In the conversation about mothers, we often talk about biological mothers, who give birth to their children and raise them. But there are many mother figures in Singapore who don't share biological ties with the children they care for — our domestic helpers.
One such domestic helper is 61-year-old Perla De Luna Cuison, who lives with her 33-year-old employer Phoon Hui Leng and Phoon's two daughters.
Phoon's bond with her helper Cuison goes beyond the conventional employer-helper relationship, to the extent that she thinks of Cuison as a mother and a co-parent/grandmother to her daughters Dorelle and Chervil, who are 10 and 8 respectively.
Their relationship is unconventional and we couldn't help but wonder if Phoon feels threatened that her domestic helper is, in some ways, closer to her kids than she is.
To this, Phoon remarked, rhetorically:
“Like, would you say, eh why my kids so close with my mum? You won't, right?”
Growing up together, now parenting together
Originally hired by Phoon's parents more than 30 years ago, Cuison has been caring for Phoon since she was five years old.
The helper recalled with a chuckle that Phoon was very active as a kid, and would frequently run away from her.
But over the years, both Cuison and Phoon developed a close bond, very much like that between a mother and a daughter.
Even today, Cuison would make sure that Phoon has eggs to eat in the morning and doesn't let her leave the house without a big water bottle to keep her hydrated through the day.
When Phoon was pregnant with her first child, she knew that she would need help and requested Cuison to move in with her.
Being a working mum, Phoon said that Cuison gives her "peace of mind" when it comes to her kids' supervision. Both share the responsibility of parenting Dorelle and Chervil.
It goes without saying that there's a lot of trust between them, and because of this, Cuison plays a bigger part in the girls' upbringing than most domestic helpers.
From school work to doctors' appointments, Cuison works with Phoon to make sure that the girls are well taken care of. If the girls are sick, Cuison would bring them to the doctor, says Phoon. Cuison even talks to the girls' teachers about their school work.
The family seemed very close. The girls constantly held on to both ladies' arms during our chat with them.
Dorelle eventually settled on Cuison's lap and stayed with us throughout the session. When asked what she loves about her nanang (Tagalog for "mother"), she said shyly,
"She always take care of me, she always hug me."
The duo take on different parental roles at home
The two have designated parental roles in their family.
Phoon described herself as the disciplinarian, focusing on her kids' character development. She stressed that the girls must have a good attitude in everything that they do, ranging from giving their all in school to not talking back to Cuison.
Cuison, on the other hand, is more indulgent, very much like a doting grandmother.
In fact, she is an actual grandmother to three grandchildren in the Philippines, who are around the same age as Dorelle and Chervil.
She dotes on her brood in the Philippines as much as she dotes on her "Singapore granddaughters".
Each time she goes back to the Philippines, she would keep in touch with Phoon and her daughters over a video call, and even brings back a luggage full of clothes and souvenirs for them.
And just like a grandmother, Cuison used to nag at Phoon, who works irregular hours, to spend more time with the girls.
If Phoon were to say "no phones for two weeks," Cuison would agree but eventually give in to the girls when their mother isn't home. Dorelle chuckled and said that this was their secret, to which Phoon rolled her eyes and laughed, "There are no secrets in this house!"
It's heartwarming to see that instead of getting upset with Cuison for not following through, she understands that Cuison does it out of love.
Their different approaches to taking care of the girls have created some tension in the past however, Phoon admitted.
When the girls were much younger, Phoon told Cuison that she needed to be stricter on the girls so that they won't be too pampered.
Although Cuison understands that she cannot spoil the girls, the idea of disciplining them makes her tear up, as she loves the girls too much to do so. Now, whenever Phoon needs to scold the girls, Cuison goes into the other room to avoid seeing it.
Both women have been living together for so long that they even know what makes each other tick.
"When she is unhappy, she won't talk lah," Phoon said
Having known Cuison for so many years, Phoon has learnt that Cuison expresses her anger by remaining silent — a tell-tale sign for her to leave her helper alone.
While some employers might frown upon their domestic helpers expressing anger in front of them, Phoon shrugged it off, pointing out that anger is a natural emotion, adding that domestic helpers are humans too.
Close bond is a natural result of spending time together
When asked why she continued to stay with the family, Cuison said, "They're very good to me. Treat me as a family [member] also."
Phoon is something of a rarity. As an employer, she does not keep her domestic helper at arms length. As a mother, she encourages her daughters to develop a close relationship with Cuison.
It is a natural result of spending lots of time together after all, Phoon said, adding that Cuison invests in taking care of the girls and showering them with love, so she has the right to enjoy that bond:
"There shouldn't be any jealousy involved."
Family made long-term plans for Cuison to stay
Cuison has become such an invaluable part of the family that Phoon appealed to the Ministry of Manpower to extend Cuison's permit when she reached 60, the maximum age for a foreign domestic worker in Singapore.
The ministry accepted the appeal and now Cuison can stay in Singapore as a foreign domestic worker until she is 80.
Phoon's appeal was largely for sentimental reasons. The family can't bear to part with Cuison, but she is getting old and can't work as fast as before. Cuison also suffers from high blood pressure.
And so Phoon shared that she intends to get another helper to assist Cuison in more strenuous tasks, and hopes that it will lessen the load for the helper as she gets older.
She also has ideas about getting a holiday home in the Philippines when Cuison eventually goes back, so that they can visit her often.
When asked how different her life would be without Cuison, Phoon said that she values the bond between them. While it's always possible for Phoon to work with another helper, the family's relationship with Cuison is one that cannot be easily replaced.
"I think this is a trust and bond that can't be built up with any other helper."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top images courtesy of Phoon and by Alfie Kwa.