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Technology saves the day

A growing number of Filipino families are relying on social media and other forms of instant communication to bridge distances.

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There have been many studies done on the social cost of overseas Filipino workers’ (OFW) migration and single-parent families. Problems—from infidelity on the part of one or both spouses, to teen pregnancy and drug addiction among children of OFWs—have taken root since the Philippine government began institutionalizing the export of surplus labor to the rest of the world more than 40 years ago. But thanks to advances in technology, a more recent set of studies reveals that more Filipino families are now able to cope with the loneliness and even thrive despite the distances that separate them.

“Ideally, we should all be together. But as long as our country can’t provide enough jobs for its citizens, relying on technology to bridge separated families is the next best thing. Nothing, not even the most lavish gifts, can fill the loneliness a child feels for a missing parent. Constant and most of the time instant communication between parents and children through text messaging, social media, and Skype lessen the loneliness,” said Dr. Victoria Apuan, seasoned educator and chair of Miriam College’s Family Studies Program.

Kids of OFWs growing up in the early 1970s like this writer should know. It usually took at least two weeks for snail mail to arrive. Not too many families had telephones back then. Long distance calls, apart from being expensive, weren’t always reliable. Family members were limited to receiving or sending each other voice tapes via the OFW’s colleagues who were either arriving or leaving the country.

These days, absentee parents can keep abreast of their children’s activities almost in real time, said Apuan, whose field of expertise includes Psychology, Philippine Studies, and Gender and Development. Some even conduct tutorials over Skype or FaceTime, while others gain a clearer idea of who their children’s friends are through Facebook.

Thanks to Skype or FaceTime, it’s not uncommon, for instance, for a parent who is thousands of miles away to virtually participate in his or her child’s birthday via a wired computer or tablet in the living room or dining area. The virtual party enables both parent and child to retain some form of bond.

“The child knows that he or she has a lifeline, and that’s important,” said Apuan. “Through these modern-day gadgets and systems, he or she would get an answer.”

She also believes in and advocates the importance of support groups both for the spouse abroad and the one left behind to take care of the kids. Apart from joining, say, a religious or civic support group, which frowns on extra-marital affairs, there are certain companies in the Middle East, for instance, that won’t tolerate their employees’ infidelity.

The situation is equally difficult for the one left behind. Apart from being a single parent to his or her children, he or she is expected to solve various problems that are sometimes too small to bring to the attention of the spouse abroad. These concerns may seem inconsequential, but they do add up and can fester and turn into bigger problems if not addressed immediately. That’s why they also need people to provide them with moral support or even a shoulder to cry on.

Based on another study Apuan shared with Panorama, an intergenerational family of OFWs is being held up as a model on how it should be done. The family started fielding out OFWs from among its members in the 1970s. The tradition, for lack of a better description, continued with a second batch of OFWs in the 1990s, and a third one in the 2010s.

Family members from each generation have one thing in common that allowed them to remain intact and insulated from common problems usually encountered by many fellow OFW families. According to the researcher, this commonality is a testament to the strength and fortitude of the spouses left behind in the Philippines.

“There are two types of coping—emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping,” said Apuan. “The researcher found out that families in the study, especially the spouses left behind, have a clear objective from the start. They were aware and willing to sacrifice initially in order to experience a better life for themselves and their families in the future.”

Apart from delaying gratification, the wives, for instance, try to make ends meet. They also make their OFW husbands’ salaries earn by engaging in various small businesses and money-making ventures. Children don’t automatically receive an increase in their allowance just because their father or mother is now an OFW. And if these families have saved enough, the money usually goes to buying more farmlands if the family is into farming, or expanding the store if it’s into trading.

“Some people are unaware or unmindful of the possibilities,” said Apuan. “But such foresight and entrepreneurial bent can be learned. That’s why the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Agency) should give more entrepreneurship training to those left behind. They have to manage the money earned by their spouses abroad properly.”

Family values can be strengthened by a supportive community, even a supportive school, she added. There’s always some form of dislocation whenever one or both parents leave for abroad to work, but this can be minimized.

At the same time, Apuan also mentioned the need to recognize families that are in different social arrangements. The old nuclear family consisting of father, mother, and children is no longer the norm. This development, although no longer new, was first articulated in a global conference in the early 1990s in Malta. Even then, less conventional forms of family had begun to lose the stigma once attached to them.

Apart from solo parenting, separation, or divorce, a growing number of children these days are being raised by extended members of the family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings. Many children even include their nannies when their teachers ask them, for instance, to name the members of their family. It seems unthinkable to them not to include the yaya as part of their support group.

Then there’s also the growing rise of lesbian and gay couples raising either their biological or adopted children. There are likewise people who remarry after their first marriages have been annulled. The children they bring into the new arrangement become part of what is now called blended families.

“Street children also have a sense of family,” said Apuan. “Those in very difficult circumstances look for a support person whether or not related by blood. This person or group of persons become their kuya or ate. Loosely, the family is now defined as a group of people with whom you can find support and love. It’s always important for the child while growing up to have some reliable, consistent support person.”