For long-time Beijing resident Helen Plummer, having an ayi has been wonderful not only for her career but also for her family. Still, she would be the first to admit the challenges in allowing another person to care for her children. “It hurt when my son called out for ayi instead of me,” says Plummer, a former New Yorker who was raised by a nanny herself. Moms and ayis walk the fine line between friend and foe. Many mothers see their ayis as vital members of the family but finding that perfect caregiver can create tensions and unearth insecurities most moms never even knew existed.For many moms, having another woman care for their children forces them to deal with some uncomfortable truths, namely that you can’t do everything by yourself.
It can be especially difficult when you realize your kids can be just as happy in the care of a stranger as they are with you. If this tension is left unresolved, a busy mom can quickly begin to feel like she’s being usurped by the nanny. One Beijing mother, who declined to be named, was deeply upset when her children started calling their ayi “mom.” The situation got so bad that she even took to avoiding her kids for fear of not being able to relate to them. This phenomenon isn’t Beijing-specific, of course; there are many similar cases in the nanny-hubs of Western countries, such as New York and London. Before hiring a nanny, women must come to terms with the fact that they will never be able to live up to the unrealistic expectation of being a mother, carer and worker all at the same time, says Lucy Kaylin, executive editor at Marie Claire (US) and the author of The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies. Kaylin wrote her book after experiencing firsthand just how fraught the relationship between nannies and moms can be. Quite bluntly, she asks women to “own” their choices, specifically their decision to go to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children like the generations of women before them. Erin Henderschedt, a busy mom of four, said it took a while for her to get used to somebody helping out at home. But these days, it’s clear to her that ayi is a blessing to the family. Like many moms, Henderschedt feels the occasional pangs of guilt over not being able to play with her kids, but she still feels secure in her position as mother. It’s easy to stay that little bit longer at the office knowing ayi is at home with the kids, says Henderschedt. She cautions, however, that moms should retain control over their territory and understand that they are ultimately the best nurturers. An ayi is simply a bonus. In an effort to make up for their absence, some mothers place a lot of pressure on ayis to be perfect in every way. For instance, ayis might be expected to not scold, lose their temper, or resort to junk-food bribery. But as all moms know, every day is a test of patience. Sometimes you can’t help but tell kids off, or sit them in front of the TV with a cookie for 30 minutes of quiet. The role of an ayi is complicated, as she’s not family but neither is she strictly an employee. Duties range from cleaning grubby fingers to making sure dinner is ready for mom when she gets home. A 1992 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that aside from caring for children, nannies spend a lot of their time looking after the emotional needs of the parents, who often feel guilty for leaving their kids. There are alternatives to hiring an ayi full- time, and some parents prefer their kids to spend some time in daycare as well as with the ayi. Candice Carlisle, a teacher at Western Academy of Beijing, has two children and believes their ayi is the closest thing they have to family in their new home away from South Africa. Both children love their ayi, but Carlisle’s 3-year-old son needed more discipline than his ayi felt comfortable providing. Her son now spends three days in childcare, and the rest of the week is spent at home with his 2-year-old sister and ayi – an arrangement that has proved to be the perfect compromise. Nevertheless, though her children are happy, Carlisle sometimes feels guilty about spending more time with other people’s children than her own. The general consensus among moms who’ve found that perfect ayi is that respect is vital to a healthy relationship. A 2000 Cambridge University survey found that most nannies felt a general sense of “disposability.” Henderschedt often sees Beijing moms treating their ayis more like the help than as the carers of their children. “Treat your ayi with respect and you’ll get that back,” says Henderschedt. Plummer, who speaks fluent Mandarin, believes communication is a large part of what makes a successful ayi-mother relationship. She treats her live-in ayi as part of the family, regularly inviting her ayi’s husband and college-age daughter over for get-togethers. It doesn’t hurt that Plummer also provides her ayi benefits such as an annual bonus, a large master bedroom and her own fridge. The problem many mothers face is finding the right ayi. Beijing moms in the know recommend local Beijing women over 45 years old with experience raising their own children. References from other moms are also a good way of knowing which ayis are dependable, trustworthy and most importantly, have a good track record with kids. Being able to speak some basic Mandarin will help avoid the trouble that can arise from miscommunication. Being able to communicate days, times and allergies are particularly important, and will show your ayi that you are willing to work with her to overcome linguistic barriers. Being able to work as a team will not only make things easier for the children, but will also help moms and their ayis avoid the occupational hazards that come with sharing a difficult job. When she turned to her childhood nanny for advice, Plummer was offered these words of wisdom: “There’s no comparison – your mom is your mom.”