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Labor migration leaves many PHL families motherless


It was in a small barangay in the then Municipality of Mabalacat (now Mabalacat City) of Pampanga that we, a team of psychologists from the MLAC Psychosocial Services for Well Being, became witness once more to how several families were transformed into motherless homes with the greater demand for female contract workers in Middle Eastern countries.

About 70 percent of Filipino migrant workers are women, most of which are mothers and wives. Many of our Filipino female migrant workers are forced to work abroad because of the economic demands and lack of employment opportunities for the father. The phenomenon of the OFW mothers has altered the family landscape in several areas in the country.  

“Nawala ang ilaw ng tahanan” is how many families of OFW mothers describe their situation. It is also the title of a book by psychologists Dr. Honey Carandang, Chris Carandang, and Aileen Sison. The book puts together the stories of several families who, like so many others, are dealing with the impact of labor migration. Stories such as these have formed the impetus for organizations to embark on collaborative efforts in order to address the repercussions on Filipino families.

“Nawala ang ilaw ng tahanan” means so much more than its literal and metaphorical translation when seen in the context of OFW mothers having to leave their children and husbands. It embodies the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Filipino children and fathers as they confront life without the mother (ang ilaw ng tahanan) who, in practice and tradition, provides the necessary emotional and psychological foundations for the family.  It summarizes the brokenness that they feel and live with in her absence.

This is how many families in Barangay Sapang Biabas describe their lives with an OFW mother.  Children, quite often, have to face this reality with their own resources – too young to understand, sometimes taken for granted for their supposed lack of maturity and awareness.

One child I spoke to expressed his sadness by saying, “Nakakalungkot, dati si Mama ang laging nag-aasikaso sa amin.” (I feel sad. Mama used to be the one taking care of us.)

Another child said, “Nalipat sa amin (magkakapatid/kay Papa) yung mga ginagawa ni Mama sa bahay. Kung minsan hindi na namin nagagawa yung mga kailangan gawin sa school.” (We, my siblings and I/with Papa, are now responsible for the household chores that Mama used to do. There are times when we are unable to finish our schoolwork.)

The metaphor “ilaw ng tahanan” assigns the mother to a role that guides her children and her mate. She leads the way, takes part in decision-making on family matters, and acts as a homing beacon for those who need to find their way back home in the dark. She is the one entrusted with the internal needs of the family. We were able to meet one of the OFW mothers who decided to come home for a few days as soon as she learned that her child had dengue and had to be taken to the hospital – a choice that is not readily available to many women in her situation. As far as she knows, her child was sick and of course she had to come home.

The father, on the other hand, is traditionally called “haligi ng tahanan,” which literally means “the pillar of the home.” The metaphor assigns the role of protector and provider of support for the family unit. The father figure is responsible for the relationships affecting the family outside the unit. These are but a few interpretations people commonly give to this age-old metaphor for mothers and fathers.

With these challenges, there are children who deal with their sadness and longing by forging stronger ties with their siblings. They seek comfort and solace by turning to their peers and extended family relations. Interestingly enough, some of these children expressed a sense of being “pleasantly surprised” as they witnessed their fathers rise to the occasion – cooking family meals, bathing the younger siblings, washing clothes, and trying his best to take on both roles as mother and father in the household.

Fathers and mothers of OFW families, quite often, find themselves in a situation where they still see themselves in their traditional parental roles while they come to terms with the new demands of a transformed family unit. It isn’t really so much a reversal of roles, as perceived by the fathers and children I spoke to in Barangay Sapang Biabas, as it is an adding on of new ones.

Given the chance, an OFW mother will not think twice about dropping everything to come home to a child who is seriously ill. She will email or text reminders for Papa, Kuya, or Ate to make sure that the baby is taken to the health center for vaccination. She will constantly think and worry about her husband’s drinking sprees in the local sari-sari store.  All this as she manages her own sense of yearning, sadness, and guilt for abandoning her wifely and motherly duties in order to make ends meet.

In most cases, the father sees no choice but to accept the added role of taga-luto (cook), labandera (laundry man), and tagapag-alaga (caregiver).  He takes this on while still performing his traditional role as income earner (e.g. public transport driver, mechanic, carpenter, part-time or contractual laborer, etc.). He copes with his own sense of inadequacy and failure to bring in enough money for food and other basic needs thereby forcing his wife to take on a role that culture and society have conditioned him to think as traditionally belonging to the man of the house.  Many of them seek relief from a hurt sense of pride by drinking with their friends and reaffirming their male status by engaging in extra-marital affairs. Not all of them become unfaithful but it appears to be accepted as a common occurrence although an unfavorable one.

But there is a bright light that shines through these difficult situations OFW families face. In their brokenness, many fathers have realized their own strengths and capacities by going beyond traditional roles in the family. They express this with a clear sense of pride as they see themselves take on both maternal and paternal roles. I witnessed this in the fathers I met as I watched them dress their young kids and pat them with baby powder while talking to us. They sat together with their children during meal time making sure each one had enough vegetables on his plate while managing little brewing fights between siblings.

These fathers have learned to rise above their situation and accept their added role with pride. They have found the internal resources to redefine their role. They do not consider it as an exchange or a swapping of responsibilities. They did not appear emasculated by it. They see it as a growth and development of their traditional roles – over and above what they have been conditioned to think and accept simply because it needs to be done.

“Tumayo yung haligi, at naging ilaw pa,” they said.

The pillar has risen to the occasion to become the light as well – a very telling sign of how Filipinos are able to reconstruct and redefine themselves in response to the harsh demands of life. Labor migration costs may not justify the social costs to the family unit, but this is the bigger lesson to be learned from the sacrifices made by overseas Filipino workers and from the resilience shown by the families they leave behind.

The author is a member of an organization called the MLAC Psychosocial Services for Well Being, which has been working in cooperation with the CIAC (Clark International Airport Association) in a program designed to provide psychosocial support for families with OFW mothers in Mabalacat City, Pampanga, launched July 18, 2013. The program is called AMMA, which stands for Ama na Magaling Mag-Aruga sa Anak.
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