Many households in Hong Kong, especially those with young children and elderly parents, rely heavily on the support of foreign domestic helpers. When helpers need to be on long leave for a period of time – due to childbirth, illness, a crisis back home – it is understandable a lot of employers feel some degree of anxiety.
The imminent questions tend to be: “What will happen to my household during those weeks? Who will look after my children when I’m at work? What about my elderly parent who’s ill?” For employers who are single parents and have dependents in need of constant caregiving, this can indeed be very unsettling. The level of stress is compounded when working from home or taking days off from work is not possible.
Hiring a local domestic helper is a great solution to manage household chores for a few hours each week. Yet it can be impractical and costly for families who need someone to mind young children and elderly parents for most part of the day.
The costs do add up when your helper is on paid maternity and sick leave, and you need to budget for her salary as well as other costs involved to support your household. Here are some creative and affordable options to consider when your helper needs to be on maternity or other types of leave for an extended period.
Seek Support from Your Network
Think through who in your network and support system you can safely entrust your young children and elderly parents with. We may think we are inconveniencing others. But more often than not, many people find it very fulfilling to lend a helping hand to others in times of need. It also connects people and builds a sense of community.
Reach out to your extended family. Consider getting a grandparent to drop by a few times a week, or arrange for your children to spend after-school hours with their cousins. This may actually be a great opportunity for your children to create wonderful memories with your extended family. Try working out your schedules ahead of time so all parties have ample time to prepare and make arrangements.
When family support is not available, try discussing this situation with your child’s teachers and school social worker. There could be support services in the school or community that your child can access after school.
Have a conversation with your supervisor to explore work-from-home arrangements on some days. If your supervisor is agreeable, you could also consider adjusting your daily working hours during this period. Try starting your day earlier and having your lunch at your desk so you can leave your workplace earlier. Encourage your partner to do the same, so both of you can successfully manage this situation together.
Close friends might offer to help look after your children or parents on some days. Some friends with children of similar age could be keen to organise play dates and study sessions after school. Parents at your child’s playgroup or class might be interested to do likewise too.
Some churches and mosques have a strong support system to help their members during times of need. Share about your needs with your religious leaders. There might be members who could support you with ad-hoc caregiving and home-cooked meals.
Check with trusted neighbours if they can help keep an eye on your children or elderly parents when you are at work. Your neighbour’s teenage children may also be willing to babysit your children and coach them on their school work after school for extra pocket money.
Government-Run Day Child Care Services
The government runs affordable child care centres nationwide. There are centres and schemes that cater to the needs of different families, including those who need temporary child care. Check out Occasional Child Care Service, Extended Hours Service, Mutual Help Child Care Centre and Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project to find something that is suitable for your household. See the Social Welfare Department website for more information.
After School Care Programme
Different NGOs run after school care programmes in the community for children between 6 to 12 years old after school hours.
Government Run Elderly Community Centres and Day Care Centres
There are day care centres and day respite care services which might be suitable for your elderly parent.
Think Out of the Box
Try thinking about your situation in a different way. It could come as a surprise, but very often when we do so, we discover we already have the resources we need to improve our situation.
Engage Your Whole Family
Have a family meeting and ask each member to come up with workable solutions. For example, an older sibling can offer to pick up a younger sibling from school. On weekends, the family can come together to plan and even prepare the week’s meals. Some meals such as Bolognese sauce for pasta and fried rice can be frozen for fuss-free reheating on weeknights. It is budget-friendly and minimises stress during the work week. Not to mention it helps the whole family bond by engaging in an activity together.
Empower Your Children
This is a fantastic opportunity for children to learn to be more independent and flexible, as well as do age-appropriate tasks for themselves. Get children to prepare simple meals, tidy their room, and wash up after meals. Encourage older children to care for the younger ones.
Tweak Your Daily Habits
Make small changes during this time to stretch your budget. For instance, bring home-made meals to work and school. Instead of getting your daily caffeine fix from the café near your workplace, try brewing your own at home or in the office. The savings can help pay for the occasional local helper or babysitter you may need. It could also fund your child’s after-school activities so they are meaningfully occupied.
Childcare Support By Au Pairs
Consider hiring au pairs for a few months when your helper is away. Au pairs are young people who travel abroad to live with host families and learn a language. They support families with childcare and light housework, in exchange for room and board and an allowance. Many families find the cultural exchange an enriching experience, especially for their children. It is also an excellent opportunity for children to learn English or another foreign language.
Be Open and Flexible
It is undoubtedly challenging to cope without a helper for a number of weeks. One employer shared how tough it was in the beginning when her helper was on maternity leave. She maintained an optimistic attitude and made it work by rallying everyone in the family to do their part. She, her husband and young son undertook tasks they never knew they could manage. The whole family eventually grew from the experience and developed life skills, confidence and resilience. They also drew closer as a family.
A positive mindset would indeed help you cope better when your helper is away for a period of time. Your openness and flexibility will also enable you to get creative and explore possibilities that you might not have otherwise considered.
As in the case of managing changes in life, it’s always best to keep an open mind. Embrace the change. Give yourself and your family time to adapt to the new temporary routine. Besides looking after your family’s needs, pay attention to yours too. Make time for self-care and allow yourself to grow from the experience.
Employers of pregnant foreign domestic workers can access PathFinders’ practical guide book produced jointly with Helpwise (www.helpwise.com.hk), to navigate their next steps.