The Filipino Story: The Choices We Make
by Gale V. LaFreniere
Once upon a time, there was a Filipina nurse who decided that she would go to the States so she could earn enough money to improve the quality of life for her family. She knew that if she were to stay in the Philippines her family would have to live a hand-to-mouth existence. If she became successful in the States, she would definitely be in a better position to provide for her family. After all, they say, that in the States, as long as you are willing to work, you could have a fair chance of making it, meaning to have enough money to support yourself and your family. The hardest part of it all was that she would have to leave her children! Her children are all young, all under the age of 12, and her husband would have to take care of them without her. But they have decided that she would have better chances of earning more than him so she leaves for the States.
We Filipinos are known for our work ethic and our ability to speak English is a very big plus for us. So, in a few weeks, our Filipina nurse has found a good-paying job. In a few months, she has overcome the overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness, as well as gotten acclimated to the weather and the way of life in the States. In a few years, her family in the Philippines is enjoying the dollars she is sending home and they are now able to Facetime with her to lessen her occasional feelings of loneliness. So, what is wrong with this picture?
The dilemma we all continually face is a choice between taking care of our emotions vs. taking care of reality. Our emotions say, how could she leave her children, but reality demands us to look at her need to provide for their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. More often than not, reality wins out and the emotions of everyone involved are considered secondary. Everyone is expected to harden his or her heart and “magtiis na lang” or just bear with the hardship. Those of us who have had to make these choices struggle with dealing with feelings of guilt and loneliness as well as have feelings of pride and satisfaction for being able to provide for our families. This is a constant struggle for the Filipino; this is our reality in the States to make sacrifices in the present in order to have a better future.
We go back to the scenario above and wonder what can go wrong with this family? Well, in the foreseeable future, this Filipina nurse will be able to petition for her family and they will all be able to live together again here in the States. When this happens, she will inevitably have to deal with the consequences of their original decision to leave. The whole family will also have to deal with getting to know each other again and having to live with their own personal feelings of resentment, anger, guilt and frustration resulting from their separation. Perhaps the children are angry because they were left behind but feel guilty that they are angry. Perhaps the husband has had extramarital affairs due to the absence of his wife. Perhaps the wife is resentful for having to deal with all the loneliness and hardship alone and treating the family as her priority over herself. Of course, most of these feelings may be unconscious and/or subconscious and do not surface but behaviors stemming from these feelings do, especially because they have all changed and grown apart. They are now strangers who just happen to have the same last name. The husband and wife now act like business partners instead of lovers, the children are confused on who is this new authority in their life, the mother doubts herself and asserts herself which further results in further alienation among everybody. There are frequent fights and power struggles. At this point, they begin to think that perhaps the family was better off separated!
In my counseling experience, I have met many families like this and the initial focus of the treatment is to validate and normalize their situation. What does that mean? Tell them that because of the decision they made, it is only normal that they would be in this situation. I also tell them that being a family is more than just having the same last name. It almost always means that you a have a relationship with each other. As with any relationship, you have to work on it. This may simplify the situation too much but the families I have seen respond very well to knowing that they have not betrayed the family by having these feelings. They start to understand that these feelings are just reactions to the situation like any other human being would. In addition, they are relieved that after working on rebuilding their relationship, they are after all, better off being together again, as a family.
This is the crux of my work as a Marriage & Family Therapist: helping people understand that they have a choice, regardless of the pressure of their family or of society. The families come to understand that regardless of the circumstances, they do make choices, whether as a family unit or as an individual and the task at hand is not to blame each other but rather learn and deal with the consequences of such choices in a productive manner. Most importantly they learn that with this understanding, they can now move forward as a family, because they have chosen to do so.