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On Household Help

Living in India has spoilt me to the extent that even if I can imagine cooking for my family regularly, I cannot imagine doing even half the household cleaning that Jairam does.
We have a joke in our family that I can totally go without seeing the husband for a week but I’d go to pieces if I didn’t see Jairam for a week. That’s how dependent I am on my cleaning guy. Silently, trustworthily, he has kept my house clean since 2009. I don’t have to nag him, supervise him, tell him to do anything more than once. He sets his schedule and just gets it done. With integrity and honesty and never asking for loans or advances against his salary. He never takes days off without giving me a few weeks notice. If you’re in India and you’re reading this you already know how lucky I am. We pay for his two daughters' education, in addition to paying him a generous salary.

Indian People Problems
Our cook is a fairly recent addition to our family. Auntie cooks tasty food to our liking and is a spirited old lady who isn’t afraid to voice her opinion. I’m a little scared of her and since she started with us in March this year, I’ve actually started looking at the price of the vegetables I buy. She also takes care of our laundry that the husband puts out for her each day and in return, we pay her a decent salary and give her our old clothes and shoes she’ll also ask for things she sees lying unused.

I am able to employ these two people because I have a super supportive husband who shares unpaid household work equally with me. He also stays at home with E on the days I have to go to office.

Without Jairam or Auntie, the husband and I would have to split household cleaning and cooking between us as well and I know this would create an additional and unnecessary level of stress on us. If we lived abroad, we’d be arguing about whose turn it is to cook dinner or vacuum the house. Thanks to Jairam and Auntie, we don't have to.

This is my ecosystem of people who share household work with me, so that I can focus on motherhood and a career. As a family, we have our ups and downs but for the most part, we’re happy. All this without in-laws or parents nearby.

Earlier this year, we shifted to an apartment complex of super wealthy people assisted by their domestic “staff” - multiple people to clean large villa-style apartments I think developers like to call them, "villaments"; multiple people to drive their multiple cars, and multiple nannies to care for their multiple children.
That the husband and I have only two people in our “staff" is bizarre to them. That we choose to drive our own cars and care for our only child makes us an oddity.

We decided a few years ago that the headaches associated with having a full-time driver outweighed the headache of having to drive around occasionally on the lawless streets of Bangalore. An Uber driver can’t ask for loans or guilt you into paying him 20k for waiting around all day. Paying someone that kind of money for our driving laziness smarts and so we don’t. We can afford to take UberXL cars all day and it still won't add up to a driver’s monthly salary.

The Nanny Conundrum

English-speaking Indians are increasingly referring to the maids who care for their children as, 'nannies'. Sure, it's a convenient phrase that clarifies to the outsider what this woman's position in the household staff is.

However, nannies in first world countries typically have some qualification in early childhood care or are working towards one. In India, these under-educated maids are generally just ayahs, using their ayah ways to raise children.

Yes, because the maid's and cook's and babysitter's and caretaker's job is actually your wife's job. 
Even the Brits couldn’t bring themselves to call these caretakers nannies and most modern Indians are too embarrassed by our colonial history to call them ayahs. I’m not yet so Indian that I’m embarrassed by our colonial heritage. So, ayah she is.

I’ve been taking E to mingle with children in the building since she was a little baby and this is when I see the ayah-child dynamic in full force. I see kids as old as 8 being accompanied by their maids who push them on the swing or yell at them to stop monkeying around on the monkey bars.

I also see these kids yell back at their ayahs. These same kids who docile-ly call me auntie and listen to every word I say. Kids as young as 2 knowing, instinctively, that I am different from their ayah. They’ve internalised it. Somehow, we’re all okay with it. Of course, kindness is an option to be exercised against those worthy.

These are kids with fantastic mothers, most of them stay-at-home. I know this because I can see how differently they behave if their mothers are around. And it's because of how differently an ayah and someone who reads interacts with the same child.

Ayahs obtain compliance under every threat imaginable, rejecting one for another within seconds of issuing the first. It could be from something inane as, 'if you don’t stop (insert unsavoury behaviour) this instant, the dog will bite you,’ to ‘just you wait, I’m going to tell your father.’ And just like that, dogs are evil and the poor unsuspecting father, an authoritarian (whether or not he actually is one).

Notice the tray-bearing, dark-skinned, apron-clad maid in the background. For the privileged few.
I considered hiring "someone" earlier this year. As office work was picking up, I found myself wondering how easy all of it would be if I could just station an ayah with E. I argued how it’ll actually be good for E to interact with someone in the vernacular. How all the ayah will need to do is play with E for a bit and take her to the playground. I’ll be back from work in time for bedtime and the ayah could go back to her house only to come back the next afternoon.

The husband and I wouldn’t have to juggle our schedules around; we could just work during the week knowing that a trusty ayah was caring for our intelligent child.

How delicious to reserve parenting to be practised as a joyous weekend hobby.

Of course, this dream scenario was based on the rather drastic assumption that the woman hired to do this task is trustworthy; that she cares about her work. But I know from my 12 years here that a domestic worker like Jairam is the rare, rare exception. That, more often than not, maids are psychopaths from backgrounds readers of speculative fiction would have a hard time believing.

What if, with all my inexperience in hiring and retaining a domestic worker, I hire a woman who is a member of that small number of sociopaths that WhatsApp likes to remind us of? What if she's someone who'll chloroform E and take her begging?

A basic level of due diligence and seeking of references could eliminate this threat but harm can be inflicted in other less extreme ways. Psychopathy is easier to detect than sociopathy. Surely, my child can rationalise the harm I unintentionally inflict on her better than the intentional harm such a stranger would. Right?

Even if I exercise all the care and conduct all the due diligence and I am, through some quirk of fate able to hire the one English-speaking-not-an-ayah-but-an-actual-stern-elderly-governess I’ve encountered, I wonder if she’ll follow my rules of engagement consistently.

Benefit of hiring a stern, elderly governess.

The rules in our house are simple enough for such a nanny to follow, but E’s a feisty toddler, eager to exploit loopholes.  Her little mind is constantly figuring out exceptions to household rules, matching consequence to action, figuring out if there’s an inherent value in any of the things we ask her to do or not do.

Maybe it's because we're lawyers and we admire her untempered ability to question the things we say that we encourage it. When she finds a loophole, it keeps us on our toes, looking for more ingenious ways to get her to listen to us not because she's afraid of us but because it makes sense to listen to these strange tall people. Because it's been presented so reasonably that even the highly logical mind of the almost three-year old understands the rationale behind the rule.

This isn't easy. We find ourselves, on some days of complete intellectual exhaustion reductionism is tiring, just asking her to listen to us for the love of all that is good in this world. And bless her heart, on those days, she does.

Would this stern governess be able to keep up with E's intellectual gymnastics? Or would she take the easy way out and offer candy or ten minutes of TV for compliance? Or would she frighten my child into submission, using a loud voice and outsize consequences for bad behaviour? Does she truly have the long-term well-being of my child in her heart? Isn’t it just the monthly pay check that she really wants?

Would a maid use her own money to buy cheap candy to keep the habit hidden from me? Would she just have the TV running non stop during the day? How many nanny cams would I need to install in our triplex apartment to supervise her and would we be spending all our time at work monitoring these cameras instead of doing our work with peace of mind?

What if I do find out about this or any other transgression that I will discover soon anyway because I know, in my heart that no one can care for my child better than I. I'll be so paranoid and jealous that I'll just be looking for ways for this super ayah to slip up and then in all my smallness, I will yell at her in front of my daughter, who will then internalise the fact that some people may be yelled at.

Or E will learn to keep secrets from me because her nanny is her co-conspirator and she doesn't like to see her getting yelled at. Or E will just understand that different people have different rules because they have different thresholds for bad behaviour. Or, or, or.

Best case scenario? I find a lovely young woman, passionate about early childhood care, preparing for a life in caring for young children, who’ll read books and make up songs and challenge my intelligent daughter just like I do.

She becomes the nanny E deserves and E will get along famously with her nanny and I’m blissful in my peace of mind and awesome at my job because everything is taken care of at home. Until the day E asks for her nanny at bedtime or cries about how she wants her nanny during the weekend as well.

And I know I’ll just die inside that day. I’m not so large-hearted that I can share my daughter’s love with someone who isn’t related by blood.

No. I think I’ll just have to wait. If either work or parenting becomes overwhelming then it’s work that must change. Or my attitude to it. I’ll probably get a regular old Hindi/Kannada-speaking maid in 3 or 4 years when E is older and more independent, spending most of her day at school, and requiring supervision for just a few hours till either the husband or I get back home by 6 PM. 

Maybe, my cleaning guy, Jairam could be promoted to housekeeper - managing groceries and the people we’ll hire to clean the house and watch E for two or three hours in the evening and the chauffeur who will drive them all around to the various activities she'll have lined up each evening. And so we’ll get household staff too.

Because if you don’t have “staff” there’s literally no benefit to living in this country.