Dec 21, 2011

    One of the advantages of raising a family in our country is the presence of household helpers. A mother can continue with her career even as the children start coming because of the presence of trusted helpers. I acknowledge their big help that I sometimes refer to them as “angels.”

          But what happens if your trusted household “angel” betrays you?

          This helper whom I will call “A” was with me from the late 1990s until 2004. She did not only do household chores but also helped take care of my sons when they were very young. She left in 2004 to get married. We witnessed the courtship A had with her then future husband when he would come visit her, complete with Dunkin Donuts pasalubong for my sons, much to Anton’s delight. Although the suitor was also from their province in Lanao Del Norte, he had a job in an office in Metro Manila. Even after A left and got married, she would come visit us with her husband and child. They usually came during Christmas and I would give them their Christmas gifts. Then they moved back to Lanao Del Norte and I didn’t see my helper for a long time. Still there were a few times she would send me a text message just to say “Kumusta na po kayo at ang mga bata?” She would even ask me if she could come back to work for me again. Since I am a believer that the mother should be the main caregiver of her child, at least from ages 0-7 if there is a dire need for the mother to work away from the child, I always told her to take care of her children first.

          Earlier this year, A sent a text message asking me to please hire her again. I talked to her to find out about her situation and she sounded desperate. The sad reality about poverty in our country and unplanned pregnancies is what came out of her mouth,“Alam ko pong bata pa ang mga anak ko at tatlo na po sila pero wala po kaming mapagkakitaang tuloy-tuloy dito. At least pag nandiyan po ako, tuloy-tuloy ang sueldo ko.” I was in a dilemma. Will I insist that she takes care of her children until they’re seven years old or do I help her put food on their table? I told her to have a heart to heart talk with her husband because I know that most husbands would not welcome the thought of being left alone to take care of three children, the youngest was just one year old, while the wife works in a far away place. She called back and assured me that it was their mutual decision, “Napagkasunduan na po namin na siya na lang muna ang mag-aalaga sa mga bata habang nagtatrabaho ako sa inyo.”

          And so in August of this year A came back to our home. She was darker and very thin, probably 40 pounds lighter than her frame when she was still single. The story of not having money to buy food was consistent with the way she looked. She was warmly welcomed to our home. She was also delighted to be back. When Enrique, my second son, arrived from school I even saw them hug each other. Enrique was probably the one she really took care of back then because she even had her own pet name for him. She was gushing at how big the boys have grown. The boys also remembered that she was our helper who loved to prepare Tamago sushi for them when it was their favorite Japanese food.

          For the next few months, I was actually very happy with the set-up at home. She was working with my other helper “S” who was also a “balik-yaya.”  S took care of Marty, my oldest, since he was less than a year old until he entered the big school. She also got married, had a child, separated from her husband, and asked for her job back which I gave her only after her son turned eight. Now she has been back for almost four years. I acknowledge that all helpers have their own share of shortcomings and disappointing behavior and over the last two decades I have learned to live with some of those. No one’s a perfect employee anyway. I always tell our helpers that errors in their jobs can be rectified but the non negotiables are care for my children (absolutely no hitting, shouting and cursing) and stealing. I explain to them that once they lose my trust, it was almost impossible to gain it back. I also tell them that if they need anything, they should ask for it and not assume that it’s ok for them to take things just because nobody is minding them. I’m sure all of you will agree that we should all feel safe and comfortable living in our own homes, knowing that if we leave something somewhere it will still be there. On the other hand, my husband and I also remind ourselves and the boys not to have our valuables and loose change lying around public areas in the house to avoid tempting the helpers.

          So for the past few months, we were happy because if we were to rank all the helpers we’ve had over the last two decades, these two helpers rank on top. They’re our most trusted helpers.  However, I also sensed a little bit of conflict between the two. Somehow, I felt that because I had two “superstar” maids who were working together for the first time, the conflict was inevitable. It’s really true that there can only be one queen – even among helpers. But the conflict seemed manageable. I asked them to work things out and pointed out each other’s strengths and reminded them that they are two of my most trusted helpers.

          This December A requested to go on a short vacation leave so she can go home to Lanao Del Norte because she had to claim their 4Ps Allowance from the government. She said that her husband cannot claim it because it was registered under her name. She promised that it will be a very short vacation and will be back for Christmas. I was computing the net cash inflow to her. She stood to claim P7,000 but her fare would cost her almost P5,000 so I helped her get in touch with DSWD to find out more about this 4Ps program and asked how things can be worked out so the husband can claim it for her. It turned out it can be done by sending over a letter of authority and eventually transferring the registered recipient’s name to her husband. However, she requested me to allow her to make this short trip even if the net inflow to them was very little because she had already promised her children about her trip and they were very excited about it.

          The trusting employer that I was, I even booked her roundtrip ticket on credit. She was scheduled to leave on December 16, 2011. Prior to her trip, S (the other helper) told me in private that she was a little suspicious having seen our towels, blankets and plates among A’s things. Of course given their mild conflict, I took this with a grain of salt instead of summoning A to show me all her things right away. Besides, I thought towels, blankets and plates?

          Two days before her scheduled departure I went to the ironing room to look for something and saw two huge bags and one big microwave box secured by a rope neatly packed ready for departure. I was surprised how she can fill those three big containers considering that all she earned since August except her savings and a small amount for days off were sent to her family, and I haven’t done any purging of cabinets since she joined us back. (My helpers are the first recipients of our old and sometimes new clothes and other belongings we decide to give away.) I called A and said, “Come here let’s do the SOP baggage checks because I will be busy in the next two days before you leave.” The checking of bags is an SOP my helpers themselves volunteer before they go on vacation. It has been a pretty awkward activity similar to mall security checks where no one really expects to find anything incriminating. And this must be one of the few checks I initiated. She was a little bit surprised to hear my request and said, “Mamaya na lang po.”  I said I was going out that day and will be out for the next two days so I will not have time anymore. So she came and opened the first bag. The first travelling bag was already suspicious so I asked where she got it. She said she bought it. So I let it pass. Then while she was taking out one t-shirt after another, I saw very familiar pieces. “Saan mo nakuha ito?” referring to a shirt with hoody which I bought for my son. “Sa Quiapo po.” was the reply. And then I pulled out a black tshirt that says Dance X (the high school dance team of my 2 sons) and asked, “E ito?” Same answer, “Sa Quiapo po o sa Ever.” I answered, A, huwag ka ng magsinungaling, walang ganitong t-shirt na binebenta sa labas, sa eskwelahan ito nanggaling at sa mga miyembro lang ito binibigay.” Her head was down but she continued to answer that she bought those things including mugs with labels like Equitable Bank, CLSA, BDO, etc. all giveaway items which she said she bought either in Quiapo or Ever. It was a shocking moment for me. I was beyond angry. I was puzzled. Other things that came out of her bags and box were all our belongings – more shirts, underwear, socks, car seatcovers, hangers, clothespins, books, notebooks, crayons, pens, umbrella, even a college entrance exam brochure for DLSU! Of course the towels, blankets, plates which were given as gifts to us on our wedding, as reported by S, were there. Even a pair of jogging pants of S was there. Old toys with sentimental value kept by the boys in the attic, the first birthday t-shirt I designed for my oldest, soap, powder, bags, ballers, jackets, even unidentified things from Marvin’s tool room were stashed away. I asked her if she knew what those were she said no.

          It was one of those unbelievable moments. And the thing is, had she asked for a lot of those stolen things, I would have gladly given them to her. I was devastated and I asked her, “A meron ba kaming nagawang masama o hindi magandang pakita sa iyo?” She quickly answered, “Wala po.” So I asked her as I started to cry, “E bakit mo kami pinagnakawan?” To that she burst into tears while kneeling down on my feet, “Sorry po Ate, sorry po, nalilito na po ako.” Because of the assorted loot, I really wondered if she was suffering from kleptomania so I asked, “Sakit ba ito?” She nodded and said, “May sakit din po ako sa puso, ang sakit, parang puputok po!” as she acted having an attack pretty much like the teleserye scenes she watches on tv. It was a good thing I was warned about her propensity to use her supposed heart condition during conflicts so I just stood and walked away. True enough she was right on her feet when she noticed her acting didn’t convince me.

          I calmly told her to pack up her own things and leave. It didn’t cross my mind to report her to the police at that time. I just wanted her out of our house. Besides, I thought what would happen to her three young children if their mother ends up in jail in Manila? And the fact that this person helped in taking care of my sons for many years cannot be erased right away. So I told her to go home and I requested her not to twist the story so that if it’s true that she’s sick with kleptomania, her husband and the rest of her family can help her get healed. She said yes and even thanked me.

          A few minutes later while I was trying to get my bearings back because I had to interview an important person in a few hours, S called my attention to a bag which was left in A’s cabinet. It was a Nike shoulder bag owned by one of the boys and it contained a lot of cash – coins, peso bills, receipts and even US dollars inside a wallet where Marvin keeps his one dollar bills. They all added up to thousands of pesos. The receipts of all her pera padala to her husband amounted to much much more than her total gross pay for the duration of her stay.

          In a few more minutes, she had the gall to come back and ask for “her bag” and a few belongings she left. On her way out she also had the time to tell the maids of some of the neighbors that she only did what she did so that I won’t force her to come back anymore. I was really puzzled to hear this but instead of having a showdown with her, I called up the guard and asked that she be escorted out of the village and to make sure that she will not be allowed entry anymore.

          As I tried to collect myself from this emotional encounter, I began to wonder what really happened during her first long stint with us. Did she steal during those years? Was she kind to the boys? I tried to recall how she was then. And the only big offense I recalled was when she had a drinking spree with some friends on New Year’s eve in our house while we were away. How was she able to steal cash from us? I always account for everything in our petty cash in my monthly cashflow statements.

          When I sent text message to my husband and the boys immediately after the incident, they were all shocked. My husband’s reply was, “Is it because of extreme poverty back home?” My sons replied with surprise and sadness. Enrique, who’s very frugal with his cellphone load, even called me up. He was deeply disturbed because as I said she took care of him with fondness during his early years. Enrique ended up going to the chapel to take a moment of silence. Just like me he felt the betrayal so much it also made him cry.

          I sent a text message to my immediate family about this because she hails from the same province where a lot of our helpers come from – the maids of my parents, my sister, my sisters-in-law. They even have a clan/bayan head who acts like a “godmother” to all of them from that part of Lanao Del Norte. She is the caregiver of the mother of my sister-in-law. She called me up to find out what happened and promised to get in touch with the folks in their place so they could try to recover any stolen things or cash that are still with her. She said they have been successful in doing this in the past.

          I also posted her ID with photo on facebook just to warn anyone who may be a future employer. All the comments I received said that I should have reported her to the police. She was caught in the act and it would have been easy for her to be jailed. It would have served as a lesson not only to her but to others as well. But I didn’t, I just sent her home and there she has been telling her own version of the story. Unfortunately for her, news travel fast even in the hinterlands of Lanao because of text. But someone promised to help me to at least get a police blotter on the incident.

          I have been downtrodden and have been under the weather these days. My husband asked me, “Are you sad because she made us look like fools or because you pity her?” And my answer is both.

          In any tragedy I try hard to have a takeaway from it. And I think the text reply of my sister-in-law is the lesson, “Thanks for sharing because this is a wake up call. I feel like I’m trusting my maids too much na rin. We should still be careful. I have a friend who only discovered the abuses of her maid after seven years. She has been spanking and pulling the hair of her daughter when she was not around!”

          Definitely a wake up call for us. Over the past years we have not been careful about leaving our loose change on the kitchen counter. I ask my maids (at least the trusted ones) to fetch my bag from our room if I need something from it. I do not check the market receipts right after I send them to market. We sometimes put our dirty clothes in the hamper without checking the pockets. I don’t lock our bedrooms when we leave the house.

          So these days, we’re back to being careful. Bedrooms are cleaned when we are at home, we lock our bedroom doors when we leave the house and loose change are not left on the kitchen counter.

          I hope my story will alert you to be more prudent in trusting the people in your own homes. Let’s make sure that our household “angels,” no matter how long they have been with us, are still worthy of our trust, worthy of being called angels.