26 November 2010

House Help in the Foreign Service

If you are are considering the Foreign Service, no doubt you relish in the idea that your middle-class bureaucrat salary might afford you a great deal of house help in many posts.  I certainly do.  From an early age my two practical benchmarks of success were: 1) paying someone else to clean my house, and 2) having an office big enough for a couch where I could sneak in a 20-minute nap for lunch.  #2 is still far off, as I could probably touch one elbow to each side of my interview window in Santo Domingo -- without stretching.

Anyway, this post is about house help, and now that I have a few months under my belt of being posted abroad maybe I will add a few blog posts in the near future.

Right, house help.  I read other blogs that described the need to train house help to follow an American style of cleaning, organizing, shopping, child care. etc.  I thought, that make sense, but it can't be too bad.  Well, I'm not saying it's bad, but it certainly is frustrating, and above all else a cultural adjustment. In the Dominican Republic most everyone in the middle class and up seems to have at least one house "empleada" who comes several times a week to help with the house work. Some salaries I've heard are down right pathetic, amounting to less than 150USD per month for a full-time live-in maid.

Being all for human rights and a good living wage, but also having recently graduated from law school with some hefty debt, we ran the family budget number and determined that we could get away with hiring a full-time live in maid.  Sweet! We also figured we could pay her a good wage by Dominican standards, at least 50% higher than what a Dominican family would pay her. Pay her well, as she'll be happy; and we'll be happy, I thought.

First attempt: crash and burn.  Within a month she was asking for more money, insinuating that she was doing a lot more work than in her old job and we ought to pay her more. (In retrospect this appears to be a common Dominican cultural trait - I think the consensus is it can't hurt to push the boundaries a little.)  Having worked for other American families, her work was outstanding.  But - and I hate to put it this way - it was like she had been spoiled. Her previous employer had been a man with a small child, no pets, and a wife who was out of the country a lot.  After that first appeal for more money, things got awkward.  Every week or so, there was a petition for more money for some reason or another. She would stand in the kitchen and stare at us when she didn't have a particular task.  She lost her keys and I had a little voice in my head wondering if their was an ulterior motive.

I think what happened is that Dave and I are entirely unaccustomed to having help live in our house.  It's hard to have someone in your house all day, nearly every day when you have a work relationship.  We offered her one of our extra bedrooms instead of the service quarters because it was nicer and air conditioned.  As a result, our only private space was our bedroom, and even not that during the day.  Both of us are solidly middle-class, maybe towards the upper end, but have never experienced having live-in help.  Ultimately, it became too much.  We ended up letting her go, and have subsequently hired someone who comes three days a week.
Certainly, I miss the comfort of knowing I only had to walk my dog twice a week.  I miss that I didn't have to raise a finger after dinner to clean the dishes.  I love my husband dearly, but her seriously shirks disk duty after dinner. *Sigh* Our new empleada is extremely efficient too, but a little slow to pick up our preferred methods of cleaning and organizing.  I am happy to say we are still paying a good wage by Dominican standards.

The next challenge for us will be considering a nanny.  Dave and I have gotten out for an evening a total of twice since we've gotten here, and it may be that as I settle into my life as a Foreign Service Officer, I will need the ability to attend functions on short notice.  There are invitations for representational events that come around for that evening, or the following evening, which right now I fell dis-inclined to take.  Since I'm the newbie no one cares much, but there will probably be a point where I need to start going to these functions; and I would like to get out and meet people outside of the visa interview setting.

My heart panics a little when I think about having a near stranger come to live with us and care for my son. But it is hard to find a good babysitter, since nannies are the standard here -- or the housekeeper sometimes keeps an eye on the kids.  If Dave decides to start working, we will probably recruit someone, but the process and the potential pitfalls still scare me.  Our first experience with a live-in was awkward, at best.  At least next time, we will have our list of lessons learned. At least one Senior Foreign Service Officer has assured me, "You get used to it."