Domestics for Dummies

Just arrived at your first Third World post? Have you had this conversation yet?

Kindly old-timer: Do you have a maid yet?

You: Well, no.

Kindly Old Timer: Oh you really must get yourself one. Everyone has them here–we wouldn’t know how to get by without them! In fact I know a woman who is leaving and looking for a family to place their maid with.

You: (Ack! How do I keep from sounding like total greenhorn?) Ah, well, I haven’t really settled in yet. I don’t know how comfortable I am with the maid-thing.

Kindly Old Timer: My dear, the settling-in is what the maid is for! Let me just fish my friend’s telephone number out of my purse, and we’ll get you fixed up in no time!

Well if you haven’t had it yet, you soon will, unless you are one of the very few who are headed to Western Europe or other First World locales. I’ve spent ten years in countries blessed with plentiful domestic help. Here are my totally subjective, but nonetheless useful, tips on how to deal with your first maid, nanny, gardener, or whatever. Consider these tips to be basis for discussion–every post will have its particular cultural and legal quirks when it comes to domestic help.

Do not hire the first maid referred to you by the CLO, or by your predecessor. Comparison-shop, even if that first offer comes highly recommended. Standards for domestic servants vary widely. I can name one CLO that had gone through eight maids in one year. This points to a management problem! She was not a good person to rely on for advice or recommendations, but a newcomer would not know that, obviously. Be wary of inheriting a maid from your spouse’s predecessor. The guilt-factor is a strong one, and he/she may be just trying to palm the maid off on you so as not to feel bad about leaving them out of a job. My husband’s predecessor in one post “neglected” to mention that the housekeeper had six children living with her in the backyard! Insist on a trial period, and be careful to ask questions, even if the questions seem uncomfortably rude to you.

I hate to harp on this, but learn the language! It is totally humiliating to have to rely on your friends or (even worse) on your spouse to translate requests such as “No, we would prefer that you do not scrub our clothes on the rocks out back, that is what that funny-looking machine over there is for!” On a related same subject, many other languages have a separate verb form for formal address. Use it, especially if your domestic employee is older than you are. It establishes social distance (a concept that usually does not come naturally to Americans), as well as demonstrates respect.

Read the regulations. Many countries have elaborate requirements for the care and feeding of domestic servants, from huge Christmas bonuses, to severance pay, medical care, housing, you name it. There is nothing wrong with all this, but you need to be aware that the “sticker price” of a servant by no means tells the whole story. The CLO or the Embassy’s administrative section should have a copy of the local rules and regulations. Discuss all this with the servant before you hire them. Believe me, even if they can’t read they will have a pretty good idea of what their rights are (which is as it should be).

Never assume anything. For example, in a country where no one wears a bra, why would your maid know how to wash one? After several of my overpriced Victoria’s Secret treasures were turned into little more than frayed rubber bands, I resorted to washing a weekly load of delicates myself on the maid’s day off. And then there was the time that my Salvadoran housekeeper painstakingly ironed all the wrinkles out of my brand-new Liz Claiborne “broomstick” skirt! It was never the same again, but I had to write it off as the price of a lesson learned. And then there was the time when, after months in a certain African country with suspect hygienic practices, I discovered that my otherwise intelligent housekeeper had been wiping down our dishes and kitchen counters with the same “cleaning cloths” that she used on our bathrooms, and God knows what else. She had been just rinsing them out in the sink afterwards. Eeeeuuuuwww! (No wonder we all got giardia!)

Be wary of personal problems. They will come up, and they are real problems. Your gardener is not kidding when he says he has 8 children to feed, and your maid is quite right to want to take care of her sick mother, cousin, or nephew. These things happen, and you need to be understanding, but on the other hand it’s not your country and it’s not your fault people have more kids than they can feed or clothe. Sounds cold-hearted in the abstract, but wait until you get the bill for six sets of school uniforms! You have to set limits, and set them early before you end up supporting someone’s extended family (which can be really extended in some places!), or only seeing your maid’s face a couple of days per week. So know your obligations and decide what charity you are willing to extend and stick to it. Believe me, my first maid made out like bandit while I was picking all this up!

Pay well, and expect good work. There are always those employers, local and American, who come from the “hire ’em young and pay ’em dirt” school. These people usually go through several servants during each tour because the people that they hire either steal; are too uneducated, shiftless or just plain immature to do the job; or get pregnant! I have had the best luck with older, experienced people who are somewhat educated. And I don’t mind paying top-level salaries to these folks. After all, these are the people I leave my children with during the day. So I treat household workers as professionals, and I generally get professional results. My last housekeeper did such a great job, and impressed so many visitors to my home that she was the subject of a bidding war when I left the country! I don’t regret a dime that I paid that remarkable woman over the three years that we were there. So, don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish, because you will definitely regret it in the long run.

When it comes to babysitting, acknowledge the limits of the arrangement. It is not possible for a nanny to raise your children exactly as you would like them to, no matter how hard they try. They come from a completely different culture, after all. And they simply do not have the long-term interest in your children that you do, no matter how much they may love them. They are just trying to get through the day, and “spoiling” your kids is the easiest way to get by. I always looked upon my part-time nanny as being the equivalent of a kindly aunt–qualified to pamper, but not to raise my kids. And then there are those cultural differences! Long after I left El Salvador I discovered that my housekeeper had been having a nice little café con leche with my infant son every morning after I left for work. My grandmother was in on the secret, but kids routinely drank coffee on cold mornings when she was a child so she thought it was funny. On the whole I guess it was no big deal, but my son is still the only three-year-old I know who is addicted to Starbucks decaf!

Respect their culture. Don’t ask your Muslim cook to prepare pork or to serve it to others. Understand that your maid may not feel comfortable ordering the male gardener around. Give them time off for important cultural rituals such as funerals, quinceaneras, or baptisms. Remember you represent the United States to every class of people in the host country.

Give them what you can. There is no shame involved in accepting other people’s clothes and household goods in the Third World. If they can’t use it, they have a friend or relative who will be delighted to have it. In the seriously poor countries nothing goes to waste. For example, I routinely gave my Zambian housekeeper the chicken parts that I didn’t use, and her kids had a lot of good soup out of it. It would never have occurred to me to save all that chicken if she hadn’t asked for it! Look upon the employer/employee relationship as a great excuse to keep your closets clean, your refrigerator fresh, and your wardrobes up-to-date.

I was very uncomfortable with my first maid, but after four tours in the Third World I am terribly grateful for having had that help especially during the early years of motherhood. Handled well, the employer-servant relationship can be a great opportunity to learn about the host culture, as well as make life easier in a hard place. The advantages of having a reliable, experienced housekeeper, nanny, or gardener cannot be overstated. It might feel strange now, but once you get used to it, you really will wonder how you ever got by without all that help!

Kelly Bembry Midura is AAFSW ‘s Content Manager. She blogs at