A team of researchers has designed a system of identifying critical factors that affect relationships among members of Filipino families with a mother working overseas as a domestic helper which could help address stressful situations arising from their separation.
Nearly half of the estimated 10 million Filipinos overseas are women, most of them doing service-oriented jobs including as domestic workers in their employers’ homes. With their low wages, domestic workers usually experience long periods of separation from their children and spouse in the Philippines.
The research report, published recently in the scientific journal PLOS-ONE which is produced by the California-based Public Library of Science, notes the “sacrifice of separation” and proposes a research model that looks into five relational processes helping the families cope with separation. The report’s findings can help guide efforts at bolstering resilience among affected Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) families.
Maternal caregiving is a feature of traditional Filipino gender roles, and “graver disruptions” in caregiving arise in families when mothers are away than when it is the father who is absent, says the study.
Conducted by Melissa Garabiles and Mira Alexis Ofreneo of the Ateneo de Manila University’s psychology department, and Brian Hall of the University of Macau, the research study is described as the first to look into family resilience that spans “interactional processes that enable families to overcome adversities and prolonged hardships”. The study focuses on “transnational families” of Filipina domestic workers employed in China’s special administrative region Macau.
The study, according to the authors, seeks to contribute to what they consider as limited research literature on family resilience among transnational families. Most research, they say, has focused on individual rather than family and community resilience, which “severely limits conceptual and theoretical understanding” of these processes.
‘Stress and adversity’
When a mother takes on a job as primary caretaker in another country, “stress and adversity” are experienced by her and her entire family, says the research report, adding that migration destabilizes a family’s ability to maintain close relationships due to chronic physical distance.
To overcome the pain of separation, resilient families engage in family communication across space. They communicate with one another with the use of technology (phone calls, Skype, social networking, and email messages), allowing the mothers to parent from afar and the father and children to send updates. This practice somehow enables them to express care and presence despite the distance.
“They also undergo family restructuring and role validation across space. Family restructuring involves role sharing, wherein all the members make contributions based on their own capacities to fulfill essential family roles,” the researchers note.
Family restructuring and role validation lead to resilient outcomes, the report says. “Sharing responsibilities allows the family members to feel relief and enhances their ability to execute their roles. There are financial benefits because they are better able to meet daily needs, to go to school regularly, and to start making investments.”
One of the interviewees for the study, migrant worker Mrs. Gomez says: “My family tells me that my husband really loves my child. So I don’t have worries, I don’t have worries that my child is being neglected.” On the other hand, the husband Mr. Gomez told the researchers: “I’m happy when my child is happy. Because it sometimes helps, her package helps. To avoid feeling homesick.”
When mothers visit during periodic breaks from work, family members are able to reestablish and strengthen connections, reinforcing family resilience. These vacations also allow OFW moms to see improvements at home and the family’s overall economic situation. However, these visits, as well as the long-distance calls and internet access, are often hindered by scarce financial resources.
During these visits, the father and the children express their affection by giving the mother special treatment, the study says. They hug her, kiss her, and cook for her. Furthermore, the report adds, the mother and father are able to rekindle their relationship by being sweet to each other, having sex, expressing each other’s importance, and discussing and resolving issues like finances, doubts about infidelity, and, for some, actual infidelity.
Resilient families share the goal of permanent reunification. “They have a collective goal of ending their migration story so that they can be a complete family again in the future. Hence, for these families, migration is impermanent; the sacrifice of being separate is transient and finite,” notes the study.
The study points out that prolonged physical distance makes restoring relationships difficult. Also, these families have limited chances for reunification in the OFW mother’s country of work because domestic workers are less likely than other workers to obtain permanent residency.
Another effect of mothers working overseas is the “psychological distress” experienced by the family members, who go through “feelings of loss, incompleteness, and sadness”. Mothers feel homesickness and worry about their left-behind families’ well-being and financial situation, as well as feel guilty for being physically away from their families.
The research also finds that fathers may feel “ashamed for not meeting societal standards of masculinity” because they cannot provide enough for their families. While some fathers still provide financially for their families, the study says, others may turn to vices and engage in extramarital affairs, which hinder them from rearing their children and maintaining positive ties with their wife who is abroad.
“In these circumstances, children yearn for more care. They may feel abandoned and harbor resentment that their mothers left,” the study says.
But one participant in the study, Mrs. Reyes, told her husband during the interview: “I am thankful that you did not look for another woman! (laughs)… Because most here, most of the OFWs here, in less than a year, their families are broken already. But that’s why I’m so proud of you because you stayed strong, you didn’t neglect your obligations as the head of the family… You are facing your responsibilities to our child, that you support her, you correct her ways, you’re there to assist her. That’s why I salute you that you didn’t’ neglect our daughter ever since she was small.”
Also a major cause of stress for families with OFW mothers is the inability to raise economic status because domestic work does not provide sufficient economic resources, according to the research report.
“Domestic workers have low salaries and most of their earnings are remitted to the Philippines and used to buy gifts for their families. They also have agency fees to pay and personal necessities to buy. These make it difficult for families to pay off debts,” the report states.
In the end, families that achieve resilient ties are those that “strive to commit to family,” the report points out. The relational processes cited in the study are “not easy” because these happen amid various difficulties. But they strive to commit to their families “by putting their family first through their sacrifice and collective problem solving,” the report concludes.
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