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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.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.“It feels like Mommy’s not far anymore,” Marielle told me.
Leaving for London, one mother the scholars interviewed was so worried about being forgotten she made her children look at her Cesarean scar.
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 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. “Once the realm of science fiction and boardroom meetings, videoconferencing at home is now highly sophisticated and, in many cases, free,” had recently announced.
Tess was part of a migrant vanguard—the Facebook 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. For all migrants, but especially mothers, moving brings losses and gains. Tess’s parents, unsure where to look, filled the screen with noses and ears, but the kids were naturals with Skype.
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. 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.