What is a better life? I have asked myself this several times since meeting Jhaireen, a Filipino nanny living and working in Canada.
She says these words, better life, many times over the course of our time together. Many Filipino women who have left their children for the promise of such a life in North America have uttered this same sentiment.
But is life here 'better' when the family has to be separated for years?
Three years ago, Jhaireen lived with her husband, her parents and her three sons. She and her husband worked hard at the bakery they owned and they lived in a modest but comfortable home. The kids had food on the table, and life was, as she puts it, simple but good. Her sister was living in Canada at the time and had been encouraging her to start the process of leaving the Philippines to work abroad.
"She told me that I should give my kids more opportunity. I knew she was right," Jhaireen tells me.
When she first left her home in Bugue, Cagayan, Jhaireen went to Taiwan. Her youngest son was three years old at the time. My son is three years old. The boy she now takes care of here in Canada is three years old. I try to wrap my head around this. It is nothing I will ever be faced with. I find myself completely filled with sadness for her.
But the act of leaving her kids wasn't going to be the only heart-breaking experience; she was about to enter a whole new world of sacrifices.
After arriving in Taiwan and settling in with the family she was to work for, Jhaireen soon became like property they owned. She wasn't allowed to use the phone to speak to her family or have any contact with them. She had to sneak to the mailbox across the street to send letters home. After cleaning the house, taking care of the children, and sometimes working without a day off for weeks, her employers would send her to work overtime at their parents' house to clean their large home.
She was even forced to stay there once for the duration of an out-of-town trip they took. She tells me, "The lady boss didn't want me to be in the home while they were gone." While at the lady boss' mother's house, she was treated like an animal. "It was winter and she made me sleep in the stock room with a pillow wrapped in tissue. There was no blanket," she says, with a despondent look on her face.
I ask her what kept her going through all the nights of crying while she lay next to the children she was paid to look after. "I had to pay off the permit that I had applied for," she tells me. Not being able to earn that kind of money in the Philippines, she was stuck. As it turns out, 'that kind of money' was $633/month.
After a year, she had made enough cash to pay off her application and went back home. Her husband had no idea how bad it was for her. "I didn't tell them anything, I didn't want them to worry about me," Jhaireen says.
Her next stint was in Hong Kong and lasted two years. It wasn't any better than Taiwan. She would sleep next to the children, sometimes waking to feed the 18-month-old baby several times in the night. "There was no other place for me to sleep," she says, shrugging her shoulders. This time, she was making $465/month.
Eventually she made her way to Canada. Jhaireen describes what her expectation of Canada was before she arrived. It sounds like a place where money oozes out of street cracks and everyone is happy. Now that she's here, living with her sister and working for a family nearby, I ask her what life is like.
"It is OK. It's very different from what I expected. I thought it would be like heaven, but you need to work and work. It's good that you earn a lot but you have a lot of expense." She looks pensive as she shrugs her shoulders. She has accepted this current set up. And it looks to be much easier to exist in than her last two experiences away.
But I can't let go of her saying that she was happy three years ago. Back home. I ask her if she wants to go there. "I want to live in the Philippines, my heart is still there but the future for my kids is better here. So I will stay."
She tells me that her boys can get jobs and have a life here some day. They won't be left in a situation like her, without opportunity. But you had a job, you had a house, a little bit of money and you were together, I think. But these are thoughts from a mother of young children who grew up in a country where opportunity is all around us for the taking. I oblige that my perspective may be a bit one-sided.
Though I keep putting myself in her position. I ask her what it feels like to leave her children. "It was like dying. But you're just thinking it's good for them. You are not doing it for your own, but you are doing it for them," she says, looking at the ground.
I hear her and I have to wonder if the sacrifice outweighs the goal. Some feel as though they don't have a choice but to give their kids a better future. But when their formative years are happening without a mother, what does that do for their future?
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