Thursday, December 13, 2007

The light of their life

This book convinces me that no mother—if it could be helped—should ever leave her family to work abroad for a long, long stretch of time. That is not the book’s expressed objective and neither is it trying to find economic solutions to stop the endless stream of mothers leaving for jobs far away from their homes. But solutions to the collateral damage are in the offing.

“Nawala ang Ilaw ng Tahanan: Case Studies of Families Left Behind by OFW Mothers” tells us what happens when the mother is away for long. The title alludes to mothers as light and translates as “the light of the home has gone”. That description of the state of affairs in the domestic front came from the left-behind families themselves. They know what it is like, they remember the day the light went out.

The little book is a compilation of case studies by psychotherapist and prolific book author Ma. Lourdes Arellano-Carandang, and psychologists Beatrix Aileen Sison and Christopher Carandang. Ten OFW families are featured, each of them with the individual profiles of fathers and children (and mothers in some cases), their feelings, world views, hopes and problems, as well as how they cope and find solutions.
Plus more solutions, but this is getting ahead of the review.

The cases are presented in a simple, straightforward manner—meaning they are easy reading. They are not written in a literary or featurized journalism style with fancy phrases and colorful details.

The approach used is the family-systems approach with a clinical-phenomenological method which means going into the inner dynamics of the families and even into the realm of feelings. Projective techniques such as drawings also help.

These are families with real names, nicknames and faces, each one different from another, but with so many commonalities in the way they cope with the absence of a most important member of the family—the mother. Yes, first and foremost, the mother (as the title says), not simply the wife.

After reading all the case studies, I could see that it is as mother that “ilaw ng tahanan” is missed. It is the absence of his children’s mother that the husband must deal with first. And so if the case studies give much attention to husbands (including their own growing-up years) it is in order to show how they cope with the burden of parenting that is thrust upon him.

“Natay” is how some left-behind fathers refer to themselves, with some self-deprecating humor, that’s for sure. Na- from nanay or mother and -tay from tatay or father. Oh, but if I may digress, I had done a story on a left-behind husband-father who performed his dual role with aplomb, with nary a trace of self-pity.
But it is the children, yes, the individual children, who feel their mother’s absence in a very individual way. The eldest adolescent, the middle child, the one sent away to live with a grandma, the young ones who couldn’t remember the day their mother left, the baby of the family—each one feels the absence in his or her own way. Each one acts out feelings, copes differently.

This is not a case of a mother permanently gone because of death or separation. This is a case of she is there but she is not there. Ambivalent and mixed feelings are to be expected.

In the Baltazar family it is the adolescent who expresses the conflict—malungkot na masaya, sad but happy. “(The daughter) longs for her mother but appreciates the money her mother sends. She copes with the help of her best friend, TV, sports, school and chores. She wishes her father were strong, ‘matatag’. She sees through his ‘I’m perfect’ veneer.”

The Fernandez family has been able to adjust well mainly because of the father’s openness to change and his willingness to take over the domestic front. Add to that Arcadio Fernandez’s stable and loving relationship with his wife.

Daughter Jeralyn, 16, feels good that her father constantly asks him how she is doing (palaging kinokumusta). She feels the great optimism and this has helped her cope.

But there are problem husbands, as there are problem fathers. Men who can’t cope and who take to drinking, gambling and even physically hurting the children.

The Lirios are perhaps the most problematic. A son, Gio feels resentment and does not appreciate his mother’s sacrifice. “He thinks that her staying with the family instead of leaving is a bigger sacrifice. NOT to leave is a bigger sacrifice than to leave…His way of coping is through friends, school and his music.”

A whole section is devoted to analyses of situations, highlighting the coping mechanisms that work positively and why, what should be encouraged (expressive activities like art, play, etc), what should be discouraged (expensive toys, obsession with gadgets and games). What is the role of the school, the church and the community?

It must be added here that a number of mothers in the cases presented left in such short notice, leaving their children instantly sad and lost and without understanding the reason for leaving. What could be worse than this? And if there is no deep and caring relationship between the father and the children, what happens next?

One of the suggestions raised in the book is the setting up of support groups for fathers at the barangay level. It can be called AMMA Nurturing Center. AMMA stands for Ama na Magaling Mag-aruga ng Anak (fathers who are great in caring for children).

Carandang, Sison and Carandang suggest that a team of psychologists and volunteers can work with the government to start such pilot centers. These could then be duplicated in other barangays.

These should bring some light back to many homes.