Domestic staff – tips for success
A few mornings a week, I drop my girl at school and then I sneak off. I hide in my favourite cafe, sipping a flat white and tapping away at my computer. This is my retreat from the chaos of the city and the responsibilities of parenthood. I write, I work on my photographs. I spend this time connecting with myself, being creative, building an identity separate from my children and my husband’s job. I do things that bring me joy.
Meanwhile, my boy is at home with our helper, Ibu. She’ll put him down for his nap, tidy up the detritus of our morning routine, and then pick up my daughter in time for lunch. While I am outside working, she keeps my home in order and loves my kids as if they were her own.
The path to finding a trusted helper wasn’t straightforward. We made a few mistakes along the way. But we’ve also gained some insight about how to find someone who fits us and our needs, someone who makes our home a better place to be. Here’s what I’ve learned about finding help when you’re living abroad.
Know your needs
Think carefully about what you want in a helper. Do you want someone who will clean and cook, and maybe watch your kid for an hour while he naps? Or do you want someone who will take an active role in raising your children? The qualities you will look for might be quite different depending on what needs you have.
Also consider what sort of personality you want in your home. Are you prone to loneliness? Maybe you need a cheerful companion? Perhaps you value privacy over fellowship? Do you want someone who will take initiative and make decisions? Or do you prefer to give directions and make plans yourself. You need to know what you want before you can find what you need.
Wait for Mr or Mrs Right
After the stress and chaos of moving country, spending days completely discombobulated and totally lost, it’s pretty easy to jump at the first person who offers to help sweep your floors and wash your dishes. But wait. You’re inviting someone into your home, your sanctuary. It’s important that they are right for you and your family.
The best case scenario is to hire a helper who has worked for people you know. Our beloved Ibu worked for two years caring for my friend’s children. I watched her doting on those boys, and I knew she was a gem. When our friends returned to their home country, I offered Ibu a job. I knew that I could trust her, I knew she’d love my kids, and I knew she’d be a good companion for me. And I was right.
If you don’t know anyone who can refer a candidate, the interview process becomes so important. Take time to interview a number of candidates. Really look, listen, and pay attention. Watch how they move about your home, watch how they interact with your kids. And then, listen carefully to your intuition. If something feels off, trust yourself and keep looking.
When you’ve settled on a candidate, make sure to check references. Call their previous employer. Make sure everything checks out. If you are leaving your home and / or your children in the care of someone else, you want to be sure that you can trust them.
Say what you mean, mean what you say
Before our beloved Ibu came to work with us, we had another helper who was also a loved and valued member of our household. Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out with her, and a big reason for that is I didn’t keep my cultural assumptions in check.
When Mbak started with us, I treated her as a friend, rather than as a respected employee. I often invited her to eat dinner with us, or said things like, “Help yourself to some food” as I was leaving in the evening. Later I found out that she was talking food from the house. For me, that was stealing. For her, she was entitled to it. I had said “help yourself.”
I failed to establish clear boundaries and be clear about my expectations.
Be exceedingly clear about what you expect what is and isn’t okay. For example, it is okay if my helper asks for an apple. It is not okay if she fills her backpack with fruit out of the fruit bowl. I ran into trouble when I didn’t make this clear.
As expats we have to navigate cross-cultural communication as well as language barriers. It is doubly important to be clear, open and honest. Say exactly what you mean. Don’t assume anything.
Be a good boss
It is so important to me to treat my helper well. Not only will it ensure that I don’t have a constant turnover of helpers, but she’s looking after my kids, so I want to make sure she’s happy. And even more importantly, she’s a human equal to me in value and dignity, and she deserves to be treated as such.
Pay above market rate, because after all, you get what you pay for. Offer things like overtime pay, paid holidays, sick days, a lunch hour. And don’t expect your helper to be able to do what you yourself can’t.
Be accommodating of cultural and religious needs. For example, our Mbak is Muslim, so I would try to accommodate her praying schedule and I would not ask her to feed my children pork while they were in her care.
Having a helper is such a privilege. It is one of the benefits that make living abroad so attractive. It is also a wonderful way to contribute to the host country, by employing good people under fair conditions to do good work. With just a little bit of time, a little consideration, and lots of kindness, you can make sure that this relationship is the best it can be.
By Erica Knecht
Erica Knecht is a photographer, writer, and general nomadic type currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia with her husband and two kids. Erica loves drinking flat whites, admiring the sunlight glowing through banana leaves at four thirty PM, and riding around the city on the back of a motorbike. She came to Asia almost ten years ago with the promise of going home “in a couple of years.” Somehow, she forgot to leave.
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