The Helper Conundrum Part 3: Sounding Like a Schizophrenic Housewife in Singapore

As Ordinary People delves into the third and last segment of its feature on helpers, let’s look for a moment at the meaning of ‘conundrum’.  The Oxford English dictionary’s definition coins it, “a confusing and difficult problem or question”.  This segment is perhaps the epitome of that confusion.  

In Part 1 I shared my gratitude for a home life supported by two helpers. In Part 2, we met Susan who will never invite me to her helper-free house. Here in Part 3, meet Angela, one of the co-founders of Ordinary People who has been brave enough to do something very disconcerting. For her, this was a challenging piece to write and it took draft after draft. You see, putting one’s truth on the line about our relationship with the people living in our homes, our helpers, can be a very private affair.  Here you’ll find her mindset, the confusion, tug of emotions and self realisation that has encompassed her relationship with having a helper.

Surprisingly, of our three stories, Angela is the one person who grew up with an “Amah” in her home and yet she most suffers the push and pull of cultural attitudes towards having a ‘maid’ at home.  Originally from South East Asia, Angela moved to Australia in her early 20s and has now been back in Singapore for six years.  We’ll learn how her experiences have moulded her independence and self sufficiency but also led to the mind-boggling array of frustration that hampers her relationship with her helper.

The following is as told by Angela.

Reading through Manisha’s story on gratitude and Susan’s tale of independence, I can’t help but chuckle at myself. While I whole heartily agree that whether you decide to employ one (or two) helpers or if you decide not to, you should embrace your decision and just get on with it like our previous two stories in this series. I for one, will always be that person in the conundrum because I seem rather unable to pull myself out. Caught between gratefulness for the privilege of having someone helping me, appalled at myself for letting first world issues annoy me (like not having my toilet paper refilled on time) and guilt when I gleefully run out the door for a frivolous coffee morning, leaving my toddler at home, I am constantly wondering if I would be better off without a “stranger” living in my house.

If only I could just embrace the helper experience for what it is OR just not have a helper and deal with the consequences without complaint. Discussions about this at home have led to my husband, The Vegetarian, telling me that I sound like a schizophrenic housewife! For me, this is an ongoing drama (one that could hilariously be told in a made-for-TV mini series).

The idea of having help is not foreign to me. Growing up in Southeast Asia, we had helpers and I remember my first ‘Auntie’ with fondness. However, in my 15 years of living in Australia, from getting married at 21, learning to live in a completely foreign country and then building up my own business, I had developed a strong sense of independence. Even the act of getting a tasty meal on the table for my family was a liberating process. Trust me, The Vegetarian married a wife who had no idea how to cook and it was only after buying Donna Hay’s first cookbook that I realised I could actually make food that did not involve instant noodles! But now this skill in the kitchen is being slowly chipped away by having a person to do it for me. I am terrified that I’ll wake up one morning and be unable to scramble an egg properly! I also fear being branded a pampered princess by friends and family back home. And this has already begun because you know you’ve turned some sort of corner when a relative, while trying to convince you to come home for a visit includes the phrase “I promise not to ask you to help cook or clean”!

When we moved here, we decided not to employ live-in help (even though it was high on our list of pros for moving here). This was for reasons such as space, having family nearby, and me becoming a domestic goddess (at which I failed miserably). Those first years in Singapore involved plenty of social gatherings with friends who did have helpers. Time and time again, I was encouraged to hire one and I would spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how sweet my life would be if we did.

I remember a friend from the UK who, on one of my rare invitations to my helperless home, wandered in and said… “It is SO normal here… Look! Your dishes aren’t done and there’s a dirty sock.” I did not know if I should be offended! I was also amazed when these same friends would have issue with what their helper was doing, be it an accidentally chipped dish, a spot on their window or a shirt that had been hung instead of folded. I mean, what where they thinking!? Someone to clean, cook and child mind for them all the time! What could they possibly complain about… I on the other hand, was experiencing serious hardship because I was trailed by my 3 year old everywhere, had groceries to buy, meals to cook, was freelancing on the side AND trying to have a social life with ladies who had none of these duties because they had a helper. It was almost too much to bear!

Six years on and I’ve now had a helper for a year and a half. We decided it was time when we, surprisingly enough, and another tale to tell, had baby number two and moved to an apartment that had a “proper” helpers room. (Finding our lovely helper is another story too, one that Ordinary People hopes to explore at a later date.) There was a year long honeymoon period when everything was just amazing. But as year two comes around, I find myself wishing for a home that is all my own again. This now puts me in The Helper Conundrum in a very real way.

When my helper went away earlier this year, I gallantly told The Vegetarian that if I survived the two weeks, I would let my helper move on to another family and do it on my own. I survived… Even enjoyed it a little bit! The first night I went through my kitchen and rearranged everything. I set up my own cleaning schedule (which really didn’t involve much cleaning at all). I shopped for groceries and made meals, rehashing family favourites that we hadn’t had for a while. I did my own laundry and dishes, teaching (and bribing) my daughter to do chores and help out around the house. It was two weeks of messy living but I proved that I could still master my own domain… my home. I bragged about this to The Vegetarian but when the time came and my husband asked what I had decided about having a helper, I looked at him like he was crazy and said… “don’t think for a second that we’re living without a helper!”

So what is it that leaves me feeling so conflicted. What, then, could give me cause to feel miffed if dinner doesn’t taste just right? Why should I be on the brink of insanity when there isn’t a fresh towel hung up for me in the bathroom and a bathmat on the floor? (I mean, how many wet and slippery dashes have I had to make to get a towel when I was in Australia? Plenty!) These little frustrating encounters have led me to “take back” things that I feel could be done better if I did them myself. Stuff like getting the groceries every week – so I can pick what is seasonal, cheaper and plan our meals better. Or when I decide to do the cooking instead of her, which drives me batty because then she is out playing with my children (something she does incredibly well) while I am hot and sweating in the kitchen. This is when I wonder if I really want or need to have a helper at all. Not to mention the fact that I actually just find it really hard to accept help in general!

I am reminded by a friend who once said:

“You don’t NEED a maid… nobody needs a maid! It’s not a question of needing a maid in Singapore, it’s just that you have the opportunity to so why wouldn’t you?!”

And so I have a helper and the wonderful opportunity to have kid-free date nights and not have to worry about dishes and laundry and cleaning up. Yes, my sheets are always crisply pressed, a luxury that I tried to have in Australia and not even a quarter of the way through ironing my pillow cases, I gave up and decided it wasn’t worth it and look at me now. Now I really don’t know if I can go back to wrinkled sheets on my bed! Seriously, I have nothing to complain about… but yet I do.

Maybe that is the crux of The Helper Conundrum. Knowing that I don’t really need a helper but having one regardless. I remember well seeing the fear in many an expat housewife’s eyes when moving home. The prospects of having to do everything themselves scared them and when I didn’t have a helper, I thought what a silly thing to be afraid of!  Now after living this life, I know how they feel, being one that does not enjoy cleaning (a skill I haven’t mastered – proof of which was when I caught The Vegetarian following me around cleaning after me when I thought I was done) and then balancing household chores with work and children… I have absolutely gone soft in the tropics!

Maybe it’s because, since moving here and becoming a stay at home mum (or my personal “favourite” term – trailing spouse), I have felt like it is my duty to ensure that the family is being looked after. Those years when we didn’t have a helper, I took a tiny sense of pride in getting the dishes done or the laundry folded and this was because, after years of deadlines and projects, I found myself a bit lost as to how to measure my worth. Silly, I know, because raising a human being (or beings) is simply the most incredible task anyone could take on. But still, we’ve hired someone to shoulder part of the work and how is it possible that she can not read my mind all the time!? The Vegetarian once said “after 20 years of marriage, even I can’t read your mind, so how can you expect her to?” (Firstly, after 20 years, really? Maybe he should!).

Even now, as I find myself getting busier and busier with a “real job” (please don’t get me started on the definition of this!), I still feel the need to meddle at “her job” which then causes issues because no one can do everything exactly how I would do it. And so I waffle on, growling when there’s no Vegemite on the breakfast table or becoming unreasonable when I discover we are out of milk. After all, isn’t this what I pay my helper to be responsible for? But then, am I really just angry at myself because I wasn’t the one to look in the fridge and see what we were running low on.

I blame my lack of management skills. I blame my lack of ability to be clear, concise and direct. I blame my disorganised, daily lack of routine. And yes, I do blame my helper. But you know what, it’s ok. I am only human, after all. And so is my helper, this kind, honest and gentle person who has left a family she loves behind in order to care for mine. I may, one day, transcend into the realm of being firmly on either side of this conundrum but until then, I flip-flop between the sheer joy of having an extra set of hands and then the absolute annoyance of something that has been forgotten. Perhaps I just need to have a laugh at this conundrum because really, it doesn’t matter so much if a Chinese cabbage (wombok) has been bought instead a Western one or if 5 litres of dish wash has been used in a week or even if I’ve found a tiny scratch on my non-stick pan… It doesn’t matter THAT much, does it?

We hope you have enjoyed the roller coaster journey that was Angela’s story. In the lead up to this article being published, she sought opinions from friends and family about how they felt about her words. The message was consistently clear: everyone had their own “axe to grind” about the piece and about help in general.  It’s a topic that elicits the kind of response which is exactly why Ordinary People decided to tackle it.  We knew this would be fraught with difficulty.  Angela has shared with us her personal and social cost benefit analysis of her decision.  At times it makes us chuckle, at others it frustrates us, but at another level, it’s easy to see our own selves in this conundrum.  What we see in this account is that perhaps The Helper Conundrum isn’t one we face just with our helpers, but it’s one we face with ourselves. Ultimately, by analysing our choices and reflecting on our opportunities we become more self aware.  Our relationship with help, whether we have it or not, is a mirror to the thoughts in our heads.  I choose to relax, Susan chooses to engage and Angela chooses to do both.

Soon, Ordinary People will explore this issue from a very different perspective.  We will talk to a well known maid agency in Singapore and understand what it’s like to be a helper, how the agencies are run and what it is many of the wonderful women who seek employment as domestic helpers think and experience in their places of work.    It will be intriguing to view life from the other side and understand the reasons why domestic workers leave their homes to come and work in ours.

As a final thought, it’s worth reflecting on how far the World has come.  Today, many organisations exist that protect the rights of domestic workers and this was not always the case.  Huge strides have been made in Singapore alone to improve working conditions and guarantee quality of life.  If you are interested to know more about the conditions and legal framework around hiring in Singapore, have a look at the Ministry of Manpower’s website or non-profit group TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too). Also check out Aida, an organisation that provides financial literacy programmes such as money management, computer literacy, leadership and entrepreneural skills for foreign domistic workers.

Thanks for following us along in our journey through The Helper Conundrum. Subscribe below or Like us on Facebook so you don’t miss the next post on this fascinating subject.


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