My ‘first’ story : When mom is away the family goes astray

absentmothers ofwmothers ofwsI am reposting this story that I wrote back in May 2009 on Mother’s Day. I put in the headline that this is my ‘first’ story because this won for me my very first writing award last December. This is a very memorable  story not only because of the accolade it brought me but also because I wrote this a day before my grandfather died.  I know he’s reading this right now…and perhaps editing it.

absent mothers ofws ofwmothers

WHEN THE LIGHT IS OUT. Mothers are the new face of migration in the Philippines. Often they are subjected to dirty, demeaning and dangerous jobs abroad. GMANews.TV photo

MANILA, Philippines – Every night, Cathy’s sleep would be interrupted by a knock on her door. But she doesn’t complain. Since her eldest daughter left for Saudi Arabia to work as a nurse, her two grandsons have been more inquisitive than usual.

“My grandsons would cry to me and ask: ‘Why did Mama leave?’”

Cathy would give out the usual answers: “Because she has to work and she loves you.” But there are nights when even she asks the same question.

When her daughter Karen left her family in Manila, her marriage turned sour. Her husband spent her earnings and fled their home with a mistress. Meanwhile, their two sons performed poorly in school and were always being taken to the guidance counselor’s office for disturbing behavior. Three years later, Karen was forced to return home to a broken family and a long list of bills to pay.

Since 2004, the number of women working overseas has steadily increased. The Commission on Population (Popcom) attributed the feminization of labor to the growing demand for health workers, particularly nurses and caregivers, who are mostly women.

The World Bank reported that close to half of the migrant population in the world are women. Andrew Morrison, WB’s Gender Group lead economist, said the more women migrants there are, the more positive effects to the development of the economy it will have.


When fathers took jobs abroad, it bore little dent on the family. But when the mothers left, the entire family adjusted.


“Women are sending lots of money to their families back home, and evidence from rural Mexico shows that their migration leads to positive effects for the homes they leave behind,” Morrison observed.

But Dr. Lourdes Arellano-Carandang, a renowned child psychologist who published a book about absent mothers, begs to differ.

“They remit more money because they are more faithful in remitting than the men, but that’s on the side of the money only. The emotional and social costs are not talked about but the money. But we have to consider the entire [OFW] phenomenon holistically,” Carandang said.

According to her, when fathers took most of the jobs abroad, it only had a little dent on the Filipino family. But when the mothers left, the entire family needed to adjust.

The departure of the mother redefines her traditional role as the primary caregiver by taking on the position of the father as the main provider. Meanwhile, the father is often unprepared to assume the mother’s care-giving function, which in turn, affects the entire family, especially the children.

When the ‘light’ is out

Carandang conducted a case study where she interviewed 10 migrant families, who like Karen, left their families behind to work abroad. For a year, they studied each of the family’s backgrounds, their insights and feelings about the mother leaving the household. They discovered that there is a pervading feeling of sadness in the family and a deep longing for the mother to come home.

Most fathers unfortunately do poorly with house management, including taking care of household chores and being sensitive with their children’s needs. The team suggested that the men should accept their new roles not as the breadwinner of the family.

Depending on their age groups, children also have different understanding of their situation.

Carandang later published her study as a book entitled, “Nawala ang Ilaw ng Tahanan: Case Studies of Families Left Behind by OFW Mothers” in 2007. In it she noted a startling discovery:

“While the young children simply miss their mother and don’t really understand why she has to be away, the adolescents are in conflict because they appreciate the necessity and benefit of working abroad (in that they can go to school and buy more things), but they also feel sadness,” a part in Carandang’s book read.

Interestingly, children of migrant parents also become the “tagasalo” (burden-bearers) of the father when he doesn’t perform his patriarchal duties well. That’s why there are kids who would volunteer to cook the family’s meal, do the laundry, perform household chores, and even cheer up the father who they sometimes see as “sad and helpless.”

But the mother’s absence poses a more serious threat to the family, according to Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrants’ Advocacy. Sana said incest is present in OFW families, particularly when the mothers are away.

“Incest relationships are being talked about among OFW communities, but the figures aren’t there,” Sana said. “It’s an open secret but no one wants to talk about it. It’s embarrassing.”

Substitute spouses

Sana explained that if an incestuous relationship happens in a family where the mother leaves the home early in the morning to sell goods in the market — leaving the father and the daughter at home — how much more if the mother works thousand of miles far away from home?

“It’s gut feel. You know it’s happening but no one wants to talk about it,” Sana said.

Erwin Puhawan, a paralegal of the Kanlungan Center Foundation, shared Sana’s observations that families tend to be discreet about problems of incestuous relationship.

He said it is an “open-secret” among OFW communities and they talk about it in private.

In 2007, Senator Pia Cayetano expressed apprehension on the emerging problem of the growing number of women working abroad.

While the number of mothers abroad has been increasing, the number of daughters (especially the eldest) who take on roles at home left by their mother, is also increasing, Cayetano said.

“Sometimes to the point of being subjected to sexual abuse and forced to become substitute spouses by their father,” she said.

“This disturbing phenomenon of the girl-child being turned into a substitute spouse has been happening in our country along with the feminization of labor migration,” the lady senator lamented.

She described the phenomenon as one of the most damaging social impacts of labor migration, which she said can never be measured by any of the government’s socio-economic indicators or captured by statistics on labor export.

Culture of migration

But Maruja Asis, director for Research and Publications of the Scalabrini Migration Center (SMC), a non-governmental organization dealing with migrant labor research, said Filipino migration has been sustained for almost four decades due in part to the government’s help.

Asis enumerated three reasons why Filipinos continue to move out of the country. First on the list is the persistence of immigration because of financial difficulties.

“Economic difficulties are still crucial in people’s decisions as to why they migrate abroad,” Asis said in a 2007 newsletter of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.

Since the first massive deployment of OFWs in the 1970s, the standard of living in the Philippines for most families remains bleak. According to fourth State of the Philippine Population Report, the rapid increase of the population which, in effect, creates more young dependents and labor entrants in the country, limits the job opportunities and pushes most Filipinos to work overseas.


Working abroad has become an accepted fate to most Filipinos. In fact, it is unusual for a Filipino not to aspire for a job abroad.


The second reason for the migration, according to Asis, is the institutionalization of migration.

Asis said that the Philippine government seems well prepared to process the desire of Filipinos to migrate. Government agencies like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) are aligned to help overseas Filipino workers with their concerns.

Recently, Malacañang, through Administrative Order no. 247, also directed the Cabinet to support the POEA “so it can aggressively deploy” Filipinos without much “institutional hurdles.”

But the last factor that seems to trickle down from generation to generation, Asis said, is the development of a culture of migration.

According to her, working abroad has become an accepted fate to most Filipinos. In fact, she said it was now unusual for a Filipino not to aspire for a job abroad. This is evidenced by the growing popularity of nursing, caregiver, and computer engineering courses, which are geared towards overseas employment.

And as most jobs abroad employ stringent standards to screen out other applicants, only the brightest are accepted by companies. This results in a continuous outflow of the country’s best minds. In fact, 121 Filipinos leave the country every hour in search of a better life elsewhere.

While it is clearly stipulated in the 1995 Migrant Workers Act that the government “does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development,” it offers few employment opportunities for the growing number of graduates joining the labor force.

The desire to seek greener pastures abroad is also evident in a 2006 Pulse Asia survey, where three out of 10 Filipinos said they are willing to pack up their bags and leave the country if it was possible.

Home remedy

Dr. Carandang and her team suggested several measures for members of the family to implement to lessen the emotional burden on the children and even the fathers left behind.

According to them, children should be allowed to have an outlet where they can cope with their situation. Letting the kids play enables them to “‘re-enact’ what is happening to them in order to make sense of what is going on around them.” Expressive activities like art, music writing, drawing, or just observing nature’s beauty will enable the child to deal with the absence of their mothers.

The advent of modern technology has also made the communication lines more accessible, convenient and cheap. Regular communication is vital not only to the fathers but more importantly to the children.

“A simple act of asking how they are, what happened to them during the day, etcetera, can boost children’s feelings of being loved and cared for,” she said.

Simple gestures such as asking, “Kamusta ka na? Kamusta pag-aaral mo? (How are you? How’s your studies?)” can have a tremendous impact on the child.

In order to lessen the spending sprees of the family left behind, the absent parent must explain thoroughly to her family the reason why he/she is leaving. This will ensure that the family members won’t be lured into overspending or splurging their loved one’s hard-earned money.

It is also crucial for the fathers to know that their change in roles in the household does not necessarily demean his identity “or his perception of himself as a male — that doing the responsibilities of the mother does not make him less of a man.”

While the government hails overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as the new unsung heroes of our time, families like Cathy’s think heroically of their loved ones for sacrificing life and limb, defying war and travel bans just so they could eat three times a day, despite being hardly ever present at the dinner table.

“If only we had enough, I wouldn’t wish for my daughter to leave. I don’t even aspire to be rich anymore. I just want to see my family whole,” Cathy said. – with Fidel Jimenez, GMANews.TV

In December 2009, the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development chose this story as a runner-up for the Features category for the 5th Population and Development Awards. This is the only story chosen for that year that dealt with migration issues. Read more here.

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