Rarely do you hear about a newly divorced mother relocating to the Middle East for a new life. But that’s what Tanai Benard, 32, did two years ago, when she and her three children moved to Abu Dhabi.
The move had been a dream that the Texas mother and her then-husband had — before he backed out. Benard filed for divorce shortly before boarding a plane for the United Arab Emirates.
So I wondered: How does a single mom make it work in a new country? I chatted with her over Skype recently. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What were the red flags in your marriage that made you want to move to the Middle East?
It was an abusive marriage with many financial struggles. Sometimes [my husband would] bring home money to help out, and other times he didn’t. The idea of moving to the UAE was to help our marriage get a “revamp.” But the final straw was me discovering his infidelity. I filed for divorced right before boarding the plane.
Why the UAE?
Before discussing it with my now ex-husband, it was never on my radar. Our home in Texas was being rented out, so at that point it was either leave, be homeless, or move in with family. We liked the living standards the UAE offered. When I realized he was making no effort to get a passport, I stepped out on faith on my own with the kids.
What type of work do you do there?
I have an engineering degree, but I’m also a certified teacher. I currently teach math for Emirati girls.
Since arriving in 2013, how do you feel the UAE has treated you as a single mom?
It’s not as conservative as people think. The people, particularly the men, are quite accepting of my marital status. If anything, sometimes I feel some of the men are intimidated by it: Like, how can she do it all by herself? People automatically assume you’re married if you’re woman here. But I’ve never had an issue with being open about being a single mom. My family has been embraced since day one.
My Emirati students are the most fascinated by my life. Because many are products of plural marriages, they see their own mothers struggle while their fathers support multiple households. They ask how I do it — balancing three kids while still finding time to enjoy my life. And some of the parents read my blog, so they’re familiar with me. But overall, the locals tend to be fascinated with my life because it’s not the norm here.
Have you dated since being in the UAE? What is it like?
The dating scene here is tough. I kind of stay in the American social circles, and the pickings are slim. Oftentimes, the men — mostly military contractors and educators — are married with families back in the states. And trying to coordinate activities involving my children makes dating more difficult. But the few experiences I’ve had since being here were positive ones. I dated one guy for about a little over a year. So in all, it’s challenging but not impossible.
How did the kids react to you dating again?
The kids loved the guy I dated for a year, especially my boys. It was my first relationship [since] my divorce, and he was very supportive of me. Even after deciding to just be friends, there’s still a good friendship there.
How does religion come into play when you’re trying to date in the UAE?
I was raised Christian. And since being in the UAE, I’ve met wonderful men from different backgrounds, mostly Muslim. The differences do give me some pause, though. In my personal experience, there are two types of Muslims here in the UAE: the Western Muslim and traditional Muslim. As far as the Western ones, they have no problem with me staying Christian. On the other hand, I briefly dated a native Muslim man here, and while he was a great guy, he told me from the start I’d have to convert within five years. That’s an example of the more traditional Muslim men I’ve met.
Converting is not uncommon. I have co-workers from America who moved to the UAE, married a Muslim man, got divorced and cannot leave the country with the children. It’s a very male-dominated society that appears to protect the parental rights of the father more diligently.
Are you living comfortably in the UAE on a teacher’s budget and three kids?
Absolutely! I recently celebrated my 32nd birthday on a yacht. There’s no way I could have afforded that in the U.S. My salary is comparable to what I made in the U.S. However, my employer covers my housing and health insurance for my children and me. Remove those costs, and you have a greater deal of disposable income.
I can comfortably travel with my kids here. We’ve been to the Philippines, Bali, Italy, Cancun and Sri Lanka.
Do you feel safe in the UAE?
Of course. I practice awareness of my surroundings like I would anywhere else, but I never got the impression I was in danger. The Emirati government usually sends out a message whenever there could be conflict, but that’s few and far. On a day-to-day level, I feel much safer here than I did in the U.S.
Additionally, the UAE prides itself on being safe and welcoming. They are very meticulous about how the world views them, so they take extra precautions to keep the country in the green. I’ve been nothing but comfortable since landing here.
Do you plan on coming back to the U.S.?
Do I want to go back to struggling, living paycheck to paycheck? I’m an educator; I already know what my paycheck is going to look like. But we have a sweet deal here, the people are very welcoming, and the kids are happy being able to enjoy the same activities in the U.S. while seeing the world.
Ultimately, I’m stuck deciding: Do I want to be closer to my family in the U.S., but that would mean going back to struggling [financially]? Or do I stay distanced from my family but maintain a better life for my kids and myself?