Maids are mothers, too

Maids are mothers, tooFor many expat spouses, the decision to employ affordable live-in help is a no-brainer. It frees up a lot of time that would be otherwise spent on household drudgery and childcare — time that could arguably be better spent elsewhere.

I don’t know what the maid situation is like in other countries, but in Singapore, that role is rarely (if ever) filled by a Singaporean. Instead, the government imports FDWs (Foreign Domestic Workers) from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand.

I didn’t have a live-in helper myself, but 99% the expats I knew did. Some of these maids I met briefly, and some I spent quite a bit of time with over the years, but all shared the same three characteristics:

  1.  They were Filipinas.
  2.  They were hard-working.
  3.  They had children back in the Philippines.

Importing domestic labour is not uncommon, as Jessika Auerbach writes in her eye-opening book, And Nanny Makes Three:

“It’s a fairly simple formula, and one that predictably follows the money: A poor country, rich in nothing but corruption and manpower, will ship its only asset to other, wealthier countries in dire need of cheap labor….The economies of poor Southeast Asian countries rely so heavily on the revenue generated by the laborers they send to work for their oil- and technology-rich neighbors that the money they send home can be those countries’ single largest source of foreign currency.”

This is certainly the case in the Philippines, as the New York Times reported in 2009: “Remittances, which the government says have been rising sharply — from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $17.3 billion in 2009 — now account for more than 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product.”

That’s a lot of money — so much, in fact, that critics claim the Philippine government has come to rely on it to provide necessary services, instead of taking responsibility for strengthening the economy and the domestic job market.

Today, though, I’m thinking more of the human suffering that comes from exporting domestic labour. Filipina maids are treated like heroes in their homeland, but at what cost? These women are forced to choose between bettering their children’s lives financially and being with them physically. They see their little ones once a year (if they’re lucky) and over time, their relationship is in danger of becoming more about materialism than maternalism.

Can you imagine how painful it would be to move to another country and leave your children behind? My part-time helper, N, fussed over my girls incessantly because she missed her own so much. She left the Philippines when her youngest child was only six months old. When my girls were that age, I physically ached for them after being away for just a few hours. The thought of not seeing them for an entire year is gut wrenching.

Irma, one of the Filipina nannies Auerbach interviewed for her book, told her, “I just try not to think of my own children, it hurts too much…. I feel I do the best I can for my children, but it means they grow up without me…. It’s not natural for a mother not to see her children grow up. I hope I do the right thing.”

Today is Mother’s Day in many parts of the world. I’ll be spending time with my mother and mother-in-law to thank them for the love they’ve always shown me. But I’ll also be thinking of the women I met in Singapore, for whom Mother’s Day must be a bittersweet reminder of what they’re achieving … and what they’re missing.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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20 Responses to Maids are mothers, too

  1. When I visited an friend in Hong Kong in 1990, the situation was the same. My friend had a Filapino maid while he was out at work all day long. I stayed home and visited with the maid. She was a mother working in Hong Kong to send money back home for her child. Must be quite hard on the marriages, also.

    I’ve often remarked as a teacher myself, how I spend my whole day teaching other people’s children, but need, in turn tutors’ and maids’ help over the years with my own children. Those maids and tutors also have their own children, who other people are educating at school and raising at home (even with grandmothers’ help). This system really seems strange–we are all raising other people’s children! I really wish we could all be spending a little more time with our own children while they are young.

    Best regards,
    Lynne Diligent

    • Maria says:

      It’s also hard on the single parent who’s left behind to raise the children. When my husband travelled a lot, I found it difficult to be the lone caregiver — and he was only gone for a few weeks, not years. We accepted the situation because his job paid him a lot of money, but it was hard not to get resentful at times.

  2. Maria this is such a heartfelt and heart-wrenching piece, beautifully written. I’ve always felt sad that so many women had to make such a tough choice – raise their own children in poverty or provide a better standard of living by helping raise someone else’s. A very touching post for Mother’s Day.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Linda. It is a heartbreaking decision, and I have no doubt that those choices are made with love. I wonder if the children who are growing up without their mothers see it that way, though. Auerbach’s book touches on the anger some of these kids feel at being “abandoned” so their mothers can raise someone else’s children. It’s not easy to read.

  3. ruby says:

    I have tears on my cheeks. Slavery is everywhere in the 21st century.

    • Maria says:

      I’m sure that’s true, and I did read horrific stories in the Singapore newspapers about maid abuse. But the maids I knew were treated with dignity and were paid what amounted to a small fortune by their home country standards. They were given time off (which is not stipulated by the Employment Act, since it excludes FDWs), cash bonuses at Christmas, and a round-trip ticket back home (I think this was annually but it might have been every 2 years — I can’t remember.)

  4. Kym Hamer says:

    I was on a conference on board the Oriana cruise liner a few years back and I remember talking to the waiter who seemed to pop up at my table for various meal sittings. He was telling me that he was from India (I think? It was a while ago) and that all of them on board work for 6 months then get a couple of weeks off to go back and be with family. When I mentioned that this must be really difficult, he agreed but said that the money and opportunity was so good that it was a great way to provide a better life for his family. Humbling stuff…made me feel a little ‘spoiled’ actually.

  5. amblerangel says:

    All of the domestic help and the nurses in Japan are from the Philipines. My helper is from the Philipines and has been here for 17 years. It’s a very touchy subject for her – most grew up extremely poor- she started working at age 9- but given the extreme poverty there, and their memories of what they suffered, many prefer to have their children benefit from living outside of a slum at the cost of seeing them MAYBE once a year. Additionally, according to her, many of the wealthy change makers there aren’t even aware of the issues that cause these women to leave. It’s a heartbreaking situation.
    Thanks for publishing this post- many don’t treat their helpers like humans, much less mothers.

    • Maria says:

      Seventeen years … wow. Think about the adjustments she and her family would have to make if she ever moved back to the Philippines.

  6. bookjunkie says:

    Thank you for drawing attention to this issue Maria. I think most people do not really think about these ladies have no choice but to leave their own children…just to survive and ensure they have a better future…it’s very sad.

    I look forward to more humane policies in Singapore.

    • Maria says:

      Me too. When I first arrived in Singapore, there was a lot of noise about whether maids should get a day off. I was shocked to read letters to the editor that said things such as, “I feed her and give her a place to sleep. Why should I also give her a day off?” and “If my maid gets a day off, the work doesn’t get done. Why can’t I deduct that day’s wages from her salary?” I notice the MOM website says “Sufficient rest days should also be catered for, as mutually agreed upon between yourself and your FDW.” But unless things have changed since I was there, there’s no law that says it’s illegal to make your maid work 24/7. Maybe that’s why so few women are willing to work in Singapore now — they can make twice as much in Hong Kong, with one day off a week (plus public holidays), and coverage under the Employment Act.

  7. piercex4 says:

    My family and I are moving to the Philippines this summer to teach at the international school in Manila. It’s a strange concept for us – the idea of having household help – and can’t even imagine the sacrifices that these loving women make daily to take care of their family. Thank you for this wonderful post recognizing how much these mothers do for so many children.

  8. Sine says:

    Maria – I was extremely moved by your excellent article, which you could have written word by word about our maid in Singapore. Everything you say applied to her. She is now retired and back in the Philippines, but she spent the largest part of her life away from her own kids and grandkids. There was so much heartbreak – a husband to whom she sent her monthly checks to build a house with but who I suspect drank away most of that, as the house never seemed to make any progress, and a son who died from some disease while she was gone. We still keep in touch with her and send money regularly but of course she still has so little. It does make you wonder whether you’re exploiting people when they come work for you at such a low salary, but what you say is true, it makes their lives and the lives of their families back home infinitely better, allowing them to send their kids to private school for instance.
    The day off in Singapore – aaaah, we remember that so well. When we were there, it was customary to give Sunday off, but I don’t know if it was the law. You also had to give 2 weeks home leave every 2 years. We gave our maid an additional afternoon off every Wednesday so she could run errands (as Sundays were consumed with church) and she felt like a queen and attracted the envy of all her friends. In fact, I was invited to some kind of big assembly at her church one day, where they gave me an “employer of the year” award, just for the additional benefits we gave her, which of course from my perspective were the bare minimum (we also had our landlord install hot water in the maid’s quarters, which I was horrified to find out only had cold water).
    Thank you for shining a light on these brave women on mother’s day!

    • Maria says:

      I remember seeing groups of maids every Sunday, enjoying their day off. There was always a crowd of them in the park beside Wheelock Place, and of course the remittance offices were crowded with them. Your story reminds me of a novel I recently read about Filipina nannies in Los Angeles called My Hollywood (by Mona Simpson.) The nannies were always competing to see who had the best employer. In Singapore, installing hot water in the maid’s quarters would automatically push you to the top of the heap! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Crystal says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    My helper B is also a mom. She had her daughter at a young age, and made the tough choice to go into domestic service to send enough money home that her daughter could go to a good school and have a better life. She’s been ambivalent about her boyfriend because he wants more kids and she doesn’t–she knows her daughter’s best shot at that better future is to be an only child.

    I can’t imagine making that kind of sacrifice. Where being the best possible mom means being a physically absent mom. It’s the kind of choice that makes me realize how fragile all of this really is…and how minor many of my “agonizing choices” (right now I’m whingeing on facebook about how my favorite boy’s name is super popular and how I refuse to use a super popular name–and no, I don’t know the sex yet, just playing around with names) really are.

    • Maria says:

      The situations these women are in reminds me of the Judgment of Solomon and the mother who was prepared to give her child away to save his life. What awful decisions they have to make. It sure puts things in perspective for the rest of us, though.

  10. J says:

    In poor countries, many domestic worker girls are threatened under very bad conditions.

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