Recently, a young mother shared with me her struggles to control her envy of the close relationship her foreign domestic helper has with her one-year-old son.
Rationally, she appreciates her helper's genuine care for her child. The mother also recognises that the helper takes care to ensure that she can enjoy time alone with her son. But she is frustrated that the domestic helper is better able to comfort her child, especially when he is sick or afraid.
She feels very jealous whenever her son shows his attachment to the helper. She cannot help but feel the maid is a rival for his love. She works very hard to win his attachment by spending more time taking care of him and reading him a bedtime story every night. But she can only devote limited time to her child unless she intends to sacrifice her career. Unfortunately, her husband thinks that her envy is irrational. This helps to intensify her frustration.
Although involvement of multiple caregivers, such as grandparents and other relatives, is a long-standing practice in Chinese families, co-ordination among these multiple parental figures is never easy. Many parents decide that hiring a foreign domestic helper will allow them more autonomy in how their child will be raised, rather than getting their own parents or in-laws to help. Nevertheless, introducing a woman from a different country and culture to the parenting partnership may require wisdom and self-control.
Many issues arise because of the ambiguity of the helper's role. Various family members may have different perceptions of the maid's role and relationships. When children are asked about the size of their families, many count helpers as one of the family members.
In contrast, the female employer often perceives the helper strictly as an employee or, even worse, a rival for affection.
The traditional role of men in the Chinese family may spare them any rivalry or ambivalent feelings towards the live-in domestic helper but it can make it hard for husbands to empathise with their wives.
Most families are able to work through these difficulties. Many mothers shared with me that their husbands provided invaluable support. It was important that their husbands trusted them to be considerate employers, and that they had empathy for them. Overcoming the feeling of jealousy takes time and effort.
The female employer needs self-confidence and a secure relationship with her children and her husband. Support, rather than judgmental admonition, relieves mothers' tension. The degree of the father's participation in childcare may dilute the rivalry between the mother and the domestic helper.
Understanding the relational patterns and needs of children at different developmental stages also helps. It is normal for young children to cling to their primary caregiver. But older children are more likely to relate to adults according to the ascribed relationships, that is, they will treat their parent as a parent.
Nurturing, daily care and physical care are ways of emotionally bonding with babies, while toddlers need adults to have fun with them through play. Bedtime story-telling may be too advanced an activity for a one-year-old child, and fun-free educational activities such as reading word cards with a focus on counting how many words the children learn, may distance the parent from the child.
Dr Lau Yuk-king is a consultant with the department of social work at the Chinese University