TAGUIG, Philippines—Neth Manguerra, 24, is adept with her hands.
At work, in her father’s small metalworking and signage shop, she is his alter ego, all-around assistant and understudy. She can easily jimmy a locked door, weld metal objects together, and silk screen t-shirts.
At home, her hands become deft and nimble, fixing and fussing over her younger siblings’ hair.
Jam-Jam, her 8-year old sister, and the youngest in their family of 4, likes her hair to be done in elaborate princess upstyles. Today, Jam-Jam wants to look like Elsa, the character in the animated movie, “Frozen.”
Her other sister, Johbe Ann, who is 16, is harder to please. “She doesn’t want her ponytail to be so tight that it stretches her face. Teenagers,” she says knowingly.
Her 23-year old brother, Jomar, is the easiest because, “I just cut his hair and he styles it himself with gel.”
“When Mama left, I missed her most during special occasions, like my prom when no one was around to fix my hair,” says Neth.
It was the most important night of her teen life and Neth was overwhelmed and nervous—it made her long for her Mama to quiet the jitters.
“In the end, I went to one of the neighbors, borrowed a curler and just fixed my hair myself. If Mama were here, I know she would have fixed my hair all the time,” she says quietly.
The first time Neth’s mother, Mary Beth, left to work abroad in Lebanon as a sewer was in 2002.
Neth was 12 years old then. When Mary Beth finished her contract, she came back to the Philippines. It would be another 7 years before Mary Beth decided to leave again.
By that time, there had been many changes – Jam-Jam came into the family – but many things also remained the same.
Supporting the family by making promotional signages on jeepneys and tricycles, and the occasional order of t-shirts for the barangay basketball team was difficult.
Mary Beth left again in 2009, this time to work as a nanny in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Children left behind
There are no clear statistics on the number of children with one or both parents who are working abroad as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).
Experts say that this is because of a number of factors, the most basic of which is that the employment information required of OFWs does not include the number of children they have.
Others say that tracking the number of OFWs in itself remains problematic. While the government depends mostly on the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) to provide the number of registered and deployed OFWs, there is no way to track “irregular migrants” or those working in other countries illegally. The number of irregular migrants is only an estimate.
However, many studies show that when a mother leaves to work abroad, it is the girls – regardless of birth order – who rise up to the task of taking on the roles and responsibilities of their mother.
“No matter her age at the time of her mother’s departure, it is the girl in the family who will take over managing the house and taking care of the other children,” said Mai Dizon-Anonuevo, executive director of Atikha, an NGO working with OFW families in Laguna.
“She may have older brothers, but birth order doesn’t matter. The oldest girl among the children will take on the role of the mother,” Anonuevo said.
For Neth, the responsibility that came before its time was too much to bear.
When Neth had to quit school, she took on a job in a department store located a bit far from home. She used this as a reason to move out and rent a bedspace for herself.
It both angered and perplexed her parents who said the money could have been used elsewhere.
“Yes. I left. I needed to get away from them for awhile,” says Neth quietly.
The time alone gave her time to think and she found herself wondering if the responsibility of taking care of all of them was also too great for her mother. “I wondered if it was why Mama left us.”
Neth came back home after a few months. “I knew they needed me. But I needed them, too. I missed them so much.”
I used to wonder why many pictures of OFW families showed daughters looking into a mirror fixing each other’s hair.
The time-honored tradition between mothers and daughters and among sisters is the embodiment of female bonding. During this quiet time of intimacy, hopes, dreams, and aspirations are unraveled. When a girl looks at herself in the mirror, sometimes she is already imagining what she would someday like to become.
The days we spent with Neth and her family, I watched Neth tirelessly comb through her sisters’ hair with her fingers, twisting, tying it up, and braiding it into the latest “up style” she learned how to do on YouTube. She spoke to me in between bobby pins that were pinned between her lips as her hands skillfully divided strands of hair into sections.
And I began to understand.
The attention, care and effort Neth pours into fixing her siblings’ hair is the fulfillment of a silent vow to never let them feel the void left by their mother’s absence – it is her way of being the mother she didn’t have.