Up close & personal: finding your place in your child's affections
"I love you daddy," my son told me the other week. It was a heart-warming moment. That is, until he went on to list everyone else he loved, including his mum, our helper, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, stuffed toys and a few cartoon characters.
The list, however, was apparently not in order of importance.
There's this thing he does when I have to leave him and go out. He tries to stop me in various ways. Some obvious, like pleading "Don't go, daddy", and some more subtle, like running away with my shoes, blocking the doorway or latching on to my leg. It's somehow extremely touching and yet completely annoying at the same time. It's nice to know he cares. But how much?
When our helper leaves, there is a completely different level of commitment to stopping her, which usually ends in tears or a full-blown tantrum as the despair hits him that he's going to be stuck with only daddy and/or mummy. This begs the question: who is raising my son?
This is not a question my parents would ever have had to ask. Growing up in Australia decades ago the answer "his mother" was so straightforward that no one would think to even ask the question. Children were raised by their parents, and it was almost always the mother who was around until the children went to school. There was the occasional single parent or child with his grandparents, but it was rare. Live-in helpers were confined to the world of fiction where they served the unfathomably rich, such as Batman.
That was then and there. This is here and now: decades later and across the world.
Here in Hong Kong, having live-in help is far from extraordinary and, while some people here are possibly as rich as Bruce Wayne, most of us aren't. Yet here and now you don't need to have enough cash to construct secret lairs and build rocket-propelled cars in order to enlist the help of a servant. Or two.
It's been going on for generations. And the extra level of freedom it provides is fantastic. Don't get me wrong, I love my son, but sometimes I also love to get away from him. You know how it is.
Having help to raise your children is not strange in this city. The strange ones here are those like me who are worried about it.
Our helper is great and I believe she genuinely cares for our son and looks after him well, if not always the way I would do it. On the flip side, our son genuinely loves her. Perhaps more than he does me or his mum.
Even though I work from home to be nearer our son, I still need to work and, as a result, my boy spends more time with our helper than he does with either of his parents. I understand that this is nothing special in Hong Kong, where generations spend more time with their helpers or grandparents than their parents; but for me, it's still a bit hard to come to grips with.
Ironically, these days, even if we had stayed in Sydney, our son would have spent much of his time in childcare anyway, away from his parents. Out of the two choices, I know which option I prefer.
Putting aside the nature versus nurture debate, originally I was worried that if our son was spending too much time with others he would not grow up the way we want him to; that is, with the "correct" values, outlook and attitude. After almost three years, however, with us spending at much time as we can with him, that does not seem to be a problem at all. He's a great child (every parent thinks that about their children, though) and that's not because he spent his time with his parents (although I'm happy to claim any credit if it's on offer). It's because he spent his time with, and learned from, everyone in his life - family, helpers, teachers, random citizens, cartoon characters.
My fears were unfounded. Childcare and school pose no threat to a parent's position with their children. A teacher with a room full of children to look after will never develop that close personal relationship that parents have.
A helper, however, is another story. She's there when he wakes and when he goes to sleep. There when we have to work. She shares more of his life than his parents do.
I realised recently that this was what I was selfishly, yet not unjustly, worried about. That my "rightful" place in my son's affections might be supplanted by our helper. And it might be. But only if I let it. How my son is raised and the relationship I have with him is up to me.
Who is raising my son? I am. Not alone, but, I am. And as long as I put in the effort, he has enough affection to go around.
Anthony Burling is a stay-at-home father and accountant