There is a great video going around online titled ‘Mums and Maids’, and it really touched my heart because although the video was filmed in Singapore, it is the same situation in Hong Kong.
The issue of mums and maids and child rearing is something I’ve been avoiding writing about, because it is a sensitive topic. I understand that a lot of people do not have the choice or the option to stay home after having a baby, the way that I was able to not go back to work and become a stay at home mom. In Hong Kong, domestic workers allow families to benefit from double incomes in this tiny rock in southern China that just happens to be the most expensive place in the world to live, with the biggest income inequality on the planet.
But nonetheless, I find this Mums and Maids video incredibly sad. Sad for the moms who are missing out on such crucial, precious time with their kids… sad for the kids who are more emotionally bonded with their ‘aunties’ than their parents… and sad for the helpers who have left their own children behind to raise yours for less than the legal minimum wage (helpers are not entitled to minimum wage in Hong Kong, due to their 24/7 work environment).
As the video points out, a lot of helpers aren’t even allowed their one day off a week. I can’t tell you how many times on a Sunday — the one day they are supposed to have off — I’ve seen helpers sitting somewhere in Central with their friends, holding a small blond child asleep on their lap. Or the child is sitting there, bewildered, surrounded by a group of ladies chatting in Tagalog or Skyping on their smartphones with their families back in the Philippines.
It’s 3pm on a Sunday… do YOU know where your baby is? No?
(What I can’t figure out is where the hell are the parents? Playing tennis at the country club? Gambling in Macau? Going to one of those free flow champagne brunches that are so popular with expats on a Sunday in Hong Kong? I have no idea. But clearly, mom and dad’s Sunday plans did not include junior. Not even ONE day of the week.)
After having a child, we chose not to have a helper. In fact, it was never a thought. And people around here think I am bat-shit CRAZY for that. Well, maybe not anymore, but at first perhaps. Even when my daughter was a few months old, I realised I was the odd one out. The lone white woman taking her baby to the park on an afternoon, surrounded by a dozen helpers. I know them all now, of course, and they know me, and we’re friendly. But on more than one occasion, I’ve been out at the park and had a complete stranger come up to me and ask, ‘Don’t you have a helper?’, or they say to my daughter ‘Don’t you have an auntie?’
Nope, I reply to them. No helper, no auntie. I raise my own child, thank you very much. From the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep, I take care of her.
I’m not trying to be a martyr or anything, but is it so odd? To choose to spend time with your child? To want to drop them to school, and cook them food, and read them stories, and tuck them in for a nap? Is it weird to find joy in taking them to swimming lessons, or putting them up on the kitchen counter to bake a cake? Do I sound crazy?
Quite frankly, I think they’re the crazy ones. Crazy to leave the most important job in the world — shaping and molding the brain of your tiny little baby — to someone else for pretty much the entire day, every day, to go to the office. Because in Hong Kong, you don’t leave work at 4pm. You’re lucky if you get home by 8pm. So chances are, if you’re a working mother, you really don’t see your kids at all, other than maybe one or two hours.
Once at the park on a Sunday I started chatting with another expat mom who was there with her 4-year-old boy. Somehow it came out in the conversation that I was a stay at home mom, and she ended up telling me that she had just had a baby girl 8 weeks ago, and was starting back work the following day. All of a sudden she burst into tears. ‘They’re sending me to Singapore, tomorrow,’ she sobbed. ‘How can I leave my 8-week-old baby and go away for six days? I’ll have to pump milk in the hotel room… and I’m so worried about leaving her with the helper. She’s a good helper, but still…’ The tears rolled down her face. ‘I wish I could just stay home with my kids,’ she said miserably.
Since then, I haven’t seen her around. She’s disappeared into the working world. But I have seen her helper with the kids, all the time, taking them to school, playing with them at the park. I know all the kids around here, and their helpers, by name. But I don’t know who their parents are. And the parents think it’s really weird when I say hi to their kids and know their names.
Being a full time mom without a helper has been a bit isolating. And this surprised me. I was hoping to meet other stay at home moms in the area, but it never happened. Because even the stay at home moms have nannies, and they send them out with the kids so that they can do other things. (Perhaps I too should be doing other things? But what? Getting a manicure?)
Of course, I’m just human and I need a break too. I am not a frickin’ saint. And the ins and outs of daily childcare can really drive one absolutely batty. But my husband helps me out, and occasionally we hire a babysitter by the hour. Kid is now going to playgroup every day, so that gives me a few more hours of freedom. I have no idea how women used to do it back in the old days, before birth control, before laundry machines, when they had seven kids and a house to take care of. And winter to deal with! Dear god.
But then again, back then they had the extended family structure for support. As an expat, it’s really you and you alone, which is why everyone has a helper. Especially when it’s so damn cheap – the equivalent of about US $500 a month. For someone to do your bidding 24/7, six days a week. Obviously only crazy people would not take advantage of that!
There is one other expat mom in my village — only one — who also does not have a helper. And she has three children. Three! We get together occasionally for the kids to play, and the topic has come up on the choice not to have a helper. She put it quite nicely: ‘I know it’s really cheap to have a helper and it would make my life so much easier, but I have no desire for someone else to raise my kids. Being a parent is a full time job and requires sacrifice, so if you’re not making any sacrifices at all… well… maybe you’re doing it wrong.’
Our society has changed drastically in the last few decades. Women are expected to go back to work and there are few places on earth where staying home is a viable option. Many would say feminism is really just capitalism in disguise because now neither parent is able to stay home and raise the kids. Child rearing has been devalued and outsourced to the lowest bidder. And of course there are lots of women who do not want to spend all day every day caring for the kids. I don’t blame them! Staying home with my kid is way, way, waaaay harder than any job I’ve had before.
But part of me will always feel that they are missing out on such special, fleeting moments in their child’s life when they are still small, before they get into the school system and then disappear into the outside world. The sweet, sticky kisses of a two year old who loves you so absolutely and completely. The warm hugs when they wake up from a nap. The joy on their face when they master something new. The furrowed look of concentration as they listen to you read them a story at bedtime.
Kids change so fast. The first two years are a time of such rapid change, week by week, month by month. It’s time you never, ever get back. And although staying home and not having a helper has been challenging, I truly would not change a thing. Because I know that when my child is sick or crying, she isn’t going to reach out for a hug from the nanny and turn away from me. Because I’ll always be there to dry her tears, and tuck her back in her bed, and kiss her tiny forehead. And that, I think, is worth a lot more than US $500 a month.