The term “foreign worker” once conjured the image of a man digging coal or laying bricks. But across the globe, today’s migrants are as likely to be changing diapers or cleaning hotel rooms. Many women who work abroad leave their children behind, often for years at a time. No country has done more to promote migration than the Philippines, where the money migrants send home equals a tenth of the GDP. The attendant mother-child separation, however, has been a source of national angst.
Consider the hit Filipino film Anak (The Child), which follows a nanny’s return to the Philippines after six years in Hong Kong. Josie’s husband has died, her children are adrift, and she doesn’t know much about them. Her oldest daughter is a promiscuous, drug-abusing geyser of rage who calls her mother “a heartless bitch” and blames her absence for the family’s problems. In the film, written in the 1990s and released in 2000, Josie mourns the double standard: when a man goes abroad to feed his family, “people say what a good father he is,’’ but a woman who does the same is labeled a bad mother.
A migrant mother I know, Marites Aliscad—Tess—went abroad the year after Anak appeared, leaving behind two young daughters. She is part of a large extended family of Filipino migrants I’ve followed for three decades to trace the rise of global migration. Like Josie, Tess was taking up for a feckless man who couldn’t feed his own kids. Like Josie, she eventually became an overseas nanny, missing her own kids while raising someone else’s. Tess was stronger than Josie, who groveled to her bosses, and Tess’s parents supplied her kids with better care than did Josie’s surrogates. But the biggest difference between Tess and her fictional counterpart was that, shortly after Tess went abroad, a communications revolution offered new ways to stay in touch.
Josie wrote letters and waited weeks for a response. Tess could communicate instantly, with cheap calls, texts, and social media. Josie didn’t know what her daughter could eat. Tess often knew what her daughters had eaten for breakfast, though she was 5,000 miles away. Not all migrants have the same access to technology—or use it as avidly. But as migration has feminized and digitized at the same time, millions of migrant mothers have seized on modern communications to try to be in two places at once. Tess was part of a migrant vanguard—the Facebook Mom.
The daughter of a butcher, raised in a shanty, Tess aspired to be a nurse, but had to settle for a cheaper course in midwifery, which she practiced with an energy born of stifled ambition. She fell for a dashing traffic cop, married young, and had her first child on her 21st birthday. The traffic cop drank. When he drank, he got violent. The drinking cost him his job. Tess had another child, hoping her husband would change, but when he threatened to blow up the house, she decided that “leaving the country was the only way I could escape him.” Her parents agreed to raise the girls, and Tess answered an ad for a Singapore hospital that needed nursing aides.
For all migrants, but especially mothers, moving brings losses and gains. Tess raised her pay tenfold, to $800 a month. As a provider, she felt herself grow. As a mother, she felt herself shrink. The girls were eight and two when she left. She feared they would forget her. She bought her mother a cellphone and called constantly. “Are you showing my picture to the kids?” she would ask. After two years, she came home for her first vacation, then quickly left again.
When the girls were fifteen and ten, Tess took a nanny job in Abu Dhabi. It came with a raise, which she used to buy them a computer. Like many 2008 models, it had a gizmo called a webcam. “Once the realm of science fiction and boardroom meetings, videoconferencing at home is now highly sophisticated and, in many cases, free,” The New York Times had recently announced. Tess’s parents, unsure where to look, filled the screen with noses and ears, but the kids were naturals with Skype.
When Tess had called on her cellphone, her daughter Marielle had fretted about the cost. Now with the webcam, they talk for as long as they wished and see each other, too. “It feels like Mommy’s not far anymore,” Marielle told me. For Tess, Skype didn’t end the longing she felt for her kids, but it offered new ways to manage it. She could ask more questions and wring more nuance from the answers. “Being a Mom, you want to know exactly what’s going on,” she said.
In the Philippines, where migration is the civic religion, fears of mother-child separation run deep; pop culture is filled with stories of damaged kids. But it’s not clear that maternal migration is bad for the children left behind—or at least not if the alternative is dire poverty. While most kids miss their mothers, many eat better and attend better schools because of their mothers’ earnings. Whether the losses outweigh the gains depends on the context: the strength of the pre-existing relationship, the quality of the substitute, and how much the family finances improve.
Illegal immigration is especially hard on kids, because the mothers can’t visit. Children in Mexico and Central America often go a decade or more without seeing undocumented mothers in the U.S., and the mothers often form new families. For Filipinos, however, the most common destination is the Persian Gulf, and most go there legally.
Marla Asis, a Filipino migration scholar, did two studies in the mid-2000s on the impact of parental absence. In the first, migration was more beneficial when the migrant parent was a father. In the second, the children did equally well even when the mother went abroad. The reason wasn’t clear, but a passing line offered a potential explanation: “Extraordinary developments” in communications—from cell phones to social media—helped mothers “continue parenting from afar.” Mothers, whose absence had been especially painful, had new ways to stay connected to their kids.
Studying Filipino mothers in Britain, Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller emphasized the sheer variety of options mothers had in an age of “polymedia.’’ Phone calls offered intimacy. Email worked for detailed instructions. Texts were ideal for saying something without having much to say; the chime says, “thinking of u.” Webcams appeal to young children—some mothers played virtual hide-and-seek. Others took their daughters on online shopping trips. Many left their webcams on for hours at a time, chatting (or not) with whomever wandered past.
Webcams don’t replace mothers. There’s no mistaking the rawness of the loss, and mothers sometimes suffer more than the kids. Leaving for London, one mother the scholars interviewed was so worried about being forgotten she made her children look at her Cesarean scar. “I said ‘Look, this place is where you come out of, I nearly died before. So there’s no other mother.’” Sometimes the immediacy of the contact can actually increase the longing. Still, migrant mothers, more than migrant fathers, grapple with guilt, and technology can provide new tools for coping.
Tess’s life as a migrant mother unfolded in perfect sync with this digital revolution. Soon after she bought the new computer in 2008, she and the girls had Facebook pages. For a product first designed for ogling college girls, Facebook proved surprisingly useful as a vehicle of long-distance parenting. It supplied social context that phone calls lacked: Tess could see pictures of Marielle’s friends and follow their banter. And unlike texts, Facebook messaging was free. IM chats weren’t as intimate as talking, but they took less energy and didn’t require people to synchronize their schedules across four time zones. Sometimes, it was easier to broach sensitive subjects online than it was face-to-face.
With Facebook, Tess felt like a mother again. She used it to dispense beauty tips, enforce bedtimes, check the weather, pry into love lives, complain about headaches, broker disputes, and gush over grades. She urged Marielle to be nice to her sister: “Support her. Don’t just tell her ‘No.’” She advised her on the dangers of spiked punch bowls: “Don’t take alcoholic drinks. Someone might slip a sleeping pill in.” She fished for compliments:
“Did you see my latest picture? What can you say about your mommy?”
“You’re beautiful mommy,” Marielle wrote back. “HAHAHA. Gold looks great on you . . .’’
“You look young.”
“But your mommy is getting old!”
“Age is just a number.”
One minute, Tess was a girlfriend, swapping fashion tips, and the next, a sheriff, grilling her daughter on her Saturday night plans. As Marielle headed to a friend’s house for an overnight party, Tess bore down: “What time are you going to leave? Where are you going to sleep?” Close your eyes, and you see the poor girl squirming to escape. “We have a place to sleep. I will text you. Mwah.”
Mwah was the family noun and verb—long-distance love and the act of expressing it, heaped onto chat space in supersized portions. “Muahhhh,” Tess wrote. “MAMI LUVS YOU SO MUCH . . . MWUAHHH.”
After a sojourn among the tribesmen of New Guinea a century ago, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski coined the term “phatic” communication to describe how seemingly meaningless words can affirm a social bond. Tess’s chats were gold mines of phatic communication—otherwise known as small talk. To follow them is to see how meaningful the meaningless can be.
Sometimes Marielle just wrote “Mami!” to which Tess replied “Anak!” (In Malinowski terms, this forged a “communion . . . in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.”) A report that “our topping was boiled pork” was another way to say “mwah.” When Marielle wrote, “I washed my underwear,” Tess heard, “I love you.”
For most of her life abroad, Tess made extraordinary sacrifices for modest gains. But the Abu Dhabi lawyer who hired her as a nanny, impressed with her smarts, paid her far more than the going rate (and later hired her as a receptionist at his law firm). For Filipinos, three birthdays matter most: the first, the seventh, and the eighteenth. Tess had been too poor and beleaguered to properly celebrate Marielle’s first two. For the third, she rented a tent in the Philippines and hosted 150 guests.
In a society anxious about migrant mothers, the film version might have shown a resentful, drunken girl who raved about being abandoned. Instead, Marielle thanked “Papa Jesus” and promised to finish her nursing degree so she could give Tess the life that Tess had given her. “I will provide for you,” she said.
A few days later, Tess flew the girls to Hong Kong for their first family vacation. The girls had never flown on a plane or slept in a hotel. They went to Hong Kong’s Disneyland and strolled the harbor, but the real attraction was each other. “It felt like all the New Years, Christmases, and birthdays she was gone were finally here,” said Noreene, Tess’s younger daughter, who was twelve. And then it was over. Tess was again thousands of miles away, raising someone else’s kids.
Two months later, the girls posted a Moher’s Day slide show to Tess’s Facebook page. Here the trio lingered over an elegant breakfast. Here they squeezed cheek to cheek for a selfie in a cable car. “No words can express how much I love my mommy,” Marielle wrote. She signed off, “muah, muah, muah.”
Four times zones away, Tess awoke early, opened her computer, and cried.
This essay was adapted from A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21stCentury, which comes out on August 20th.