Angst over hiring a helper

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I did not want to get a maid until I realised engaging a cleaning service is double the cost of a full-time helper

Growing up without a maid, I learnt two sets of essential life skills.

One was how to make my bed, clean my room, wash my toilet and launder my clothes.

The other was how to develop a high tolerance for dirt so I wouldn't have to do any of the above as often as my mother, who did the bulk of the housework, would have liked.

The one thing I never learnt, however, was how to be comfortable around other people's maids.

Unaccustomed to the delicate power balance between employer and domestic worker, I constantly overcompensate in my interactions with my friends' maids - or helpers, as my friends like to call them, as though they are Santa's little elves.

My smiles at them are always too bright, my efforts to remember their names too earnest and my offers of help too extravagant.

As my friends blithely leave their dirty dishes on the dining table, confident in the knowledge that they will be magically whisked away and cleaned, I conscientiously carry mine to the sink and wash them myself - over the maid's protestations and to the intense awkwardness of everyone else.

Whenever a maid does something for me that I failed to pre-empt, I find myself apologising profusely for the inconvenience she has to go through to make my life more convenient.

My epic failure at dealing with maids stems from my difficulty in reconciling two opposite views about them.

On one hand, it makes economic sense for full-time workers like myself to outsource household chores and other low- value tasksto focus on higher-value activities such as jobs, spending time with families or even just getting more sleep.

On the other hand, the whole concept of maids seems like too much of a bourgeois, even colonial, luxury: having a live-in foreign dependant who is basically a full-time servant.

I worry that employing a maid would gradually make me lazy and despotic. Worse, it might send a signal to my children that not all adults are equal, and that some can be treated less humanely, depending on where they're from and how much you're paying them.

As a result, I've always insisted to anyone who would listen that I would never hire a maid.

They all laughed at me, but so far, it's worked out pretty well.

Thanks to once-a-week cleaning services and relatively small homes, my husband and I have gotten by in our five years of marriage without much more trouble than the occasional squabble over whose turn it is to fold the clothes (always his).

But I may soon have to rethink my position on maids.

My husband and our cats are moving back from Japan, after which our little family will relocate to a larger home.

With both of us juggling demanding jobs, two attention-seeking pets and a much bigger floor area to clean, we will definitely need some household help, especially when we have children.

When I checked the rates for part-time house cleaning, however, I was nearly tempted to switch jobs and become a cleaner myself.

Having a housekeeper come in just twice a week, for the minimum required period of four hours each time, would likely cost us more than $600 a month.

We would still have to clean up after our very messy cats and ourselves the other five days of the week, not to mention have to eat out most of the time.

Alternatively, we could order a daily food delivery service, which would send us hot dinners every weekday for at least $200 a month.

With children, the cost would jump further - full-time infantcare costs as much as $2,000 a month, of which the Government subsidises up to $600.

Compared with that, live-in maids who do it all - cook, clean and take care of their employers' kids - are a downright bargain.

They work six or even seven days a week, for a quarter of the price their ad hoc replacements would cost.

So it looks like I had it all wrong. In Singapore, hiring a maid isn't a luxury - it's doing without a maid that I may not be able to afford.

But just as I was starting to come around to having prices override my principles, a conversation with another friend set me back on the fence.

He told me he pays his maid $550 a month, which he said was on the high side.

"It would have been cheaper," he explained. "But I pay her $80 more because she signed away all her days off for two years."

To me, that summed up everything that is problematic about the maid system in Singapore.

Very few Singaporeans would willingly work seven days a week for two years, and yet we don't blink an eye when others offer to do so for our convenience.

In fact, I doubt any Singaporean would agree to do the backbreaking work of cleaning houses for a miserly $400 to $500 a month. But still, most of us complain if our maids ask for a raise.

Even if money is not an issue, other difficulties arise: dubious maid agencies, unreliable maids, abusive employers. Maids are relatively cheap, but it could prove a costly gamble to take a complete stranger into your home.

I still haven't decided whether I should get a maid and am hoping to put off the decision for as long as I can.

After all, there are plenty of families in Singapore who get along perfectly fine without maids.

With some determination and a lot of hard work, hopefully we can be one of them too.

fiochan@sph.com.sg