‘Four women I hope my children never forget’

Fitri, her son and Rebecca's youngest sonImage copyright Erica Knecht
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For 10 years Rebecca Henschke combined her role as the BBC’s Indonesia editor with bringing up first one then two children. But she often had to leave home at short notice, and so did her partner, another correspondent. It was only possible, she says, thanks to four wonderful, patient Indonesian women.

I kiss my sleeping boys on the head and turn to Fitri. “I will be a few days,” I tell her. While getting dressed, I mumble something about a tsunami. I say, “Sorry, I will call,” and I rush out the door.

And I know she will do everything and anything to make sure my children are happy and safe until come back.

This was the scene in my house one night just before Christmas – but something like it had happened many times before.

Rebecca and childImage copyright Erica Knecht

When I became pregnant for the first time, I wanted to do it all by myself.

Nannies seemed otherworldly and elitist. I was uncomfortable seeing upper class families in Jakarta having dinner in glitzy malls – and the nannies, often in uniforms, sitting at a different table, sometimes without a meal.

But the reality of being mother hit me like a freight train. Sleep-deprived and without any family to help, I was a mess.

“Get a nanny!” I was told over and over by Indonesian friends and other expats.

So finally, after some very difficult months, I came to embrace an idea that is universally accepted in Indonesia and many parts of the world – that it takes many women to be a good mother.

Fitri, her son and Rebecca's youngest sonImage copyright Erica Knecht
Image caption Fitri’s son has grown up with Rebecca’s youngest

On the island of Bali people believe babies are little gods, and all across Indonesia children are overwhelmingly loved.

Screaming children on planes? People feel sorry for them, not annoyed. Children running around a cafe are not brats, they are super-cute.

Four wonderful, patient Javanese women lived with us at different times and made parenting while reporting in the Ring of Fire a joy. Mary, Ani, Yati and Fitri, you have my enduring gratitude.

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While I was in Sumatra making a documentary on deforestation, Fitri messaged daily with updates.

Once she told me our youngest had started reading! She was so excited. I felt a sharp pang of guilt and regret – I was a little jealous that it was her, not me, who was there for this milestone.

Fitri’s father died when she was young and she is the breadwinner, supporting younger sisters back in their village in West Java. She left home and worked, while still a teenager, as a migrant worker in Syria.

Fitri and her sonImage copyright Erica Knecht

This isn’t unusual in Indonesia.

Every year millions of women leave their own children behind to become foreign workers. In the east of Indonesia, there are villages called “the motherless villages”, where all the young mothers have gone abroad. They are looking after someone else’s children in the hope of giving theirs a better future.

Fitri says she was lucky. Her family in Syria was kind and she was able to save, whereas many turn out to be violent, or force the women work for nothing.

But Fitri missed Indonesia and looked for work back in the capital, Jakarta.

At first she was with us for just a few months and then left because she was pregnant – and also, she tells me now, because our Dutch-built rundown colonial house was haunted.

Rebecca her partner and their two childrenImage copyright Erica Knecht

About a year later she called again and asked if she could come back to work and bring her baby son and husband to live in the rooms at the back of the house.

We said Yes – we needed her. She made peace with the ghosts, and her little boy has grown up with our youngest.

He calls me Mami, as he thinks that’s my name. He wants to ikut – to come with us – and do everything my boys do, including brushing his teeth morning and night (which is not normal practice for children in Indonesian villages).

Fitri's son and Rebecca's two sonsImage copyright Erica Knecht

I put off telling Fitri we were leaving Indonesia – but, of course, living so closely she saw the signs.

One day she said, “Are you leaving Bu?” – short for ibu the respectful way of referring to a woman with children. And I had to tell her.

She said the boys – particularly our youngest who she has known most of his life – are like her own children.

Her eyes filled with tears and I know our departure is as painful for her as it is for us.

Fitri with her son and Rebecca's youngest sonImage copyright Erica Knecht

I have seen it happen so many times before to the nannies of other expat friends – the silent mothers who helped raise children whose families suddenly leave for countries they could never afford to visit.

When I met them at playgroups – now working for a different family – they were always hungry for news and photos of the children they helped raise.

Children that may by now have forgotten the incredible love these women gave them.

I hope mine don’t.

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