[Dash of SAS] The anguish of the migrant mother

“How can those mothers leave their children behind?” 

In her ethnographic study about Indonesian and Filipino migrant mothers working as domestic workers and nannies in Hong Kong, anthropologist Nicole Constable recounted how she often heard this question posed by local employers, by Western expatriate NGO workers, and across different audiences. 

More than a question, it was a statement that carried the weight of judgement, subtle rebuke, and plain incredulity.

As a journalist who has followed the Filipino diaspora by trailing migrant mothers in Europe and the Middle East, I’ve heard this question posed many times myself. 

The first time I heard it was in Dubai, writing a story about seven sisters who were all working as nannies. One sister told me about how she had left the Philippines so soon after giving birth that she was still lactating. She had to express her breast milk and throw it away. It was a physical manifestation of how so much of herself was still connected to her newborn son in the Philippines. In the years that she had been away, she and her husband became estranged and she became a stranger to her son. On one visit to the Philippines, she recalled how she was “introduced” to her son as his mother and his hostility to the forced kinship. I still remember how she said he spit at her and refused to go near her, saying that she was not his mother. 

Hearing this story, the white female photographer immediately told her, “What are you doing here? You need to get on a plane and be with your son at once. This job isn’t worth it if your own son does not know you.”

In private, I tried to explain to the female photographer – who was also a mother – how her point of view was informed by the privilege of having a range of economic options open to her. 

The transnational migrant mother 

The Philippines stands as one of the world’s largest suppliers of nurses, seafarers, and domestic workers. The deployment of domestic workers – who are all female – has brought a reconfiguration of family structures and the normalization of transnational families or families where one or more than one member lives in another country or region.

The reconfiguration of family structures has also changed the way that we “do” family, particularly for migrant mothers.

Studies show that when fathers leave to work abroad, they are seen as honoring their parental responsibility as a provider and breadwinner, while the migrant mother is perceived to be forsaking hers. A migrant mother is not absolved from her domestic responsibilities, rather, her absence has amplified them. 

Sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, who has extensive research on Latino/x migrant mothers, explains this double standard: “Transnational motherhood contradicts notions of motherhood on so many levels that include forsaking deeply felt beliefs that biological mothers should raise their own children, and replacing that belief with new definitions of motherhood...such that the absence of the transnational mother must be constantly rationalized and justified.”

For migrant mothers, losing their balance on the emotional tightrope made taut by the time and distance that separate her from her children would mean social condemnation. So transnational mothers transform themselves into virtual mothers and craft their own stylized rituals of "doing" motherhood, communicating affection and simulating intimacy — all from a distance.

Virtual presence

Digital technology serves as the transnational digital umbilical cords that allow migrant mothers to perform motherly duties and rituals of supervision and care from afar.

Gemma, a Filipino migrant mother I had interviewed in Paris in 2014, messages her family throughout the day. Her husband keeps her company through Viber video calls as she cleans houses. She calls her son every morning to wake him up for school, performing a ritual common to most mothers all over the world through the screen of her laptop.  

The internet and social networking sites are vital to transnational mothers like Gemma in creating an “ambient co-presence” or making her presence constantly felt across the miles through technology.

However, digital communication, no matter how ubiquitous and instant, cannot fill the visceral parental need to witness the physical unfolding of childhood. When I gave Gemma photos I had taken of her son playing basketball in the Philippines, she asked me: “How tall is my son now?” 

The question was a searing reminder that knowledge of such details as evidence of presence cannot be carried through digital platforms. 

How can they leave their children behind?

Migrant mothers are women whose ideals of what it means to be a “good mother” must be constantly improvised to rationalize the economic imperatives of what it means to be a good provider. 

There probably isn’t a single Filipino who is not related to or knows a migrant mother. We are all somehow familiar with how these women find new creative ways of performing motherhood from a distance. They establish their virtual presence through technology. They hold proxy birthday parties for their children and record the celebration as testament of their presence. They spend months filling up a balikbayan box with items bought with much care and deliberation. 

In a way, we all know the answer to the question posed at the start of this article: 

“How can those mothers leave their children behind?” 

They don't.

As transnational migrant mothers, these women function in and live a fragmented diasporic life where she must constantly partition her heart, split her emotions, and divide her time in a realm of simultaneous existence in two worlds. All the while, she is haunted by the anguish that these divisions are invariably unequal, because the one thing that she cannot divide is perhaps what is most important in any form of kinship: her physical presence. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos is an award-winning journalist reporting on sexuality, sexual health, and female migrant labor. She is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Gender (Sexuality) at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening scholar. Follow her on Twitter: @iamAnaSantos and Facebook SexandSensibilities.com