Too close for comfort


    From afar, Tammy Kwok seemed like one of those women – a respected partner in a global law firm with a supportive husband, three gorgeous children, and juggling it all with true poise and in a designer wardrobe to top it off.

    But underneath the seemingly perfect exterior, Tammy harboured a grievance that never allowed her to feel completely harmonious with herself. There was another woman who knew her children and husband as well as she did, if not better, and they also adored that woman back. That “other woman” was her domestic helper.

    At times, the jealousy and turmoil were too much to suppress and Tammy truly despised her helper. But when rationality allowed her to see clearly, she knew she could not live without her either. In fact, there were too many occasions when she was extremely grateful and thankful for her presence. Then she would berate herself for feeling like her helper was stealing her family away from under her nose.

    “I remember a few evenings coming home from an especially stressful day at work and opening the door to the sound of laughter and my children all talking enthusiastically at once,” says Tammy. I would quietly poke my head in the room so they couldn’t see me and I would watch my helper serving them their dinner as each of them, with excited looks and animated voices, would tell her about their school day. My heart would just sink. It should have been me doing exactly what she was doing.

    “Later in the evening, when I tucked the children into bed, I would ask them what they thought about our helper. Inside myself, I was secretly hoping I would hear some complaints or that she was not up to speed in some areas. But instead, they told me how nice and fun she was. They even asked if she could join us on our upcoming holiday. Suddenly, it repelled me to hear them even utter her name.”

    Alternating emotions

    It’s a love-hate relationship like no other. How could you possibly loathe someone who cares for your children with so much love and kindness, as if they were their own? But it is exactly that same warmth and tenderness towards your little ones that makes you seethe with envy.

    It’s a continuous inner turmoil that most mothers around the world would never experience or understand. However, many a mother in Hong Kong can relate to Tammy’s erratic emotions at some level or another – especially those working full-time and long hours.

    Talitha Castan, a full-time working mother of a four-year-old son, works at a top investment bank. About a year ago, she was leading a team on a high-profile project for a very demanding client. Her team included two members who had just been transferred from other parts of the business and were new to her division, and they could not keep up with their assignments and tasks. Talitha continually needed to stay late at the office to patch up their deficient work from the day while her own boss in New York, where they were about to start their day, waited for the information.

    “When I think back, I didn’t really see my son on most weekdays. By the time I got home, he was already in bed every night. And in the mornings, I was only able to spend 30 minutes with him before I needed to dash off to work. So, I can’t really blame my helper for my son growing so close to her. She was really the primary person who he spent all his time with every day. It’s only natural that a bond would develop. But I never realised how strong that bond was becoming.”

    On weekends, Talitha attempted to compensate for all her time away from her son and tried desperately to build an even stronger bond with him. She spent every sleeping and waking minute with him and requested her helper to stay in the background. But instead, it backfired.

    “He would constantly ask for our helper because I guess he was not used to her not being around. That truly irritated me but the real wake-up call happened when we went out for a meal and I realised that I didn’t even know what foods he liked. And when I read him books, he asked why I couldn’t do it in the same funny voice as ‘Ya-ya’. I had heard all these stories before, but now it was happening to me. I have to admit, I was devastated. I had spent my whole career working hard to climb the corporate ladder and here I was, competing with my helper.

    “I really started to feel that I was ‘losing’ him when he was very ill with a high fever and frequent vomiting one night. He was delirious and inconsolable, and I tried so hard to soothe him. Nothing could pacify him until our helper came over and he threw himself into her arms, curled up, and then calmed down. At that moment, it was me who had tears streaming down my face.”

    Talitha decided that she needed to get control of her home life again and consciously chose to cut back on her work commitments. She made a pact with herself to get home from work one hour earlier every day so that she could bathe her son and do the bedtime tasks. She also arranged to take one afternoon off every week so that they could go on an outing together. It is slowly making a difference, not only to him but also to her. She feels there is a better balance between her work and home life, and the new circumstances have alleviated a lot of the tension with her helper.

    Who’s your mama?

    The strong attachment of a child to their helper does not only occur with mothers who are working full-time. Aria Dagmar, originally from Austria, is a full-time mother of a one-year-old son. She admits that her son is very attached to their helper and when he first started speaking, he called their helper ‘Mama’. It was very disheartening and, at first, Aria’s helper only encouraged his behaviour.

    “When my son was saying ‘Mama’, she would repeat it back, so it reinforced in his mind that he was doing the right thing. She was encouraging him. She wasn’t doing it intentionally, but she thought she was doing the right thing. And so he thought he was doing the right thing.”

    Since Aria was not working, she immediately tried to rectify the situation by spending more time with her son and through more open communication with her helper.

    “The whole thing was very upsetting to me but I just tried to spend more time with my son. I took him out more and made sure it was me who woke him up from his nap and got him his lunch. I was trying to show him that I was the mommy.”

    Aria stresses that you need to stick to your own commitments and promises. For example, if you commit to feeding your child lunch every day, you need to carry it through or else you’ll just end up harbouring negative feelings towards yourself. She also feels that it’s important to decide what your boundaries are and to be clear to your helper about what you will and will not tolerate. She suggests that one of the most critical steps to take is to engage in open and immediate communication if something bothers you, rather than allowing it to build up and escalate.

    “If I see something that I am not pleased about, I’ll talk to her about it right away because if I don’t, I just keep dwelling on it in my mind, which makes me increasingly upset,” says Aria. “So, I’ve come up with a way to let her know as politely as possible if something is bothering me and to ask her to do it differently.”

    Good cop/bad cop

    As the children grow, discipline often creates contention between the mother and helper. Lisa Tong is a full-time working mother of two girls, aged three and five, who enjoys her job as an IT manager. She found that her daughters often took solace with their helper during times when Lisa was instilling discipline.

    “My helper does spoil them and always says ‘yes’ to everything. There’s not much disciplining and she often gives them what they want,” says Lisa. “So, most often, the kids ask for my helper when I get very disciplinary and they want a way out.”

    Lisa tried to solve the problem by asking her helper to abide by the disciplining rules that she had set. But, in most cases, the helper could not implement them the way that Lisa would do.

    Francesca Sun had similar tensions in her household. The Chinese-American full-time mother of two girls, aged two and three, is the first to admit that she does not have half the amount of patience as her helper when it comes to misbehaving children. Hence, her children grew quite close to their helper and would run to their helper instead of their mum when they hurt themselves. It also did not help matters that Francesca and her helper had different perspectives on how the children should behave.

    “At meal times, I was focused on making sure the children finished all their food. At bedtimes, I was focused on getting them into bed by a specific time,” says Francesca. “Meanwhile, my helper didn’t see finishing a plate as a goal and felt that as long as they ate something off the plate, her job was done! Bedtimes under my helper’s watch were not nearly as strict with the kids going to bed after a cartoon show and half a dozen trips to the toilet. I became the ‘bad cop’ and my helper became the ‘good cop’ and I hated playing that role.”

    Ultimately, Francesca devised a solution that enabled her to “switch roles” with her helper occasionally.

    “Since the most difficult tasks in our house involved getting the children to eat and to bed, I took a step back and let my helper run the show,” explains Francesca. “I was precise to her about my rules and asked her to execute them as close to my expectations as possible. No doubt, it also became difficult for her to try coaxing the kids to eat more food and shuttling them into bed by 8pm. Naturally, there was a lot of screaming, fussing and food splattering.

    “That left me opportunities to reward them at the end of a meal or going into their room to read a bedtime story and tucking them in. This new system completely removed the tension and frustrations I had at mealtime and bedtime.”

    Francesca realised that she needed someone with whom to switch roles and, in doing so, she did not feel resentful of her helper any longer. “My children used to like our helper more because she never had to do the disciplining,” said Francesca. “So as soon as we were working together to set order with the children, I was no longer seen as the ‘bad cop’.”

    No mother is ever going to feel 100 per cent comfortable seeing her child rushing into the arms of another caregiver. But, as these very honest mums have shown, there are always strategies to redress the balance.

    What can you do when there is friction with your helper because your children seem to favour or adore her more than your comfort zone can tolerate? Andreas Rosboch, author of Hiring and Managing Domestic Help, offers a few sensible tips. 
    • While you should set clear boundaries and guidelines with regards to the helper’s tasks, do not be afraid to let your helper “in” with regards to affection to and from the children. Children, especially young ones, do not ration love. They will not love you less because there is a helper around, just like they don’t love you less because they love Grandma and Grandpa.
    • Ensure you spend quality time with your children. A helper can be a big help here as she can free you from doing household chores.
    • Be there for big events like school recitals, and also for potentially traumatic things like doctor and dentist visits.
    • While the helper should have the power to discipline the kids as needed, don’t delegate this entirely to her just because you want to be the “cool parent”.
    • Don’t be afraid to talk to your helper about the children’s behaviour and emotions. Overall, ensure you have a continual dialogue with your helper about family matters. It is important for the kids to have consistent fostering from all caregivers.
    • “Know” your helper. She should not be your best friend (not a good idea since she is your employee), but a good – even friendly – working relationship is a must. This will ensure there is little or no awkwardness and defuse potential misunderstandings.

    Subscribe to our newsletter!

    Stay up-to-date with all the latest news, views and giveaways in Hong Kong