The Helper Conundrum Part 2: About Independence, Preservation of Values and a Self-Confessed Control Freak

Explore with Ordinary People the discussion around live-in help (to have or not to have) and what the views are on both sides of the fence, especially in a part of the world where for those who can afford it, having a maid is a part of normal family life. In Part 1, I talked about my reasons for having not just one, but two helpers.

Here in Part 2, we meet Susan who, with her family, moved to Singapore from the United States. Unlike a majority of expats, Susan hasn’t hired a live-in maid and doesn’t intend to do so.  Guilt, social stigma, privacy, security, negative past experience and even the American dream have all played into her decision.  Here’s a woman willing to stand by her values and take a route that goes against the tide.  Even though, she’ll probably never invite me to her house, I have huge admiration not just for her fiery red hair, but also her fiery can-do temperament.

Practically speaking, in Singapore, help is fairly accessible but in this account we’ll learn how it takes a certain kind of person to manage help and how Susan isn’t one of them.  Strap up and enjoy this hilarious and insightful take on the merits of a helper free life.

The following is as told by Susan Crounse:

Many people wonder why we live in Singapore without a live-in helper.  Our reasons are many and varied (but it was never a real possibility). Let me take you through them.

1.    A perverse American pre-occupation with DIY. Self-sufficiency is valued highly in my culture. We take an odd sense of pride in doing all sorts of things for ourselves – from home remodeling to canning tomatoes (I have done both). I suppose it has something to do with our ‘pioneer spirit’. It took a great deal of gumption to leave everything you knew, land on an unfamiliar continent with no infrastructure or contacts and hack your way to a civilized existence. That spirit lives on in an intense desire to do for ourselves what we can.

2.    Preservation of training opportunities for the kids. Our kids need to learn to be self-sufficient. Even the 5 year old has chores and gets an allowance. The 12 year old is big enough now to be trained for almost anything, and it’s more than time he started to pull his own weight. This approach baffles a lot of expats in SG. But as Americans we can look forward to very little help from the government (or anywhere else) to get our kids through college, and the cost will be prohibitive. We can make the sacrifices that will be required to pay for their education, but if anyone thinks we’re paying for a maid to cook and clean and do laundry for that time period, they are nuts! Part of going to college and being on your own is learning how to juggle the added responsibilities of life away from home, even when you are handed enough rope in the form of freedoms to hang yourself. That juggling act will be made easier if they don’t have to master entirely new skills and the burden of unpleasant tasks, to boot.

3.    Management and communication concerns. Having spoken to a bunch of people here who do have helpers, I keep noticing how many of them have problems with the people they’ve chosen. One friend complains that hers can’t manage a grocery list and is never prepared for dinner. The other one constantly forgets the kids at the bus stop. One has recurring health complaints. Another can’t cook.  Even small things like shoddy work would get under my skin.  I’ve never had a live-in helper before, but I have hired ‘maids’ for large jobs like cleaning an entire house before it is sold, and I have not yet had a pleasant experience. Even for the short term assignments in the US, I always ran into people who would promise the moon and deliver very little.  If I specified every little thing I wanted done, they would balk, walk or jack the price through the roof. Leave it to them and they would run a damp cloth over the counters and call it a day. I very much fear those disappointments and frustrations were a precursor to a similar experience here.

For instance, let’s say our hypothetical live-in helper has done a poor job in the master bath and there are clumps of hair blowing all over the floor. How exactly do I broach that? Especially if this is not the first time we’ve been down this road? Keep in mind, I’m anti-social, guilt-ridden and have only two settings: 1 and 13. Either everything’s fine, fine, fine or I chase you out of the house screaming while brandishing the mop or the fireplace poker, depending on what’s available. Personally, I prefer the fireplace poker because by the time I’m at 13 I want you to really know I mean business. Chances are excellent that I would just sweep the hair up myself, all the while stewing with resentment about how much she was costing us and what else I could be doing with that money. At some point I would decide I’d had enough and return her to her agency. But until that day, what psychological torture for us both!

4.    Privacy and security issues. We would worry over having another person in our home. For Americans we’re probably middle-of-the-road for the degree of informality in our household. For instance, my loungewear trends less toward La Perla peignoir and more toward holey old chenille robe. Even beyond dress code, there are just elements of family living for which we don’t want an audience. Lastly, I never want to worry that the $50 or gold ring I last saw on the table has been pocketed.

5.    Put bluntly, we’re cheap. We could probably budget it in, but one of our goals when we accepted relocation was to ‘save money’. In hindsight, that’s a little like moving to the North Pole to grow your own apples – not entirely impossible but probably not worth the effort. Apparently, conglomerates don’t offer cost-of-living adjustments out of the kindness of their hearts. Those things are actually necessary when you move to a place where blueberries are SG$10 for 125g. Who knew?

6.    Requirements in Singapore for a live-in maid. Considering the salary alone is like only looking at the sticker price for a new car. What about gas, parking, insurance and fees? In addition to salary, we would still have to provide food, medical care, shelter and leave. Theoretically we could house a helper, but the rest is still too much of a headache. The paperwork alone is a deal breaker. Interviews? As in, like, evaluating candidates? And judging them against each other and our list of requirements? That’s waaaay too uncomfortable. There’s a likelihood that someone’s feelings would be hurt! DH and I are both deeply anti-social people – we’d rather have a root canal than interview anyone. Couldn’t someone just be assigned to us? That would remove the need for an interview and as a bonus, when it doesn’t work out later, I could blame someone else entirely!

7.    Getting used to something we can’t take with us. I read a blog about life as an expat written by an American woman who had just gotten used to the rhythm of things here when her husband’s contract ended and was not renewed. One of the things she lamented was having to get used to doing everything for herself again. This way the transition back isn’t as much of a headache… and that goes double for my kids.

8.    Social concerns. Guilt, lack of detachment and boundaries, danger of over-compensation. I mentioned earlier that I am a little guilt-ridden. Whether in the US or SG, the people we hire to clean for us are from less privileged backgrounds. From the outset, certain aspects of this make us deeply uncomfortable. For instance, I am at least aware of the requirements for a day of rest and a place to sleep that allows the helper to fully recline.  That these safeguards must be legislated only underscores the inherent risk of exploitation.  The whole setup is soaked in guilt for us.

We are also loathe to put ourselves in a situation where we know intimate details of someone’s personal and family struggles. Another blog I read specified that the couple intended to pay the helper an entire month’s wages as her “Christmas bonus”. I can so identify with this because it is entirely consistent with what we would do. Combine this with my lack of moderate settings and I’d wind up spending days on the couch with her bawling over the political instability and lack of educational opportunities in her native land. At the very least we’d wind up funding some one else’s niece’s education.

My personal conclusion is that in order to ensure a satisfactory experience with a live-in helper, the employer must meet at least one of the following conditions:

1.   luck into the right match,

2.  manage their own expectations because one surely can’t expect a helper to do everything exactly as they would,

3.  be willing to pick their battles, or

4.  be really secure, have nerves of steel and the superb communication skills required to undertake the constant supervision and boundary setting that is critical to success.

I meet none of the above conditions. So honestly, after about three straight seconds of intense consideration, we concluded it’s just easier to badger the older kid into loading the dishwasher, clean the toilet ourselves and live with the dust bunnies… and now you know why you never get invited to my house 🙂 !

Up next… truly in a conundrum

While we have billed this the “Helper Conundrum”, so far, we’ve heard from two people who are on either side of the fence.  In Part 3, coming up soon, we meet possibly the archetype employer of live-in help, the one who sits on the fence and feels the pain.  Ordinary People’s very own co-founder Angela Manners has what many of her friends from Australia would love to have but then also wants control of her home. Having help means having to relinquish some of that territory so she’ll wince when her helper doesn’t get a task right and yet feels guilty for the irritation. That really is the “Helper Conundrum”. Wanting the best of both worlds. So watch this space for Part 3, when Angela bares all on the confusion of feelings that come with managing a maid and who’s to blame for it. Subscribe below or Like us on Facebook so you don’t miss the next post .


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