Thursday, July 28, 2011

Women in Translation

It was tough going whenever I was left to attend to the household cleaning without a domestic helper. Although I could easily stay trim without having to go to the gym or any form of physical exercise, I did not feel good about the weight loss.  For a couple of days, I probably found the menial work refreshing or at least I could convince myself that these tasks could be meditative  and kept me grounded. Actually I have no patience for housework and to me these household chores are just tedious. After completing all the washings only to find  another set of dirty laundry or dirty dishes being piled up,  the cleaning cycles continue and  a never ending process. In a word, domestic work drives me crazy.

I have a habit of reading a few books any given time, some fictions, some non-fictions. I am addicted to purchasing books and reading be it fictions, non- fictions,  blogs, essays etc etc . If I have to attend to pedantic or routine tasks like the school runs and taking my children to the dentist or classes, I always make  sure that I have reading materials with me in the car so that it makes waiting a happy occasion and perfectly  legitimate time to be catching up with some leisure reading. I welcome the little time I could get just to be able to flick through one or two pages of words the author had carefully strung together.

I used to get worked up when these domestic helpers did not seem to follow my instructions, postpone in carrying out the tasks or omit to perform certain cleaning duties they had been asked to do. These days I get less worked up as I feel fortunate that if not for these domestic helpers I would not be able to have the freedom to pursue my interests such as reading, writing and playing tennis. These domestic helpers probably quite rightly assume that their “ma’am” is very hopeless in housework and they know better about cooking and cleaning the house, hence they sometimes ignore their ‘ma’ams’ preferred way of doing things.

Here is an exemplary illustration of the reluctant housewife in me.

This happened during one of those days when I had to do the laundry for my family.  It was one Saturday morning when I was half minded about whether to run a quick wash and tumble dry cycle of the small load of the dirty laundry.  I was eager to bring my laundry up to date so in my half awake state, I reluctantly picked up the laundry around the house. After I threw the lot into the washing machine. I  went to the garden to clear some of the poos our cocker spaniel did in the backyard. When I sat down and have my cup of coffee, I looked around for the novel I planned to read while sipping my coffee. It then dawned upon me that I had not seen the book. As I had misplaced it, I ended up reading another book which  I was also reading at the time. I then got myself ready for work and it was time to take out the spin dry clothes and leave them  out to dry in the sun. I was feeling congratulatory that I had been efficient until I lifted the top of the washing machine to find bits of  newsprint stuck to the wash. To my horror, I realized that I had thrown the missing book into the wash. The missing book was a  fiction entitled ‘The Dirty Girls’ Social Club’ and written by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez . It is about friendships between six Latina women who continued to meet up regularly after graduating from the Boston University. To my dismay,  I had to pick up the "washed" book which was rather mutilated and  end up having to spend another hour or more removing all the dried paper stuff.  At that time my elder daughter came to her mother’s rescue and she had a good chuckle. When I wanted to get a replacement copy of the novel, my elder daughter stopped me from purchasing the last available copy of the book at MPH bookstore as she had a plan of her own. My daughters had subsequently returned to the bookshop to get the last available copy  in the bookshop as a Christmas gift for their mother.

So you get a drift of my affinity with domesticity.

I have a live-in helper who had been with me for eight years now.  As she still has to support her sons for their college education, she intends to continue working in my home. I do feel bad about the fact that she had to miss out on the growing years of her own children and the limited time she gets to be with her own family. Whenever a helper first arrived, it would take her a few months to adjust and for me to negotiate how we could live together under the same roof without compromising too much of  our privacy. In the long run, these helpers know too well the workings of the respective family they work for, the fine line between insider and outsider is invariably blurred and a virtual stranger has now become more of  an insider than an outsider of the family she is  attached to.

Over the years, my family and I have grown too dependent of having a live-in help. Once over dinner recently, someone asked us if we still had our live-in helper, my husband said, “ Yes most important person” and the friend agreed and nod his head. Both men agreed that we could not be without domestic helpers. At that moment, the  little whisky I consumed could have kicked in thus prompt me to quip, “ Ha ha the second wife.”  The friend quickly responded by shaking his head vigorously,  “ Oh no no no …” 

When we take away the element of housework, we hope to achieve a better balance of power and respect between the spouses regardless of whether both the man and the woman in a marriage are working full time or building their respective careers. Although the women had fought for gender equality for decades, the men have not evolved much to change a husband’s expectations of a wife and perhaps vice versa. The general stand taken by most people is that the women may not rule but all that about cleaning and washing still falls under the purview of a woman. The expectations remain the same hence the constant juggling act between home and work for a woman so much so that I am not sure if working mothers can truly have it all : maintaining our individuality while   assuming the role of a wife and a mother to our children. Without getting a lot of help in the domestic frontier, it is not easy for  a woman’s identity to venture beyond that of a wife and a mother. While being a wife and a mother forms an integral part of a married woman with maternal responsibilities, it is not necessarily every woman’s aspirations to stay within that typecast. I appreciate all the help I can get around the house in order to allow me to have the freedom to pursue my career, hobbies and interests. However people who provide plenty of help in my household are primarily women whether they are paid domestic helpers or the female members of my in-laws’ family. Housework therefore remains the domain of the female members of the family.

Since domestic work has so often been frowned upon by  the local women who much prefer to get  employed as clerks, sales assistant or administrative staff , we have to bring in the less fortunate women from developing countries in the neighbourhood. In the past, a stay at home wife and mother is taken for granted and now that we are actually paying other women to do these work, it is apparent that the housewives are the unsung heroines and those who choose to stay home and tend to all the house work and care of young children must be applauded. Due to a demand for  these domestic services, a new kind of economy has opened up to the countries like Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines, where women ( some of them are college graduates)  would apply to work as housemaids in South East Asian countries like Hongkong, Singapore and Malaysia. By choosing to leave their familiar home grounds and work in some foreign land does require a great deal of courage on the part of these foreign domestic helpers who cannot be certain if their prospective employers would treat them fairly. These women are often required to repay a handsome sum of fee to the recruitment agencies for services rendered by having their pays deducted initially.  Maybe it is a calculated risk in view of the allure of the prospect of better earnings even after taking account the initial reimbursements they had  to pay the recruitment agencies in most cases. Invariably there will be some who have misplaced priorities and somehow end up with some wicked company who have misled them into believing that they could get out of their situations only to find that they  land themselves in ominous and dubious circumstances. But then life  is all about taking a leap at opportunities, is it not? 

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