When mothers leave
People are noticing and commenting — from the Public Attorney’s Office in media statements to a broadcast journalist who interviewed me during the wake for Carl Angelo Arnaiz in Filipino: “Have you noticed that both Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz’s mothers were OFWs (overseas Filipino workers)? Maybe we shouldn’t have mothers leaving to work overseas?”
The next day at the university, a dean at UP discussed the same issue with me, but expanded her concerns to include some of our students with serious mental health issues and she observed in all the cases she mentioned that the mothers were working overseas.
I feel a greater sense of urgency now to look into such issues because of the tragic case of Carl, especially with the taxi driver now coming forward and insisting Carl was the one who held him up. This of course does not justify Carl’s brutal execution and the driver himself, from a press conference last Sunday, seems to share this view.
Making sense of the senseless
I’ve written about how, during the wake, I tried to make sense of the senseless. Here was a bright kid from a poor family who made good, getting into UP Diliman in 2014, only to drop out because of depression.
At his wake, his mother referred several times to Carl begging her, each time she would visit from Dubai, not to leave them again. She finally asked me if maybe she had made a mistake leaving to work overseas even as I wondered about how his clinical condition might have made the situation more difficult, without the mother even knowing.
The predicaments we face are very real. The Philippine Statistics Authority’s 2016 statistics for overseas workers shows 53 percent are women, and let’s not forget the problem of missing mothers is not just for overseas workers but for the thousands of domestic helpers who work locally.
What we need to look at are vulnerabilities: What are the chances that children left behind will have problems compared to children whose parents stay? In scientific research, we try to identify all the different variables or factors that will affect those vulnerabilities.
Let’s put aside the “fathers vs mothers” variable for now and look at other factors that are possibly significant. Socioeconomic status is the most obvious one. It is tempting to immediately propose that children from poorer families are more psychosocially vulnerable if a parent leaves. But then the whole rationale for overseas deployment has been an improvement in the socioeconomic status of the household, and that has happened for many, allowing the children a better quality of life, finishing college, and much more.
Yet, OFW parents do speak of the trade-offs, sometimes even bewailing the way their remittances spoil the children, who become extravagant. It isn’t just about the money being wasted but about a mindset of entitlement that will become a major liability in adult life.
If a student has depression, the family’s income can make a difference, given the high costs of treating this mental health problem. If there are disadvantages for young people with depression in a low-income family, it would be from lack of awareness of proper support systems in the home. There, a parent’s presence can be important.
We could go on and on with the “what ifs” but a rigorous research project cannot just ask “who leaves?” but also “who stays?”
Ideally, we should be comparing families around this “who stays” component. We do have hundreds and thousands of Filipino seamen who leave their families for months on end. Can we presume that because the mothers are the ones who stay, there will be fewer problems with the children?
There is much research around solo-parent families in other countries, mainly around families where parents have divorced, and studies clearly show that even with a missing parent, children will adjust if there is someone—I am amazed at how, often, it only takes one person — to whom a child can connect after a parent leaves. It can be the remaining parent — or a grandparent, or even a sibling, usually an older Kuya or Ate; uncles and aunts, the family friend or neighbor — who takes on such roles. It can also be a schoolteacher, or a priest or pastor.
The possibilities are endless but these parent-figures must be strong and nurturing… and without vested interests. I know when you read “schoolteacher, priest or pastor,” some of you could see red flags. I worry about people with messianic complexes, and, worse, those with sexual intentions.
So when a mother asks herself, “Should I leave?” she should be asking as well, “Who am I leaving the children to?”
There is a terrible tendency to shift all the responsibilities to mothers, and to blame them when problems erupt. But many mothers are a tough act to follow, having mastered the tough challenges of working outside the home and yet meeting the needs of their children. When they leave, fathers are at a loss, complaining that the work responsibilities outside the home are just too tough. Never mind that Nanay managed.
Nanay managed, which is why, too, she is often the one who leaves. Seafarers aside, the men are often not willing to leave, even the poorest ones complaining that life overseas is too difficult. Nanay is more resilient, yes that terrible word again.
But let’s avoid the blame game; I’ve heard people blaming Nanay for leaving, and Tatay for letting her!
We should be asking too what is society doing for children of these families? We ship out Filipinos and their remittances keep the country afloat. But what do we do in return?
The “to do” list can be very long. Offhand, I’ve thought of education for boys and men to become better at nurturing, especially for future parenting. My friend, the dean, mentioned: “There is something about the bond of mothers and children that fathers cannot build.” I thought of mothers and sons especially.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem, too: We raise our sons to be too macho, so they run into problems when it comes to parenting, especially the “mothering” aspects. I’m going to get personal here, as a solo parent. We have to be ready to shed male pride, admit to our inadequacies and ask for help most especially from the children themselves. We need a sense of humor to laugh—with the kids, with the crises and the challenges. Children can be incredibly supportive, and forgiving, when it comes to our lapses and insecurities.
All said, we shouldn’t even be asking “should mothers leave” and think more: If you must, then go, and we here will do what we can for your children.
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