Tatay in America: From macho Filipino to Mr. MomBy Benjamin Pimentel
SAN FRANCISCO – One would hang out at a laundromat watching telenovelas. Another didn’t know the difference between a blouse and a skirt.
Meet the Filipino man as Mr. Mom. They cook, do the laundry and take care of their children. In other words, they don’t fit the traditional image of the Filipino male. Or more specifically, the macho Filipino.
The ranks of at-home dads, as Mr. Moms are also known, are growing in the United States, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. And they are helping change the parenting styles in America, the story said.
Reading that story led me to think of three Filipino Mr. Moms I know. They’re friends of mine, fellow expats now based in the US.
To be sure, in a society where having a maid is a luxury few can afford, Filipino men in the US take on far more parenting and household responsibilities than their counterparts back home. I went on paternity leave twice to take care of my kids. But those stints were short, each gig lasting no more than three months.
On the other hand, my three friends played that role for at least a year. For one of them, it’s turned into a life-long commitment.
It is, they all agreed, a tough job.
“It was easy when there was only one child, but when there was another one, it became difficult,” said Romel Simon, who took care of two little boys while running his own video production company from home in the Washington DC area. “As a new parent, sometimes you don’t really know what’s good for your kids. You trust common sense. … There weren’t any dads to talk to about child rearing at that time.”
So Romel read parenting books. But that also became a problem. Many of the books were not really written for Filipinos. Some of the stuff he came across turned out to be misleading. In one instance, reading a parenting book caused Romel to panic.
In monitoring his toddler son’s physical development, he became worried – his child’s measurements, particularly his height, fell below the standards in the book. So he turned to a pediatrician who asked Romel, “Are you the father?”
When Romel, who is not very tall, said yes, the doctor quickly added, “Then there is no problem.”
Female friends who were stay-at-home moms gave Romel tips. One of them gave him advice on “how to stimulate the kids’ musical interests, on what books her kids read, what fairs and special events are going around in DC” Romel described the exchanges as “basically, mom talk.”
“The hardest thing is the lack of social interaction with other adults,” he continued. “After a whole day talking to your kids, you’re eager to talk to someone your age. Of course, you are always excited when your wife comes home, but it also helps that you get out of the house and talk/interact with someone else.”
It was also the sense of isolation that was toughest to deal with for another friend. He asked that his real name not be used, so we’ll call him Rafael. He moved to the US with his wife in the mid-2000s when she got a job in Maryland.
“It was very boring and I spent all my time just watching TV and surfing the internet. By 10 am, I’m done with all the cooking and other household chores. We could not leave the kid with anyone when he wasn’t attending school yet. So we had to bring him with us in the winter dawn when I drove my wife to work. When my son attended school later on that made it even more boring since I was alone in the house.”
As he eased uncomfortably into his new role as Mr. Mom, Rafael turned to someone he knew could help him cope: his mom. “I was in constant communication with my mom too who helped me process these things.”
“The saddest days were the winter time when it was very dark and gloomy and very, very cold. But the loneliest part is the lack of human interaction that you get when you are working or studying. Nanghinayang lang ako. Here I was just a few minutes from DC and basically I had no choice but stay home.”
“I am a very sociable person and the lack of interaction killed me inside,” he continued. “There was no one to talk to. I dealt with it by talking about it with friends. But we could communicate only through cyberspace, so it was still different. Kulang pa rin.”
Then there was the task few Filipino men in the Philippines have to worry about: doing the laundry. That was Rafael’s job and he had to do it at a laundromat three miles from their home. There, he would meet mostly women, who preferred to watch telenovelas or ‘The View’ while waiting for the washing or drying to be done.
He wasn’t that interested in these shows, so Rafael would simply wait in his car listening to the radio while waiting. “But in the winter time, that was impossible to do, so I had to endure the telenovelas and ‘The View.’
The experience changed him, Rafael said. “This experience made me more sensitive to my son’s needs. I would prepare his baon, take care of his doctor’s appointments, give him his meds when sick, talk to his teachers in school, etc.
“Also, in the matter of finances, I would make sure that bills were paid on time and that our kitchen was fully stocked. So there was a reversal of roles in that respect too. Back home, I did not worry about those things. At first it was hard. But now, even with my job, I got used to it already.
“So, in hindsight this experience made me a better parent.”
My third friend, Jojo Abinales, also blossomed as a parent raising a child on his own – even though he was forced into that role by tragedy. Jojo’s wife, Donna Amoroso, died two years ago.
“I was at a loss (still am) as to how to raise a kid on my own,” he told me. Parenting with a partner is hard enough. Doing it alone can be overwhelming.
“The first year was horrible,” Jojo said. “Your natural tendency is to look back at how you were raised as a kid. And my childhood was not exactly that nice.”
Not nice as in discipline imposed with a rubber slipper or a belt and a household in which spanking was normal. “No conversations. No sitting down to talk. You just get yelled at.”
Jojo, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was already aware of this baggage when he and Donna were still raising their daughter together. In fact, Donna was helping him embrace a new parenting paradigm.
“I was still in the process of expelling these ‘habits’ out of my system with the help of Donna. But when Donna died, I had to do the ‘relearning’ on my own. Hirap. It was tough. No belts, no tsinelas, of course, because of what I learned from my experience. But to sit down and talk things through with the kid, that was the most difficult, and made more difficult because I was doing the job of two parents, not to mention attending to my work.”
The Wall Street Journal story said the growing number of at-home dads is leading to a new parenting style, one that is more masculine and more “hands-off.” An academic was quoted as saying that, “Just as we saw a feminization of the workplace in the past few decades, with more emphasis on such skills as empathy and listening, we are seeing the opposite at home—a masculinization of domestic tasks and routines.”
The paper cited another child expert’s opinion that “dads’ hands-off style tends to instill problem-solving ability, while the more engaged style typical of mothers often instills a sense of security and optimism.”
But the male parenting style described in the article didn’t resonate with Rafael. “Being a Mr. Mom made me more concerned about my kids,” he said. “I think that, as Filipinos, we are culturally more protective of our children.”
And are other hurdles for Filipino parents in the US Challenges, Jojo points out, that are not just cultural “but also political.
“We have to adjust not only to a different parenting culture — walang yaya or maid for example — then find a way to reinsert our own cultural habits into our children who have – because of their settings – increasingly very little to identify with the Philippines. Kung baga there is one more layer that we have to deal with.”
For Jojo, there is yet another layer to deal with: taking care of the needs of a little girl.
It has turned out to be a daunting challenge for a Filipino who grew up with two brothers and who spent his high school years in an all-boys seminary. Jojo readily admits, “My knowledge of the female so limited.”
Being a Mr. Mom has changed that.
“Biro mo, I came to know the difference between blouse and skirt,” he explains. “I thought the skirt was the top because it rhymed with shirt.”
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