 11-year-old through home-schooling; dread of boredom — my own — and that of my older children prowling the house like restless, bad-tempered lions in captivity; and the dread of doing exactly what I did yesterday and the day before that.
And then I open my eyes and look through the window. Just outside is a large, perfectly formed palm tree, like something from the set of Disney’s Moana.
I am only a little ashamed to admit that I got out of the UK at the very first suggestion there might be tougher restrictions, to ‘home school’ in paradise. Living in West Sussex, we were already in Tier 4, which was bad enough
Occasionally a parrot settles on one of its fronds to enjoy the morning sun — an immediate reminder that I am a very long way indeed from the grim realities so many are facing.
As for my three older children? If they’re complaining, I certainly can’t hear them. They’re 4,000 miles away, well out of earshot, back in England where I left them (and where I hear the weather is ghastly), while I luxuriate in the balmy 26c heat of Dubai, with just my youngest child in tow.
I am only a little ashamed to admit that I got out of the UK at the very first suggestion there might be tougher restrictions, to ‘home school’ in paradise.
Living in West Sussex, we were already in Tier 4, which was bad enough. Christmas wasn’t Christmas as we know it, and, having not seen another soul for days, our little bubble of six (me, my husband Keith, Flo, 22, Annie, 20, Monty, 18, and Dolly, 11) were ready to kill each other by the start of January.
The only thing that kept me going was the promise of offloading at least two of them back to a new term of school and college.
Monty is at a sixth-form college doing his A-levels, while Annie is in her second year at Bangor University studying nursing, and Dolly in Year Seven. Flo, meanwhile, lives at home and works at a local nursery.
And then came the killer blow. They weren’t going back — we were going to be stuck in this hell for even longer.
What, I hear you ask, of my three other children, left at home in the UK to fend for themselves? Well, that has been a tough call. There have been times when I have agonised over my decision to prioritise Dolly’s needs over those of her older siblings. In my defence, they are all over 18
Memories of lockdown 1.0 came flooding back. Me, waking full of renewed determination each morning to get Dolly to focus on schoolwork, only for online learning to descend into tears and tyranny by lunchtime. And my finest parenting hour? The day in April when it all got too much, and I found myself yelling: ‘Learn the bloody periodic table or don’t. I really couldn’t care less.’
Before stomping to the end of the garden with a bottle of Pinot Grigio in hand.
The thought of going back to all that again filled me, as I’m sure it did millions of others, with absolute horror. One upside of the last lockdown was the weather — endless days of glorious spring sunshine, bluebells in the garden, barbecuing outside.
This time round, however, what were the prospects? Eight hours of grey, insipid daylight followed by darkness descending at 4pm? No thank you very much.
I’m aware that most people don’t have the choice to escape lockdown and head for the sun. But let’s say you did have the option? Wouldn’t you shove everything into a suitcase and get the hell out, too?
I’m lucky that my husband lives and works in Dubai, and the rules, as far as I understand them, allowed me to join him with our youngest child in a support bubble arrangement.
Well, I say lucky, but in the nearly four years since he moved here for his job as managing director of his company’s Middle East region, we’ve had a bit of an odd marriage.
He gets to lead (in my mind) an existence of unencumbered singledom in a spotless one-bedroom flat in one of the world’s most stunning marinas. Million-pound yachts glide past his floor-to-ceiling windows, and you can hear the distant but constant roar of Lamborghinis from the balcony. There is no dog hair on his sofa, no clutter, no shoes discarded in the hallway.
He works an unrelenting 12-hour day and says he misses us terribly — is homesick, even, for the chaos of family life. And nope, I don’t believe him, either.
While I have remained in the UK with our four children to see through the various stages of their education, we try to visit each other every six weeks or so.
Keith came home for Christmas and was due to fly back to Dubai, alone, on January 3 — the day before Boris Johnson announced lockdown 3 was shortly to come into force.
Deeply jealous that he was getting to escape what was fast looking like a grim few weeks ahead for me, lone parenting in a depressing UK lockdown, I had already silently decided he wasn’t getting off that lightly.
I kept schtum until he pulled his suitcase out from under the bed and, a little too gleefully, started lobbing boxer shorts into it.
That’s when I made my big announcement: ‘Not so fast, mister. You’re gonna need a bigger bag.’
We chucked enough schoolbooks in the suitcase to take us to the airline’s 23kg limit, unearthed the summer clothes, beach towels and swimsuits, and made the decision in a flash.
It was all so easy: masks during the seven-hour flight, and on arrival in Dubai we were ushered to a booth where we were tested for Covid-19. We then had to isolate for 24 hours as we awaited our (negative) results. And that was it. We were free.
Every time she goes back online another splatter of freckles has appeared across her nose. It must be infuriating for everyone else in her class, but what can I do? I have warned her not to gloat
So it is that I find myself tackling the challenges of homeschooling from this jet-set destination, surrounded by glorious bling and the cast of Love Island.
Initially, I thought it was going to be for just a few weeks — at that stage, Dolly’s return to school was only supposed to be delayed — so, of course, the older children didn’t mind a bit (I think they were, quite frankly, pleased).
Now, however, with the UK in full lockdown, I’ve no plans to return at all, so they’re ‘home alone’ indefinitely. I mean, why would I go back? The time difference works perfectly for Dolly and me. Having never been a morning person and someone who has always been perpetually late for the start of school, I now relish this serendipitous headstart to my day.
While the rest of you are still in bed, Dolly and I make healthy smoothies and carry them over to the beach, with its pristine white sand and turquoise water.
Then we swim for 45 minutes before heading back to the apartment to get ready for school. Dolly joins a live online tutor session at 12.15pm our time, 8.15am yours. For once in our lives, we are ready and alert for the start of the school day.
Unlike the last lockdown, when I failed dismally at home-schooling, I refuse, this time, to get het up about it all. First, it’s too hot and second, we have put ourselves in an enviable climate, where all facilities and restaurants remain open, and where there are far more inviting things to do than complete every single online assignment that’s been set.
Dolly’s cathedral school in Chichester has been unbelievably creative and resourceful in their provision of live lessons throughout the day.
Her teachers are also very understanding about the challenges of keeping a Year 7 child engaged with online learning. Especially one who has a swimming pool a stone’s throw from her iPad.
We’ve agreed a system where Dolly does the UK time morning lessons, which takes her to the evening here. She catches up on the early afternoon lessons the following morning (they are recorded and posted onto Microsoft Teams) and she misses the last lesson of the day, which three times out of five is sport anyway.
To be frank, I’m not that fussed if we don’t keep wholly on top of the academics. I hardly think, in the grand scheme of things, it will matter that much and I’d far rather she was outside enjoying the sunshine. During the morning break, she always rushes down to the pool to do a quick 20 laps and then lies on a sunbed to work on her tan.
Every time she goes back online another splatter of freckles has appeared across her nose. It must be infuriating for everyone else in her class, but what can I do? I have warned her not to gloat.
That joining a live history lesson in her bikini with hair still dripping wet from the pool is not going to go down well while the rest of her class listen to the rain hammering on the window outside.
But surely I can be forgiven for having made a choice that has my pre-teen very much at heart? Back in the UK right now, it would be all too tempting for her to spend the whole day glued to a screen.
With all the various tier restrictions we’ve endured in recent months, she has already become gradually more unfit and sedentary. Bringing her to Dubai seemed an incredible opportunity to get her outdoors doing physical activity again — vitamin D, exercise and a healthier diet. I defy any mother not to have made the same decision if they could.
Obviously, Dolly is having a ball and is, for now, happy to stay put. She misses Keith tremendously when they’re apart, and despite all the downsides of Covid, it has presented us with this one-off opportunity to be together.
But I suspect in a few weeks she will start missing her hamster, the dogs, the cat and the UK.
And what, I hear you ask, of my three other children, left at home in the UK to fend for themselves?
Well, that has been a tough call. There have been times when I have agonised over my decision to prioritise Dolly’s needs over those of her older siblings.
In my defence, they are all over 18.
I insisted that Annie, 20, go back to her student house and brave the stricter Welsh restrictions, because we have paid a year upfront for her rent and I’m damned if we’re going to waste that money by not using the accommodation — even if the universities seem hellbent on hanging undergraduates out to dry.
Flo, 22, and Monty, 18, still live at home and have been magnanimous in their offer to take on the daily care of our two boisterous labradoodles.
I know how galling this must be for them when their youngest sister is seemingly leading the life of Riley, and it makes me feel guilty on a daily basis.
Yet they insist they are OK and don’t mind. They have even created quite an organised little family bubble among themselves and I suspect are secretly enjoying the autonomy and freedom.
Monty’s friend has officially moved into their bubble for the duration to keep him company and they are helping each other revise for their A-Levels, in case they have to actually sit exams.
Flo has a nine-to-five job, so the boys are in charge of cooking evening meals and cleaning and, because she is the only one who can drive, she goes to the supermarket to buy food.
There’s no denying it’s an odd set-up, and perhaps not one every parent would be liberal enough to allow. But at least they can’t have a huge party and trash the house.
It’s been a tough call and one that needs constant monitoring.
The washing machine has broken and no one will come out to repair it. I worry endlessly about their mental wellbeing — if they’re sliding into despair or managing to keep their spirits up.
Certainly, I have no doubt in my mind that they are tucking into whatever booze we had left over from Christmas and are sitting around the fire pit every night in our courtyard. I just hope the neighbours are understanding.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, I selfishly relish the mornings when my other children in the UK are still fast asleep and I can enjoy a few hours unburdened by maternal angst over their welfare — because by early afternoon, the texts have started to flood in.
‘Mum, can you send more money for food?’ ‘Mum, the dog’s been sick, what shall I do?’
Some may say it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise blissful escape from reality. And, shamefully, I couldn’t agree more.