Maids in mummy role

SINGAPORE - Programme manager Adelynn Yen did not like her first Filipino domestic helper to reschedule her elder daughter's playgroup sessions without first informing her.

Neither did she like her helper to feed her daughter certain foods.

It took her about six to nine months to teach her 27-year-old helper not to overstep boundaries and make decisions regarding her daughter without consulting her.

Ms Yen, 30, recalls a conversation with her helper: "I said, 'We work 20 hours a day, and you have the better part of the day with her. When I am home, I want to catch my time with my daughter.'

"After that, she knew to be hands-off with my girl when we were at home."

Her words were not as harsh as those uttered in the award-winning local film Ilo Ilo, where a mother says to her maid regarding her son: "I'm his mother, not you."

But Ms Yen's experience is one shared by many working parents in Singapore who have to rely on domestic helpers to look after their children.

Ms Florence Lim, director of the MWS Covenant Family Service Centre, says that emotional attachments are a concern, particularly for mothers.

Ms Lim, 56, says: "It's the maternal instinct and a mother's jealousy that makes her more sensitive to any slights.

"She wants to be the first person her child greets or runs to to give a big hug or say, 'I miss you'."

Family counsellors note three areas of closeness - physical, mannerisms and emotional.

Parents are fine with the physical aspects of closeness, such as making breakfast and taking the child to school and back home The matters of the heart are a trickier area to negotiate.

Focus On The Family's counselling manager, Ms Tan Soh Hiang, 54, says it is wise for a helper to keep a "safe emotional distance".

This allows her to love another person's child without "subsuming" the parent's role as the main caregiver.

Ms Tan says: "The maid should always point the child to the parents when the child confides in her."

If, for instance, the child cries to her about a classmate who took her pencil box or being picked on, "the helper could say, 'Oh dear, that's not good', soothe the child, but should add, 'Let's tell your mummy about this' and inform her employer."

For national serviceman Jason Ong, his 35-year-old Filipino helper, Ms Mae Ann Illisan, who has been with the family for about a decade, was his emotional safety net.

"I talked to her about boy-girl stuff which I was embarrassed to talk to my parents about," recalls 22-year-old Mr Ong, who has a younger brother aged 18. He adds: "I saw her on equal status as my parents."

His parents - a poultry businessman father who travelled to Malaysia daily and a food-stall helper mother - were too busy to find it an issue. They declined to be interviewed.

Ms Illisan is no longer a refuge but a "chat buddy", says Mr Ong, who talks to her about his army days.

MWS Covenant Family Service Centre's Ms Tan notes another concern for parents: filial imprinting.

This is a psychology term to describe how kids "assimilate patterns in mannerism, accent or attitude" of their caregiver whom they are close to.

Ms Tan explains: "It could be the way the helper, as the first carer, holds a pencil or cup, or her accent or attitude towards things that imprints itself on the child."

Food distribution businessman R. Kumar, 43, notices this in his neighbour's children, who are the peers of his two older kids, aged 10 and nine.

"The kids do not speak English well and have a strong Filipino accent," says Mr Kumar.

Pharmacist Wardah Alsagoff, 32, and her engineer husband Syed Elwi Alsagoff, 35, have seen all their three children, aged seven, five and two, pick up the Indonesian accent of their past and current maids.

But Ms Wardah says: "It doesn't bother me because once they get to childcare, they lose the accent and speak more English."

IT business owner Tan Cheen Chong, 42, and his wife Ms Goh Shu Fen, who runs a marketing consultancy, 41, do not see either of them quitting work.

They trust their maid of 10 years, Ms Maribel Anog, 37, and hopes she will be with them for at least another decade.

The couple have three children, Tynn Yi, 14, Hyu Seong, 12, and Tynn Wei, 10. They share their two adjacent four-room HDB flats in Kent Road with Ms Goh's parents.

Ms Anog is very close to the Tans' youngest child. She braids the girl's hair in the morning, plays badminton with her in the evenings and they share a bedroom.

Says Ms Anog, a mother of three teenagers: "Tynn Wei says, 'I love you' to me every night. And I say, 'I love you too.'"

Tynn Wei chimes in: "The favourite thing I like to do with yaya is chat with her - about what happens in school and about her family."

Yaya is Tagalog for nanny.

The girl adds: "She's been taking care of me since I was a baby. She's somewhat like my other mother."

Does maternal envy kick in for her mother?

Ms Goh reasons: "Would you rather your helper not love your kids and have to worry about whether they have your children's best interests at heart?"

She adds: "It's very easy to blame it on the maid. But if my daughter rushes to hug the maid faster than me or she sends vibes that she's closer to the maid - which she hasn't - it's a reminder that I need to spend more time and give more attention to the children."

Besides, she adds, envy and insecurity may emerge in any relationship.

Her bottom-line: "I must calibrate my own feelings."

When the day comes for Ms Anog to finally return home for good, Ms Goh may have to soothe her daughter's heart, though.

Every year, when Ms Anog goes home for her vacation, Tynn Wei says she cries "the first night and the next morning because I am sad", and cries again when her helper returns "because I am happy".

What will happen at the final goodbye? Says Tynn Wei: "I'll feel sad. I'll play with my grandmother."

eveyap@sph.com.sg


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