Across the globe in families in which both parents are working, hiring an extra pair of hands to help around the house is an essential part of life. Domestic workers, nannies, cleaning ladies, babysitters and daycare… Every country has them. But the way society views them differs depending where you go.
Because my family in particular has traveled quite significantly, I have had the good fortune to observe domestic work in a number of settings in different parts of the world. Before moving to Armenia, I lived in Dubai where most households had maids who lived in special rooms hidden away from guests. Their presence is complex. “If you are a maid in Lebanon, everyone sees you as inferior,” one Ethiopian domestic worker explained in a recent article in Al-Monitor highlighting prejudices toward domestic help in many parts of the world. It is customary for domestic workers in this part of the world to live with you, but at the same time, because of cultural stigmas, they feel they are not one of you, no matter how much you may try to engage them. Their wages are low and, depending on the generosity of each family, they either live well in that house, or terribly poor. They usually hail from another country, looking to make money they can send home. I myself struggled with this complex relationship with a person who I see as an equal human being and trust with the safety of my child.
In our case, we had a maid from Ethiopia who was honest and young; forgetful, but trustworthy. She was hired by my mother-in-law to help her in the house, but she welcomed every opportunity to play with my son. Though they had their moments and she was trying to be a good nanny to my son, it soon became clear the language barrier and cultural differences would prevent an opportunity to create a lasting bond.
When I eventually moved to Armenia with one child and another on the way, I knew finding help with domestic care was a must. The first thing I did was seek out a mankapartez (preschool) for Avo. I knew I would be alone in Armenia; I needed help since full-time mothering and full-time jobs don’t always mix well.
One school came highly recommended by a friend with two daughters. Once I visited the mankapartez, I was convinced this was the place my children needed to begin their education. After the first week of separation anxiety, Avo was happy with his new second home. It was clear to me that Avo had a preference for certain teachers, but in the last year and a half, he has started to speak adoringly about all of them. I immediately realized that they care for each child as if they are their own. Perhaps in other places it’s more of a job opportunity than a love of work. Perhaps some of the workers truly are wonderful caregivers. Here, they made me feel like they run to work for the love of the children.
When it came to finding a cleaning lady, I took to Facebook. There are a few great networks in Armenia to ask questions to fellow residents for contacts. My favorite is the Armenian Repatriates Network, a private group managed by the people at RepatArmenia, particularly since most of my friends are checking it regularly. I ask and I answer other people’s questions relevant to me.
While Armenia has some amazing domestic care, it—like all countries—also has bad apples. When it came to finding a nanny, a few attempts brought both wonderful and also awful women to my door. The wonderful couldn’t work around my hours, and the awful stole from me, took a nap on my couch while my infant was sleeping, and chatted on the phone all day, while holding my two month old newborn with one arm.
Enter Larisa, whose very presence eased my mind. The frustration came to end when she brought another angel into my life. Anush instantly fell in love with my newborn. To this day, she keeps a photo of my children on her wall and tells her family and friends that they are her grandchildren. She doesn’t come in on Sundays, so when she leaves on Saturdays, she always repeats on her way out, “Take care of my little ones while I’m gone.” It seemed the circle of trust was complete. Anush is now part of our family and will continue to be so for years to come.
Last year when I visited the US with my little ones, I cringed to think of how to keep my children busy and cared for without burdening my parents or breaking my bank. At one point during the extended visit, I did hire a nanny who helped my mother with the kids while I went to work. She was a wonderful woman who cared very much for my infant, but there was one significant difference: I couldn’t afford her. She was Armenian and someone we know through the Armenian church, which was for the sake of urgency and security. Perhaps I was an overly sensitive mother who read too many stories of nightmare babysitter scenarios in the US, but my instincts told me to stay within the community. As for daycare, I just couldn’t imagine dealing with the drama of adjusting Avo to a daycare for a month while panicking about all those nightmare scenarios. After reading articles about daycares being closed down for using Benadryl or even marijuana to make the children drowsy for naps and camera footage of caregivers beating the infants, my paranoia kicked in and fear got the better of me.
But there was no intention of finding long term care in the US. I was only there for work for six weeks after all. I returned to my dear Anush and Larisa in Armenia who are by my side to this day. I do pay them both on the higher end for domestic work in Armenia, but it’s still a fraction of what I would pay in any other country. I realize, though, that not everyone can afford this. That is why it’s my hope that the standard will increase over time. It is important that, as a society, we recognize that these people are looking after our children and they become part of our families. While I’m under no delusion that at the end of the day, they are not simply doing this out of love but as a job for which they are paid—I still feel beyond fortunate to have people who care for my children as their own. They are part of their birthday parties and invited to special occasions, when possible. And the salary… we keep it high because this is valuable work and we respect those who do it.
This comfort and luxury has become an essential part of life in a country that has become my own, but where I have little to no family to rely on. For the help, I am grateful.
Arsineh has been living in Armenia on and off since 2001 and has worked on marketing and branding for many clients locally and globally. She currently does all the marketing for Adzoukh restaurant in Yerevan, her husband’s latest venture with his friend and business partner.