Nanny Diaries

Marie Reyes didn't tell her girls that deception was necessary and they would cease to exist. Instead, as the jeepney taxi rolled out of the Philippine village of Pangolingan West, she promised that one day, not too far in the future, they'd be together again–mother and three young daughters–in Vancouver. The girls nodded, trying to be brave.

January 2, 2008

By Daniel Wood / Photo: Gregory Crow

Reyes was on her way to Vancouver, to look after another woman’s children. She’d trade motherhood for money, and try to convince herself they understood why she was going away. To get the job, however, she would conceal from Canadian authorities and from her Vancouver employers that she—a divorced, single mother—had three little girls, the youngest just five. Only the children would know of the promised reunion.
The jeepney stopped near the departure gates of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and Reyes knew she’d have to be strong. As she walked away, she could hear the girls begin to cry. One glance back and she knew she’d be doomed…and her dreams for her family’s Vancouver future would vanish. Turn? Don’t turn? She remembers the date well: June 28, 1988.

The story is old. In this modern version, the odyssey begins with a country bankrupt by the Philippines’ 20-year-long Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. At least $10 billon went into Swiss bank accounts and far-flung real estate investments; plus, of course, shoes for his extravagant wife, Imelda. In the face of this late-’80s economic collapse—and encouraged by Philippine government officials to find work overseas—ten million women began leaving the country, the largest female diaspora in history. Almost 40 percent of these women were, like Reyes, mothers.
During this period, millions of North American mothers, shunning the traditional role of homemaker, and yielding to pressures to enter the workforce, discovered that childcare options here were pitifully inadequate. For most, daycare hours were too short, and costs too high. Few centres took toddlers. Lacking the national childcare programs of Europe, the United States simply allowed millions of illegal Latin American immigrants through its porous southern border. Meanwhile, Canada created the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). Both tactics provided North American middle-class mothers with nannies whose low wages and diffidence were products of their vulnerability. More than 150,000 Filipino nannies—again, 40 percent of them mothers—have come to Canada in the intervening years, about 20,000 of them to Greater Vancouver.
“When Filipino families are finally reunited,” says UBC geographer Geraldine Pratt, “it’s a dynamite situation, a recipe for disaster”

 

Maria Reyes was one of the first. As a child, she’d seen Reader’s Digest photos of maple trees turning gold in autumn and mountains carpeted with wildflowers. The colours seemed impossible; she wanted to see for herself. Later as a young mother, she came to realize there was no future in Pangolingan West. It was a remote farming community with little electricity and no running water; the local school stopped at Grade Six.
Eager to escape poverty and provide a better life for her daughters, she left her children with her 66-year-old-mother and, passing through the airport departure gates, set out for her land of dreams.
The reality was less romantic. “At first, I didn’t know anyone,” she says today. “I rode buses for entertainment. That’s how I’d spend my weekends. I’d buy a hamburger and Coke and sit in some park and read. Even though it was summer I was always cold.” So she threw herself into her job—looking after a North Vancouver couple’s three young children, assuaging her loneliness on Sundays at Canyon Heights Christian Assembly church. Fearing she’d jeopardize her LCP status, she kept the existence of her own children secret. The deception was easy; her female employer didn’t appear to want to know about Reyes’s life and family. It was as if the busy career woman felt enough guilt already, just by turning some of her parental responsibilities over to Reyes. She came to understand that discretion was required to prevent any further guilt that might arise—were a Canadian mother to discover how much a Filipino mother yearned for the touch of her own kids.


Reyes found consolation in her proxy children, and in the money she earned as a nanny. Even at the minimum wage for caregivers—$1,000 a month after deductions for room and board—she was making 10 times as much as she could in the Philippines. She scoured local supermarkets for sales to fill the annual balikbayan boxes she hoped would serve as consolation to her little girls. She initially spent—as most Filipino nannies have—hundreds of dollars annually on calling cards, and later thousands on cell phones and computer links. Her remittances eventually built a house for her mother and faraway daughters, and put her girls into private school. She told herself there’d eventually be a reunion here, and Canadian citizenship for her family.

 

She had her children call her collect whenever they got near a pay phone. “It was good hearing their laughter,” she recalls. Every year or two, she returned to visit them. She believed they knew how much she loved them, but she never dared ask if her absence was what they really wanted. She suspected that, to protect her and her Canadian dream, they’d lie. “It never occurred to me my kids resented my being away,” she says now. “They never told me they felt angry or abandoned. They seemed happy.” Even worse: she couldn’t tell them about her own fear that the family reunion in Vancouver might not occur. As the years had passed, she’d become increasingly aware of how difficult it would be for her—a single mother of three—to look after her kids on a nanny’s income. She found it ironic that her employers could afford to hire her, but that—without an inexpensive childcare system in Canada—she couldn’t afford to bring her own children here. “I was looking after other people’s children, while someone else was looking after mine,” says Reyes. “The problem was, my employers were making enough to hire me, but I wasn’t making enough to pay for childcare myself.”So her daughters waited for a call that never came. Joined in a conspiracy of silence, neither she nor her children could admit that they were growing apart, that the years had begun to inflict irreparable damage.
ARMI SANTOS, 41, LAST SAW her children at Manila’s airport in January, 2005. With a B.A. in business, an alcoholic husband, and two little girls, she was leaving for a nannying job in Shaughnessy. Her family had no money, and she had no job prospects in the Philippines. The night before she left, she’d told her eldest daughter, Jessica, then nine, that they wouldn’t see each other again for a long time. She didn’t know that her daughter had secretly written, and then destroyed, a letter begging her not to go. Neither could she have anticipated that, within a few months, her husband would die, and that the care of her daughters would, in her absence, fall to her mother-in-law.
Like the thousands of other Filipino mothers who have entered Canada under the LCP, Santos understood the regulations. To be accepted into the LCP, a foreign domestic worker must agree to three conditions: 1) she must live in the employer’s home full-time; 2) she must agree to work only for that employer; 3) she must complete 24 months’ employment here—within a 36-month period—before she can apply for an open work permit and permanent residence status.
Under the LCP, a nanny has few of the rights of other immigrants to Canada. She cannot arrive with her family. She becomes, instead, a sort of ward of her employers. If these conditions are not met, she faces deportation. As well, she cannot begin to apply to have her children and husband join her here until after her two-year LCP work obligations are fulfilled, and after her own lengthy residency process is completed—typically another two to three years. Usually, several more years pass before the overseas family’s sponsorship process is complete and the family can be reunified in Canada. Nannies in Canada typically spend nine years apart from their families.


In these ways, the nannies are caught in a form of government-sanctioned servitude. Fearing the consequences of any complaint, nannies in difficult positions are rendered silent by their circumstances. Santos, for example, accepted the conditions set by her Vancouver employers. They are, she says, good people. Her female boss knows, and commiserates, about Santos’s sadness over her faraway daughters. But Santos has seen how the LCP can promote abuse.
She knows of nannies so frightened of deportation that they accept whatever is demanded—never leaving the house without permission, enduring sexual advances by husbands, accepting hours of unpaid overtime. Although Santos is contractually bound to work at minimum wage ($8 an hour) for eight hours a day, her live-in availability and reluctance to give offence means she is regularly called upon to work 12-hour days. She doesn’t dare complain.
Most of what she nets monthly, after the $325 deductions for live-in room and board, finds its way into the hands of LBC Remittance, an international courier service whose six Metro Vancouver offices handle tens of thousands of electronic money transfers each month. On Saturdays, at Broadway and Fir, she’s one of dozens of Filipinas who line up beneath two clocks—one showing Vancouver time, one Manila time. Most deposit half to three-quarters of their $1,000 monthly pay into the accounts of relatives in the Philippines. These myriad small remittances—an estimated $11 billion worldwide—comprise the single largest source of trade revenue for the Philippines. Like most nannies, she leaves herself almost nothing.
Afterwards, as a reward, she crosses Broadway and treats herself to a jar of bagoong (salted shrimp) or daing na bangus (fried marinated fish in spicy vinegar) at Goldilocks Filipino Restaurant.
When Isabel Briones, now 52, left her husband and three children in 1991, she felt confident that Roberto would, with the help of a hired relative, be able to look after the kids while she looked after the three-year-old daughter of a Vancouver couple. She reminded herself that one day they’d all be reunited in Canada. She, too, wired bi-monthly remittances, sent boxes of clothing and toys, and buried her heartache beneath work.
“Not all the stories have unhappy endings. Nine years after her family joined her, Isabel Briones believes the long wait was worth it”

 

Almost seven years passed. When the long-anticipated day finally came at Vancouver International Airport, she was confronted by children she barely knew. “During the time I was away,” she says, “my little ones had grown up! I was expecting them to still be four, six, and eight. It was like being in a time warp. I was happy having them here, but they weren’t happy. For years after, I walked a curving line.” She draws in the air the wobbly trajectory of her hopes and frustrations. Despite the money she’d showered on her kids in suburban Manila, they’d resented her absence. Just the mention of those motherless times still makes her now-grown daughter cry. Ironically, her kids, accustomed to the subsidized comforts she’d provided them in the Philippines, couldn’t see how life here was an improvement. On the contrary: with their father unemployed and their mother working in low-wage service jobs, they all lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment. Roberto, a computer software technician in Manila, spent his first two years here looking for a job. He finally got hired as a late-night clerk at 7/Eleven. He hated it.
Briones’s story is typical. When Filipino families are finally reunified here, says Geraldine Pratt, a UBC professor of geography, “it’s a dynamite situation, a recipe for disaster.” Pratt has studied the effects of the LCP on 30 local Filipino nannies, and their painful reunification efforts. Children often become, as Briones learned, strangers to their own mothers. Pratt describes the shock many newly arrived children face when they discover the $600 they’d received as monthly remittances—and that had allowed them middle-class perks, Nike runners, private schools and all—amounts to so little in Vancouver. Many feel betrayed; the Canadian dream is, to their eyes, a sham. One nanny’s daughter screamed at her for six months after her arrival. Another shouted at her mother, “Why are we so poor!” Newly arrived husbands, suddenly dependent on westernized wives, struggle with unfamiliar new roles and with the emotional chasm created by years of separation. Wives learn that husbands have had affairs, and vice-versa. Divorce often ensues.


Filipino children, Pratt discovered, don’t do well here. They have, among Asian immigrant groups, some of the lowest grades. Almost 40 percent drop out before graduating. Like their mothers, they tend to end up in low-wage service jobs. There’s often a downward spiral of ambition and achievement—a “de-skilling,” as Pratt calls it.
The Philippines, too, is paying a price for exporting its mothers to Dubai and Singapore and Vancouver. The left-behind kids have, on average, poorer grades and less developed social skills than those whose mothers have not gone away. The Philippine government tried, in fact, to ban this traffic in mothers more than a decade ago, but the billions of dollars in annual remittances perpetuate the trade. Says Pratt, “I think there are a lot of guilty western women who have Filipino nannies. They’ve got careers to maintain! Many women here are ambivalent about having a nanny. They know it’s not fair. There’s a five- or 10-year period of guilt during those child-raising years. It points out the need for a national daycare system.”
FROM THE BACK STEPS of her Kitsilano home, Linda Sinclair, 45, admits that she was naïve when she hired her first Filipino caregiver in 1993. Sinclair—then a single mother with a three month-old daughter—was desperate to go back to work as a lawyer. Most of her married female friends were professional women with nannies.
At first Sinclair didn’t realize that her new live-in had two young children back in the Philippines. Her nanny cooked and cleaned and helped raise Sinclair’s daughter, but skirted discussing her own children. Sinclair didn’t pry. They both found it easier that way.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Sinclair’s third nanny—Maria Reyes—revealed her own personal life that Sinclair began to grasp the geopolitics and global economics of maternal care. For 18 years Reyes had concealed the existence of her three children from everyone. What had started as a bureaucratic lie to assure she’d get a job in Vancouver had been compounded by repetition into a bigger deception. Reyes had accepted the restrictions of the LCP; had watched the years pass; and had raised six children belonging to other women. She’d sent remittance money and balikbayan boxes back home while missing birthdays, childhood illnesses, village fiestas, night fears, school recitals, report cards, and first crushes. In the end, she lost her own daughters to teenage marriage and motherhood 10,000 kilometres away.
“I cried when I heard this,” says Sinclair. She and her conscientious women friends could buy Fair Trade coffee at Starbucks and Fair Trade bananas at Capers, but there wasn’t—and could never be—a fair trade in maternal love.
MARIA REYES, NOW 50, goes back to the Philippines every year or two to visit her grown daughters and grandchildren. For the few days they’re together, her daughters become little girls again. Reyes becomes the mother they never had. They sing to the karaoke machine, tell stories, giggle, or sit in together reading Harry Potter books.
When the time comes for Reyes to return to Vancouver, she stops at the airport departure gates, turns and waves goodbye. She will, she knows now, always be going away. And her daughters will always be staying.
Not all the nannies’ stories have unhappy endings. Isabel Briones has come to believe—nine years after the family was reunited here—that the wait was worth it. If all five of them could have come here together in 1991, things would have been, of course, much easier. It took seven years of loneliness, and a couple of years of adjustment, for the family to recover. But they now happily share a three-bedroom apartment off Main Street. Briones works three jobs; two of her children are in college; and Roberto earns $50,000—almost 20 times more than he did in the Philippines.
For Armi Santos, it’s been about three years since she’s seen her daughters. It’s hard, she says. She has to be brave. Each night she talks to the photos of the pretty, dark-eyed little girls who stare into the camera with reluctant smiles. “I used to cry,” she says, laughing quickly. “There was a stone—” she points to her heart, leaving the sentence unfinished. “I pray each night that God permits me to see them again.”
If all goes smoothly with the LCP and the Canadian immigration process, she will see her children again. But it won’t be until the year 2013.

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