Expat Stories, Kiddo

Tiny Island: Pros and Cons

This is not a list of pros and cons so much as a summary of my day today. Ergo, the cons:

Mila is still doing it tough. Just on the cusp of turning three, away from all her buddies, her adored Nanny (nana) and Papa, and her much-loved part-time daycare. Her favourite word currently is RRROOOOAAARRR! She roars at me. She roars at the restaurant staff. She roars at the canteen staff. She roars at guests who look at her (you got a problem with your eye, boy?). She roars at everyone. And not a very nice, kindly type of roar, if those happens to exist. An angry, WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME? type roar. She’s not happy, and it’s all my fault.

Well, my fault and Mr C’s: together we made the decision to uproot her. But as women and mothers we are raised to feel guilty and inadequate, to soak ourselves in all the memories of things we didn’t do quite right. Not all the time, of course, but more than enough. Did you make the right choices? Are your legs slim enough? Is your career good enough? Is your mothering good enough? It’s that last question that creeps along in my shadow, no matter how much I try to kick it away.

Today the weight of all my doubts felt heavy. I roared back in words. Not in a nice, kindly way. Stop that! I am sick of this! Immediately I felt guilty. And that made me even more pissed off and upset. Mother and child: locked in a battle of wills that was not really about either one of us and more about all the changes in our lives and all the things we couldn’t really articulate, at least not in neat, tidy and kind sentences. So we roared.

Then Martha, our nanny, arrived. She has been making HUGE progress with Mila. Mila does not roar at her, at least not after the first 10 minutes. Martha rocks her to sleep in her arms if I’m not there. That’s quite a physical feat for a tiny-boned, petite Sri Lankan woman faced with my sturdy child. “I had to sit down afterwards and rest!” she says, “But it was worth it. She looks so innocent when she’s sleeping.” We smiled together at the caveat. If Mila wants cuddles, Martha has plenty of them. Sometimes they nap with arms around each other, like I do with Mila when I’m at home. Mila has started saying Martha is her friend. That feels good. They read books together, do lots of drawing together, go for walks around the island together. The trust that was broken in our first awful nanny experience is being repaired. That feels good, too.

So, after being a sub-par parent this morning, far from my best, Martha came in to relieve me. She’s only here for a few hours at the moment so that Mila can get to know her, but boy was I glad to see her. Mila was already deep in dreamland; I brushed her hair back behind her ear and kissed her forehead. Still so much like a baby. Then I grabbed my laptop and my book, tiptoed out the door, prayed no-one would feel the urge to do some lunchtime construction work or get out the insanely loud fogging machine, and high-tailed it down to the bar.

I might have voluntarily foregone my social and support network of family and friends, but being able to hire a nanny – at much more affordable rates compared to New Zealand – is helping to bridge that gap. Once I would have babysitted the toddler of a sick friend; she would have easily done the same for me if I was worn out or needed a break. Now I have Martha. Maybe my ‘village’ is a little contrived, but Martha really does feel genuine and warm. I am so glad to have her here. A day that was spiraling into messiness has been restored with a couple of hours – all to myself! – to relax and recoup.

One large frozen pineapple margarita, coming right up.

photo credit: http://www.tasteloveandnourish.com/2013/05/01/frozen-pineapple-margarita/

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Nanny: Check

We hired a nanny today. Second time lucky?

God, I really hope so. Not that my gut instinct has proven itself particularly reliable, but I do have a very good feeling about her. Her name is Martha: she only moved here from Sri Lanka in February, with her new husband. I like that we’re both new here. She showed me her wedding photos. I wanted to talk about our wedding too, how we were married a month after them. Our wedding was gorgeous: blue skies, a country house, a garden wedding and a reception in a covered pagoda that had grape vines climbing all over the ceiling beams. But I pulled myself in. I’m wary, after being pregnant in Malaysia, of anything that might label me The Unmarried Heathen Mother, even though I am married now. I am not ashamed of having a baby outside of marriage – hell, I wouldn’t be ashamed if I’d conceived her during a one night stand – but I don’t have time for the labels people here might give me. Here’s my husband, here’s my child: I’ll leave you to your own assumptions.

Anyway, back to Martha. She’s lovely. She called herself shy but didn’t seem it. She misses her niece and nephew in Sri Lanka. She’s bored at home and wants a job. “OK, done!” I wanted to crow. She was just so nice. But we had three more interviews to get through first. I just knew they wouldn’t be as ideal, and they weren’t. A woman who spoke hardly any English, despite having perfect grammar when she SMS’d and emailed me. Was that her husband writing for her? Or was her writing just leagues ahead of her spoken English? It was an odd interview. Then two more women whom I could hardly tell apart. Painfully shy with voices so quiet I had to strain to hear them. They both rubbed Mila’s cheek as they left, which is the standard Maldivian greeting to children. She growled.

Actually, she did pretty well today. It was a long, hot morning. We were in Seagull cafe, sitting upstairs under a fan that I willed would spin just a bit faster. Mila occupied herself with her colouring pencils: then blowing bubbles in her juice, then mashing and mixing an ice-cream sundae as big as her head. She’s still not three, so I don’t expect miracles. Just remaining reasonably quiet and not exceptionally mobile in a public space is the miracle.

She fell asleep on my lap on the ferry home, tiny beads of sweat on her upper lip, skin sticky. I kissed her damp hair. This nanny will be better than the last one, I silently promise her. And then I hoped like anything it was true.

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Finding Childcare in the Maldives

Like everything else here, turns out it’s an adventure.

In New Zealand Mila was in daycare three days per week while I studied full time. Obviously, those numbers don’t quite add up: to make my study work I had to rope in my lovely husband and parents on occasion, and pull all-nighters when I ran out of time. I did make it work, but it was far from ideal. What was ideal was her daycare. Oh, that place! We all still miss it. A Reggio Emilia  based centre with an outstanding child-staff ratio and staff that were caring and engaged and interested. They cooked together, gardened together, went rampaging through the local forest and stream. It was an idyllic place for her. If I could find anything like that again – or if we ever go home with a preschooler – I wouldn’t hesitate to enroll her. But here? Wishful thinking.

We were of course, promised a nanny would appear almost as soon as our plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. I was anxious about it: I drove Mr C mental making him repeat the assurances and check that the deal was still on. It was, it was:everything will be ok! Don’t worry about it. We’ll have you a nanny within an hour. Three in the next day – just pick the best one. But I was right: promises are slippery things here, and finding a nanny was not that simple.

The first one, Irma, took two weeks to show up: an eighteen year old with an attitude and no previous experience. “My sisters don’t think I can do it, so I want to prove them wrong,” she announced at her interview. If there had been anyone else, we wouldn’t have hired her. But there wasn’t, so we decided to give her a go.
“Do I have to come this early? It’s too early for me, I’m so tired,” she complained on the first morning. It was 8am and she’d just stepped in the door. As a parent of a small child, I’m pretty lacking in sympathy for anyone who thinks getting up at 6.45am is an ungodly hour.
“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t like the food at the canteen.”
“Do I have to take her to meals? I don’t like that place.”
“Can you make the TV work? I want to put the TV on.”
“I didn’t see her drawing on the floor because I was busy talking on the phone to my ma.”
“I don’t like having to get the ferry.”
“We didn’t do anything today, it was so boring.”
“Do I still have to take her to breakfast?”
“I couldn’t play with her today because she doesn’t like me.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

No wonder she doesn’t like you! I raged inwardly. You don’t make an effort – you don’t take her to meals unless I practically drag you – everything is an effort and a chore. I split into anxious halves: let her go or keep trying? It was amazing how fast the whole situation unravelled. Irma left the house a mess every evening, kept turning the TV on after I asked her not to and seemed to be eternally distracted because she was on the phone. The last day Mila spent with Irma was awful. She’d just had enough and clung to my husband and I as we tried to leave. I held her and rocked her on my lap for an hour before I left. She screamed as I walked out the door and I could still hear her screaming as I walked away. My heart was broken: it was not right leaving her in that situation, with a nanny who obviously did not, to be quite frank, give a shit about her little charge.

I bawled down the phone to Mr C that I was not doing this anymore. I would withdraw from my studies for the semester if it meant no more Irma. He agreed. No more Irma. Despite the loss of my academic semester, I felt my lungs inflate properly for the first time in days. My stomach unclenched. Relief. We’d had two weeks of Irma and that day when Mila screamed was the last day she worked. We paid her out for the rest of the month, and went back to square one.

We had already listed on Great Au Pair, a site which charged a steep US$60 for a month’s premium membership. And you needed to have a premium membership in order to contact potential nannies – so basically for the site to be of any use, although of course it was easy to sign up for the free version without realising that. Despite the name, the site promised it was also possible to hire nannies for any country in the world. We had plenty of applicants: but nobody from the Maldives, and most expecting the same salaries from their home countries: France, the UK, the US. Here in the Maldives we are able to offer a salary that is much better than the local going rate, but it still doesn’t compare to a Western income. Plus, we didn’t want to pay for an air-fare over here or organise work permits – so in the end, the site was a flop for us. We needed to go local.

And then I found it: Ibay. It’s the Maldivian equivalent of Ebay, and it has jobs. It’s a hassle to sign up for: you have to register with a bizarre SMS back-and-forth, the terms and conditions you agree to are only in Divehi (so God knows what I agreed to!) and the links aren’t the easiest, but, but, but – 100% worth it.
Maldivians seem pretty keen on their phones, so I gave out – with some reluctance – my phone number as well as a robot-protected version of my email address. Nobody bothered with my email. I had ten applicants the first day, and ten the next. Where were all these would-be-nannies coming from? I didn’t care. Well I did, but there was time for going through their CV’s later. For now I just wanted to feel gratitude that anyone had replied at all. The resort hadn’t made any progress finding anyone else, and I had begun to feel like we’d just fired the only nanny on Male’.

Of course, not all the applicants were what we wanted. The most memorable was Amina. Our text conversation went like this:

Amina: How much you paying.

Amina (five minutes later) Why you no text me back.

Me: Hi, can you tell me your name, whether or not you are living in Male and your childcare experience please. [I give her the salary range]

Amina: So how many hours I have to work

Me: Four days per week and two evenings.

Amina: I want to keep the baby with me in Male’ during day

Me: Sorry, she has to stay on the resort

Amina: I will come and see environment then decide if I accept the job.

Uh, sorry Amina, but no-one’s offering it to you! We may be a little bit desperate for a brilliant nanny, but you’re certainly not The One and we ‘re not THAT desperate. Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

But then moments later:

“Hi, I saw your advert for a babysitter for your family. Am really interested to spend time with kids. I am a Sri Lankan, married, living in Male’. Thanks, Martha.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

Now that is more like it.
We haven’t got to the interviewing stage yet, but today I’m feeling upbeat: somewhere in my phone inbox is someone who will take good care of my beloved little one.
Today, despite all the idiosyncrasies and dysfunction of everyday life here, is suddenly bright and warm with sunshine.

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