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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.
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.
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. After two years, she came home for her first vacation, then quickly left again.
Josie wrote letters and waited weeks for a response. She bought her mother a cellphone and called constantly. When the girls were fifteen and ten, Tess took a nanny job in Abu Dhabi.
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.
So there’s no other mother.’” Sometimes the immediacy of the contact can actually increase the longing.
The attendant mother-child separation, however, has been a source of national angst.
Consider the hit Filipino film (The Child), which follows a nanny’s return to the Philippines after six years in Hong Kong.
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 Philippines, where migration is the civic religion, fears of mother-child separation run deep; pop culture is filled with stories of damaged kids.