MANILA, Philippines—One of my students, Arnold P. Alamon, has written a graduate thesis titled, “Lives on Hold: Sons of Migrant Parents.” It is based on the retrospective accounts of the six young men he interviewed on what it was like to create their own lives while their parents worked abroad.
Modernity has long disturbed this traditional order, but none perhaps has turned it more upside down than the phenomenon of overseas work. It is now common for fathers to leave their children for extended and indefinite periods in order to provide for their needs. Where the man in the family cannot find a job that provides adequate income, the wife must step into the role of provider and look for work.
That is when the tacit understandings that bound the Filipino family together come into question. Children, confronting the paradox of the absentee-provider, begin to miss the living presence of the parent who dutifully remits the money and the “balikbayan” boxes containing goods.
The young men in this study appear to have survived their parents’ absence quite well, a fact that is often celebrated as Filipino resilience. Almost all of them managed to finish college, and they all believe that living on their own somehow forced them to be strong. But an unmistakable sense of loss, often surfacing as resentment, is palpable in their accounts. One of them says, almost as if he were grieving: “My parents did not see me grow up.”
The traditional Filipino family, like the one in which I grew up, was not always good at verbalizing familial love. But it was there. I saw it in my mother’s eyes when anyone of us was unwell and in my father’s eager face whenever he would ask his children to recount their achievements in school or at work.
In the age of absentee parenting, the communication of love has taken the form of a steady stream of gift-giving. This however cannot compensate for the erosion of intimacy. As the sociologist Luhmann nicely put it: “Roughly speaking, one loves not because one wants gifts, but because one wants their meaning.”
We expect those we love to show us, by their actions, the depth and complexity of their inner world, not the broad practicalities of their material situation. This is true not only for lovers and spouses in long distance relationships; it applies as well to children and parents torn apart by migration.
It has been very easy to measure the economic benefits from overseas work. But I doubt if one can ever quantify what the Filipino family has given up in terms of love, or what it is doing to recover it.