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OFW Special

Men as mothers

MISSING MOMMY. Macoy Leyba has learned to cook, take care of the children, and balance the family budget, but he still misses his wife everyday. [photos by Alecks P. Pabico]

AS THE youngest of the three Leyba children, McLauren gets pampered in the manner all bunso are in a Filipino family, including being able to share bedspace with his parents. And up until three years ago, bedtime meant going through a peculiar ritual to help induce him to sleep: snuggling against his mother and rubbing one of her ears, a soporific massage that she would also give him.

McLauren — or Butchoy as he is fondly called — didn’t exactly outgrow the ritual. It’s just that his mother has been working abroad for the last three years, and the nine-year-old has since been cuddling up to his father at bedtime instead. And while Maximino ‘Macoy’ Leyba loves hugging his young son back — he has balked at performing the ear-caressing routine the boy and his mother liked doing.

But everything else that wife Florence would be doing around the house Macoy has taken on without complaint, from looking after the children to cooking the meals, to doing the laundry and figuring out the household budget. It’s a setup that may be hard to imagine in a country of swaggering macho men, but in this era of large-scale transnational female labor migration, even certified barakos (toughies) are being forced to play nanay (mothers), albeit in varying degrees.

There are towns upon towns across the Philippines like Mabini in Batangas, where 12 percent of the population are OFWs, most of whom are women employed as domestic workers in Italy. In 2002, seven in 10 of all newly hired OFWs were female, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The result: many more households where the man of the house wears an apron and wields a broom.

Trust the Filipino’s practicality that allows such reversal of gender roles without necessarily resulting in the emasculation of the Pinoy macho. In her book Remaking Masculinities, sociologist Alicia Pingol studies the gender dynamics in Ilocano families with migrant wives and stay-at-home husbands. She points to the shifting definitions of masculinity that somehow lessen the threat to Pinoy manhood when husbands are forced to assume the role of caregiver for the sake of the family’s finances.

The new masculine image, says Pingol, now comes in a variety of forms, from efficiently managing their wives’ remittances to remaining loyal spouses, to attending to their children’s needs. Interestingly, another new mark of masculinity, according to Pingol, is the dogged determination of many of the men to find ways to contribute economically to the family income so as not to become too dependent on their wives’ earnings.

Danilo ‘Tatay Danny’ Guce, for example, did not stop being a port worker when wife Fidela went to Italy in 1987 to become a domestic helper, even though his earnings were nothing compared to what she was getting. “We had huge debts that we couldn’t pay fast enough with my wife’s salary,” he explains. “I kept working so that at least she wouldn’t have to worry about where we were going to find the money to feed ourselves.”

Now retired at 60, Tatay Danny tends a small backyard vegetable garden in Mabini. He intends to sell the produce to earn as additional income, or if not, for his family’s own consumption. He has in his care three grandchildren whose parents are also working in Italy.

IN BACOOR, Macoy is thinking of reopening the small store he used to run beside their house so he can contribute to the family coffers. As if he didn’t already have his hands full managing the household. Actually, the reason why he closed his shop was because his household tasks kept getting in the way. But Macoy now says he has gotten the hang of it after doing the same routine day after day for the last three years.

At least now he no longer worries too much about the eldest child Reiner, who is 20 and a recent computer engineering graduate. “He eats by himself and then goes off,” says Macoy. But there’s still Butchoy and Jam, the middle child and only daughter. Largely because of them, Macoy’s daily schedule still begins early in the morning. He wakes up at around five o’clock to prepare breakfast for Jam, who has to leave for school at seven. By 9:30, he is back in front of the stove cooking for Butchoy. Then he bathes and dresses up the boy in time for classes that start at 10.

Macoy learned to cook in Saudi Arabia, when he was assigned to oversee his company’s operations in Tabuk near the Jordan border. At the time he was a supervisor at a transport firm. Florence and the children were also in Saudi, but whenever Macoy was in Tabuk, he was pretty much left to his own devices. Sometimes he had to bring Butchoy, then a toddler, with him to Tabuk, and he would call Florence long-distance to get specific instructions on how to cook dishes like tinola. He hasn’t dispensed with the practice, though it is now his mother-in-law whom he often consults about recipes.

After the children have left for school, Macoy does the marketing. He says it’s more convenient to do that late in the morning, as there are fewer buyers and haggling for lower prices becomes a breeze.

Work slackens a bit in the early afternoon until two o’clock, when Jam returns from school. That’s the time Macoy washes and iron clothes, taking care to do the children’s uniforms first.

But it’s budgeting Florence’s remittances that often leaves the lanky Macoy exhausted. In the past, they used to allocate P20,000 for their monthly expenses — mainly food, payment of utilities, and the children’s daily school allowances. Now that amount is no longer sufficient. Confides Macoy: “It’s so hard to budget. There are so many school projects. Whenever the two younger children ask for money, my budget is ruined. My daughter says she needs shoes, but she ends up also buying a pair of pants. It’s difficult to say no.”

Actually, he says, life hasn’t been easy for him since he became Mr. Mom. “I admit it,” he says. “It’s hard for the man to become the mother. If you think about it, it’s a very heavy burden. Of course fathers can take care of their children. But I can’t do everything a mother does.”

So far, though, the kids aren’t complaining — even Butchoy, who is quite attached to Florence. Says the 45-year-old Macoy: “He’s my bedtime companion. Whenever he hugs me, I remember his mother. Because he should be hugging her. I ask him sometimes, ‘So Butchoy, is it okay that your mommy’s not here, and you’ve had to hug just me?’ And he says it’s okay.”

THE MASSIVE exodus of women — especially mothers and wives — has raised much concern about the stability of the family and the welfare of the children left behind. Mothers, after all, are acknowledged as the ilaw ng tahanan (light of the home) to complement fathers, who are the haligi ng tahanan (pillar of the home). As such, they tend to hold the family together better than the fathers. Studies have likewise shown that families have done well despite the absence of men because of the women who have taken up the slack.

Marcelino Abu seldom does household chores, instead passing on domestic tasks to his eldest daughter while his wife is in Italy.

Any change in the role and status of women, since they are more identified with family and domestic concerns, tends to affect the family more than that of men, who experience similar changes. There is also the perception that men cannot fully substitute for the absent mothers, however willing the husbands are to assume the roles of their migrant wives. Yet even if Macoy himself says he cannot be the kind of mother Florence is, his wife is all praises for the man whom she describes as having been “bossy” when they were just starting their family in Saudi Arabia.

A registered nurse, Florence has resumed work with the King Abdulaziz University Hospital in Jeddah, where she was last employed for eight years until December 2001, when she resolved to come home for good. She had been determined to focus on the growing children, whom the couple had sent back to the Philippines to study while they stayed behind to work in Saudi. Her decision to return to Jeddah several months later was painful for the family, but it had to be made because their savings were fast being depleted.

Given her profession, it was easier and it made more financial sense for Florence to return to the oil-rich kingdom. Macoy had abruptly left his job after attending his father’s wake and burial in 2002, and he opted to stay in the Philippines to mind the children, as well as manage the small business they were starting then, when Florence decided to go back to Jeddah. “And things just didn’t feel safe here back then,” explains Macoy. “Houses were. being burgled in this subdivision. In Saudi, all you’d hear were news about massacres. You couldn’t have any peace of mind.”

Their business venture failed, but Macoy is still keeping house — with little help from anyone else. This has set him apart from many other Filipino men with migrant wives. More often than not, the husband who has been left behind delegates many of the household tasks to female relatives, sometimes even to the eldest daughter.

This refusal to take the “second shift,” which consists of family and household chores that husbands and wives need to do after completing their regular day’s paid work (the first shift), is neither new nor unique to Filipino men. U.S. sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild popularized the phrase in 1989, using it as title for her book in which she observed how men were not spending much more time taking care of the needs at home even as women were spending more and more time at work. Here in the Philippines, the extended family has made it all the more possible for men with migrant wives to pass on some or all of the household chores to willing female relatives.

FOR SURE the traditional notions of housework and child care as “feminine” also have something to do with many of the men’s reluctance to play mother to the hilt like Macoy. Marcelino Abu, for example, insists that cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children are activities that fall under the domain of women. That thinking could have made things complicated for him had his grownup daughter not been around to manage his household while his wife Yolanda works as a maid in Italy. Marcelino, 49, also says his work as a kagawad (barangay council member) already keeps him very busy. “I hang the clothes to dry, but I don’t do any washing,” he says cheerily. “I’d be ashamed to be seen doing that by my neighbors.”

Leandro Jusi, the barangay captain in Marcelino’s neighborhood in Mabini, says that with his wife also working in Italy, he gets by with the help of a niece who takes care of his three children, as well as his grandmother and a maid. The 43-year-old kapitan, who goes around the barangay with silver bracelets jangling on his wrists and the latest Samsung cell phone hanging around his neck, says he can’t cook anything beyond rice.

“We live near my parents anyway,” says Leandro, who takes on seasonal house construction jobs as a foreman. “Sometimes that’s where we eat.”

Because their wives work in Italy, Mabini men like Kapitan Leandro, Kagawad Marcelino, and Tatay Danny have grown used to being left on their own for long stretches of time. Unlike their counterparts in Hong Kong, Filipina maids in Italy are often not covered by contracts, many of them having entered that country as illegal immigrants. To legitimize their stay, they have to wait for the processing of their papers before they can come home for a vacation. Some take five years to return, as in the case of Leandro’s wife Irene, while others, to further save up, rarely go on holiday.

Since she left for Italy 16 years ago, Yolanda Abu has returned home only twice. “I guess she doesn’t make much,” says Marcelino with some sadness. “Because there are many here who are also maids but have even been able to build big new houses.”

He says he has never asked his wife how much she makes. “Money arrives every month and that’s that,” he says. “Sometimes the amount reaches P20,000 and I divide that up among our children.”

The kagawad is not the only husband in Mabini who claims to be clueless about his wife’s earnings. So do Tatay Danny and Kapitan Leandro, who has even relegated the handling of his wife’s remittances to his sister-in-law. “It’s better to have her sister handle her money,” says the kapitan. “I just might squander it. After all, I do play tong-its (a card game) sometimes.”

Marcelino also admits to occasional gambling and drinking with his friends, but he says he does not use his wife’s remittances for things other than what these are supposed to be for. “You can’t take away the vices because we’re men,” he says. “But I have never spent her earnings on things like that.”

BUT PERHAPS the women cannot fault the men for looking for something to occupy themselves with. Small-time gambling may in fact be among the more benign pastimes. According to Pingol, the wives’ prolonged absences have forced many of the men to confront their sexual needs in various ways. In Marcelino’s neighborhood, a corner store with a billiards table has become the favorite hangout of husbands with wives abroad. For the more adventurous, yet another diversion is venturing elsewhere for paid sex.

Danilo Guce, a retired port worker, tends a backyard garden to supplement the income his wife makes as a maid in Italy.

“You can’t discount that especially among the lonely,” says Leandro. “It happens from time to time, especially when one is out with male friends. It would be a lie to say it doesn’t.”

At other times, jokes provide a veiled expression of the extreme loneliness that they feel for their wives — just like the kapitan‘s banter that his wife should be more worried that he could fall for another instead of him getting concerned that she would find someone else.

In Cavite, fulltime househusband Macoy also admits to occasionally drinking at home, either alone or with friends. At one point, he even agreed to become a board member of the village association just so he could better endure the long separation from his wife. But that meant some of his time was being diverted away from the house, which Florence took issue with, as she saw it as less time devoted to the children. Macoy doesn’t deny that, but since a new set of officers has been elected, he is no longer part of the board and is back full throttle at home — and missing Florence.

“I think of her every day, she is never out of my mind,” he confesses. “Sometimes the children see me staring into space, and it’s because I’m thinking of her. I’d ask them, ‘I wonder if your mommy has already eaten?’ I keep wondering if she’s still at work, if she has gone home, if she is safe.”

There’s no doubt Florence also wants to be home with her family. She was here recently for a month-long vacation, and could barely tear herself away from them when it was time for her to leave. She says her dream had always been to be a fulltime housewife: adding, “I’ve been abroad for so many years, I just want to wake up in the morning and go to the market, cook for my family, and serve them.” For the moment, though, it is Macoy who is doing that, and without her by his side.