The Helper Conundrum Part 1: Gratitude… a Perk of Living in South East Asia

“…..complaining at a social gathering about how one’s maid always talks on the phone will bond two expats quicker than coming from the same town. When expats without help meet, they smile with a complicit air of superiority.”
(Jennifer Gargiulo, Diary of an Expat in Singapore – 2014)

There are those that ‘do’ and those that ‘don’t’. I for one, ‘do’ and at that, I have two. Helpers. Often a topic dominating conversations at mothers coffee mornings. The number of foreign domestic workers in Singapore stands at 231,500.* That’s up on recent years and there’s certainly plenty of demand. Many an expat moving to these shores looks forward to having a maid.  Indeed back home in England, where I hail from, the calculation of costs for live-in help is overwhelming and childcare is a big electoral issue. In the UK, a live-in nanny or housekeeper would earn a similar salary to a primary school teacher, and on top, employers would be responsible for paying national insurance tax, absorb the costs of board and lodging and in some cases, pay for a car and related fuel expenses.  It mounts up and forces difficult decisions, especially for parents. In South East Asia, it’s a different ball game, where help is in abundance and in most cases, far less expensive.

In some instances, help just isn’t an option but when it is an affordable choice, I’ve often wondered why anyone would have it any other way. Admittedly this is my biased view, as having live-in help has enabled my fairly relaxed and free flowing lifestyle for eight years.  To my surprise, however, I’ve found many expats in Singapore going it alone, running the ship without the extra set of hands that I can’t live without. I think of them as titans of the household, fearless in managing their kids, homes and families.

Additionally, I meet families that do have a helper but struggle with wanting the best of both worlds, or still can’t abide the idea of a ‘stranger’ living in their household. It is a complicated topic fraught with issues. Join us as we bravely embark on a conversation we’ve billed – “The Helper Conundrum”. Not meaning to offend or cause a controversy, we are bringing you 3 sides of the story, starting with mine.


In 2008 when the financial world was imploding, my husband called me with an interesting proposition… a move to Hong Kong. With Western economies in meltdown, a move to Asia made economic sense at a pragmatic level and at a personal level it was about to make a huge difference. Despite a moment of intense emotion saying goodbye to my parents and elder brother at Heathrow Airport, I was almost sprinting for the Cathay Pacific jet that would transport us to new beginnings.  It wasn’t just Hong Kong’s gleaming skyline or the funky destinations, a hop away, that had me all a flutter.  It was the ability to have good, affordable help… the kind of help that would enable a career, opportunity to meet new friends and time to read that baby touch and feel book to my son without a furrowed brow.  Time.  Such a precious commodity.  More so, the overnight feeds, nappy changes, constant laundry loop and Gina Ford routine had worn down my energy reserves. My sense of humour had disappeared and my sense of self had been eroded since I’d become a mother. Much as I loved and appreciated this new role in life, I was also eager to get back to work or at least carve out a lifestyle that didn’t revolve around my child or household duties 100 percent of the time.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I was ready to employ a helper quickly and wholeheartedly take on the title of “Ma’am”.  Within a month of arriving in Hong Kong, I was offered a freelance position at a fairly well known broadcaster. This was an offer I’d been waiting my entire career for.  Luckily, I had already found a helper who had a great rapport with my son and seemed to be able to juggle all our household chores as well as feeding schedules and cooking (with not a drop of sweat and with a huge smile). Welcome to Asia.

Eight years down the line, we now live in Singapore, have added 2 more children to our family and are lucky enough to employ two incredibly sweet helpers.  They manage my home, the kids and our latest addition, a fluffy, brown Labradoodle.  They also shop, wash the car, do the cooking and keep the house clean. The blessing of having them means that I can spend quality time with my children, explore my pet projects, keep up my erratic career as a freelancer and of course, socialise with other mums.  In a discussion with some incredible ladies recently (including a couple of the founders of ordinarypeople.ink), I was presented with a surprising revelation.  At the table of four, I was the only one who didn’t have any issues with a non-family member or helper living in my home I was the only one who was fairly relaxed about it all and loved to outsource as much work as possible without interference.  I’m so grateful to all the Aunties who have lived with and worked for my family these past years and I’m not sure where I would be without them – fairly grumpy I would expect.  Even when my choice of employee hasn’t worked out (a maid I’d hired in Hong Kong who needed to be let go after repeatedly coming home at 3am smelling of cigarettes and alcohol), I’ve always had a very favourable view of these women who’ve left their families behind and ended up looking after mine.

You see, domestic engineering is not my forte. Never has been. And while I can’t ask for sympathy after making the choice to have three kids and wanting a career, let’s consider why we even went there.  The so called ‘Hong Kong three’ is a well known phenomenon amongst expats who benefit from help at home.  It makes the extra responsibility and workload of a bigger family much more manageable. At the office, up against tight deadlines and high production values, people ask me how I always remain so calm. The answer is simple… To me, nothing is more complicated than handling three children and running a busy home.  Work for me is an escape. But does that mean that I’m a cop-out, outsourcing my life to people who, before we all signed on the dotted line, were complete strangers?

Pondering this, the conclusion is maybe ‘yes’ AND maybe ‘no’.  Running a home, is a grounding experience.  I know relatively little about what lies within most of our closets.  Even my clothes are arranged neatly in themed piles thanks to my helper’s perfect ironing and organisational skills.  I didn’t demand any of this, it seemed to magical happen.  That said, when my children, my husband or guests are around and I feel it’s my duty to step in and be a part of this machine, that’s when I realise that I frankly don’t have a clue where anything is! I don’t ‘know’ my home.  I’m always calling for one of our dear aunties to help out.  It’s a bit ridiculous and I do agree it’s very important, if not a matter of safety, to have some rules around how a home is run.  Managing organic diets, policing food rules, making sure we’re equipped for health emergencies, these are the fundamentals that undoubtedly require my attention. I appreciate though that I can’t handle everything and don’t tend to spend too much time lamenting my weaknesses. My strengths are in keeping everyone in that happy zone, making sure the helpers are taken care of and that work is being done. Even when my organisational skills fall short, which they occasionally do, it only means a day of learning about what works and what doesn’t rather than getting annoyed and possibly venting my anger at the situation.

In this acceptance I’ve had that precious time to grow into a person who is very comfortable with who and what she is.  When the children come home and bound up to me with their joyous smiles, I can give them huge amounts of love and energy back.  We can sit together and build Lego castles, break out the Ikea kids paints (which come in gold, you know) and have some creative, fun times together.  If I’d been coming home after a long day at the office, knowing that dinner needed to be cooked and there was a batch of laundry to get done, I’m not sure the mood would be quite so good.  On the days when I’m not working, it’s even better.  There’s the time I get to spend meditating, catching up with friends, building our social network or dashing into school to pick up the kids ‘just for fun’ rather than waiting for the school bus. Would I be quite so chilled out if I knew there was a week’s worth of ironing to get through and that I needed to attack that huge shopping list at Cold Storage?  I doubt it.  I also feel that my husband and I benefit from the arrangements hugely, being able to go out for dinner at the drop of a hat, attend events and enjoy the rewards of living in Asia rather than quibble about who didn’t put the trash out.  Life’s not for sweating the small stuff if you don’t have to.  My husband feels that this sort of appreciation can sound like gloating, but it’s really not meant to.  Life wasn’t always this way and we’re so lucky to have had this opportunity so it’s paramount that I am grateful for the fruit of all our endeavours.

Along with a lot of soul searching on my part, having ‘Aunties’, maids or helpers, has been part of the key to a much happier me. They have freed up my time, absorbing the edges of life that cut into my sanity. These women have worked wonders. In my ensuing relaxed and calm state, my children get to see and experience the best of me.  Isn’t that the core need of a new generation, being surrounded by love and patience?  Even if our time with them is limited, at least it should be of the highest quality. What’s more, when I see ’Aunty Liza’ giving my daughter a hug, shrugging off her demanding moments and baking cookies with her in a state of great delight, my heart soars.  That’s love and affection that can not be faked. My children have had Amahs since they were born and while they understand that their ‘Aunties’ are not family, that they are paid employees, they still love and appreciate them.

One day, Britain will call, as the children get older and we consider the future. Indeed, I’ll look forward to fresh humidity free days in the South Eastern countryside. But when the time comes, will we consider hiring home help in the way that we indulge now?  Perhaps so. I would love to have at least some help, outsourcing those weaknesses I spoke of.  What I do know is, while living in Southeast Asia, I have  been free to follow my dreams, to grow into a person I love to be and that I’ve embraced all the benefits of having an extra set of hands to help. Our life here flows seamlessly because everything seems to fit together well.  We all know our roles and are comfortable with them.  If I were trying too hard, feeling guilt over not being able to do it all or not living in the moment to enjoy all of these great benefits, then it wouldn’t have met the mission statement for moving, at least not for me.  Gratitude is a choice that I make even when cashmere cardigans end up in the tumble dryer and or our evening meal has been burnt around the edges.  That someone is even taking care of these tasks for me is a dream come true.


SO Next week….

We meet Susan. Susan’s from the USA and will share her bold and hilarious account of why she is helper free. From D.I.Y. to American culture, we’ll explore all the reasons why life, for her, is a lot better without help.  Here with a husband and two children, for her, it is about logistics, communication, bad experiences and self sufficiency. Susan’s story might almost convince you to tell ‘Aunty’ that their contract’s over!  Catch it here, next week.

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*Ministry of Manpower, December 2015
Illustration by Anna Hui

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