Notes From Abroad: Saying Goodbye To The Help I Never Wanted

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Two years ago I got the nod from my husband that we’d be moving en famille thousands of miles east to the unfamiliar metropolis of Shanghai, home to 32 million people who don’t believe in personal space… or diapers. I embarked – as I’m wont to do when smacked with unsolicited change – on the five stages of grief: denial for the first few months, followed by anger, bargaining and depression. Getting to the “acceptance” stage took a lot of encouragement from family and friends, who met my reluctance alternately with chastisement (get a grip!) and opportunism (so, how’s bout we all come stay at Christmas?). But those who knew from expat life in Asia snapped me out of my funk by filling me in on that universal truth.

“But Ellen,” they whispered, “you’ll have help.”

Help? Me? Never.

I’m that martyr mom who picks up her kids early from school. Who apologizes for asking the cleaning woman to clean. Then jumps in and does it herself while the cleaner drinks tea.

I am not the type of mother who has a maid.

My husband, rather justifiably deeming me bonkers, hired someone anyway. Nora arrived for her first day of work during a heatwave of rash-inducing humidity, with us all jetlagged, culture shocked and sleeping on boxes.

We got used to Nora very, very quickly.

She introduced us to the markets, the grocery stores, the few local idylls where children congregated. She developed an unusually easy rapport with the kids, worked evenings so my husband and I could explore on our own, acted as a translator between us and the movers, the repairmen, the dry-cleaner. She even played Girl Friday when I needed to set up work calls and penetrate the impenetrable Chinese bureaucracy. Inside, however, I was dying a little bit each day.

In Asia there are two types of expat mother. There’s the kind who has her driver wait in the car while she sips Italian coffee and laments to her friends that you can’t find good help these days. Then there are the apologists who strive to look busy even when they’d rather be napping as long as the help is around. They’re the ones who – at the risk of enraging the first type – overpay.

You tend to see fewer of the latter type, which is why I find myself, most afternoons, the only mother in a quorum of nannies running after my children’s scooters… when I really should be at my desk working.

Why haven’t I been able to find some middle ground? A recent post on the New York Times’s Motherlode blog asks a similar question. “What is it,” asks writer Lisa Belkin, “about household help that touches such a nerve?”

Perhaps we have too much time on our hands to obsess about it. We have the help to thank for that.

More likely we take to heart the sad displays of poverty all around us and despair of the chasm between the classes. We’re so lucky, we think. Why can’t we take on just a little more?

True, we have our own troubles. We’re apart from our extended families and friends. We’ve left behind our homes and the most cumbersome of our favorite things. We barely speak the language. We’re lonely. And often our kids are experiencing the same loss, which they can’t handle half as well.

Still, must that mean we can’t cope without staff?

A month ahead of our return back home to the West I managed, between both our sobs, to give Nora her notice. She had cherished her opportunity to work with us, to help normalize our chaos of a household. And, frankly, she appreciated the time away from her own rambunctious young son, who was lucky enough to spend her work hours with his grandparents (even she had Help!). She wasn’t interested in my Western-style aspirations for her: to find work as a translator, to start a domestic-help agency. After all, she was already making more than the average university graduate.

That, of course, is why Asia needs middle-class families with Western incomes to help keep the working class afloat.

Nora will find another family to help, and they will help her to survive another year or two of life in this crazy place. Now I realize the saddest thing is that it won’t be us.

(Photo: OnTask)