The Pinoys have all left.
(MaryJane, our helper, has four daughters who have been staying with us for the past six weeks. When she first came to Hong Kong four years ago to work, the girls were 4, 6, 8 and 10. This is the first time since then that she’s spent more than 10 days with them; and only the fifth time she’s seen them at all in that time. There are 87% too many numbers in this paragraph.
I’ll try again.
She has four kids she never sees.
They stayed here for the past six weeks.
Now they’ve gone back home to the Philippines.)
Agnes, Nessie, Joy, Anna
This morning I could hear MaryJane crying outside. It took me a while to find her because she was sitting on the ground underneath the laden clotheshorse. That’s a pretty good hiding place when you’re only about 140 centimetres tall, but I told her next time if she didn’t want to draw attention to herself she should avoid keening and slapping the floor in anguish. And also tell Indama, the helper from next door, to stop flapping her arm through the prickly plants that make up our separating “hedge” in an attempt to pat her.
It didn’t feel good to have caused someone so much pain. Conversely, of course, there have been many moments of such uplifting joy that have made me feel really good about what we’ve done. That about sums up the whole six weeks really. There has been awkwardness, laughing, fighting, happy tears, hugging, poverty, irritation, confusion, fun. And above all, a rock-solid commitment to NEVER EVER HAVE SIX KIDS. Do you know how long it takes to get out of the house with six kids? Especially when five of them are girls? On that note, can you imagine how much toilet paper we’ve gone through in the past six weeks? We knew the whole operation would be expensive but we forgot to factor in toilet paper, which item nearly bankrupted us and also the Amazonian renewal process.
Don’t let the adorable smiles fool you,
these are some of the biggest environmental bandits going round…
I’m going to be completely honest, I thought it would be a flower-strewn fairytale with all of us sitting around part-singing Kumbaya every night after dinner in our respective languages, myself on tambourine. And it just wasn’t. The girls were really shy around Joel and myself right from the start, and while we expected it to improve over time, it didn’t. We struggled with this. OF COURSE we didn’t do this for recognition or to be treated as kindly benefactors; and anyone who suggests so gets a beating in the head from my unused tambourine. But we did hope – expect? – the girls to at least interact with us.
We discussed this a lot. Were we being unreasonable? I know when I stayed with other families as a kid I was expected to engage with the other adults, or at least respond when spoken to. I’m ashamed to say that in this recent scenario I had to remind myself, often, about the completely foreign situation they’ve grown up in. We are, after all, their mother’s employers. They spent every Sunday while they were here at the local helper shelter, no doubt hearing all the stories of helpers who got sacked that week for trivial “offences”. It’s very easy for us to say “But we’re not like that, surely they can see that we’re nice!” All they know is we hold their ability to go to school, have a house, buy groceries, in our hands. I probably don’t think I’d speak much in that situation either.
Another problem we didn’t know how to deal with was them doing housework. Again, as a kid staying at other people’s houses, I would expect and be expected to help with the housework – clearing the table, maybe doing the dishes, making my own bed. Where do you draw the line when your guests are your domestic helper’s kids though? When they tried to clean our bathrooms and weed our garden, were they being polite guests, conscripted mini-helpers, or trying to give their mum a break? It was a bit of everything, and it was a constant challenge to find the appropriate balance.
The language barrier was another issue. It certainly wasn’t for the kids, something which I’ve noticed before. Not only are kids happy to play with any other kids, regardless of language – if mine are anything to go by, anyway – they don’t even seem to be aware of differences in nationality. Rufus and Zadie played all day with the Ates (“Ate” = respectful term for a Filipina female older than oneself) without even noticing any language obstacles. But I know the Ates were self-conscious of their English shortcomings with Joel and I.
One great thing happened when we were planning a trip to the pool one day with dad, and it was going to be the first time he had met them, and three of the girls decided they wouldn’t go after all because they were too worried about having to speak English to him. Beautiful Agnes, age 11, said “Not me, I can speak English really good!”
She really liked swimming.
The main purpose, of course, was to give MaryJane the opportunity to be with her girls for an extended time, to have a chance to parent them for the first time in years. After a couple of weeks the girls were able to really open up to her about their lives and their concerns, and they were able to make future plans with her involvement. She was also able to slap them on the back of the head when they didn’t eat their vegetables, and who wouldn’t relish that opportunity after four years.
Anna – she didn’t eat vegetables, but she still put on a much-needed 3kg.
They refused to sleep in the spare room, instead all squashing into MaryJane’s bed. This is how they’ve grown up sleeping and they loved it. They’d giggle until late at night and sleep in until 9am. This is the first time they’ve ever had not just an overseas trip (obviously) but even a break. Their usual day is:
-Up at 5am to cook breakfast, handwash their clothes and do the housework.
-Leave for school at 7.
-After school, help at MaryJane’s mum’s market stall until 9pm.
-Walk home, have dinner.
-Do their homework at 10pm.
-Bed at 11pm.
On the weekends their days are the same, just minus school.
How’s that? They have a longer day than nearly every adult I know. So the second purpose of the trip was for them to have a break.
Thirdly, we thought it was important for them to see where their mum lives and works, and what her days are like, and what she sacrifices so that when they are feeling exhausted/abandoned/jealous (all of which naturally occur occasionally) they can at least realise that she isn’t over here living some sort of fantasy life. She wanted this to encourage them to keep trying as hard as they are at school, in order to avoid life as a domestic helper. It’s amazing that despite their long days, they are all doing well at school. Joy wants to study nursing and that is MaryJane’s first savings priority at the moment.
Lastly, we wanted our own kids to realise that MaryJane has her own family, and understand that she’s making a big sacrifice of her own to be such an important part of their lives.
Beyond all these serious aims, we wanted Rufus and Zadie to get to know the girls outside of Skype, and have a “holiday at home” with four friends.
When I think of the experience only in terms of those aims, all of which were met in ways that exceeded my imaginings, it was an amazing six weeks. And yes, it cost us way more money than we could really afford, but it was also so much more gratifying than I expected. The things that I regret – that Joel and I weren’t able to form close relationships with the girls, and that perhaps I “tried too hard” – don’t mean anything in terms of what was important here. Everyone who needed to get something out of this did, and that makes it a win.
It was so touching to watch the kids form such strong friendships. They’re amazing little people. All six of them faced confronting issues of jealousy and pain at times. They formed shifting alliances among themselves to deal with problems that arose. Though Zadie did declare Ate Joy her best friend, and Rufus and Ate Nes (Agnes) were inseparable.
This is one of those milestone circumstances that makes me so grateful for the opportunities we’re able to give our kids here. The unique experiences they’re getting here almost totally make up for the humidity and the lack of backyard. There have of course also been awkward and painful discussions about how come the girls can’t live with their mother. It’s very hard to explain this without inciting insecurity and unrationalised guilt. Lessons for all! But, most importantly, priceless memories.
Today we’ve all been flat as tacks, especially MaryJane who is suffering through the double cruelty of having her girls go home on Mothers Day. Which is about the shittiest itinerary planning I could have orchestrated. As basically the second mother to my own kids, I could have given her a better “thank you” than that. When I haven’t been kicking myself in the arse, I’ve enjoyed looking at all the extra space in the fridge. Sometimes I even kicked myself while doing so. The coolness numbed the pain. In my arse and my heart.
Happy Mothers Day to everyone, especially to helpers who make the ultimate sacrifice by being away from their kids today and every day. They say mothers have soft hearts – but I know yours have to be made of steel as well. I try to understand how heavy that must be to carry around.