Having a Maid…part 1 Pros

We are quickly approaching the one year anniversary of our look-see visit to Singapore.  This time last year I was running around like a mad woman, trying to track down summer clothes in Elanor’s size, reaching out to a stranger named Paula, reading books about life in Singapore and questioning if I *really* could handle moving 10,000 miles away from home.

One of the things that struck me from the first book I read about life in Singapore to the future friends I’d meet on that trip was the idea of having a maid or helper living in to help with the day to day management of my home. Most of the women I met on that trip had helpers and swore up and down that they were lifesavers.  But I also heard stories from the Indian side of the family…nightmare tales really of servants who stole and who lied and generally made life harder.

Although I’m a fairly open person, I prize privacy in my own home.  The idea of a stranger moving in was intimidating and unnerving.  While I’d been a manager when I worked in retail/hospitality, and managed classes of students as a teacher, I had never held a management role like that of the expat with a helper.  I had my doubts about whether it was a situation that would work for us.

However, getting incredibly sick upon our return to the US…to the point where I couldn’t take care of Ellie for a few days (thank you double ear infection and throat virus) and had to ask my in-laws to pitch it made me realize that the biggest loss in our move was the safety net of friends and family in situations like that.  Whether it was a doctor’s appointment, date night, or my just needing a day off from being a full time mom, our friends and family made up the extended village of aunties and uncles (and grandparents, of course) who helped us manage our lives and our child.  Leaving them meant we were walking a tightrope without a net.

So we made the decision to hire a helper.

In the almost 10 months that B has been with us, I have swung from wildly grateful to have her here to wondering if maybe we could do without help.  The experience has been wonderful and frustrating all at the same time.

As I know a reader is preparing for her family’s move here, (and one or two others are considering moves here) I thought I’d share what it’s like.  I am by no means an expert, and I’m basing my comments on 10 months with one helper.  Hopefully others will weigh in and share their experiences as well in comments.

The Good

Support

Whether it’s one parent or two that are working in your family, you will soon see that in Singapore, a workday is far longer than it  is in your home country, especially the US.  Ravi works for a bank, and his typical GNB workday is on the order of 11-14 hour work days.  Many locals work even more–I’ve had my realtor text me on weekends and at 10pm.  The work culture here is ridiculous.

With that kind of work culture, the burden will fall on the other partner (or if both are working…then to whom?).  One of the biggest sources of marital tension in the US was sharing of household chores…here it would be a much bigger fight, and there would be a great deal more resentment.

Outsourcing household cleaning is a big deal.  We are lucky that we have an in home washer and dryer.  But there is no dishwasher, and no hot water to do dishes with.  Doing the dishes with hot water (as we Americans are so fond of doing) requires heating water in our electric teakettle (multiple times) and then doing them.  Keeping the marble floors clean (especially with pest concerns like ants and roaches) requires constant maintenance.  With the humidity, mold is quick to grow.  I’m happier to hand that over to someone who knows far better than I how to best deal with everything in this climate.

Date Nights

Not so much a factor if you don’t have kids…but as parents, Ravi and I appreciate time to be just Crystal and Ravi.  To schedule a weekly date night.  This would be impossible without a helper.  There are no high school students to help you out…the locals are too busy studying and the expats don’t need the money or are studying.  There is no equivalent to parents in a pinch or any other sitting service.  If you ever want a break from your kids (and let’s face it…being a mom is great, but I need a break from my little angel every so often so I can stay sane).

When you get sick

There have been at least two major episodes where I have been too ill to take care of my child.  The first was the worst bout of food poisoning I’ve ever encountered…leaving me stuck in a bathroom for the better part of three week (no, I’m not kidding).  The second is the broken ankle I’m currently dealing with.  Confined to a wheelchair I am incapable of taking care of my child.  There is no way Ravi could have gotten this sort of time off from work to be home instead.  When the parent in charge of taking care of the home goes down…then what?  If you lack family (as we do), there are few people to turn to.

Of course, you will make friends and mine have been wonderful…each and every one has reached out to make sure that we’re doing okay, to ask if we need anything, to check in.  But even so, without B, in this sort of crisis, we would have really been stuck.

The Cultural Benefits

B has taught some Tagalog to Elanor, and she also knows some Mandarin (from her previous family).  I want to take Ellie (and other future kid) to the Philippines to see where B is from before we leave Singapore (something B has expressed she’d like).  There’s never anything bad about one more person who cares for and loves my daughter.

For us, B has cooked some great curries (more that R and my in-laws appreciate than I, gastronomically challenged as I am).  Talking with her about her life growing up, it has really helped to give me perspective on the differences between life in the first and emerging world.

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Your helper becomes part of your family, and I think that in many real and tangible ways, everyone can benefit from it.  At the end of the day, B helps make my life better in a thousand ways every day, whether it’s being the extra set of hands to run out and get milk when we run out just before E’s bedtime or by remembering to put yogurt on the grocery list when I forget.

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8 Responses to Having a Maid…part 1 Pros

  1. bookjunkie says:

    The work culture here is really too much for me to handle. I found that once I became unemployed I stopped falling sick too. This is off topic but I feel that in Singapore human resources are treated like machinery and expected never to break down. MCs (medical leave) is frowned upon. Unless you’re really sick and the boss is worried they will get your ‘germs’ you are expected to continue working.

    Sorry got a bit off topic, but whenever work culture is mentioned I feel a need to vent and commiserate.

    For sure you would need help without family and grandparents. I definitely would. Your helper B sounds great though.

    I have never had a live in helper…but like you I have strong needs for privacy…Looking forward to reading your next post on this topic.

    • Crystal says:

      The work culture is somewhat horrifying to me. But R loves his job, and if things go well, we should be able to leave Singapore with some nice contributions in the kid’s college funds, so there is that to consider as well.

      Honestly, the privacy concerns were abated when I realized I had trouble hearing Elanor in the room next door. The strong walls create enough sound dampening, and B is unobtrusive so that for the most part, I don’t really feel a huge loss of privacy.

  2. Emma Lee says:

    Hey there! I linked to your blog from Kiersten (Suddenly in Asia) – am a fellow expat who moved here around the same time you did, and it’s been really neat to see my similar experiences described so eloquently! I really enjoyed your latest entry about having a helper, particularly the part about bringing your daughter to see where your helper is from – what a wonderful experience for both of them 😉 Have fun with the kitties (thank you for adopting!), and Happy Chinese New Year!

  3. Erica says:

    This could not have been posted at a better time. I LOVE reading your post…its like you are a fly on the wall in my life here. We have been here almost 8 months. I originally swore off the idea of having a helper…..I didn’t need one, I was capable of caring for my own home and children! Well, I am eating those words now! I am having a very hard time adjusting to life here and feel very trapped in life here. We have begun preparing our home and minds for a helper! I still have my reservations, but know, that if I have any chance of enjoying my time here, I need the help!
    Crystal, I know we have never officially met, but if I can help you out any while you are down and out with your foot I would be happy too. I am from the southern US and can provide you with some good comfort food! 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      Thank you so much!

      Honestly the biggest issues with the foot are getting around. You wouldn’t think the small step down into the bathroom or kitchen or hallway is that big an obstacle but it does become one. As does managing the wheelchair and keeping the toddler safe when we’re out and about. Luckily things are improving, if not nearly as quickly as I’d like (but then patience has never been one of my virtues).

      Southern food…oh my…how’d you know my weakness so quickly?

  4. Sonia says:

    Hi crystal

    another question – was it diifficult to find B? Does she live with u? Do u have a separate maid room for her?

    • Crystal says:

      I got the name of an agency from another expat that I met on our look-see visit. I talked to the agency and they gave me two “bio-data” forms; one for B another for a woman we chose not hire. I was able to do short phone interviews with both, as they were currently in the country. I’m not sure if that would be a possibility if they were still in their home country. I had a gut instinct that B was a good fit for us….one of the things I said/asked was to emphasize how important gay equality is to our family and to say clearly that I’d expect our helper to read gay-friendly books like “King and King” to Elanor. If a helper wasn’t comfortable with that, they wouldn’t be comfortable in our family. B used to be a hairdresser, so she’s known many a gay man in her life and is comfortable with them.

      She does live in, which is customary. Live out help tends to be far more expensive.

      B lives in the maid’s room, which is a standard feature in most S’porean apartments. The room will look ridiculously small to you, but B assures me that having that kind of space to herself is better than what she had at home. It is also un-airconditioned, but we made a point of getting her a really strong fan, and she knows she’s welcome to sleep in the living room if her room is ever too hot for comfort. However, she prefers the privacy, and I can’t say I blame her.

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