Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wanted: Expat Parenting Advice

 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?"


Uh. Yeah…

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.

Thank you!


  1. Becky firstly please don't beat yourself up about this because you are a good Mum - the best! Freya as you say is living in a World where you have help because of the situation you are in. She is forthright and says how it is and it's unfortunate that the comments are in front of said person but that's because Freya isn't being sneaky about it she is saying what she thinks is the obvious. The only thing I can think of is asking her to be polite to the cleaner and perhaps even say sorry to her? Then maybe you could just get Freya to clear up her own toys and also the chart sounds a good idea. Freya could do a job everyday whereby she is rewarded by an outing, or a dvd or dare I say it candy lol or maybe just earn a little pocket money:). Don't be too embarrassed though Becky as I remember Sophie upsetting many a person when she was Freya's age and a little older simply because she is intelligent too and said it how it was!

    1. Thank you, Gail! :)

      Your suggestions are great. She and I had a long chat after school. I didn't bring it up in the context of the housekeeper, but just simply mentioned that she would have some chores, asked her if she could come up with a couple she likes, and talked about what those rewards would be. She really liked the idea of getting a Jessie toy from the local toy store. (Go figure!) Little does she know, I bought a gigantic one for her for her bday!

      Thank you! And yes - I think F and Sophie are quite similar!

  2. Hi. Only just started reading your blog, I ran into it while looking for stuff on living in Yangon as I'm moving there in January.
    I'm also no sage.

    I can empathise with your problem, but not wholly as i don't have children. I can give you my thoughts on it though...
    I have lived in Thailand and Singapore over the last few years and had to come to terms with the "staff" issue myself. I hated the idea so refused to have a helper (as they're called in Singapore) live in. Apart from the fact that the maids rooms in condos are tiny boxes with no A/C and they get paid a relative pittance, now i'd have to put some pants on to go to the fridge in the middle of the night! Just in case.
    In Thailand i just got a cleaner in twice a week while i was at work. It's like magic. The house is spotless when you get home.
    I was put off having a live in maid after meeting a 5 year old Australian boy with a Filipino accent. Also they would most certainly not live in a box, the spare bedroom would be theirs.
    In Singapore, however, i shamefully relented, even on the bedroom thing. Ouch.

    Treat them like people and not cleaners. That's what i thought. I know that sounds obvious but it's actually really hard to do all of the time. After all they are cleaners, people usually like to feel they have worked for their money...but a bit of mutual respect goes a long way.
    People like to feel like they are people, if that makes sense. Let her clean for you, let her do what she is paid to do.
    But wait a minute... "Jeez, this person spends their entire life at work!". That must be terrible. Even their days off. I a terrible person for thinking like this? Am I lazy? WTF..I've got a maid!
    My whole belief system comes crashing down in spectacular fashion.
    I still get up the next day and put my immaculately ironed shirt on though.

    I'm leaving Singapore now and have to say goodbye to her. I will miss her, and the shirts. I will worry about her. I hope the next people treat her well. OMG now sound like im leaving a pet at the SPCA. I really am a terrible person.

    1. Oh, Alex, your comment made me laugh and I was really grateful to read it. Thank you!

      I really appreciate your honesty and just putting it out there and saying it the way it is. Um, can I just say that I TOTALLY get you on the fact you'd have to put pants on to go to the fridge in the middle of the night? OK, so since you ended up having someone live with you, in your spare bedroom (OMG), *how* did you get over having to be completely dressed all the time? We don't have anyone living with us, but it absolutely drives me crazy that I can't walk around the way I used

      I think, since we're being so brutally honest, part of me has really tried to balance just being my normal, open, warm self with staff while at the same time realizing that I am also their employer, their supervisor/manager. Thank god I've been in management before, but even then, I sometimes found it hard. Sometimes people don't like super nice managers. Sometimes people think you're a push over. I'm still really nice, but at the same time, there have been one or two times I've been frustrated because, well, rules have been broken. I try then to remember I'm the employer....

      ...but it's not that simple, just as you said. Especially in a culture where not losing face is so incredibly important...

      I do not think you're a terrible person. You're so not. I just think it's really strange and kind of hard to navigate this part of being an expat. Maybe it's not hard for people who have been expats for years or lived with having help growing up. But it's very foreign to me (and to you, too! SO glad I'm not alone!) on top of all the other foreign-ness that I don't know how to handle certain things.

      SO get the whole belief system crashing down. (sigh) I don't know what to do. Let's have coffee when you move here! LOL We can talk about it and try to figure it out! Maybe I should write a blog post about it and try to generate expats to give their advice.

      I would miss the shirts, too. You don't sound like someone leaving a pet at the SPCA. (When we lived in Ethiopia, we took our two adopted street dogs and our two staff to Kenya with us. So who sounds like what now?)

      :) I really hope you keep commenting here because you totally made my day, Alex.

    2. Well i definitely will not be getting a maid in Yangon. I don't need one see...i've managed perfectly well without one in the past. Who really needs one? Anyway, i'll be living on my own in Burma. I'm quite a tidy person really, deep down, somewhere.

      Awww but those shirts. One can only gaze in wonder at never having to wear the only ironed shirt in the wardrobe, you know, the one that hasn't fitted properly since before xmas. Definitely doesn't go with the trousers. I also don't wear odd socks anymore.

      So here's the deal...i am in fact a messy so-and-so. I'm quite spectacularly lazy when it comes to housework as well, it's boring.

      I've done the volunteer thing in my time, living on a pittance for the greater good of mankind sorta thang, (is that volunteering?).
      So believe me I really really really appreciate the position i'm in now because of that. I'm a lucky plucker getting paid to live in amazing places like this, meet genuinely kind, warm and generous people, experiencing cultures and concepts way different than anything i ever saw in Leeds, I'll be telling thee lass.

      So i found myself thinking, why not get a maid. Spread the wealth, a little bit. If i get can get my shirts ironed, a nice clean bathroom and my sheets changed every week, and someone else gets to feed their family (or in some cases build a sodding great house in the Philippines). Then why not. As long as i respect them and appreciate them for what they do for me. Then why not.

      I probably will get a "helper" in Yangon, but not a live in one anymore. I never felt entirely comfortable with it really. It was nice and all, but just not my thing.
      Erm, yeah, errr...anyway she refused the spare bedroom and slept in the box room at the back of the apartment with no aircon. Phew. There. I've said it. (you know if you read that really quickly it doesn't sound as bad)

    3. lmao! I read the last line really quickly and no, it didn't sound as bad. But at the same time, what are you to do? I'm sure it's because she wanted to seem proper.

      You're right. And you hit the nail on the head, as did Indigene. People who are guards, housekeepers, nannies, cooks, drivers earn a fairly good wage for where they live. I had a long, long chat with D, the woman who cleans our house. She is divorced. She had been responsible for her son, her mother, and her brother. Her mum was abusive and recently died. D - literally - began to dance (no, I am not joking) in my living room when she explained that now she is free, she is happy. With this job, she can support her son, herself, and her younger brother. She can do as she pleases. She is independent. And she was fiercely happy. I was completely in awe of her as she danced and twirled to show me how happy she was "to be free." Some of her freedom was from not being in a bad marriage and with her abusive mother. The other part of it was that she has quite a very flexible schedule working for us, she works about 4.5 hours a day, 4 days a week, and on that, she can live and be OK. And I am happy for her... ;)

  3. Becky, I spent a better part of my life living in a country where "helpers" are common. But as a child, I was taught I was the kid and a kid had certain responsibilities, period. When I asked why the helper couldn't do it for me, I was told. "the helper is here to help the adults, who work everyday and have many responsibilities and the helpers are paid to help lighten the load of the adults/parents; and as a child, I needed to learn what my responsibilities were, which were at the time, going to school, keep my room clean, picking up after myself and respecting my elders. Our rooms were not cleaned by the helpers, we cleaned them. So maybe you might want to have a conversation with your helper about what your daughter is responsible for and tell the helper, she must stick to that. It doesn't matter, if you're a stay-at-home Mom or not, being an adult has privileges, and a great deal of responsibilities!

    It will take your daughter some time to realize that things are different in developing countries and that "helping" is sometimes the only jobs available for many women in these countries. Respect, common courtesy and good manners are what you want her to give the "helper", who will appreciate that, a thousand-fold. I think what you don't want is your child to think that because a person does this kind of work, that they are less than.

    The fact that you had these feelings and put them out there says a lot about your wonderful character and as that little one grows, she'll learn. :)

    P.S. I wish I could have a "helper" now! I just can't afford it in the U.S.!

    1. Oh, Indigene, thank you. <3

      I honestly can't tell you how much I got from your comment. I really love how your parents described why the house help were not going to do certain things for you, and kinda put you right in your place, reminding you were a child and there is a difference between being a child and being an adult and the privileges that go along with that. I really needed to read that because I think that I sometimes (maybe often) let my daughter have a bit more power than she should. I probably always have. Not in all things and I do set a lot of limits for her, but I'm sure some of my family members wouldn't agree. :)

      After reading your post, I have decided that it's very good for F to clean her own room. We made a chore chart tonight. Well, I did most of it, but had her input. I will tell the housekeeper tomorrow not to clean her room anymore. (I have a feeling this will be a bit of a battle with the housekeeper!)

      I wish you could have someone tidy up the house for you, too. I'm not too ashamed to admit that I secretly hope to squirrel away enough money to allow that luxury when we move back to America! LOL Would be so nice for you, wouldn't it, so you can focus on your art!

    2. I'm glad, let me know how it works out! It's hard sometimes to walk the parent line, since our children are so adorable and precious to us! I used to tell myself everyday, "They're being train for the world, not just for my pleasure!" LOL! Now I have these two adult socially conscious individual, who now let me know how narrow-minded I am at times!!

      With the helper, you might want to tell her, that you love and appreciate what she does for your family, but appeal to her cultural sense. Let her know what's really important that your child learns certain things, in order for her to be successful in her country of origin, and independence is a must in your culture, along with good manners and patience. I think my brother paid his helper, extra, not to help his kids! LOL! They always wondered why they couldn't convince her to change her mind about helping them. Dang, children are resourceful and they're job is to watch us 24/7 and they're marvelous at it!

      I love reading your blog! Hang in there, Ex-pat Momma Diva! :)

    3. Indigene, you're the best. :) <3

      OMG - I love that your brother paid someone extra NOT to do work. LOL I get it though. Thankfully, my conversation with D went very well and she totally understood I didn't want her to clean F's room anymore. (Is it bad I told her she could still sweep/mop, though? lol)

      Yes, it is def becoming more and more obvious to me just how much my daughter watches. It's scary. She's a mirror. And sometimes I'm proud and sometimes I cringe and think, 'Oh, no. I don't do that do I?' But I do. And so she's my check. My radar. Well, unintentionally.

      I think it's funny that your kids tell you you're narrow minded sometimes, Ms Motorcycle riding woman! :)

    4. Becky, you sound like you've got a great handle on the situation! I can honestly say, our "helpers" survived us and our children! LOL! Little ones are challenging, but then again, so are the big ones, my days are filled with college visits and applications for my "baby", who will be 18 in a couple of months! And yes, my kids, think they're the parents of me, now! LOL! Everything comes full circle. :)

    5. Thank you so much, Indigene!
      You are the best. :-)

      Funny that your children now are trying to parent you!! YIKES!!


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