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I know now why my mother left

04:03 AM February 05, 2020

I grew up watching my mother leave. She was a nurse in the Middle East. My excitement in seeing her at the Iloilo airport seemed often tinged with the dread of not knowing when she would leave again.

The country manufactured her as the blissful, necessary dream — that my mother, like so many other Filipino women, had no choice but to participate in an overseas Filipino workers (OFW) industrial complex packaged as hardworking, selfless heroism. Filipino motherhood as a vessel for the happiness and emancipation of others — a cultural godsend that ostensibly benefits Filipino men.

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How does a son cope with a parent who disappears for long stretches of time? My solution was to try to understand it. When we moved to California two weeks after my 10th birthday, I had some clarity — better schools for my brother and me, better-paying jobs for my parents, and all the bells and whistles of successfully conforming to the OFW prototype.

But, perhaps finding these answers artificial and disappointing, I continued the search and left our house in Los Angeles for college in New York, work in Japan, doctoral studies near San Francisco, and clinical training in Boston.

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When I returned to live with my parents after 12 years of securing my own future from a comfortable distance, I enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, for more grad school, which meant I was barely home — again. My wish to understand my mother twisted into becoming her.

There is a persistent desire to find meaning and joy in our work. We are eager to feel whole and complete. And when conditions are painful and disheartening, what emerges is an intense wish to protect our vulnerability.

This task falls squarely on the government. Genuine leadership constructs the preconditions of a life worthy of human dignity and respect.

Public policies, including labor laws and workplace regulations, identify specific actionable points by which institutions and employers can deliberately nurture our capabilities and support our pursuits toward a range of choices — at a bare minimum. At work, we then flourish as human beings, not merely as producers of goods and services.

I now work in Manila. Living in the US was my parents’ dream, not mine. And in the past five years, the answer to why my mother was compelled to leave has come with some finality: Work here can be demoralizing.

Here, we seem to matter only when we secure the happiness and saving grace of others, including employers and policymakers. We matter less for who we are. Our urgent and legitimate claims to flourish are not the final arbiters of the preconditions that set the motion for the experience of happiness. Instead, we are valued only insofar as we achieve and produce.

Why we are pushed out by our places of work or why we are pulled by the greener pastures at the other side of the fence — this is long known to the government and its bureaucratic minions. If our political system, institutions, and employers do care about our human dignity, it is incumbent on them to figure out what exactly this looks like, and to deliver on such fundamental entitlements. But they don’t.

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When my mother left for Saudi Arabia, she was not looking for a better-paying, more secure job. For me, she was looking for an employer that would respect and value her as a human being with talents and capabilities.

I am resigning from UP for the same reason.

While I do not plan to leave the country, for the first time I truly “see” my mother, not just as a parent but as a woman with personhood. I wonder how her sacrifices for my father, my brother, and me were at the expense of her own equally valid dignity.

Future happiness cannot reimburse misery now.

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Dr. Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.

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TAGS: Commentary, OFW mother, Ronald del Castillo
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