best help in the world

This post is a tribute to Aunty Susan, who has made life so much
cleaner, more bearable  nicer since she came to live with us.

I’ve always held that a family should stand on its own feet, and that Singaporeans have long been too dependent on domestic help. I used to forebode about how one day, if all the domestic workers leave, most homes (yours, yours and yours) would collapse. This and the many other reasons below led to an almost principled stand on desisting.

Stories from friends and colleagues didn’t help. Problems seemed to abound, and many helpers created more harrowing hindrances than offer actual help. Mostly, I felt plagued by the issue of trust. It seemed that you could never know. Those you treated well might take advantage of that. If you were too strict, it could also backfire. Even those who had faithfully worked for years might steal at the end. To friends who said they had great help, I celebrated with them, but my rejoinder was always “Yes, a good FDW really makes a difference, but it’s really hard to find good help these days.”

There was also the issue of whether the help would get along with my mum. If they didn’t, more issues would arise. Then there’s the issue of privacy, and of having another woman in the house.

One part of me knows, (and still acknowledges) that to a great extent, the wages they are paid border on exploitation. Many say this is better than what they can eke out at home (true, even for graduates), and they work here in more comfortable homes with modern conveniences, which is why they still arrive in droves. But on an hourly basis, is it even right for us as employers to pay such pittance? Some say it helps them feed their families at home. Others say their helpers have shared their preference for working here instead of being on home leave, since they get less sleep, worse food and lodgings back home slaving in the family business.

But in recent days I’ve had so many thoughts on the role of domestic workers in our homes, and how employers think when they hire one. But first, guess I’d like to share our story, which I admit is quite unique and unrepresentative, so I really can’t claim to speak for most employers and their experience.

We hired Aunty Susan 4 months ago. We felt extremely blessed that she agreed to work for us after her expat employer went home. I like to see the surprised looks when I say that she’s more of a family friend, having known my hubby since he was 10, and having worked for their family for 13 years. She even came for our wedding, and is in the front row, during our extended family church photo.

So I was completely ready to have her in my home. Trust was at 90% right from the start, which was good enough for me. We couldn’t match her expat employer pay exactly, but gave her a small raise when we got ours, a month after she started work. She also agreed on the terms, since she knew us so well, and didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of adjusting to a new family’s culture/quirks.

Things have worked out so well ever since. The kids took to her so quickly, and she could even rock baby B to sleep alone. Within a month or so, K and her were best friends! Since she was virtually family now, I made myself ok with the kids being super close to her, and I don’t know whether it’s thanks to nursing or ?, but B would still choose me first when I am around.

Aunty Susan’s experience and great health has really been a boon to us. She gets along with even the most difficult members of family, and I am happy to let her use her handphone all times of the day but she’s so professional that she says she’ll only take calls at night after the kids are settled. She cooks like a dream, and think our health has gotten a significant boost after we managed to do away with the tingkat orders and ta-paos.

Although we tell her not to do so much housework, there is significant professional pride that she refuses to abide by our (very lax) standards (honed through the years of self-homekeeping), and still keeps our home in an amazing state when the kids are not tornadoing through.

She has incredible initiative in clearing out truly messy drawers, and I am still being surprised when I open large kitchen cabinets to find them in a truly amazing state of organisation.

I’m glad she has her friends, and we are happy to give her every Sunday off, since we know that she’s clever enough not to get involved with riff-raff. (In fact I’m always fascinated when she regales me with some places she goes to on Sundays, one Sunday evening it was dinner at Susan Lim’s Shangri-la suite – say what you will of her, she treats her help well! and lets her invite friends over for dinner at “home”!)

We know that it’s been many steps down for her, since after working for my in-laws, she’s counted Orchard Rd penthouses (yah from my window I see takashimaya), Grange Road sprawling apartments as her addresses. Let’s just say that her last address was Sentosa Cove. Hubs felt so bad, and when we asked her, we really wondered whether she’d mind trading the yacht view for our very
uglyhumble view, if you can call it a view even! Thankfully for us, she was happy to trade the convenience of being near an MRT station for the inaccessibility of the Cove *phew*.

We still try to do most of the parenting when we are home, from changing poopy diapers to giving baths to feeding the kids. We eat together at dinner-time. A mummy friend once asked me why I was solo-ing at the supermarket with two kids when I had a helper. I tried to explain that as far as I could, I’d still like to do everything myself if I were there.

Of course it’s easy to relax and sometimes we share the load, but we know we’re not going to be able to employ her forever, and are operating on the premise that we’d still be able to function respectabily once she goes home. So we make the kids get their own cutlery, throw their own litter, put their used cups and crockery in the sink, whenever we can. We go out on weekends by ourselves, and manage the kids outside alone, stressful as it could be. But guess that’s what parenting entails!

These are early days yet, but she’s like the aunt I never had, and we chat about our friends, and the working relationship is as good as I could have ever prayed for. So thank you, Aunty Susan. We love you!

On a more sombre note, I come across folks who ask, what should I do if I were to hire a new helper? The advice that comes across is sometimes a tad shocking.

Understandable, but not very humane. There have been so many cases of errant maids that some employers say no off day, no hp, no outside contact as much as I can help it. And some parents say “we don’t let the helper handle the kids at all”, but I tend to wonder what relationship that fosters. An instant signal of a lack of trust? Having said that, if the mum is always at home, then it could be a good and understandable thing. But by observation, usually the helper still ends up carrying the fussing baby, even if the parents say they have a no-contact rule. Guess some ideals may not be practical.

Other folks are just downright mean to their helpers. Perhaps they had really horrible experiences, but they go to the extent of not giving them enough food, making the helpers eat leftovers (and if there is no food leftover, then they’ll have to make do with plain rice), not giving them any access to keys (woe to you if there’s a fire), making them do dangerous stunt-type window cleaning… I don’t know. I just hope the new rule makes Singaporean employers slightly more humane, and that if treated reasonably, helpers will also become more sensible and not put their jobs at stake by getting into bad company.

So much has been said about the off day rule and how it could be abused that I shan’t add more. But just to say this whole subject of Singaporeans and their helpers is an extremely sensitive and emotive one, and that we hope everyone does as their conscience dictates.

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