April 8, 2011

Mothers and Children in the Promised Land

I have moved several times in search of a better life, and I have been a nanny of sorts, looking after the children of some teacher friends for several years until the children all reached the first grade, but I have never had the experience of doing both at the same time.  Thousands upon thousands of women do just that.  Their own country cannot supply them with the life they would like to live, the opportunities they would like to have, and so they take the leap and sign up with a nanny agency as a way in to Canada. They leave home and family, a culture and a language they know, and come to Canada to work for a family they have never met.  For eighteen months the foreign nanny, most often Filipina in origin, exists in the doorway of the country she would like to live in, and once she has put in her time, she can apply for permanent residency. 

When my youngest daughter started Kindergarten, I went every day to pick her and her friend Simon up from school to bring back home after the morning class.  I would often chat with the other mothers and caregivers who were there waiting with me.  I got to know two caregivers fairly well, one young Russian woman who was working for a local family with many children, and one Filipina woman who was working for a family with two children.  Both would arrive daily to fetch their five year-old charges.  The young Russian woman was bubbly and happy for the first month or so of her stay, but as the fall wore on, she visibly began to wilt.  She was obviously terribly homesick and unhappy - she missed her mother and her sister, who had just had a baby.  She went home to Russia not long after winter was over. Her Au Pair experience had been an eye-opener, and she told me her next adventure was going to be some time spent meditating in a convent.  I wondered if the Filipina nanny was homesick as well.  If she was, she hid it well.

I had been given a few parenting magazines by a friend and one day, came across an article on the foreign nanny trade in Canada, a subject I knew little about.  It caught my interest because, of course, I had recently met two foreign nannies.  The article focussed on the Filipina nannies, and explained how many, if not most of them, had left not only their country and parents behind, but often husbands and children, too.  As I read the article, a thought gathered itself and a suspicion regarding my new aquaintance began to dawn on me.  I wondered if the Filipina nanny I was getting to know, who appeared to be in her late 30's, had also left a husband and children behind.  I did not want to ask her directly, so we talked every day at the school about other things.  I asked her about her native country.  I asked her if she had been employed there, and found out she was a trained teacher.  Eventually, I found out she had come to be a nanny in Canada because she wanted to bring her whole family over and immigrate, but she could not begin to apply for that until she had permanent residency status herself.  And so the conversation progressed:

"Your family?" I asked.  "Do you have children back in the Philippines?"

"Yes, three children.  One teenager and two young children."

"Who is looking after them while you work over here?"

"My husband and my mother."  She explained how her employers let her use their computer to Skype with her family, and how grateful she was for that.

"Just out of curiosity, why did your husband not come to work in Canada instead of you?"  I asked.

She explained that if he came he would have to not only find work, but would have to pay for an apartment.  If she worked as a nanny, she could live with the family employing her and send a lot of money home.  The Canadian dollar was worth three times as much back home.

"How common is is for Filipina nannies to have children back home?" I asked

"Very common.  Almost all of them do."

"That must be hard. You must miss your husband and children a great deal,"  I said.

"Oh yes, I do.  Very, very much."  But she went on to explain how she wanted her children to have the opportunites open to Canadian children.  To go to University, to get good jobs, to have a good life.  If they stayed in the Phillippines they would continue in poverty and feel like they had no real future.  I nodded and took in all she said.  She seemed so strong, so determined.  Then I thought back to the article I had read.  It spoke about the difficulties families faced when they were finally reunited - how children and mothers who had spent so much time apart during the formative growing years had to get to know each other all over again, and sometimes felt like strangers. The nanny told me she was nearly finished her stay with the family and was soon going to join her brother in a community closer to Vancouver.  There she would find employment and proceed with the endless paperwork involved in immigration.  She hoped to bring her family over in a year or two.  I wished her all the best.

I got to know another Filipina nanny after the first one had moved away. She also had children and a husband back home, and was employed by a hardworking and appreciative local family.  After this nanny had lived with and worked for them, they accompanied her to the Philippines, visited her family and got to see the country she was trying to leave for good.  When the nanny and the family returned from their trip I talked to all of them, as it happened, seperately, about their experiences.  The nanny told me that it felt very strange and irritating to sleep beside her husband after all that time living apart.  She had become used to sleeping alone, and she liked it, she said, laughing.  My heart felt heavy after our conversation even though she was one of the lucky ones. Her employers helped her with her paperwork and continued to be her good friends, even after she had left them to work elsewhere.  I know from watching documentaries and reading further articles, that not all Filipina nannies enjoy such a supportive atmosphere here in Canada.

Even though it is extremely hard for me to imagine myself leaving my own children for any length of time over a week or two, I cannot pass judgement on anyone who chooses to do what these Filipina women have done.  How can I?  Every mother wants what she thinks is best for her children, and hopes the sacrifices she has made for them turn out to be worth it in the end. I truly hope the women I had the privilege to meet are successful in bringing their families over to Canada after all the investment of time, resources, and emotional energy they have put in.  I can only feel empathy for them in their difficult separation from their families and feel grateful that I do not feel pushed by circumstance, by extreme poverty, or by a lack of hope for the future of my own beloved country, to do the same. 

I am remembering now that film, Paris, Je t'aime, a montage of stories from the various quarters of Paris.  In what is, to me, the most poignant storyline, we follow a young, single, immigrant mother
who rises very early to prepare for work.  She gathers her young child in her arms and in the dark,
takes him still sleeping to a large daycare.  We follow her long journey by train
 from the outer suburbs of Paris into the inner quarters.  We watch as she goes
 up the steps of an elegant townhouse where she works. 
She is a nanny for a rich family's children,
and will not see her own child again
 until the day is over
and she has made
 her long morning's
 in reverse.

The photo above is from a related article in the Montreal Gazette newspaper.


  1. i did some work in harlan ky, helping build houses for impoverished families...one question that stuck with me was why they did not leave a place that had no opportunity...but that was where family was and tradition and a way of life...kinda the opposite of what you are saying but it came to mind as i read this...

  2. wow. i had no idea.

  3. There can be a very nasty set of emigration & labour laws backing up the system of domestic servants. They presume that the citizen is a decent person and wouldn't abuse. Nine times out of ten this trust is misplaced and very rapidly what should be a relationship based on respect becomes one which at best is indentured servitude and at worst slavery. Real sanctions need to be in place when this part of the workforce is abused. Sanctions where jail-time is next after a massive fine. And not as it is now after someone dies.
    Interesting post, very provoking and lots of implications.

    ps. do you know how to link that www without doing the entire address.

  4. Very thought provoking. I remember that talking to my son in Japan on Skype was reassuring but ultimately unsatisfactory and that was only for three months.

  5. Growing up, my best friend Ana, and her family were from the Philippines. Her parents had been university professors. Here, in the States, they were...well, not that. Her father kept a job, but it was just a job, and he used his skill in agriculture (what he taught) to grow the most amazing things in the back yard.

    I remember overhearing an adult say that they must have been rich in the Philippines to get out as a family. I also knew that they left for political reasons. But I was a child, and none of this meant anything to me.

    And, I could not then appreciate how much they must have left behind. But, as Ana and I grew up together, it began to sink in. Her parents were amazingly resilient.

    Very nice post.

  6. Thanks, everyone for your thoughtful comments!

    Brian: I couldn't help wondering what was better as I wrote this - keeping the family together, but staying in poverty, or separating and having more money.

    E.P. I have read that the situation is similar across the border in the U.S., too.

    Vince. Yes, I think our governments must guard heavily against the kinds of misuse of foreign domestics - because it does happen. I think we as privileged people need to change our mindset. It is too easy to believe that we are 'helping' people by hiring them, rather than using them, which happens in some cases. Sometimes it can be a thin line between the two.
    I will leave a comment on your blog regarding making links with one word in the text, okay?

    Lucille: I think I would feel the same way.

    Tracey: Thanks very much for your story. I don't think I would have thought much about this issue if I hadn't happened to meet several Filipina nannies personally and get to talk to them. That made everything so real for me.

  7. I taught ESL after retirement and heard some stories from recent immigrants. They mirror what you write about here. Often they want a better life for themselves and their family.

  8. I know how to 'link' in the body of the post. But how do you do it in 'comments'. And it can be done, I've seen it.
    LOL, I've a feeling that there might be a case of the blind leading the blind. ;-)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!