When we first moved to Hong Kong we never imagined that we would hire a domestic helper. It’s not all that common in Australia (at least amongst the people we know) to hire someone else to do your housework. It seemed an unnecessary luxury. However, after a year here, realising how easy and inexpensive it was to have someone come in once a week, and sick of arguing about whose turn it was to do the vacuuming, we relented. Hiring a full-time helper can be a lucky dip. I’ve heard many horror stories about helpers stealing from their employers or sleeping with their husbands. Sometimes personalities clash and it just doesn’t work out, but whatever happens it can be a time-consuming, expensive and emotional process. At the end of the day you're inviting a virtual stranger into your home and trusting them with the most precious people in your world.
Fortunately, we hit the jackpot with our helper, L. She started off part-time but when we found out I was pregnant we convinced ourselves that we had to have someone full-time once the baby arrived, knowing that without family anywhere nearby we would struggle. I have a lot of respect for mothers who manage without a helper and appreciate how hard it must be; especially for those living here away from the support of family and friends. I have friends back in Australia who are quite envious of our position and, while I struggle to justify it sometimes, I know how lucky we are. We were fortunate enough to be able to employ L full-time when her contract finished, and she started with us 8 weeks before our son arrived. I had a list a mile long of things for her to do to get the house ready for the baby, expecting it to take her several weeks. She finished most of it in two days. She’s efficient and intelligent and always happy. She follows my instructions to the letter (to the point where she pulls me up if I veer from the schedule at all) and most importantly, she adores my son; she has become a member of our family. It wasn’t always a perfect relationship and having someone else in my home all day every day was a big challenge. There was a time when I contemplated asking her to leave, simply because I wanted my space back and to have my baby to myself. Then when J was 9 weeks old I got sick and my husband had to go away. L moved in for 4 days and got up to do the night feeds, walked the dog and kept the house clean without complaint or hesitation, while I slept and got better. I realised how necessary she had become to our ability to function as a family.
We still have occasional misunderstandings, mainly due to the language barrier and my inability to express myself clearly, but it is a much more harmonious home these days. Something I have struggled with lately is a little bit of jealousy over the relationship between our helper and our son. He is so excited every day when she arrives and often complains when she leaves the room. She has a way of getting him to eat his vegetables when I constantly fail, and she manages to entertain him AND keep the house clean and tidy. One day last week I was feeding him when L arrived for the day and J just about jumped out of my arms. I was heartbroken and moaned to my husband, “I never get that response.” D told me I should be grateful that we have someone who J loves so much. When I thought about it rationally I had to admit that D was right; it would be much harder to leave him with someone he didn’t really care for. Still battling my green-eyed monster I was secretly overjoyed yesterday when the tables were turned. J and I had spent the whole day together and I handed to him to L when we got home and headed upstairs. I rushed back down excitedly when J started to wail and I found him holding his little arms out for his mummy. I felt terribly guilty that I was so thrilled that my son was upset by my absence, but secretly I also felt validated. I remember in the first few weeks of his life, when we were up for hours every night feeding and attempting to soothe our colicky baby, there were times when I wondered if he was happy. He hadn’t smiled and barely registered my presence; I was basically a walking milk bar. I so longed for some response: a sign that we were doing the right thing and that this little guy knew we were his parents. We were overjoyed when he started smiling and I felt for the first time that it had all been worth it.
I guess, without realising it, I have still been basing my success as a parent on J’s response to me. I don’t expect thanks for the hours I spend cooking and pureeing food, for getting up in the middle of the night, for changing pooey nappies, I do it all out of love, but a cuddle and a smile from him says, “You’re appreciated.” When someone else is getting the smiles and cuddles I feel a bit deflated, is that wrong? I have no doubt that this is something I will grapple with for a while, but in the meantime someone else is cleaning my toilet, so I won’t complain too loudly.