Saturday, April 04, 2015

D is for domestic help

So our home renovation plan includes demolishing the 'helper's bathroom' and converting it into a laundry room (our washing machine is currently housed in the yard). The 'helper's room' will retain its current function, as the storeroom Viv's cricket equipment room. Most homes in Singapore are equipped with a room and a bathroom meant for the domestic helper. Getting a live-in domestic helper in Singapore is probably one of the cheapest in the world. For about $600-700 a month, you can get someone to do cooking, cleaning, ironing, laundry, taking care of your kids and pets, washing your car and what not. However, we figured that we're extremely unlikely to get one, so we're better off using that space for something more useful.

A neighbour asked me last week, "How do you manage a job, a TV-free kid, and a household without a domestic helper?" I have also received the same query via email from at least three readers of my blog, so I decided to come clean with it and share how Viv and I manage a helper-less household.

In general, Viv and I agree on the fact that we want to do all Xena-related things ourselves. Of course, her medical issues make this even more critical because the kind of care that she needs (or at least needed in the early years) is something we cannot leave in someone else's hands. Especially the feeding bit, which has been the most frustrating part of our parenting journey so far. Considering how close we come to losing it when she refuses to eat, it would be a miracle if we got a helper who was more patient than us and didn't whack her silly. Of course, CCTV is a common solution in Singapore, but do I really want to be in my office watching live footage of my home every day to see whether or not my helper managed to give my kid a full meal?

A friend once told me, "Getting a good helper is like striking the lottery." I couldn't agree more. I've been horrified at some helpers' behaviour (letting the kid pee on the grass next to the playground, etc.) and I wouldn't even know if I had a not-so-good one. Because I wouldn't be there. And I'd keep wondering. Also, a helper might be able to bathe and clothe and feed the baby, but she might not go the extra mile and play with and talk with and enrich the baby's mind. So DIY it is. In fact, my time with her always takes priority. I don't want to be drowning in housework while my kid is playing by herself, or worse, staring at a screen. The dishes can wait, but my time with her can't. Talking, reading, doing fun activities, singing, dancing, playing, going for a walk, building sand castles at the beach -- these are the moments that matter and will never come back if I'm not there for them now.

Also, Viv and I are both a little Monica about certain things and we're pretty sure we would drive any poor helper nuts. We would stress her out and she would stress us out. As a friend remarked, the keyword in 'helper' is 'help' so if it's not help you're getting, then you're better off without one. at the same time, in spite of our Monica-ness, Viv and I are quite easygoing about other things. We're okay with the house not being vacuumed and mopped every day (I sweep it in the weekdays and he vacuums and mops during the weekend), we're okay with it not sparkling all the time, and most of the time we get away because most of our friends are parents who know how difficult it is to keep a tidy home if you have a kid.

Next, finances. When I got pregnant, I wasn't sure if I'd be one of those women who quit it all for the baby. The first two years, maybe. But I had not really given it much thought. My career was going very well. Of course, with the complications with my pregnancy and Xena's birth and subsequent health issues, it was a no-brainer. I'd have to be home. I needed to be home. And though my plans of going back to work after two years have gone for a toss, I am lucky enough to be in an industry that allows me to work from home.

Even though my freelance writing/editing income is about 20% of what I used to get during my fulltime job as a manager in a prominent publishing company, it's okay. I am happy to work from home, picking the projects I like, and managing my time around Xena's schedule. Besides, we don't have a lavish lifestyle, we don't own a car (one of the biggest expenses in Singapore), and we only splurge on two things which we consider important - Xena's preschool (most preschools in Singapore are crazy expensive) and holidays. So it's been working out well.

Over the years, we have come up with an efficient, organised system that functions like clockwork. We divide our work equally. If I do the general cleaning, cooking, dishes, laundry and ironing, he does the weekend vacuuming, mopping and grocery-shopping. The entire time that he's at work, I'm at work too (half day of freelance work, and half day of cooking/cleaning and Xena-related stuff). The slots before and after our 'work day' are divided exactly equally. He drops her at school and I pick her up. I give her a shower after school, and he gives her a shower after her evening playground time. I put her down for her afternoon nap, and he puts her down for her nightly sleep. I feed her one meal, he feeds her another (The third is done by her teachers at school). I coax her to get through a glass of milk in the afternoon, and he coaxes her through the morning's glass. Even when she was a baby, diaper-changing, bathing and feeding duties were divided as equally as possible. Division of labour is critical. For order, and more importantly, for sanity. (I even get Xena to help out with some chores, but I'll have a whole other post on that some day.) Of course, when he's travelling (that happens 2-3 times a year) or working late, I have to do everything myself and that is not exactly easy. But then he gets home and I toss her at him and go off for a movie or dinner with my friends.

In spite of this perfectly-oiled schedule of getting things done, Viv and I are also particular about taking time to meet people, organise outings and generally have fun. Yes, we have no one to leave her home with, so we watch fewer movies in the theatre than before, but we tell ourselves that most movies are crap anyway, so we just catch the good ones on DVD after Xena sleeps. We also try to make sure that our fitness routines and hobbies are not compromised. He goes for his weekend morning runs, and his weekend cricket, and I go to the gym after they leave for office/school, and attempt to keep blogging when possible, because it's something I enjoy, and something worth taking out time for.

The other thing is that I like to cook and I'm possessive about my kitchen. So there. I said it. A helper would just keep getting in my way. That said, even though I like to cook most meals at home, Viv and I are not fussy about having home-cooked food all the time. If he's working late, or I have a deadline, we simply eat out. Eating out in Singapore is relatively cheap so that's not an issue. (The real issue is MSG and unhealthy fats, hence my insistence on home-cooked meals most of the time.)

Lastly, we need our privacy, and don't want an outsider to live with us all the time. At one point, we got around this by having a part-time cleaner come over once a week, but it was difficult to coordinate timings with her, or stick to the 'minimum 4 hours rule'. Also, I discovered that most such part-time cleaners in Singapore are illegal and this country is the last place where you'd want to take panga with the law.

And that's how we manage things. Now we're kind of set, so it doesn't feel like a lot of work or stress. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that this model will not work for all households. If you have twins or triplets, or both of you have full time jobs that involve travelling, or if one of you can't or simply doesn't want to quit, or you just happen to hate housework, this will not work for you. Some households need external help. Period. It's perfectly okay to get help if you can, especially if doing it all will take a toll on your physical and mental health.

For me, it's a keeda in my head. I take each day as a challenge -- to work and play and perform my duties as well as remember to have fun. I think I actually enjoy it. It gives me some kind of evil pleasure. The planning, organising, executing, the little details, the fun stuff. Making the most of each day.

I tell myself that at the end of the day, I should still be smiling and thinking, 'Now that was a fulfilling day.'


Arun said...

That was a fulfilling blog post :)

mythalez said...


Finally, since you have resumed daily blogging, I hope to see many shiny metals come my way :D

Horizon said...

Gr8 post, in the US there is no help, me and hubby managed the kid pretty much ourselves, full time working, so day care worked for my son, but evenings r chores were divided and we always take time out for interest/exercising,I think that's the key.

martine said...

What a fascinating insight into different cultural attitudes. I am enjoying reading about people all over the world, finding things that are the same as well as things that are different. Hope you enjoy the A to Z challenge.
martine@ silencing the bell

Arun said...

E is for Easter holiday from blogging I hope :)

Pam Margolis said...

It's so interesting the difference between the US and other countries. As other's have said, we don't have helpers in the house. Although I know that most of us average families would love to have help.

Unknown said...

Truly inspiring..Hats-off to you :)

Keirthana said...

I am bookmarking this post, it would be a lot of help for me when I start thinking about kids. I agree that it won't work out for everyone but I think this might just work out well for us too.

Sayesha said...

Thanks. :)

So what was the final count? :P

Yeah, it's possible. Just needs some discipline, teamwork and organisation. :)

Thank you. :)

Sundays are off days! :D

Yes, my sister lives in the US and she's always telling me how it's not easy to get a helper there.

Thank you. :)

All the best! :)

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