I just realised that I have been blogging for over one and a half years about my life as a working mom and I have never done a detailed post on the support system that allows me to even consider such a life without having a nervous breakdown – I am talking about my maids.
Given my penchant for order, what better place to start than the very beginning – which is actually a lot before Ayaan was even a possibility – it was the time we decided to get a dog. And like with a baby, this decision too came with its accompanying lifestyle changes – the biggest one being breaching our precious privacy and letting a full time maid into our home. My mom managed to get hold of an elderly widow called Hitkari from Bihar, who given her quiet and undemanding nature, fitted into our home and our lives seamlessly.
When I got pregnant couple of years down the line, I felt pretty smug about the fact that I had atleast one maid figured out. But you know what they say about counting your chickens before they hatch. What happened in my seventh month of pregnancy has pretty much become the urban legend of maid stories amongst my friends. One day, completely out of the blue, I came home to find my supposedly mild-mannered and respectable maid sprawled out on my bean bag, drunk out of her mind! She apologised to me the next day but it was pretty half-hearted as apologies go and it was diluted even further when same behaviour was repeated the following evening! The lady in question was sent home with a one-way ticket – forget about the baby, there was no way I was okay with leaving my dogs in the care of this woman, who suddenly seemed to have suddenly discovered a partiality for alcohol with a vengeance.
So the nanny hunt began with a vengeance. I began with offering the job to Surekha, the lady who had been cooking for us for the last four years – we liked her and trusted her but she has young kids of her own to cook and clean for, so she regretfully declined our offer of increased salary and increased hours. She continues to be our morning maid though. In retrospect, it was a good thing because she is quite unreliable with respect to time, something I never noticed before but in the current situation would seriously hamper my peace of mind.
Then I tried the agency route. A mix of characters came my way – some good, some not so much. But most of them failed to match up on one or more of my endless list of requirements:
- She had to be a woman. To start with, the thought of having a strange man hanging around the house was beyond weird. Secondly, I don’t think that men have the necessary sensibilities to be care-givers, especially to children who are not their own. And lastly and most importantly, most of the stories I have heard about kids being abused involve men.
- She had to be middle-aged, ideally should have had kids of her own or should have worked as a nanny for atleast 3-4 years. I see a lot of very young maids, barely out of their teens, with their young charges in the park. Now, I have one such girl who lives with me and she is great playmate for Ayaan, but it stops at that. I can never imagine leaving Ayaan in the sole care of someone who has no experience with caring for children and is barely done with being one herself…
- Moreover, her work experience should have included a stint with a working mom because helping out a SAHM and handling a child solo while the mother is away are two very different things.
- She should not have had any addictive habits. Many a prospective nanny was ruled out simply because she had orange/ stained teeth – a sure sign of a tobacco chewing habit.
- She could not have be too fat. Somehow, I just felt that a seriously overweight woman would not be able to keep up with a hyperactive toddler. On the flipside, she should not have been too thin/ weak-looking either.
- She had to be willing to either stay with me or work the number of hours that covered my office timings and be willing to stay late or spend the night in case of emergencies.
- If a day maid, then I didn’t want one who lived very far away because that makes for a lot of no-shows, especially during the monsoons.
- I wanted to avoid taking on someone with very young kids as they tend to take a lot of sick days and school days off, which while understandable can be highly disruptive to the life of a working mom.
- Above all else, I had to like her. This one is just about that indefinable something that the person either had or didn’t have – something that just clicked within moments of meeting them. It’s kind of like falling in love ;-)
But even the seemingly good ones who made it through all these criteria didn’t work because the one thing that I was absolutely insistent on was that they furnish me with references and none of them were willing/ able to do so – either the previous employers had allegedly moved abroad or they had not parted on good terms. The idea of leaving my son with a person whose background I knew nothing of just didn’t appeal to me. So I kept looking but since I was unwilling to relax any of the abovementioned criteria, I soon found myself four months into my six-month maternity leave with no nanny in sight.
And then suddenly, lady luck seemed to favour me. First, I managed to trace a lady called Mary who had worked for a distant relative who had moved cities. I met her and really liked her. We agreed that she would start a week later but on the D-day, she didn’t show and when I called, her son picked up and said that she had been hospitalised – they never said for what – and would call back when she was better. She never did.
Just days after the Mary option fell through, I got another lead. A friend of a friend was moving to Singapore and despite her best efforts, she had not been able to arrange a visa for her nanny and was leaving without her. So I asked them to send her over for an interview. Shashikala walked into my house and I took an instant dislike to her – she came across as a demanding, know-it-all person with an enormous chip on her shoulder. But the friend she had worked for (also a full time working mom) had praised her highly and said that she was excellent with her baby girl. Having run out of time and options, I decided to try Shashikala out for a couple of weeks before taking a final decision.
In the end, I am glad that I listened to reason rather than go by my instantaneous dislike for something as silly as her attitude in her dealings with me. Because she has turned out to be an excellent nanny to Ayaan – he adores her to bits, she manages his feeding and napping brilliantly (sometimes better than me), and above all, she is a responsible, mature woman who cares for Ayaan with the right mix of affection and discipline. We have had our ups and downs and she is still not my favourite person, but I have come to realise that that is the least important thing.
In addition to Shashikala the Nanny cum Cook, I have two other maids. Surekha is my old cook and I didn’t want to fire her so she fills in the three-hour gap in the morning before Shashikala arrives at ten. Shashikala leaves as early or late as I get home from work and is not averse to spending the occasional night. I also have a girl called Jamuna, who lives with me and is responsible for keeping things clean and being Ayaan’s playmate. It’s quite an ideal mix because Jamuna has the energy and enthusiasm to play with Ayaan endlessly, while the others are good at feeding and comforting him.
While the set-up is pretty comfortable right now and I hope it stays that way (fingers crossed, knock on wood), I am too much of a control freak to let go completely so I leave no doubt in their minds on how I like things done. The rules are simple:
- Ayaan eats only in his high chair and sleeps only in his cot and unless there is a very good reason, all this happens as per his regular schedule.
- One of the maids has to be in viewing distance of him at all times.
- Absolutely no TV is to be watched by anyone while he is awake.
- I make a weekly meal plan that spells out what he is to eat for every meal. Moreover, there is to be no junk food and no eating between meals. The meal plan is a recent thing because I found that if I left it entirely up to them, Ayaan’s menu had become pretty boring and repetitive.
- If I am not back by six and it is not raining, Ayaan should be taken to the park for atleast an hour in the evening.
- He is never to be left in the unsupervised care of Jamuna.
- Under no circumstances shall anyone raise a hand on him.
The usual question that people ask me when I tell them all this is how do I know that they are following my rules. I have my ways:
- Even though we don’t need to, Jai and I always carry our house keys and enter without ringing the bell so that they don’t have any advance notice of our arrival and we can know exactly what they were up to at that particular moment.
- We try and come back at unexpected times. Jai is able to do this more often than I am since his office is just 10 minutes away. So he randomly drops in for lunch or just to say hi when he is passing by. This keeps them on their toes.
- I make sure that they stick to even the smallest and least important of my diktats. I don’t believe, as far as they are concerned, in picking my battles because it’s important to drive home the point that I am the last word on everything, no matter how insignificant, to do with Ayaan.
- And finally, I know that most of my rules are being followed because Ayaan is not particularly interested in watching TV and creates no fuss whatsoever for eating in his high chair and sleeping in his cot. As for the junk food, we’ve pretty much stopped stocking that at home.
So that, in a very large nutshell, is the backbone of my life as a working mom. My maids are all important pillars but the one who is truly indispensable is Shashikala. If she leaves, for whatever reason, I will either have to quit my job or beg the grandmothers to step in while I begin the long, painful search all over again…