I was away for a while last week visiting Yolanda-ravaged communities in Panay island, the first among many I would be going to in the next few months.
I had never been away for this long—at least not since I became a single parent to my four kids nearly seven years ago.
Actually, they are really not kids anymore. Bea will be 20 next month, Josh is 18, Sophie will be 14 and Elmo 12 in July. So technically I have two adults, a teenager and a pre-teener.
The dynamics thus are different. Our situation was not a mom leaving her kids behind under the care of strangers. We do have our helper whom I asked to forego her day-off for that week, and an aunt who stays with us so she could be closer to her job, but their roles may be deemed supporting ones. It’s really a case of the four ones being left by themselves.
On the night before I left, I held a despedida dinner-cum-family meeting at Max’s. In between bites of our favorite sizzling tofu and fried chicken, I articulated my expectations of them in my absence.
Bea would be Sophie’s guardian. Josh, Elmo’s. Big Sis and Big Bro would be in charge - no ifs, no buts.
I discussed the dos and don’ts. I understood that the older ones --- young adults with interests and social lives of their own—also had their lives to lead. In my absence they just had to make sure that their late nights, if they had to go out at all, did not turn to sleepover sessions.
They should also make sure that the younger ones were productive during the day. Elmo would have his violin recital in May and needs to practice at least for half an hour a day. Sophie should have no problem being productive - give her a book and she’d be happy to sit in a corner.
Significant others of the older ones were welcome in the house, though of course under certain conditions. They know better than break my trust. Try me.
I told the kids that I was leaving some money, good to last a week, in a plastic envelope. I did not specify how much should go to which purpose. I left the disbursements up to Bea. “Channel me,” I advised her. “How would you spend that money if you were me?”
I had done the groceries earlier and had drafted a meal plan. Since he liked puttering about in the kitchen, Josh was given the task of either implementing the plan (just a guide, I reminded them) or determining what they would eat from day to day. He did not have to cook them himself; he just had to identify what they were and delegate the preparation to our helper.
And since she was auditor-elect of her student council for next year, Sophie was assigned to record how the money was actually spent.
On the third day of my absence, Elmo received a medal for deportment during his school’s recognition day. Ate and Kuya acted as “Mom” and pinned the medal on his chest. “Pictures, at once,” I badgered them. “And tag me!”
As a bonus, I later on gave my permission for them to use a hidden thousand-peso bill to order pizza to celebrate Elmo’s achievement. Josh whipped up a pasta dish to go with the pizza. Seemed like they had a feast—the 18-incher was gone even before they could take a picture and post it on FB.
On some occasions during my trip, I went on Skype with them. It was nice and I missed them dearly. They were all bunched up in my room, which has the aircon. Summers are when we all stay in one room despite the fact that we live in a three-bedroom townhouse.
I did not go overboard by calling and asking them how they were doing every chance I got. I wanted to create that distance so that they would be able to do things on their own with just a bit of guidance from me. I’ve never been much of a micro-manager.
The truth was that I was not worried about their not living up to my expectations. This confidence helped me focus on the work I had to do.
When I returned on the seventh day, Sophie showed me a piece of paper detailing how they spent the money I had left them. Everybody affixed his or her signature to the “audit report”.
I asked our helper whether the kids were behaved and responsible—aside from too much tv and Internet and boisterous laughter and late nights—and she said yes, they looked after each other.
Nobody’s perfect. Who’s to say the kids observed the timeout rules for the computer and the aircon, or that my room did not look like a refugee camp when I arrived, or that the groceries were not wiped out in record time?
Who’s to say that being away a lot can be managed without serious consequences to the well-being of the child, or that technology can ever be a substitute for actual facetime?
I knew this because I felt it, and because they later said...”so this is how children of OFWs must feel...”
I was glad I was away for only a while. I had just enough time to realize these kids, or at least some of them, are independent, self-sufficient, and are almost ready to strike out on their own.