When I was in high school mum announced one day that she was hiring a cleaner. It was going to be a big relief to her as she worked full time and like most women, was the primary caretaker of the home. It was also a big deal, you only ever got help if you could afford it and mum and dad spent years saving money to pay off their mortgage and raise my sisters and me so there was never money leftover for something so frivolous. Our cleaners name was Margaret and I hardly ever saw her because she came while we were at work and school.
When I moved in with SB I said housework had to be 50/50. He agreed. I said if it wasn’t we would get a cleaner. Back then I was working full time and studying my Masters Degree, plus my travel time had just been doubled as he lived further out of town. Within the first month we had a cleaner. Having help back home is a luxury not many people can afford. It feels kind of icky because to be honest, we live in an egalitarian country and any kind of subservience is very unusual and makes us generally feel, well, uncomfortable. A lot of people don’t have a cleaner because of the thought that some stranger is in their house, going through their things. Then there is the argument that noone ever cleans your house the way you do. This is true but in the grand scheme of things it is still a damned sight better than running yourself ragged trying to do everything. I have always advocated having a cleaner if you are working long hours and have a particularly busy life, just to help you out. The thing is though, your cleaner comes for three hours a day once a week, maybe twice or even just once a fortnight. It depends on what you can afford. They also come while you are out of the house because of that uneasiness we have with people picking up our mess and doing our dishes while we watch a bit of TV.
When we went on to one income we dropped the cleaner, because quite frankly they cost a fortune back home. I was devastated but at the same time, I have always enjoyed the feeling at the end. That feeling of accomplishment when the house is as it should be. Having children I chose to be an at-home parent and so with that the roles become very traditional. Dad is working most of the time, I am at home most of the time. I fitted my work in around the children and made sure they were my number one priority. I would be up late at night doing the ironing, exhausted as all mothers of young children are and thankfully I have a partner who never dared question the dust bunnies reproducing at a rapid rate behind the furniture.
Moving to a country like the Philippines it is expected you have domestic help for a few reasons. A high percentage of the population are low educated and work as domestic helpers. It is a major source of income into the economy. This is also a very hierarchical society, where there are clear levels of position in society. It has been this way for generations and will continue for generations to come. Then there is the day to day living side of things. We spend so many hours in traffic we are not home enough to clean or wash and iron clothes. Plus the air pollution leaves a gross soot everywhere so the houses get really filthy and need a good going over every few days. There is no such thing as daycare so nannies are used instead. They are called Yayas over here. If people work they must have help with the children and the pets because the hours out of the house are excessive. Believe me, that ideal glamorous expat life is really a myth – unless you are the elite of the elite, and personally I don’t know anyone who has that life. Nice houses – sure, gorgeous, but not the glamorous living to go with it. Our day to day life is the same as back home, just with another backdrop.
On arrival in this country, you task yourself with finding a home and domestic help. However you want that to be. On the outside it seems easy enough, and I have had cleaners before so surely I know how this goes. Well, no. It is nothing like home. We are worlds away from that and here there are different rules, expectations and issues that are all wrapped up in having domestic help. And let me tell you, it is not easy. Well unless you are those few friends who do the old ‘oh I am SOOO lucky, I have never had any issues, we are just SOOO lucky to have found the PERFECT person straight away’. Well to them I say you are either lying your arse off or you earned amazing karma points in a previous life so take your smugness and get stuffed. The more I have spoken to people the more normalized my feelings have become, it isn’t just me who feels the way I do. A lot of people do, they just don’t really talk about it.
I have tried the live-out helper option. That was the first maid I had and everything was great except I was too relaxed and trusting, otherwise known as ‘just being me’. I was left feeling as though there must have been a neon sign above my head that I did not realise was there that bleeped ‘loser here to take advantage of’. Once I had established a routine for living here I needed to change how things were going so I had more structure in our lives, so I told my maid she was expected to start at a set time and finish at a set time – basically, do a full days work. Well, that was not how we started out and she did not like that so she quit.
I have tried the live-in option thinking it would make life easier. On the one hand it is awesome having instant babysitting. On the other hand there is a stranger in my house All. Of. The. Time…not only that, there is an awful lot of personal business that gets brought into your life in addition to your own. The emotional weight of that I have found to be unbelievably stressful. I had to become a person I did not want to be in order to set clear boundaries, expectations and to manage her behaviour. There was additional conflict in our space that really ought to be unnecessary.
The guilt I felt because of the very distinct differences in life standards became overwhelming at times to the point I could not sit on the sofa at night to watch TV without an alcoholic drink to calm me down. Knowing my maid was in her ‘room’ which is actually the laundry (in our home country this would be slavery or keeping a prisoner I think) caused an anxiety reaction, and I found it very difficult to relax in my own home – at any time. I felt I was always being careful of what I did and said so I didn’t draw attention to the major differences in our lives. Which is stupid really since those differences are so glaringly obvious regardless. Our favourite days as a family were always our Helpers two days off a week. We’d go back to normal, being ourselves, living the way we do as a family in our private space. The air is lighter and there is more laughter.
Over the past year and a half I have asked for, listened to and taken a lot of advice from friends. I have heard their stories and used their methods for trying to adjust to this part of life here, for managing behaviour and expectations and for trying to reduce the anxiety I feel. I have to say I have been given wonderful advice that I have shared with new friends also as it has been a great help. I have lamented at how amazing their helpers are and why can’t I find one that great. I get told to ‘hang in there, eventually you find the right one’. However for me personally, living in a condo, with so little privacy from residents, staff and our own Helper is too much for me to take. If our place was bigger perhaps things would feel different.
I sound ungrateful, selfish and insensitive. How dare I try to impose so much on this person. Who am I to feel ‘hard done by’ when clearly I am not? Why should I feel the weight of this burden when it is a privilege to have access to domestic help? Yet then I remember why, how life here in the Philippines is actually really challenging. How trying to live life in balance is a goal we strive to achieve, yet fail at constantly. The levels of physical and mental exhaustion we feel here are at levels I have never experienced before. I remember that I actually pay this person a wage, plus extras as opportunities arise for that, and I allow her into my space, and into our private life. With that comes a level of responsibility required from both of us.
There was one day something significant had gone wrong and we were both in tears. We each talked about how difficult it was, me having someone living in my space, and for her, being away from home. That was a turning point where we tried to understand each other better, work harder at building the relationship we needed to have for it to be successful. Yet, it wasn’t to be.
In finding help, you are not only looking for someone who does a good job, is honest and trustworthy. You are looking for someone to become an extension of your family, whether you want it or not. You need to get the right ‘fit’ just like if you were in the business workplace. I finally accepted that despite the good intentions, this relationship had to end. I felt sad, frustrated yet when I made that decision I felt a weight lift off my shoulders that was inexplicable. So I let her go.
When I had my home back to myself I felt awash with relief. Sure things are trickier to manage but I do manage, now I have a little support from a wonderful Helper an expat goodbye left behind; and for the record, I have never been afraid of getting my hands dirty. For me, it is very important to keep a level of normalcy in our family to ease the transition when we eventually leave. What I realised in going through all of this, is that I am still allowed to be me, even in a foreign country. I have never been a rule follower. I am that child who walked to the beat of my own drum. In the anxiety of being in a hugely unknown world I clung on to what I was told was normal. I needed to step back, take a breath and trust my own instincts. I needed to be clear from the start about what I wanted in this life here. How I wanted our life to be, and then seek it out.
Now I am more educated on how to work with domestic help here, and I know what it is that I am looking for. If it takes that bit extra time to find it, then so be it. At least I will feel comfortable in my own skin and I will feel confident that the relationship between my family and our helper will be a positive one.