On our trip to be with our children and grandchild recently, I saw a common scene at our international airports – many Filipinos leaving to work abroad, said to be roughly 10% of our population. The unabated exodus of Filipino workers domestically and transnationally has created non-traditional families with children growing apart from one or both parents. Solo, surrogate, and long distance parenting; migrant and non-migrant parents and households; transnational parent and households are terms commonly used in research to describe the situations brought about by urbanization and the millions of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). The Center for Migrant Advocacy says that since 2001, two-thirds of migrant workers keep returning as rehires, which means being away from their families for years at a time (2011). One study of 30 transnational families showed the average length of separation of migrant fathers away from the family as 13.79 years while that of mothers away 11.42 years (Parreñas 2005b).
Their children are mainly growing up without them and this has contributed to the growing millions of solo parents in the country. So how does one strengthen one’s family when you are separated by distance?
Empirical studies on OFW families pointed out the importance of maintaining connection through text and voice messages, calls, online chats, and letters to keep the family connected. Mothers-away particularly see mobile phones as an opportunity to retain their mothering role as they micromanage finances and their children’s activities, thereby assuaging their guilt and loneliness, and also allows them to continue working abroad. However, some older children find the mother’s constant messages and calls intrusive, especially those who have grown up without the transnational parent through most of their younger years. Other children felt that communication technology and their mother’s distance nurturing was inadequate (Edillon 2008; Parreñas 2005). The transnational parent’s absence, lack of communication due to financial or employer constraints, and low or rare remittances are cited as causes of the poor mental health of left-behind families (Banaag, Briones-Querijero, and Calma-Balderrama 2005; Graham, Jordan, and Yeoh 2015; Madianou and Miller 2011).
Transnational parenting shows the Filipino values of sacrificing for the family, the importance of the children’s education as one of the main reasons for departure to secure their future, and the importance of both the mother and father’s nurturing care. Children with transnational fathers and with mothers caring for the children seem to have less emotional and educational disruptions than those having transnational mothers. This is so because in our society, mothers usually bear the greater burden and responsibility when it comes to childrearing, while fathers usually capitulate to the entrenched traditional role of provider alone (Alampay 2014; Alampay and Jocson 2011). However, transnational fathers and left-behind fathers need to bridge the emotional gap with their children beyond the roles of provider and disciplinarian, as I pointed out their importance and impact in a previous article.
One research studied the characteristics of transnational families of domestic workers, who showed resiliency during the difficulties of separation for years at a time. These resilient families were committed to communicating well using technology and reuniting temporarily when possible to bridge relational and physical distance. This means that instead of letting the distance break the relational aspect, family members communicated often and kept each other abreast with what is happening in their lives. Secondly, the left-behind family members all restructured their roles and forged efforts to make-up for and fulfill the responsibilities left behind by the transnational parent. Finally, they committed collectively to the family and worked towards bringing the migrant home for good (Garabiles, Ofreneo, and Hall 2017, 8). These are important to keep in mind for OFW families.
Since our country is greatly benefiting from the remittances of OFWs, government entities, and church communities need to provide strong support and ministry to OFW families to lessen the impact and dysfunctions that result from the departure of one parent. Dr. G. Lisbe’s research on what Christian churches are doing in this regard is encouraging and can be a helpful guide to those seeking to minister to OFW families. Lisbe’s research shows that some churches have set up OFW family ministry (OFM) teams led by a team leader with members responsible for prayer and visitation, counseling, communication, family matters, finances, and training. The stance is to discourage and count the cost for families considering working overseas, but for those who have chosen to go, every support is given to the family at every stage. Filipino families need to be strengthened and supported to be able to withstand the external forces of modern times so that the traditional close-knit Filipino family ties remain strong even in a highly globalized world.