The unspoken role of a seaman’s wife

MANILA, Philippines – Charito Estillomo’s husband Noel has been a seafarer ever since they’ve been together. In their 29 years of marriage, they’ve risen from humble beginnings to become successful resort owners in a coastal town in Albay.

In the eyes of their community and relatives, their success was almost certain – expectations are high, after all, for seamen in a country that supplies the highest number of seafarers to the global fleet.

The narratives told about these seamen often revolve around their high income and the sacrifices they make, while their wives are usually painted as either the sad spouses left behind or the lucky beneficiaries of their husbands' hard work. 

But stereotypes don’t ring true for Charito and other seafarers’ wives, who play bigger roles in the success of their family than people realize. 

‘Keeping your seats warm’

A 2016 study published by Cardiff University's Seafarers Research Centre’s Iris Acejo and Helen Sampson explored the roles that seafarers’ wives play maintaining a family's social status, based on interviews undertaken in a municipality in Iloilo province. 

The first role they’ve identified in their study is the wives' role in keeping their seafarer husbands' links with their families.

According to the study, because seamen have very limited access to communication at sea, they rely on their wives to maintain relationships with their families and friends. (READ: On board and online: Why every seaman needs internet)

The study said that these housewives “oil the wheels of relationship between frequently absent fathers and their children."

TEMPERED GENEROSITY. Charito strives to make sure that their four children wouldnu2019t develop any ill feelings towards Noel. u201cI took on the role of being a mother without taking Noelu2019s role as a father,u201d she said.

This applies to Charito as well, who strove to make sure that their 4 children wouldn’t develop any ill feelings toward Noel, who was always gone for a long time. “I took on the role of being a mother without taking Noel’s role as a father,” she said. 

Charito said that she always made it a point to tell her kids about their father. “I always tell them, ‘Daddy sent this for you’ or Daddy did this.' I make sure to always mention their father.”

Just as the study suggests, Charito also took the role of maintaining her husband’s relationships with the extended family.

While Noel was at sea, all communication with his relatives and friends went through Charito. She would fill Noel in on what’s happening within their family and community, and often, she’s asked to stand in Noel’s stead when dealing with his relatives’ affairs. 

According to SIRC’s study, this setup puts seafarers’ wives in a considerably influential position – having both the ability and responsibility to manage other people’s perception of their husbands and their husbands' perception of other people.

But SIRC also said that there are cases when, in times of conflict, a wife is asked to take on the role of a mediator in their husband’s stead, which they sometimes take reluctantly.

Managing finances 

Charito plays an even more direct role in their success by managing Noel’s finances while he’s at sea, a task which involves balancing the interests of their own family and that of their relatives and the community.

Following Noel’s request, Charito sacrificed her own dream to graduate and decided to become a full-time housewife. Whenever he was on board, Noel would send all his income to Charito who budgets everything.

“When I married Noel (who was already a seaman), I was surprised to learn about how big his income was, yet he had no savings, no house of his own,” she shared.

It was Charito who pushed her husband to save for a house and his early retirement. She would make sure to spend only her $350 allowance every month, and save the rest of their income.

This tight allowance that she set for herself made people think that Noel was skimping on her. “Yung ibang friends ko sinasabi, ‘tinitipid yan ng asawa kasi siguro walang tiwala.' Pero that was our arrangement.” (My other friends would say, her husband’s skimping on her because he doesn’t trust her. But that was our arrangement.)

Loans and keeping appearances

Just as they started to earn and save better, more relatives and friends began reaching out to them for financial help. 

Sticking to her budget, Charito would give out loans to relatives and even help send some of them to school. Most of the time, the loans they gave out didn't get paid back, but they gave anyway out of generosity.

SIRC’s study showed the same pattern among other seafarers’ wives who feel like they also need to be seen as generous to maintain social relationships. 

The study also showed that wives and husbands tend to disagree on how much they should give to their families, and that wives are inclined to be more generous towards their husbands’ families.

This also rings true for Charito, who says she can almost never say no to Noel’s relatives when they reach to her for help.

When asked if her husband gives money to his relatives, she says that she’s the one who gives instead. “Ako ang nagbibigay. Everytime may kailangan, wala akong hindi binibigay. (I am the one who gives. Everytime they need anything, there's nothing I don't give.) I even took care of my mother-in-law,” she said.

Asked why, she said that women are really just more sensitive than men and so they tend to feel like they have to be the ones to pay for their husbands’ debt of gratitude or "utang na loob."

But despite her genuine desire to help, Charito is aware of just how important it is to tame her generosity. She, more than anyone, knows just how hard a seafarer's life is.

"They all tend to see only that you have a lot of money. They don’t see how hard it is on board. Ang tinitignan ng mga tao palagi is not the hard work but the money. Ang nangyayari, they tend to spend na akala mo walang katapusan ang pera.” (What they only look at is the money and not the hard work that comes with it. And so they tend to spend as if there’s no end to the money being given to them.) 

Requests for help are also not limited within the family. In many cases, people in their town would also request for donations and loans. “We try to give as much as we can afford, because we have the capacity to help,” she said.

TEAM EFFORT. Charito Estillomou2019s husband Noel has been a seafarer ever since theyu2019ve been together. In their 29 years of marriage, theyu2019ve risen from humble beginnings to becoming successful resort owners in a coastal town in Albay.

Charito says she tries not to let what other people think about them affect her. But she also shared that there was a point when people who couldn’t loan from them made them look bad. "When they can't come to you anymore, sasabihing ay mayaman, nagbago na yan. But the truth is they borrowed a lot already and hindi binabalik.” (When the can’t come to you anymore, they’d say, ‘they’re rich already and have changed.’ But the truth is they borrowod a lot already and didn’t pay back.)

SIRC documented the same sentiments from other seafarers’ wives and the tension between the need to be seen as generous (so as not to be seen as mean or selfish) and the limitation of their resources. According to them, “loans were also a complex area which represented important material support but were also seen as more than this, constituting a mark of 'good citizenship.’" 

Their study showed that many seafarers and their families feel pressured from people’s expectations and try to keep up with appearances, to make sure that they “look the part at all times and didn’t let the family down.”

In the end, Charito thinks their family's success is not something for her to claim. Neither does she think that it’s her husband’s alone. “Tandem, eh. A seaman’s success cannot be attributed to the hardworking husband or to his good wife alone. It’s a team effort." –

Don Kevin Hapal

Don Kevin Hapal is Rappler’s Head of Data and Innovation. He started at Rappler as a digital communications specialist, then went on to lead Rappler’s Balikbayan section for overseas Filipinos. He was introduced to data journalism while writing and researching about social media, disinformation, and propaganda.