Adeeba Jafri is a mother of four kids (three of them are teens, so help me), currently living the expat life in a tiny country in the Middle East that she doesn’t want to mention for fear of getting deported. She graduated many moons ago from Barnard College with a double major in Political Science and US History, before having her four kids, when she had brain cells. She is the author of The Baby Garden, Alia and the Story of the Rose, and The Path that Allah Made. She manages the FB page Dessert in the Desert, where she posts interdisciplinary Islamic Studies lesson plans and activities for after-school programs. (https://www.facebook.com/dessertinthedesert/) She enjoys food, fitness, writing, teaching, organizing youth group events, reading fantasy novels (to escape all the aforementioned activities) and more food.
When we moved to the Middle East almost ten years ago, the first thing people said to me was “Four kids? You’re going to need a maid.” The word “maid” was unheard of living in America. In the West, my understanding of a housekeeper meant a woman that came once a month to do some deep cleaning, but the house’s general cleanliness was my responsibility. That meant cleaning bathroom floors while the kids were in the tub, or scrubbing dishes while the toddler used Play-Doh on the kitchen floor. Even the word “housekeeper”- or worse, “cleaning lady”- was shunned, as though having another person clean your bathroom floors was a poor reflection on you.
In the ME, having a full-time (or part-time) maid is the norm. I use the word “maid” loosely to describe anyone that is hired for the purpose of helping out around the house. That can take the form of a nanny, who helps with the kids, or a housekeeper who helps with cleaning. There are some maids that are only responsible for the kitchen, including the cooking, and there some who are more like tutors, whose command of English allows them to help the children with schoolwork and translating information to the parents. No matter the reason for which they were hired, these women support the backbone of the household.
Does that make us expat women privileged? I guess. I certainly feel blessed that, while raising four little things into proper, functioning human beings, I can take breaks from the monotony of laundering, ironing, and washing dishes. Remember that old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Well, in my case, I’m happy to do all the mothering, take the kids to school or to the park, play with them and attend to their every need, as long as my other needs (the need to have the bathroom perfectly clean, the need to have my floor vacuumed and mop) are all taken care of.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been through my share of housekeepers. Some were transient, who swept in and out of your life so briefly you never knew what you had until you lost her. Some left a nasty stain on your life and you can’t remember that person without shuddering. And there were some housekeepers that taught you life lessons that you didn’t even know life had to offer.
Here is my breakdown of the various personalities in housekeepers that I have met, employed, or had close friends employ in their homes. Please know that for every flaw and criticism that I point out, I have a hundred or more flaws of my own. Just as some housekeepers are difficult to work with, I pity them for what I may have put them through as well.
The Sad One
This is the maid who’s perpetually sad. She sometimes sits outside the house, crying. You worry about her. You coddle her. You hear about how her boyfriend/husband treats her. You allow her boyfriend to stay over. All day. You become more invested in her love life than the state of your kitchen. You discuss her love life with your utterly confused friends. There are some days when she’s whistling while she works and other days when she’ll sulk. For days. You consider calling him yourself or arranging a marriage counselor.
She has everything she asks for. New clothes, new shoes, new bags. And yet when your friends come over, she transforms into Cinderella. Unkempt hair, dirty clothes, flip flops with socks with holes in them. Wait, wasn’t she just wearing something else? Now she looks all…disheveled. She’s hunched over and getting pitying looks from your friends, who quietly go up to her and ask if she needs any help. Does she need any extra clothes? You know I can donate some if that’s ok with you. You might want to take her shopping sometime.
You sponsored a housekeeper who was older, more mature, and past the mid-life crisis you’re currently in. Instead, you ended up with another mom. She questions where you’re going and when you’ll be back. She watches you when you’re eating because she knows that last Snickers bar in the freezer didn’t eat itself. She disapproves of your friends. She treats you like her daughter and makes judgments on what you do and what you wear, even though she’s your employee. You find yourself spending more and more time at the doctor’s, not for yourself but for her ailments.
The Better Wife
This is the maid that has catalogued all of your husband’s favorite dishes and makes them effortlessly. She knows how he likes his socks and underwear folded (because only expat women expect that), and she irons his clothes better than any dry cleaner could. You find yourself irritated that she knows how to cook his favorite dishes better than you. When things go missing, he automatically turns to her because she knows where everything is.
The Cold Front
She hates you and does not hesitate to show how much she despises working for you. Is it the job? Is it the kids? Is it you? Is she having a bad day, everyday? You have no idea. You’ve tried asking. You’ve tried buying her love and happiness. You’ve tried giving her extra time off to make her “feel better.” You’ve come to terms with the fact that you have an extra angry, sulking teenager in the house.
I find this trait to be an extension of the Cold Front. She’s never around. You’re calling her name, trying to get her attention, but she’s not there. Or if she is, she’s ignoring you. When you finally get her attention, she lets everyone know she’s there. There’s noise coming from every room she’s in. She’s the Dobby of Hogwarts house elves. Doors and drawers are being slammed left and right. Things are being dropped sporadically. Why does your kitchen sound like a construction site? Oh, the maid is just chopping onions.
The One that Got Away
The maid who understood you, cared for you, actually cleaned the house better than you. If you asked her to change the bedsheets, she had already changed them the day before you asked. If you texted her to use the ripening bananas, they were already in the oven baking as muffins or bread. When your friends come over, you see them chatting it up with her. Are they asking her to do part-time for them? You feel a surge of jealousy rising inside. Don’t talk to her, she’s mine.
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
…seems to know a lot about your child. She gets your child to eat their vegetables. She even gets them to wash their hands before each meal. My favorite activity to do with the kids was puzzles. Every evening, we always had a puzzle and a bowl of fruit out in the living room. One evening, while I was at parent teacher conferences, hubby came home early and saw the 3 yr old sitting in the living room, doing a puzzle with the maid, next to a bowl of grapes. When I got back, he says, “I think you should spend more time with the kids.”
I’m sure there are more categories I can use to describe personality traits of our maids- but the truth is, I’m sure they have just as many, if not more, for the expat “madams” that lord over them. The fact of that matter is that these women are an integral part of running a household in the ME. Without them, we would be lost and overwhelmed. Or at least frazzled about making our own beds.