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Being a domestic goddess ain’t all it’s cracked up to be!

In Being Ma'am on July 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm

So how about plans to replace the housekeeper? Well there aren’t any. What? An expat wife cleaning her own toilets? … Er no, there’s still someone to do the cleaning, but I have decided to do the rest i.e. cooking and laundry. Sounds easy right? I mean who doesn’t do that in the UK? Well it turns out it’s not!

Following the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, school of thought and to appease my husband, I have started to cook Indian food. Dean likes a curry and takes a tiffin to work each day. It’s the deluxe 4 tier model which means 4 different dishes; protein (usually meat), veg, daal or beans and a carbohydrate (chapati or rice). Forget sandwiches and a drink – this lunch is in a league of its own.

Next there’s the washing up: I don’t have to do the washing up, I could get the maid to do it but there’s a lot of it and she has other work to do. If she did the washing up, she would either do less of the other stuff or have to spend more time working, neither of which suit me. Because I’m cooking I need my pots and pans ready when I want them and I don’t like dirty dishes sitting around, she would only do the washing up once a day so logistically it doesn’t work either.

Hmmm the pile of ironing is rising before me like a Gurgaon skyscraper. Most of our clothes need ironing because they are mainly cotton or linen. I had convinced myself that it was possible to wash and iron everything in a day because drying is not a problem in India. Of course it is possible but only if you have nothing else to do.

So why am I putting myself through all this. Especially as I don’t have to?

Domestic staff is a way of life in India. Most expats in India have domestic staff. It also seems the norm for expats globally. However expat life is also generally dependent on one member of a couple (usually the wife) giving up work. So here’s the rub; like many other expat wives, I became a housewife at the same time as having no housework to do.

For me that statement is literally true; I moved into a home that was already set up so I have always had a full contingent of staff. There have been a few reshuffles but I have never not had a housekeeper, until now.

I knew I would need some help on my journey here. So I packed what I now consider to be a piece of gold, a book, “A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas” by Debra Bryson and Charise Hoge. They offer practical tools for dealing with the most significant change that occurs when you follow your husband overseas; your change of identity or “Who am I?” It strikes me that being a housewife with no housework is something of an identity crisis.

I think ‘home making’ is something I’m pretty good at and, apart from washing up (which I detest), I quite enjoy. In the UK I wouldn’t have put it right at the top of my list of priorities but it was something that I did. When you follow your husband abroad the familiar goes out the window; it’s disorienting and challenging. However this is a familiar role that I could have pursued, but I didn’t. I can’t change what happened then (and I don’t want to) but I am ready to reclaim the role now.

One of the things that occupies me is the potential lack of achievement in my expat life, both day-to-day and over the assignment. As an expat wife nothing I do is strictly defined (unless I define it). By contrast cooking a meal is definite. In a life where achievement is rare, that is a big deal.

I struggle with scheduling my time. Housework has to have a schedule otherwise it mounts up. My ironing suggests that I need to do some work on this! I have a theory that settling into the routine of housework will add structure to the rest of my ‘working’ life.

I have a year’s worth of experience of being a Ma’am. One of the things I have learnt is that it only works if I have things my way. It sounds harsh because I am talking about other human beings but there is no room for creative decision-making in domestic staff. They can’t place your vase over the other side of the room because they though maybe it would look better over there or play around with the timing of dinner to achieve greater efficiency. It has to be what, when, where and how you want it. It is directional management. I think doing it myself will make me clearer about what I want and therefore better able to pass this on to my future housekeeper, if there is one.

So being a domestic goddess is hard but good. However I still reserve the right to give it all up in favour of G&T drinking at some future date!

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