I have a parenting problem. I'm hopeful some of you beautiful people will share your vast wisdom with me. From the offset, I want to say I’m more than aware many parents have bigger problems than the one I’m tackling at the moment. I also know this is really a peculiar expat-parenting type of problem that may seem so foreign and so distant, that I come across as elitist, entitled, and snobby. (God, I hope not. Gag.) For those reasons, I’ve struggled deciding whether to even post this; but the reality is, this is my reality right now and what I’m challenged with. A challenge that I wouldn’t be facing at home, so I have no fricking clue what to do.
I fessed-up back in August that we have people who help us around the house and explained the normalcy of it living in a developing country. I was a bit worried mentioning it because I didn't want to come across as Miss Fancy Pants. Really, we're not posh. At all. I promise.
Anyway, a lovely woman helps around the house and on some evenings, if we need a babysitter, she will babysit F.
The other day, I told F to pick-up her toys in the living room. She was reluctant. D, the woman who helps clean, interrupted and said she'd clean-up the toys. Not OK with me. I want to make sure F is responsible for her own things.
So, again, I told my daughter to pick-up her belongings. Her shocking response was, "Why can't D do it? She's the cleaner."
I am absolutely certain I let out a very audible gasp. It's possible my first words were, "Are you kidding me?"
I was mortified and angry and appalled and embarrassed. I wanted her to apologize, but she was adamant, "Well, she IS mom. She's the cleaner."
Nevermind the fact that I'm uncomfortable with anyone being labeled by their occupation. What I really wanted to do was scream, "She is not a 'cleaner.' She is a mother, a woman, a sister, a person. She isn't the goddamned cleaner."
But I had to act fast and not get into a philosophical debate with a five year old. It wouldn’t have been good to say goddamned, either. I had to take a different approach.
Of course, I explained to my daughter that she’s still responsible for her own messes. I reminded her I clean the house, cook, do the dishes, fold her clothes and do the laundry, too. Just not every day. I also reminded her at some point, when we move back to America, there will be no house help.
"Why?" she asked. How could I explain socio-economics to an almost six year old? I just said that most people don't have someone to help clean their home in America.
Look, I know there are many, many valuable lessons expat kids glean from living in different countries. I knew this would be true for F. Expat kids tend to have wide-open minds, global hearts, and the swift ability to adapt. These are qualities I want for F.
On the flip side, before moving to Myanmar and entering expat life again, I was equally worried about certain influences. I didn't want F to get very used to the idea of "staff."
I especially didn't want her to have such a strong sense of entitlement, she felt it unnecessary to take responsibility for her own actions...because someone else would be there to clean up the mess: the toys; the clothes she throws on the floor during a fit; making an insensitive comment; or hurting someone's feelings.
The thing is: there's not always someone there to clean up the messes we make in life. As parents, we can't fix everything. And a third party can't fix it all, either.
I don't want my child to have a message of "no consequence." That you can do whatever you want and nothing will happen. Someone else will take care of it.
There's also the issue of learning life skills. She needs to know how to make her bed, wash dishes, clean-up her toys, throw garbage in the trash can, carry her own backpack, and be independent.
Then there’s this: the very skewed and unjust idea of whose jobs it is to do what in this world.
When I was pregnant with F living in Kenya, an African-American friend told me a terrible story of racism. She explained that a random, Caucasian expat child - maybe around seven years old - walked up to her in a shopping centre in Nairobi, and handed over his trash. My friend was confused. She asked the child why he gave the trash to her. "Throw it away for me!" was his reply.
This child assumed that just because my friend was black, that it was her job to clean-up.
It appears the only black people in his life were house cleaners and drivers and nannies and cooks. (That's a whole other issue.) I was so horrified by this story, that I instantly decided I didn't want to be an expat parent, even though I wouldn’t be/never was someone who only swirled around in expat circles.
For various reasons, that decision didn’t stick. My concerns did, though.
I was so concerned about these combined issues, I told my husband before we moved to Myanmar that:
- I didn't want a nanny.
- I wanted to limit the number of staff to a minimum and have none of them live with us.
- I was happy to have a housekeeper (um, don’t lie: you’d like one, too!), but I wanted her to complete work before F got home from school. I didn’t feel comfortable with our child observing someone cleaning-up our house while we sat back, had a chat, watched a movie, played, worked, wrote, whatever. I don’t feel completely comfortable with it myself.
- If we found an occasional babysitter and that person helped keep the house ship-shape, I didn’t want that individual cleaning and babysitting at the same time. I wanted F to see that person only as a babysitter.
I was adamant.
But it hasn’t worked out like I wanted. Obviously...
F identified D as the person we’ve hired to clean the house. She identifies her first with this, not as her occasional babysitter (which is what my aim had been). Had I stuck to my original idea that there wouldn’t be anyone in our house cleaning when F came home from school, I might not be squirming like I am.
So I have to ask myself some tough questions like: so what if F sees someone cleaning the house? Does it mean I’m not a responsible adult, cleaning up after myself, too? Will having house help make a child less responsible now and in the future?
Well, I’ve met many amazing, polite, kind, sensitive children living here. And every single one of them has house help. And of course, their parents are concerned and loving and worried about their children. Yeah, so I’ve had to have a bit of a talk with myself…even about my philosophy about labels.
Though I have this nice little idealistic idea that we shouldn’t smack down labels on people, F’s logical and smart enough that had I tried to explain my philosophy around this, she would’ve called me out as being a hypocrite.
Thing is: she would’ve been right. We all label people. I label people. (Gulp.) And, the brutal truth is that I have labeled D in front of my child.
I have said to her, “Leave D alone right now. She’s not here today to play with you. She’s not babysitting you. She’s cleaning.” I’ve even said, “We pay D money to help us around the house. She helps us a lot and that’s what she’s supposed to be doing right now, so let her be.”
I’ve set the whole situation up! I’ve totally fed into the entire issue I wanted to avoid in the first place. F only repeated what I’ve said to her, just in a much, much more direct and clear way. Because that’s how she rolls.
So now that I’m Hypocrite #1, I really don’t know what to do. There’s not any manual out there about this. I’ve googled: expat parenting help. Pretty much you just get results on how to help kids transition with the move and deal with culture shock. Really important things, but what about this stuff?
Well, dear you, if you’re still actually reading this one hell of a long post, then thank you. You’re the sweetest thing ever. You’ve completely indulged me.
It’s not lost on me that my great big parenting problem right now is: how to not make my very privileged child (let’s face it: she is privileged) turn into a kid with all sorts of self-entitlement issues. How to make sure I keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. My parenting problem isn’t that she’s getting bullied, that she’s struggling in class, or that I can’t afford school supplies for her.
Yet, here I am, and this is what our life looks like now. It can be surreal. Who knows. Maybe there's some other expat out there needing advice, too.
Which is why I need help and would be grateful for your advice/strategies.
I do have F help around the house. She helps wash dishes and cook. She knows to put her plate in the sink. I tell her to pick up her toys. But I probably don’t do any of those things enough. Perhaps she doesn’t see me doing enough around the house, either.
Maybe a chore chart is in order. I think she’s old enough now. That would solve immediate things.
I don’t know.
Humor me with all your sage advice.