When I tell one of my western friends about our S$650/month (~$500 USD) live-in helper who’s job is to take care of the cooking, grocery, cleaning, laundry, and childcare, I get one reaction: “Wow. That’s amazing and I wish we had something that great here! You’re so lucky…”
Not so fast……
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a relief to have an affordable option so that we can both work; and I haven’t folded and put away my own underwear for a year. But everything comes with a trade off. And only once those friends have come to visit, and they too get to live with the live in, do they start to understand that it’s not entirely home sweet home.
Once you get past the entire lack of privacy — where some woman you barely know is within earshot of every conversation, story, smooch, phone call, or fight you have — the biggest challenge is picking the right one. All of their resumes are the same; great with kids, can cook any recipe you hand her, and able to complete housework with little direction. But it’s a bit like picking out a new pet. They all look pretty great at the store; already house broken and love kids, but there’s no way to know which one is going to chew holes in the new couch the second you leave the house. So you hope and pray that you’ve laid down the rules and training will stick. (Note: I’m not comparing a helper to a pet. A far better comparison in that regard would be that you instantly have somewhere between a toddler and a teenager depending on her mood that day. And on good days even the grown up comes to work too.)
But after employing, living with, and then having to dismiss our first helper, there’s a lot we’ve learned in the process this past year.
And since the Internet is usually so full of smiles and rainbows and pictures of perfect beach vacations, I figured a small glimpse into some of the hard parts of everyday expat life wouldn’t hurt too much.
And this in only our experience with one helper… Note the reference to the helper lottery below.
I have a couple of friends here who basically won the helper lottery. Never had to set rules. Dinner is always cooked brilliantly. Children adore her. And the fridge is always full and garbage always empty. Every expat dreams of this. I too catch myself also using phrases like “Wow. That’s amazing and I wish we had something that great here! You’re so lucky…”
But not everyone wins the lottery.
We thought we’d done ok though; bought a $5 scratch off and made $4. She was, on the spectrum, exceptionally average.
- She didn’t steal from us.
- The house was still in order if we left her home alone.
- She didn’t bring other people into our home – that we know of.
- She started earlier that I think most do at 6:30/7am.
- She was honest with money – always was sure to give receipts and change back immediately.
- She did well with chores as long as they were explicitly scheduled and micromanaged.
- She cooked a few Indian and Filipino meals (in the beginning) that were fun to try.
- She would have never hit or hurt our child maliciously like you dread hearing about in the news.
- Dishes were always done.
Days like this made having a helper an easily brilliant decision.
But like I said… Exceptionally average. Thing is, we both work. We don’t always have the time to micromanage everything. And over the course of the year, things started to slip… transitioning from her job, to ours. Her consistency seemed to wane over time and to this day I’m not sure if that was an intentional sneaky trick to avoid the work, or just skill deterioration. My guess is the former.
Because when she left us…
- I had recently taught [the cleaner] how to use a toilet brush.
- The cooking was almost entirely done by my husband or I. She would heat up lunch or make the occasional egg for breakfast for the baby.
- After one too many trips where a request for $2.30/100gm steak came home as $4+ (😩), the groceries shifted to our job; and since we didn’t have the time to always get to the wet markets, this meant grocery stores, which means paying more for groceries. And then when we’d forget to stop at FairPrice, but still needed food, we would have to go to the much closer Four Seasons which is basically Whole Foods on steroids. $$$! Bigger 😩😩…
- Laundry was officially ours to avoid shrinking or too much soap being used if we let her start the machine.
- The worst part and her conceivably biggest job was that we couldn’t even let her take the baby out alone. She repeatedly doesn’t look for traffic or wait for the green man to cross when we’re with her, and that one alone was enough for me to lay down the law when you live on a major 5 lane road downtown. So the poor kid, to avoid a chance encounter with a rogue taxi, had to sit indoors all day until mom and dad were done with work to go out and play.
On top of the shifting of work from her to us, there was still plenty of instances where we had to ‘sit down and have a talk’ like I’m sure my parents did with me as a teenager; knives are sharp, don’t be wasteful, be careful what you post on the Internet (ie.. Pictures of my kid! 😡), please don’t hang my underwear half out the window on the 61st floor, and plenty of reminders about what the baby shouldn’t be eating (like whole almonds!) or playing with….. Pens… Necklaces… Bags… Small plastic pi— anything!
And it got to a point where we explicitly outlawed the phrase ‘I forgot’ because it was used so much. Here’s a pen and a notebook… Time to start writing things down!
And the… Uuuuuggggghhhhhhhh?!?
Then, in the last few weeks, life came to a decision point. Her visa was going to expire. So do we renew, transfer her, or send her packing?
Insert many many conversations with friends and the Ministry of Manpower (MoM = government) for advice and to confirm our options. Then add a healthy dose of unnecessary Mommy drama and gossip, instigated and/or fuelled by her… Decision made. It’s time to go.
Which is so much easier said than done.
Because aside from the logistics of doing so in a foreign country, you also have to battle with the emotional hurdle of knowing that you’re at polar opposite ends of the economic food chain – and this is *really* going to suck for her.
But for fear of a mood swing and potential horrible reaction with a child in the house (which fast forward is exactly what happened), and by recommendation of MoM, we decided to smile for a few weeks, buy the plane ticket, send the baby on an adventure with a friend, give her just enough notice to pack before the flight, and have… The talk.
What happened next was the most emotionally trying 24 hours I think I’ve ever been through.
- 6pm: “Today is your last day. We’ve decided it would be best that it’s time to go home to your child you haven’t seen in 4 years.” Followed by about 90 minutes of yelling, tantrums, threats to run, and a stern warning that God is watching us and we will get our payback. By now I’m sitting on a bench physically in front of our door so she can’t leave.
- 8pm: The police show up. But since her visa is still technically valid, they can’t enforce anything. They recommend she just stays with us for the night, but they can’t guarantee she won’t run. But if she does, they were kind enough to confirm that we would be fined $2-5k.
- 9pm-11pm: The most amazing friend in the world comes over and talks her off the ledge. By this point she’s acting like a 6-year old; I’m talking actually putting her fingers in her ears and humming so she can’t hear you. But my friend is an elementary teacher and well versed in these kinds of negotiation strategies.
- Midnight: Everything so far has been recorded on video. Flight has been rescheduled. We have 15 hours to get her on the next plane. Sleep with the baby in our room and 1 eye open.
- 7am: She didn’t run. Thank goodness.
- 9-11am: All three of us head to MoM for some rules clarification. She’s informed that we are cancelling her work pass immediately and that if she doesn’t board the plane, she will be arrested. She still says she won’t go. (What?!?) MoM tells us to call the police again if any problems and they will arrest her on the spot.
- 12-3pm: Packing, lunch, and a few hours of awkward silence before heading to the airport. Bags checked in. Boarding passes in hand. Escorted to and through immigration without incident. My guess is the extra $300 in cash helped.
- 6pm: Phone confirmation from airline that she boarded the plane. Deep breath for the first time.
What people don’t usually understand or know about having a helper is that you’re legally responsible for them. We pay her salary and medical bills, provide her housing and food, and until she’s on a plane or gainfully employed by someone else… We are responsible and liable for *everything*.
So while watching her walk through the immigration gate is a solid relief to know that she’s not in your house nor on your payroll anymore, there’s still a punch in the gut to realise that you have no idea what’s going to happen on the other end of that flight for her. And that sucks.
But it’s my family first.
And now that we’ve learned a few things about how to hire and live with a helper, we’re looking forward to starting fresh next month with our new girl.
And in the words of my parents; things are going to change in this house.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~ Lesley P Hartley