Home is where the Helper is?

"What? You don't have a helper?" 

Ever since I have moved back to Hong Kong, I have been asked this question umpteen number of times, accompanied by raised eyebrows and shocked faces. I am a stay-at-home mum, have two growing boys, a house and a husband to look after, so where is the excuse for not having one, they would ask. I smile and say, "I really do not need a helper!" They look at me as if I am completely crazy. I do not blame them. 4 years ago I was caught in the same trap. The 'helper-trap.'

I was pregnant and a mother of a 3-year old. In a foreign land. Everywhere I went I would get just one friendly advice, "So what are you waiting for? Get a full-time maid. Quick!" I was not very convinced. Having a helper was no alien concept to me since we always had helpers growing up in Mumbai, but I was never very comfortable around them plus I liked to have my own space. But now with this big change in my life I wasn't so sure, so I finally relented. After a 3-month search that included 30 interviews, 10 short-listed helpers out of which I was ready to sign a contract with 6, all the 6 rejected 'me' based on my negatives (as I found out later) of being a pregnant lady, a stay-at-home mum with a pre-schooler, not a very favourable situation for them! Anyway 3 weeks before my due date, I finally managed to hire a Philippina lady whose visa along with my patience level was expiring the very next day! So sans any positive references or work trials, I hired her! 

After the birth of my baby, we worked out an amicable working relationship. She looked after the cooking and the cleaning and I took charge of the needs of my children. I had to train her in the beginning with our cooking preferences, lifestyle, etc and it worked out fairly well in the start. So while my elder son went to his pre-school and the baby napped I could get in a few bits of ME time. Thanks to my helper's presence I enrolled for everything from aerobics to swimming to taking French and Mandarin classes. I also took lazy afternoon naps. Aah, the joys of an expat life! Maybe my friends were right, maybe a helper was just what I needed. To give her due credit, my helper was extremely professional in her work. She worked hard the whole day, scrubbing floors, polishing doors, ironing, cleaning, doing whatever she was asked to do, however from the very first day when it came to social interaction she scored a zero! She lacked warmth and basic courtesy, two essential requirements for our family and in the year and a half that she worked for us I rarely saw her smile. So although I loved the little bit of time that I got for myself thanks to her presence, I just couldn't get used to a mechanical, melancholic person around me and my family. I tried talking to her a couple of times asking her if she needed any kind of help but she always kept mum. Once the novelty of the ME activities wore down, I felt that I had an added responsibility cause now besides managing my kids, I also had to manage my helper and her moods! Things started getting more and more awkward each day although I did try my best to understand her and make things work. Next I started looking forward to Sundays and public holidays which were her days off so that I could breathe easy in my own house! At the end of a year I was frankly ready to live without her but since we were to leave HK soon, I just let things be. The day we were to leave HK, as I was about to sit in the taxi, I went to give her a goodbye hug, which she completely ignored and saying a quick "Bye ma'am" she turned around and walked away leaving me gaping!

After 2 years of complete self-help in London, when destiny brought us back to HK, the thought of having a full-time helper did not even cross my mind. This time we lived in a completely different locality, kids were going to a new school and I wanted us to get settled as quickly as possible. London taught me that having playdates for the children and making new 'mommy' friends were the quickest way to settle down in a new place. However I did not realise how hard that would be thanks to the omnipresence of helpers in this city! They were everywhere. In the parks playing with the kids, in supermarkets shopping for their households, in the schools during the after-school activities, in birthday parties, on playdates, even during the Saturday morning football practice! It was as if the whole society just expected you to have one. Supermarket delivery, courier parcels, handymen, all of these would just turn up home expecting someone to be there! 2 years of having done everything from shopping to cleaning to cooking to taking care of the kids myself, I couldn't understand what all the 'helper' fuss was about? I felt very happy dropping off and picking up my children from school as I couldn't think of  anything more important to do at that point of time. And yet I saw that the maximum number of children took the school bus. I had to weave my way around the helper 'safety-net' that everyone seemed to possess, in order to get things done and yet not offend anyone. Conversations over coffee involving helpers, their importance, about how they make life heaven and hell at the same time, elicit no response from me.

All said and done, I am no super woman and there are times when I am completely exhausted and I wish that I had someone who would come and wash the pile of dishes lying in the sink or iron the 'truckload' of clothes waiting for me (forget about the joys of ironing!) or clear up the mess on the table since the boys have just finished their dinner. So this evening especially I can't make myself get up from the couch and I shut my eyes thinking about which job to start off with first, when in walks my husband with a finger on his lips signalling the boys to be quiet. I know he is home but I pretend to be asleep. I can sense all three of them moving towards me. I try hard not to smile when suddenly I am enveloped in this mass of arms both big and small, strong and light, with kisses flowing in and as I am trapped in the biggest bear hug in the world, my eyes flutter open, full of happiness and yet a bit moist. I hug them all and as I do I can feel my strength returning, my spirit raising, so that by the time we let go, I spring back to my feet ready to tackle the most mundane of household tasks with renewed energy. ''Thank you'' I whisper to my husband who looks confused because he has no idea about my mental state just a few minutes ago. Sometimes all I need is a reminder, small gesture, to remind me about my priorities. Home is where is I want to come to when I am tired from my day's activities, where I can find my own peace and solitude, where I can be just myself.  'Home is where the heart is,' isn't it?

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