There is a great video going around online titled ‘Mums and Maids’, and it really struck and chord with me 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. In Hong Kong, domestic workers allow families to benefit from double incomes in this tiny rock in the South China Sea 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 that modern life demands two full time incomes and gives such little time off, even after giving birth (in Hong Kong it’s 10 weeks). Sad for the parents 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, fast asleep on their lap.
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? I have no idea. But clearly, mom and dad’s Sunday plans did not include junior. Not even ONE day of the week.)
It only costs about US $500 a month to have a live-in helper in Hong Kong who will do everything for you. In fact having a helper is rated as one of the top benefits of living in Hong Kong.
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. 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 many times, I’ve 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.
Once at the park I started chatting with an 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.
I’m no martyr. There are days I want to run out the door and never look back. And there are days when I hire a babysitter for a few hours or leave the kid with my husband. Nobody wants to spend 24/7 with a small child – it’s enough to drive you mad!
All I can say is, kids change so fast. The first two years are a time of such rapid growth, week by week, month by month. It’s important 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 (I have seen this happen so many times with other kids). 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.