"He's the naughtiest boy in Singapore," says a laughing Fely. "You have to do
what he likes." The Filipino maid's ward is five. She sometimes has to play
surrogate mother. "Once in a while both the parents will go out of town on
business trips and they'll leave the boy with me," says the 36-year-old nanny.
She sees the child off to kindergarten, reads him books and allows him to watch
cartoons on TV. They go on outings to the Botanic Gardens. Fely has worked for
the Dutch Chinese family for the past two years.
In Hong Kong, a Filipino
nanny also takes care of Theresa Chen's three-year-old son. "There's no such
thing as bonding with the family when you're working for an advertising agency,"
the 35-year-old executive says wryly. "Your work is your bond. Your client is
your bond." She and her stockbroker husband, 37, count themselves lucky. Their
maid, who is 46, has a master's degree in education and had been a teacher back
home. In addition to taking care of the toddler, she also keeps the flat
Will the real mommy please stand up? In Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and
other affluent parts of Asia, many mothers are increasingly willing to leave
their children in the care of helpers. The domestics - from the Philippines,
Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka are often well-educated and hard-working. But
when the primary care-giver, becomes a substitute parent, experts worry.
"If there is a normal parent-child relationship, the more people that come in
contact with the child - the maid, grandparents, relatives - the more enriching
the experience," says Wong Chung Kwong, a child psychiatrist at the Hong Kong's
Chinese University. The problem comes when parents fail to establish a caring
relationship in the child's early years. "The cardinal sin for parents is to let
others take their place," says Wong. If the maid becomes a substitute parent,
then leaves, the child mourns the loss and may have trouble rebonding with the
It's difficult, however, to see how else a working mother can cope. A second
income is now often a vital part of the family budget. Even when it's not, many
of today's women are no longer content to stay at home. They want to grow
professionally as lawyers, doctors, bankers, businesswomen. The challenge is to
strike a balance between the demands of career and family. In the past a local
amah could help out. But especially in labor-short Singapore and Hong Kong, a
foreign maid is often the best option for those who can afford it.
Psychotherapist Nalla Tan, a stress counselor at the National University of
Singapore, is not sure. "You can't be a weekend parent," she says. "You're a
parent, full stop." Both the father and mother must decide "how much to give to
their employers and how much they want to give to their children". She would
like to see one parent stay in the house. "Why can't one or the other share the
chores and do their work at home? You can do it with modern technology."
Tan's main concern is what she sees as the absence of parental love in some
working-couple households. "The maid as a surrogate mother is never able to give
what a real mother - or father - can give," she insists. "How can a maid who is
working for a salary give this? Can she give the same kind of affection?" It's
especially hard on younger kids. "Whether it's day-care or maids, someone
impersonal is feeding the child. How many times in a day would they pick up the
child and cuddle him?"