The morning I interview Karen Wazen Bakhazi, my five-month-old is teething, hasn’t slept, refuses to eat and, to put it mildly, is being a challenge. I stop short of telling this to Karen though – because if I’m finding one child difficult, I can’t even begin to imagine what tough days in her household must be like.
When Karen’s son, George (who she affectionately calls “Georgie”), was just over a month old, she discovered she was pregnant again – wait for it – with twins.
“I was late to get my period, and I was saying to my husband, ‘It’s so weird that I’m late’, but we were convinced it was just the post-birth, because my hormones were all over the place,” she recalls. But then, not long after, the nausea kicked in.
Karen wears: Gown, Dhs25,840, Oscar de la Renta. Crib, Notte Fatata at Children’s Lane. Teddy bears, from a selection at Childen’s Lane
Thanks to a home pregnancy test, Karen’s suspicions were confirmed. “It was a different test to what I had ever used. It was digital, and I was used to the plus and minus signs, but this one literally said ‘pregnant’.” Karen remembers letting out a gasp, and her husband, Elias, thinking she was joking. “He thought I was playing a prank,” she laughs. “I gave him the stick, and started bawling.”
When Karen’s excited mother reminded her over the phone from Lebanon that afternoon that twins ran in her side of the family, Karen dismissed the suggestion. “I said, ‘Mum, this is really not the time for it. I’m having a hard enough time dealing with this news’. But my sisters are twins, and my mum is a twin.”
Still believing it may be a false alarm, Karen took the first available appointment with her doctor for the following morning. “I went alone because my husband had a meeting at that time and I couldn’t wait until he was free, because I thought, ‘I just have to go and deal with this’. The doctor did the ultrasound and he just started cracking up laughing. He looks at me and he says, ‘Karen, you’re not having one, you’re having two!’”
Perhaps it was the medical confirmation, Karen isn’t sure, but any trepidation she’d been feeling at the prospect of another pregnancy so soon after the first, evaporated. “I was crying, of course, and started hugging the doctor’s assistant. I was so happy, all my life I had dreamed of having twins.”
Karen wears: Dress, Dhs19,100, Reem Acra at Harvey Nichols-Dubai. Cuff, Dhs390,272, Payal New York. George Bakhazi wears: Shirt, Dhs1,000, Baby Dior. Shorts, Dhs800, Dolce & Gabbana at Harvey Nichols-Dubai. Car, Dhs607, Baghera at Children’s Lane
After a relatively easy pregnancy, or as easy as it can be when you already have a newborn to care for, Karen gave birth to Karlie and Kay on August 24 last year in Beirut – when George was nine months and 26 days old. The decision was made to give birth in her home town, as opposed to Dubai, to give Karen access to all the help her family was excited to offer. “I have quite a big family, so I had my sisters and my mum and my grandparents, plus my husband’s family, so the support system was really strong.”
Karen was in Beirut for four months in total – three months before the arrival of the twins and one month after – to take advantage of the family network. But when she returned to Dubai, she had very strong views on how she wanted to raise her young family.
“I didn’t want to have nurses or nannies who would do the job for me,” she says. “I wanted to be part of everything. So I just got people to help me, to look after the house. If I need anything, they’re there, but I really wanted to be the main person. I’m lucky enough that the work I do, I can do from home.”
The work Karen is referring to is her wildly successful blog, Karen’s Choice (Karenschoice.com). After garnering a massive Instagram following (@KarenWazenB had 168,000 followers at the time of going to press, and had jumped to 173,000 in the time between print and the article appearing here), Karen saw the site as an extension of the social media platform. Launched shortly after George was born (and before she realised she was pregnant again), Karen reasoned that it would give her a way of sharing her journey. “I’m a very normal person, going through very normal stages in life, and I like to share. So for example, as a mother, I found it really difficult in the beginning and I wanted to know if other women found it difficult too, or was I the only one? Or when I cried at nursery every day for two weeks when Georgie started, I wanted to know if other people were also crying, or was it just me that was weird? The blog is like a diary. It’s me. It’s my voice and it’s my experience.”
Karen wears: Gown, Dhs19,295, Christian Siriano at BySymphony. George wears: Trousers, Dhs1,400; vest, Dhs1,000; jacket, Dhs2,400; bow tie, Dhs475, all Dolce & Gabbana Children. Shirt, Dhs1,100, Baby Dior. Shoes, his own. Rocking chair, Dhs2,960, Children’s Lane. Cakes, from Dhs275 to Dhs1,285; cupcakes, Dhs20 each, all
And, when you crunch the numbers, it’s a diary that people clearly like to read. With each article generally being clicked on 5,000 times within hours of being posted, Karen’s popularity both for her blog and her Instagram account have seen the likes of beauty giant Procter & Gamble approach her to review their products and share her thoughts with her followers.
“For example, I’ve always used Pantene shampoo,” the 29-year-old says. “And people were always asking me what I used on my hair. At the same time, Pantene got in touch with me, so it was a good fit.” While the paid-for product placements are a nice bonus, Karen is adamant that she will only ever work with brands and products that she genuinely loves.
Asked what she thinks it is that has made her blog and social media platforms such a success when so many others are never read, Karen says she believes it’s her relatability. “As my family has grown, my following has grown,” she explains. “At first, my photos on Instagram were really just of my husband and me and our travels,
so single women who love fashion and travel would have been interested. Then when I had Georgie, women who had a boy were more interested,” she says. But, she says, any photo she includes only gets the nod if she thinks it will resonate with her followers. “I really spend a lot of time making sure what I use will be considered interesting,” she reveals, pointing out that a common mistake bloggers make is simply posting photos of what they’re wearing that day, explaining, “I want to know about you, I want to hear your voice when I read your blog, I want to learn something.”
While she maintains that when she launched her site, she had no idea you could make money from a blog or social media, Karen’s Choice has become a full-time job – one she’s gone to great pains to ensure doesn’t take her away from her children.
“At the beginning, I tried Gina Ford, but it didn’t work for me because I wasn’t able to apply it exactly like the book said,” Karen says of the famed British midwife’s notoriously regimented programme. “So I found my own system that works for me. I spoke to the paediatrician and asked him how much the babies should eat and sleep. So I got all those answers and came up with my own schedule that fit my lifestyle and also fit the babies’ needs.” Part of that schedule is ensuring that at some point in the day, all three kids nap at the same time, she says, which is when she’ll work on the site, conduct interviews, edit photos, take meetings and get any errands completed. “Also, when Georgie comes home from nursery, the girls are sleeping, so that’s when I spend time with just him, because I think he needs me more at the moment.”
And if little George ever needs any other maternal support, there’s a certain A-lister waiting in the wings, ready to swoop in and give him her love. In a surprise twist, it turns out that Lindsay Lohan is a dear friend of Karen’s and, in her words, is George’s “fairy godmother”.
Karen wears: Gown, Dhs49,260, Oscar de la Renta. Earings, Dhs58,770; cuff, Dhs58,770, both Payal New York. Small giraffe, Dhs4,000; large giraffe, Dhs5,870, both Children’s Lane
Asked to elaborate on the unexpected friendship, the one-time London resident laughs. “We met through common friends in London, and she’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch. She’s really a sweet person, she really sees the best in people. She just felt a lot of comfort in me, versus the other people who were there. She kept saying, ‘I feel so safe with you’. She felt very comfortable coming over and even sleeping over. I think she just felt like it was a home in London, where she didn’t really feel very connected to a lot of people. And I wasn’t in the party scene, and she appreciated that. So I think she felt like, ‘When I’m with Karen, I’m safe and I know nothing’s going to happen to me’ as opposed to other friends who might drag her into going out. So that’s how our friendship grew. And she really loves Georgie, she always asks after him and when he was born, she said she wanted to be his godmother. My sister is his godmother, so Lindsay is his fairy godmother.”
It was also while living in London – though several years earlier and on a trip to visit family in Lebanon – that Karen met the man who would share the parenting journey with her, and who would bring her to Dubai.
“We were both on vacation,” she recalls of the first time she saw Elias, in 2008. “He was living in Dubai. I had been single for a while, but he was the first guy that I’d ever met and really liked immediately. There was something about him. But I thought, ‘We live at very different ends of the world. This is pointless’. Plus, I was young, I was only 21, and he was 27. So we just met that one night; nothing happened and we didn’t even exchange numbers. But he found me on Facebook and sent me a message, saying ‘It was nice to meet you’, but that was it. I forgot about him and he forgot about me.”
Karen wears: Dress, Dhs10,705, Salvatore Ferragamo. Rubber ducks, Dhs35 each, from a selection at Children’s Lane
The following April, when Karen found herself in Beirut for Easter, she saw Elias again. “I randomly bumped into him and I thought, ‘I really like this guy’.” This time they did exchange numbers. “He called me the next day, and said, ‘I want to take you out for dinner’. We saw each other for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a week. My mum was like, ‘What’s happening? Who’s this guy? Where did he come from?’ And then we just decided to give it a shot over long distance.”
What followed was three years of daily Skype sessions, sweet gifts and planned holidays to catch up.
Long distance relationships are tough for even the most seasoned of couples, what with loneliness, long stretches without seeing each other and jealousy often driving couples apart. So how does a brand new couple, who have never even lived in the same city, let alone the same country, not only maintain, but grow a relationship on different continents for an extended period of time?
“It wasn’t easy, but we both wanted it to work. We were extremely respectful of each other,” Karen says, “and very loyal to each other. We put a lot of effort into this relationship. Every day, no matter what, we would Skype at six o’clock my time. Regardless of anything else, I had something to do at six o’clock that I could not miss out on. When you video Skype, you feel like you see that person, so it’s better than talking on the phone, and you can do it from anywhere.”
Four years after first meeting, 2012 marked the pair’s wedding – and Karen’s arrival in Dubai. Asked whether it was odd for the first time they had lived in the same country to be after they were married, Karen says it couldn’t have been more perfect.
“For so many people, the first year of marriage can be difficult because there’s so much to deal with. But for us, it was a real honeymoon because all of a sudden, we had time to do small things like watch series together on TV. When we were doing long distance, we had tried to do so much in the time we had together, that we didn’t get to do small, normal stuff, like watching TV or going to the mall. Suddenly we had all this time to do these things.”
And in the four years since their wedding in Lebanon, Karen says Elias has continually proven to her that her first hunch about him was spot-on. “I really need to give him a lot of credit,” she says of her banker husband. “He really is the reason that this family is functional. When I was pregnant with the twins, he would get up for Georgie in the night so I could sleep, and then get up to go to work the next day at 7am. He’s such a good father and husband.” She also highlights him as her biggest supporter of her work. “There’s a conference in Dallas that I was invited to, but I turned it down,” she says. “When I told my husband about it, he said, ‘Why aren’t you going?’ I told him it was too much, that I couldn’t leave the kids. But he said, ‘Karen, go’. Another husband would probably say, ‘Don’t go, I need you here’, but he is so supportive. I know he’ll look after the kids and I know he’ll do an even better job than I would!”
Karen wears: Gown, Dhs20,475, Andrew GN at BySymphony. Necklace, Dhs723,610, Payal New York. George wears: Shorts, Dhs900, Dolce & Gabbana Children at Harvey Nichols. Polo shirt, Dhs500, Dolce & Gabbana Children. Karlie and Kay wear: Dresses, Dhs275, Mamas & Papas. Dolls, Dhs620 each, Dumyé at Children’s Lane. Shoes, a selection from BySymphony and stylist’s own
When she gets back from Dallas, the family will be preparing to move into a new, bigger house in The Meadows, though Karen says she’ll miss their now-snug home in Dubai Media City. “I never baby-proofed my house,” she says. “But as soon as you walk into my house, you know there are babies there. We’re in a two-bedroom, and obviously didn’t expect to have three kids so soon. We had planned to stay in this house for a good while, not knowing all this was going to happen! So there’s no playroom, but what’s happened is that the playroom and my study are all in the living room. So sometimes while I’m sitting and blogging, the kids are right in front of me, which is amazing. We’re always together. We also have an open kitchen, so everything happens in one place in the house, and I think it’s amazing, I love it. When we move into the other house, the kids will have grown a bit and will need some more space, but for now, it’s been so great.”
It’s clear that for Karen, despite the snowballing success her work is bringing her, it’s all secondary to the health and happiness of her family. She also knows that being able to give them her best demands that she find the time to breathe and take a moment for herself too, and accept help when she needs it.
She says, adding, “I’ve made an important point of that. So I have a fixed schedule for my nails and hair once a week. I make sure that happens. I do it after eight in the evening and they come to my house. The services in Dubai are so great, to allow you the luxury to do these things in your own home at your own time. So while I’m watching TV or whatever, I have someone doing my hair and my nails.”
Similarly, Karen says the support of her friendship circle in Dubai has made it possible for her to take stock at the end of the day. “Sometimes if I’m tired and they know I’ve had a rough day, they just come over, around six, when it’s the toughest time for me because the three kids are cranky. So they come and just show up and take over. I’m very lucky to have them.”
Asked to sum up how motherhood has changed her, Karen doesn’t skip a beat. “Just seeing that my kids are happy and healthy, it means I have done something so right, and I never thought I would have had this in me, never. I’m so thankful, not only that they came into my life and changed my life in so many ways, but they showed me what real love is. They took all of me, but they also made me feel good about myself because now I’m so confident. They really are my pride. But I look at them and I realise they’ve made me a better person, and I’m so grateful to them for that.”
Words: Kerrie Simon Lawrence. Photography: Richard Hall. Creative direction: Acacia Stichter and Louise Nichol. Styling: Sima Maalouf. Hair: Benigna Abarquez for Belle Femme. Make-up: Valentino Jasmin for Inglot. Photographed on location at the Royal Suite, Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah. Prices approximate.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer edition of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, on stands now with Harper's Bazaar Arabia April issue