Steel Hearts.

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.


 

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50 Comments Add yours

  1. expatlingo says:

    This is a really lovely post. Wonderful and heartbreaking to read at the same time (like your six weeks). Thank you for sharing.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      🙂 Thanks! You know what I want to thank YOU for sharing? CHINESE SHIRT-ROLLS. Oh man. So awesome.

      1. expatlingo says:

        Just dug my tank-tops out of the sea shipment; ready to roll! 😉

  2. Ok, I just need to stop reading blogs today because this is the second one I’ve read today and the second one that has me getting that lump in my throat and always attractive red eyes. My husband is going to wake up and think I’m pregnant again.

    I love how honest this post was about your expectations for the visit and what didn’t happen. I lived abroad twice and both times I had a superhero-sized awkward relationship with my host family. I never thought about it from their perspective (because I was in my 20’s and self-absorbed).

    I’m also going to check my ego about “all the things” I do for my kids, like, microwave oatmeal, and remind myself about people who leave their kids for long periods of time to provide them with a better life. Blows me away.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Shiftless, as you can imagine the very fact I have a helper means I don’t even microwave my kids’ oatmeal. Your bar is too high 🙂

  3. Wanderlust says:

    Wow. This brings up a lot of emotions for me. Joy, grief, the whole spectrum. That was beautiful what you and Joel did.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks K. As I said, also a lot of emotions experienced while living it. That’s the flavour of life etc 🙂

  4. Wayne says:

    Wonderful honest writing Jade. It was indeed beautiful to watch the relationships Rufus and Zadie and the girls develop.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Wonderful comment-leaving dad! I always get so excited when you leave one – i know how much effort was involved 😉

  5. Andrea S. Michaels says:

    You and MaryJane are both wonderful, strong, caring people and lucky to have found each other.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Andrea, too kind – sometimes true, sometimes not so true… 😉

  6. Rhi says:

    You’re lovely! What a generous and massive thing to do, for ALL of you.
    Are there any other families in the area that have done similar for their helper’s families? I hope you have started a trend 🙂

    … but would you do it again next year?!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Rhi, we got the idea from another family in the village who did this last year with their helper’s kids. I hope it starts a trend too! No, I don’t think we’ll do it again next year to be honest – we’re never going to save a cent at this rate of constantly flying back to Oz and spending money we don’t have on stuff like this 😉 That said – TOTALLY WORTH IT!

  7. mamamzungu says:

    Damn. I’m tearing up over here. You write so honestly about all the challenges and conflicting emotions of theI situation. What you did was a wonderful gift but I’m sure brought close to home all the disparities you already know are there. The sacrifices mothers around the world make for their children never ceases to amaze.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Yep, and after a while even the shock of helpers’ situation wears off. I already find I have to check myself from saying insensitive things like jokes about MaryJane’s kids being naughty while she’s not there and stuff. But the majority of helpers here only go home once every two years. Incredible sacrifice. Does give me pause when I’m going to complain about a long day at work…at least it’s not TWO YEARS…

  8. aprilviv says:

    Your post is beautifully written and it also honestly brings about the conundrum about how much you can do for other people. Well done to you for hanging in there for 6 weeks.. Personally despite my best intentions when my home is invaded for too long by additional guests are start to get irritated by the smallest and most petty things.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I have to be honest, after about three weeks the personal space issue reared its head. Nine people in a house, especially a Hong Kong house, is too much. The washing machine was running nearly 24 hours a day and just…so many dishes! And bums on the couch!

  9. sisterhoodofthesensiblemoms says:

    Steel hearts is right. I love how you honestly wrote about your expectations and how it all played out. Your forthright, humorous, and touching description of those 6 weeks is going to stay with me for a while. It is just so damn hard to b a mother (and I have no reason to complain). Ellen

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hey Ellen, thanks for stopping by. I think this is the first “non-Erin” comment I’ve got 😉

  10. Delilah says:

    This brought up a lot of emotions for me as my husband is Filipino and his parents came to Canada and then the US to give their 3 sons more opportunities. They left behind everyone and everything they knew. My MIL and I don’t get along but I could see her in this post. I could see her making the same sacrifices as MaryJane. Beautifully written!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I think anyone with a Philippines connection can understand the emotions here very clearly. I had to go to Philippines last year for work and was quite stunned by how many “parentless” (as in, the parents are overseas workers) families there are there. It’s something I’d never realised before moving to Hong Kong.

  11. Carrie says:

    Reading your post really made me realize how lucky I am to be able to stay at home with my little ones. Thanks so much for making me a little more appreciative of my kiddios – so they drive me nuts some days – at least i’m around to be driven nuts!!

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi Carrie. I am exactly the same! It does put it in perspective.

  12. dberonilla says:

    Your post was beautifully written, and I was touched by it.
    My husband is also Filipino, and I have heard so many sad tales of families being left behind while one person comes overseas to work. While helping various family members with their papers, I have been back and forth to our Consulate so many times that they know me by name.

    It was a wonderful thing you did for MaryJane and her family.
    Thanks for sharing the story.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks for your comment. As I said above, I know anyone with a Philippines connection will understand the emotion here very clearly.

  13. I loved this story! It was so interesting and I still can’t get over how kind you are to have given them that time together. What an act of love. It’s unfortunate (thats not the right word but i cant think of the right word) that mothers and children are separated in this way.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Really unfortunate! I have to honestly say that yes, it was an act of love, but it was also in small part an act of guilt-appeasing. I know we are giving MaryJane her best opportunity to support her girls but sometimes I do feel really awful about the situation.

  14. How lovely and bittersweet and such an amazing seeming experience for all involved. Aren’t kids exceptional at overcoming barriers like language and cultural differences? They really are extraordinary 🙂

    Thanks for sharing! You and MaryJane both seem like wonderful mothers.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Kids are astonishing, yes! When Rufus started school I found I kept asking him if his new friends were British, Australian, American, Chinese etc. No matter which kid I asked about, he always looked confused and said “English!” It’s bizarre, it’s like they don’t even really notice nationalities!

  15. Karine says:

    You are right, Mamas need to have hearts of steel. Often we must make the hard decisions that will ultimately be the right thing to do for our children all the while breaking our hearts in the process. Great post!

    1. jadeluxe says:

      🙂 Thanks Karine.

  16. Mayor Gia says:

    Aw, this is sad and sweet. That’s so good of you to have them visit for so long, but I imagine so sad to watch them leave.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Far too sad for me, Gia – I certainly didn’t go to the airport! ME ME ME!

  17. That was so kind of you to have her family there with you. I can’t imagine being away from my son so long. Hearts of steel… you said it.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      I can’t imagine it either. I even find myself saying sometimes “But I COULDN’T do it, I really couldn’t!” How insultingly indulgent. As if all these women don’t say that as well. An amazing sacrifice.

  18. TriGirl says:

    What a complicated situation. It’s tough to work out what the “proper” thing to do is, when you are a) not in your native country, b) trying to do what comes naturally with your employee’s children when c) they are not in their native country. But it sounds like it was a memorable time for everyone and I imagine MaryJane and her daughters are grateful.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      So complicated. One other thing I forgot to mention in the post was money. I wanted to buy them things all the time (little things like notepads and icecreams and stuff) and they kept refusing. I kept saying to MaryJane, “Why? They’re on holidays. I know they can’t afford this at home so please let me treat them.” They kept converting the price of everything into Philippine pesos and working out what they would be able to buy at home with that money. At first I was insulted and annoyed that they wouldn’t just “enjoy the holiday” but the fact is I’ve never experienced poverty like they have so who am I to judge that? It was difficult. I constantly had to recalibrate my expectations. Still, totally worth it 🙂

  19. raisingivy says:

    Rip my heart out. . .So glad mama and girls had six weeks together, so sad they can’t have more. Memorable post.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Thanks a lot. Six weeks is such a long time compared to what they’re used to; and so short and sad compared to what most of us in the West are used to.

  20. Heartbreaking on a lot of levels.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Yeah – and heartwarming too 🙂

  21. Really beautiful and whole. By “whole” – I mean you’ve acknowledged so many facets of the situation. I can’t imagine the sacrifice so many women make around the world – and it makes me feel awkward and icky that I’m grateful my kids have school so I can get “My Stuff” done.

    Thank you for the dose of humility and reality.

  22. Vanessa says:

    This reminded me that some families are separated – not by choice but by circumstance. Your helper is one determined lady.

  23. Sounds like it was a good learning experience on both sides.

  24. Wow, what a complex situation, and one I hadn’t really heard of before. I think you’re handling it admirably.

  25. Julia says:

    Lovely. Happy Mother’s Day.

  26. love2ann says:

    That’s amazing, what you did. Had a few tears…! 🙂 Too many people treat helpers as invisible faceless servants with zero emotions, and for you guys to do this for your helper speak volumes about your compassion and generosity. I’m sure your two kids will grow up to be wonderful human beings with the same measure of goodness. x

  27. rydayiminlove says:

    Hello. Our Ate has been with us since I was 4 months old. (Yes, months!) That was 30 years ago. Years ago, her mum would come stay with us and we told her to clear the top of the bunk bed and we’d find them squeezing in the bottom bed. I also remembered it being awkward however at some point, things have started to feel a little more “familiar”. Funny bec instead of Ate learning cantonese, I actually learned how to speak Bisaya. I hope you can continue to experience them same love and affection I have from your Ate.

  28. rydayiminlove says:

    My ate’s mother also have a stall in the market selling fish. Her dad used to be a fisherman.

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