As is the way with some of my posts since being an expat in Singapore, this is one that I’ve been avoiding for a while. Although not as long as I’ve been avoiding the ‘Organic Box Story’ – but I’ll get there. Give me a break folks, it’s been tough few months.
This is also one that those outside of the expat world are going to drop their cups of tea and scoff loudly at. Ney, they will LAUGH OUT LOUD whilst wriggling uncomfortably in their seats. In fact, I could probably lose a few friends over this. But hey, I’m all for baring my soul at the moment so here goes. By the way, I am now officially taking cover for a few days whilst the “who the hell does she think she is” and “oooh, get her with her ‘domestic helper’ getting all up herself (that’s an Essex term for thinking you’re rather posh when you’re clearly not!)” and other such comments, go away.
Domestic help. Do you? Don’t you? How? What? When? Why? And WTF?
I’m not going to tell you the best way to decide if you need live-in help or not. I’m not going to advise on the legalities, paperwork or do’s and don’t of a contract if you have one (that’s what agencies are for – or the MOM). I’m not even going to tell you what to ask when choosing a helper. All of this might be skimmed over, but I’m not taking the slack for your poor decisions or indecisiveness – that’s all you.
Let’s start with some honesty right off. One of the BEST things about living in Singapore is that lots and lots and lots and lots (and more!) of normal people, like you and me – who are not the Queen or even related in any way – have live-in helpers. Outside of Singapore people call them maids. We don’t. We call them helpers. Now you know. It’s perfectly acceptable to have someone who lives in your house – yes, with you and the family – and does all the housework you want her to. I know!
That’s not to say everyone has a helper. I know some very nice, sane people who don’t. (Actually they’re not that sane but they are nice) Some just have a cleaner who comes round once a week or whatever. I even know of some people who do it all themselves! These people are much more on the ball than me. Possibly more house proud. Definitely not as ‘unkept’ in the chore department. Each to their own I say. The choice is there.
Getting your head around having a live-in helper is hard for a girl from a small village in Essex. With a working class background and a strong moral grounding in trade unions, the labour party and that strange idea you get growing up in a ‘normal working class’ town that you should never, in any circumstances, show that you’re doing well for yourself, is a hard nut to crack. Is this a British thing I wonder. I can hear my idol Billy Bragg strumming his guitar in disgust as I write. Sorry Bill I’ve sold out to the big scary corporate guys…
Sorry, I’m digressing into a whole other post here aren’t I?
Basically it’s a weird idea to get used to someone else doing all the crap for you.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you need to decide, what, if any help you want to get. Some of the questions you might ask yourself are:
“Could I really have a stranger living in my house?”
“Will I end up cleaning up before or/and afterwards?”
“How will I know what to ask her to do?”
“Will she run off with all my jewels and maybe even my husband?”
“Do I really want a stranger washing my dirty knickers?”
“What will I do whilst she is cleaning?”
“How much will it really cost me?”
“What if I want some private time with the other half!”
“What will my friends back at home think of having a ‘maid'”
All of these questions and more will run through your head.
For me I answered them like so:
“Nope, can’t imagine it. I love my privacy too much.” I don’t even like someone turning up at my door without at least half an hours notice.
“Err. no. But then I’m not a clean freak. I am that person that only cleans the bathroom when it needs it.”
“You won’t really. But there are people who will tell you what they did. Start with a list of jobs you’d like done daily and go from there.”
“If you’re lucky you’ll keep the jewels” I’m kidding, I’m kidding! This is a tricky one as you do hear some horror stories about things going missing and so on. We just got a safe and put things we had an attachment to in there. Not because we think our lovely lady will steal anything, but it takes away any worry for all of us.
“No, but I also can’t be bothered to wash the amount of clothes my husband and kids seem to wear” So, it’s the lesser of two evils. You soon get over your queasiness on this after your first monthly visit (ahem, sorry, if that’s too much information).
“Pay a fair wage, end of discussion” Do not ask ‘should I pay them to work their day off, do they have to have every Sunday off, do I pay them to go home’ and so on. Do the decent thing. Treat your helper well. Be sensible. End of.
“Haaaaaaa! Really?” Well I guess as she’s there taking care of everything, book a hotel?
“They will think you’re up yourself. But that’s ok because you’re also up yourself without having to clean the toilet after hubby’s night out in Arab Street.”
I know, I’m making this all very light-hearted and it’s not. It takes some getting used to in all honesty. Having another woman in your house, doing the things you are used to doing. Taking away some of the ‘jobs’ that – whilst you may not have liked doing them, at least they were ‘yours’. You will have mixed feelings about it.
You will be grateful beyond belief on the bad days when the kids have been a handful, the cars broken down and you’ve got lost finding your way back from the garage and you walk in to a nice clean house and the dinner cooking.
You will smugly smile to yourself when a new friend asks if you’re free for lunch and you can go on short notice as you know you haven’t got to get that pile of school clothes sorted for tomorrow.
You will laugh and thank your lovely helper when she finds that pair of bloody glasses you ‘put down somewhere’ just now.
You will breathe a huge sigh of relief when you have to rush to the doctors with one child and can leave the other safely tucked up in bed under her watchful eye.
And you’ll be pleased you can go out for ‘date night’ (hate that term with a vengeance – it’s not ‘date night’ it’s going out with your husband!) once in a while without having to book a babysitter.
The downsides are there as well of course. You may not always feel you have privacy in your own home. Niggles about the way she does things that don’t tie in with what you would do. Having to manage someone is tricky; you are, after all, their employer. I’m not so good at being the ‘boss’. That’s a weird role. We muddle along though. She tells me to ‘leave that I will do it’ when I start rinsing plates or will bat away any suggestion of helping her with something. That’s ok. We’re comfortable enough to do that.
I still sneak around and do things. Like ironing a new outfit today. I’m not sure I’ll even wear it so it may go back to the shop. I don’t want her to see how much it cost – the old working class guilt there – (it wasn’t that much dad relax) so decided I’d quickly iron it whilst she was out. Also, I have this thing about creases at the side of trousers – can’t be doing with flat edges either side of my legs sorry. So…
Caught red-handed. She came back and found me in the kitchen, with the ironing board, wielding the iron. I apologised profusely of course. Tried to explain that I didn’t know what I’d be wearing so blah, blah, blah! She laughed. She thinks I’m a bit odd I’m sure. She also laughs when I offer to make her a cuppa on my many visits to the kettle.
Would I do without her now? No. Of course not! As much as I’d like to pretend I could do it all, the fact is, I can’t. Actually, it’s that I don’t want to. I won’t. Ask my mum, she thinks I’m from another planet because I don’t think about cleaning the bathroom every day and changing the sheets once a week. So, no I couldn’t do without her. She’s an angel in disguise. She’s part of the family in a very mutually-respectful-not-too-close-way.
There’s whole load of paperwork involved in hiring a helper sure. There are pitfalls you need to be aware of. There are extra expenses you may not realise at first like medical bills and bonuses. You do have to share your home with a stranger. But, really, the thing that swung it for me when we were deciding – was, why not? When and where else would we get the chance to have someone help take care of things?
It’s tough choosing whether to go for it or not. It can be tough choosing a helper – go with your gut every time.