No mother wants to leave her child — but in the Philippines, it can feel like there’s no other choice. Unable to earn enough money at home, an estimated 2.2 million Filipinos worked overseas last year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The majority were women, many hoping to give their child a better future.
They work as nurses, hospitality staff, nannies and cleaners. Last year, they sent $33.5 billion back to the Philippines in personal remittances — a record high, according to the country’s central bank.
More than 2.2 million Filipinos worked overseas in 2019The top five destinations were in Asia and the Middle East
Source: Philippines Statistics Authority
But their income comes at a high personal cost. Mothers can miss out on entire childhoods. Sometimes their relationship with their children remains damaged and distant, years after they return. Other times, their children’s lives can veer off course without a parent at home.
In Hong Kong, the vast majority of Filipino migrants are domestic workers, often raising other people’s children. CNN spoke with several of these women, and adults who grew up in the Philippines without their mothers, about the emotional toll of being separated for years.
Dolores can count on one hand the number of times she has seen her seven-year-old son.
She left him with his grandmother in the Philippines when he was six months old — she needed to return to work in Hong Kong to earn income to support them, as well as her niece and other family members. Her husband worked overseas, too.
Without much annual leave or the funds to travel, Dolores, who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, didn’t see her son again until he was two-and-a-half years old.
“It’s really hard to leave. You don’t want to leave, actually … (but) I don’t have really a choice.”
“It’s difficult — you left your son not knowing you,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything about you. Then you come back, and he can talk, he can run, but he doesn’t recognize you.”
Those first years were heartbreaking. Dolores could only afford two long-distance phone calls a week, because her family didn’t have internet access at home. She would call late at night after finishing work, just to listen to her son babble.
Dolores shows a picture of her son, who lives in the Philippines. Credit: Jessie Yeung
Things have gotten easier over the years. Now, her family has internet access and they make video calls three times a day. But she still worries it isn’t enough. “How can I nurture my child, considering that he’s in the Philippines?” she said. “When he comes home from school, I can’t teach him his homework.”
She felt the distance most two years ago, when her son was hospitalized for an ear blockage. Neither Dolores nor her husband were able to return home, and could only talk to their son over the phone after his operation was finished.
“I had a heavy heart that I was not there (while) he had to undergo the operation,” she said. “We were crying, because your son is telling you it’s painful, and you can’t comfort him. Of course, we are calling (on the phone), but it’s different if you’re beside (him).”
The reasons they leave
In the Philippines, high birth rates have created a labor force that’s growing faster than the economy can create jobs. Unemployment has pushed many to go abroad to find work.
In Hong Kong, there are almost 400,000 domestic workers, the majority of whom are women from the Philippines. They get paid at least $600 (29,500 pesos) a month – far higher than the average nominal wage in the Philippines of about $213 (10,460 pesos) a month, according to the International Labour Organization.
These conditions, which have persisted for decades, push more than a million Filipinos to leave the country every year for work abroad, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The additional income provides much-needed security — not just for children’s education, but for other crucial needs like medical costs or recovery from natural disasters.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte praised these workers for their economic contribution at a 2019 event. But the migration of Filipino workers has also left millions of children without a parent at home.
“Now, more than ever, we need you, the (overseas Filipino workers) and your families, to take part in our nation-building efforts. I thus call on you to … continue to make our country proud.”
Rodrigo Duterte President of the Philippines
Francis Tumpalan doesn’t remember his mother leaving home; he was only four years old at the time. What he does remember is being raised by his grandparents and wearing wrinkled uniforms to school.
His mother’s visits, which came once every two years, were bittersweet, he said — it always felt like “living in a fantasy” that he knew wouldn’t last long.
His mother’s sacrifices did provide him with opportunities. He went to college, though he says he spent more time hanging out with his friends and girlfriend than studying, and regrets dropping out before graduating.
Tumpalan is now 22, and his mother still works in Hong Kong. They talk every night, swapping stories about their days and about his young daughter, Phoebe. These long conversations have brought them closer, and help him understand why she left so many years ago.
Francis Tumpalan with his wife and daughter at home in Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines. Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani
“Mama’s sacrifices are worth it because she provided (for) my needs, but I dream of her to come home for good and hope that I can also give her a better life someday,” he said.
His mother declined to speak with CNN due to a busy work schedule.
Francis hopes his job at an automobile shop, along with the small store his wife runs, will earn enough for both of them to stay in the Philippines — and allow his mother to save money for her own return, now that she no longer has to support him.
“It’s difficult to grow up without a mother … I want Phoebe to grow up in a complete family,” he said. “A simple life is okay as long as we are complete.”
The dream of education
TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images
JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images
Despite the high unemployment rates for graduates, many Filipinos still believe higher education could help lift their children out of poverty. But it’s an expensive dream.
Affordable public schools are often chronically underfunded, so many parents strive to send their children to expensive but better-resourced private schools.
But there’s no guarantee that a degree can grant success and stability, as so many parents hope. Many workers who go overseas tochase this generational dream had high school diplomas and college degrees themselves, that were of little help in the job market.
Even Duterte acknowledged the hardships that pushed workers abroad in his 2019 speech, saying that one of his top priorities was to provide “sustainable work and livelihood opportunities in our country.”
Catalina Magno and her husband both lost their jobs in 2001, and watched their savings drain away over months of unemployment. Struggling to provide for their two sons, Magno found a job in Hong Kong and left the children, one and four years old at the time, with their father.
She had one goal — to earn enough to fund their education through college. It’s what “every mother dreams about,” she said.
But over the years, her children asked why she wasn’t home. When her son was six, he said, “Why do you look after other kids but you can’t look after us?” said Magno, who visited home twice a year — more than many other domestic workers can afford.
“I told him, this is a trade-off. If I look after other kids, I can send you to school, you can have greater education. But usually they don’t understand that.”
Magno declined to be photographed for this piece.
Her sons are 21 and 23 now. Both got into college to study engineering, as she had desperately hoped, but dropped out before graduating. Magno was devastated. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s tough, it’s very tough.”
One now works at a call center. The other is “working online,” but she isn’t completely sure what that means since “he doesn’t talk about it.” She still doesn’t know why they dropped out. Her relationship with her sons is still marked by a sense of distance and resignation.
When asked if she would have come to Hong Kong all those years ago if she had known her sons wouldn’t finish college, her answer was immediate.
“No, of course not,” she said. “My goal to go abroad was to earn money to send them to school. That was the only goal.”
The tragic reality
In a tragic twist, children whose parents work overseas may actually do worse in school, even if that education is a major reason their parents leave, experts say.
“The absence of mothers is consistently identified as having a more pervasive influence on the lives of their children,” the study added.
The researchers said some of these children end up failing classes or dropping out due to a variety of factors.
They may feel more responsible to care for their siblings in their parents’ absence, drawing attention away from school; they may feel like they don’t belong with peers; or they may simply stray from studies without the structure typically provided by parental presence.
Krizzel Orpilla was on a family holiday when she got her first menstrual period as a young girl.
Most girls turn to their mothers for guidance, but Orpilla didn’t feel like she could tell her mother, Divina Valdez, who had left when she was 10 years old to work in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“My mother was on vacation with us but I cannot really tell her because I feel like there is a wall between us, because she was not always around,” said Orpilla, who was raised by her grandparents. Instead, she sought out her older sister, who filled the gap and “acted like a mother” as they grew up.
Top: A photo of Divina Valdez, her husband, and their employers’ children in Taiwan. Bottom: Krizzel celebrating a birthday without her parents. Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani
The feeling of estrangement lingered after Valdez returned to the Philippines permanently in 2003, when Orpilla was about 15. But everything changed a year later, when Valdez was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I felt cheated because it’s the only time that she is finally with us — then the cancer happened,” said Orpilla, now 32.
“I can never leave my babies, I can never go abroad and be apart from them; I could never do what my mother sacrificed for us.”
They caught the cancer early and Valdez recovered, but the experience made Orpilla realize that she needed to “forgive her and be close to her to make up for the lost time.”
It was difficult for Orpilla to resolve the unfulfilled longing for her mother’s presence during childhood, especially since they aren’t the type to have heart-to-hearts. “We never really talked about it,” she said.
But living together, and having Valdez care for Orpilla’s own children, helped their relationship to heal over time. “When I became a mother, I realized how brave my mother is,” Orpilla said.
Divina Valdez, Krizzel Orpilla’s mother, never planned to work overseas — but as her kids grew older, she worried she wouldn’t have enough money to send them all to school, especially when the family farm flooded and cost the family its income.
So, she left the Philippines when Orpilla was 10 years old, and spent the next six years working in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Her husband left as well, finding work in various countries.
She missed her children all the time. But, unlike Orpilla, Valdez never felt like there was distance between them.
Divina Valdez’s old Hong Kong ID card from when she used to work in the city. Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani
“I wrote to them weekly and they reply,” she said. “When I come home, they always miss me.”
Her decision to work abroad paid off in some ways. With higher incomes and savings, the family was able to build a bigger home in the Philippines. More importantly, all three kids graduated college; the eldest is now an engineer, the middle child a teacher, and Orpilla is a nurse. Their success, achieved even without their parents by their side, made Valdez “really proud,” she said.
Now that she has settled back home and is cancer-free, Valdez enjoys spending time with her grandchildren — and closing the chasm with Orpilla she never realized was there.
“I make up for the lost time with Krizzel by taking care of her children,” she said.
The risk of exploitation
As well as their huge emotional sacrifice, Filipino workers in Hong Kong also often face gruelling – and sometimes dangerous – living and working conditions.
Domestic workers are legally required to live in their employers’ homes — a rule that many activists and advocates have decried as trapping women in potentially exploitative or abusive situations.
A domestic worker lost a legal challenge against the live-in requirement in 2016; she appealed, but the court ruled against her this September and upheld the requirement.
A survey of 5,023 domestic workers last year found that 15% had been physically abused during employment and 2% reported being sexually assaulted or harassed. Nearly half said they worked more than 16 hours a day; Hong Kong has no laws around maximum working hours per day or week.
Domestic workers in Hong Kong report high rates of poor working and living conditions
Source: Mission for migrant workers, 2019
Other complaints include not being given enough food to eat, not having a proper bed or privacy at night, and being asked to work on their days off.
But for some, the hardest part of the job is being separated from their children.
As a child, Vivien Leigh Ortiz was always envious of her classmates. They all had mothers at home, who attended school events and bought them nice clothes. Ortiz’s mother left when she was five, and she was raised by her father.
As she grew up, she got used to her mother’s absence — but childhood envy shifted into adolescent rebellion. When her mother sent home money for supplies, Ortiz would often spend it on food and drinks for her friends.
Her mother paid for college, but Ortiz didn’t put much effort into studying — she changed her major four times, dropped out at one point, and took eight years to finish her degree in teaching and education.
Only as she grew older, got married and had three kids did she begin to regret “all the time and money” she “wasted.”
“When I became a mother, I realized her sacrifices. I loved her more because it is hard for a mother to be separated from her children.”
Decades later, her mother — who declined to speak with CNN — is still working in Hong Kong.
Determined not to let her mother’s hardship go to waste, Ortiz is pursuing a master’s degree in education in the Philippines, with financial support from her mother. She hopes it’ll help her find a teaching job overseas and earn enough money to give her children greater opportunities — an echo of her own mother’s dream. Even if she can’t go abroad, the degree could still help her secure a better job in the Philippines.
“I feel that Mama’s sacrifice is still not worth it until I’m done,” she said.
She knows that leaving might be difficult for her children — but says “the situation is different” because she separated from her husband last year. “I have three kids, I’m a single mother and I need to support them … I want to give my children a better life.”
Allyn Alcala Frades found herself heavily in debt after graduating college. She’d wanted to be a teacher, but was unable to find a well-paying job in her Philippines hometown, and couldn’t afford to raise two children as a single mother.
So, two years ago, she followed in her cousins’ footsteps and found employment hundreds of miles away in Hong Kong as a domestic worker — a job that combines housekeeping, cooking and childcare. As she works, she thinks of her children.
“When I planned for their education, I (thought), what if they take higher-cost education? What can I give them if I don’t have money?” said Frades, 35. Her twin sons are only 10, but she wants them to have options — unlike herself, her cousins, and her sister, who also left to work in Hong Kong.
She sends home at least 10,000 Philippine pesos (about $204) each month — about a third of her monthly minimum wage salary.
Allyn Alcala Frades shows a photo of her children in the Philippines. Credit: Jessie Yeung
“Maybe if I can save up enough for their future, they won’t need to go to other countries to work,” she said. “If they have families, they can take care of their families.”
She tries to be there for them from afar. During weekly video calls, she tells them to brush their teeth and eat their vegetables, mindful that their father died of diabetes. Still, she’s sometimes hit with guilt that she can’t take them to school or cook their meals — all the things a mother traditionally does in the Philippines.
“But then I think, this is for them,” she said.
Israel Manuel was two years old when his mother left, first to work in Singapore then in Hong Kong.
He was raised by his father and grandparents — but despite the distance, he always felt closer to his mother. He was an only child, and loved spending time with her during her annual visits home. Once social media became widely accessible, they called each other every day.
Manuel’s mother played an active role in his life, gently steering him towards his studies instead of video games in high school. It paid off — he got into college, and is now a criminology student.
He also felt her presence through gifts. Throughout his childhood, she would send games, new clothes and toys like soldier figurines and miniature car models. This year, she bought him a real vehicle — a motorbike, as a gift “for being a good son,” he said. He loves the bike, rides it every day and often spends time diligently cleaning it.
“I feel that it’s a way for my mother to make me feel her love,” said Manuel, now 20.
But, he added, he hopes she will return home once her current job contract ends.