Maid to mother

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am

School's out and the pavement is filled with women waiting to grab a child, take his bag and walk him home. Is this woman your mum? Or someone else?

In many cases, she's your mum. Yet in Hong Kong's hardworking two-job households, she may very well turn out to be a domestic helper.

Do children ever confuse the two?

Domestic helpers work for families and look after their children. They bring them to school, pick them up, take them for after-class activities and prepare their meals.

If you happen to have one at home, you may see more of the helper than your mum.

'Sunarti and I are really close,' said 11-year-old Charmaine Chang Chi-sin, as she wraps her small hands around her domestic helper's arm.

Charmaine, whose father is often on business trips and whose mother is a senior manager, doesn't get to see her parents much. Sunarti and her pug keep her company most of the time.

Sunarti has been taking care of Charmaine, who is now in Primary Six, since she was four. She reads her stories, takes her to her ballet and piano lessons, and they walk the dog together after her classes.

They are employer and employee, as well as student and teacher.

'I teach her Cantonese and she helps me with my English homework,' Charmaine said.

But not everyone has such a good relationship with their helper. While Charmaine enjoys her time with her domestic helper, Kevin Leung Wai-yin dreads it.

'Why do I have to live with a stranger?' asked Kevin.

'I'm old enough to take care of myself when my parents are not around.'

Every day, the nine-year-old boy flings his schoolbag at his helper the minute he gets out of school. He doesn't feel guilty for his behaviour.

Kevin's parents divorced two years ago. His mother works long hours, so he doesn't see

her much. 'When my mum's not around, [the domestic helper] orders me around. I'm fed up,' he said.

For children who don't often get to see their parents, does the domestic helper take the role of a mother?

Charmaine says no.

'Sunarti is a good friend and I do things with her. But there are things that I'll only do with my parents,' she said.

Kevin is also clear about his helper's role. 'Why should I feel guilty with the way I treat her? She's just a domestic helper. My mum hired her to work for us,'

he said.

Louis Kwok, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Institute for Children's Mental Health, said: 'It's unlikely that domestic helpers will take up a mother's role.

'Children become dependent on domestic helpers only because they don't see their parents much. They don't consider them a family member.'

Dr Kwok said children could ask their parents to take them out over the weekend if they do not see their parents much.

'Many parents only accompany their children when they are studying, which is not enough,'

he said. 'What makes a good parent-child relationship is spending quality time together. Family outings on weekends are a good way of doing that.'