By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:06am (Mla time) 08/29/2008
MANILA, Philippines—Forms and more forms—such plagues in our modern life. To lighten the torment of these forms, I entertain myself with the possibility of answering "none" under "sex" and "many" under "religion." Lately, for my occupation, I've been tempted to write in bold capital letters: HOMEMAKER.
Why not indeed, being a single father? Some quick clarifications are in order. I am not an abandoned husband. I am not married to someone deployed overseas. I did not get anyone pregnant. I did not get myself pregnant. Two simple facts: I am single, sort of, and I am a father. Both happen, as it often does for men, partly by accident, mostly by choice.
Social scientists have a fancier term for "homemaking" and this is "reproductive labor," identified mainly with women. Part of it is biological, the term "labor" being an oblique reference to pregnancy and childbearing.
But the more important part is social: Women allow societies to reproduce and grow because of their vital roles around caring not just for children but also for spouses, and elderly parents, and in our society a whole brood of other dependents. A friend of mine spent the last few months caring for an ailing mother, while caring for a young son—and a pregnant daughter. She became a grandmother shortly before her own mother passed on.
Filipinas know reproductive labor all too well, now taking on the world's homemaking in a large way—as caregivers, as domestic helpers, even as wives, to non-Filipinos.
Life's many passages make "homemaker" an understatement. Childhood itself has so many transitions, each happening all too quickly and posing new challenges. We love it when a child begins to walk, then realize soon we'll be chasing after them. We're delighted when they begin to talk, and a few months later wonder why they never run out of questions.
Before you know it, they're in school, and your daily calendar is marked "hatid" [bringing] and "sundo" [picking up], from school, from field trips, to music classes, to the dentist. Single fathers are at a disadvantage. People are shocked when men plead, "Sorry, I have to get home. No 'yaya' [nanny]." They look at you, and go, "Don't you have a wife?"
I remember that when I first became a father, family friends were thrilled, but many would add, "Now you have to get a wife to take care of the children." Wow, I thought, so that's why men marry: to get a yaya.
I am deeply appreciative that being able to work outside the home while raising children happens only because there are people who help. The extended family works, although it's mainly the other women (e.g., my mother) who get conscripted. I'm fortunate, too, working with child-friendly work colleagues. I have colleagues in Thailand and in the United States, who "know" the kids, who chime in during our teleconferences.
Then there are the battalions of household helpers. Carrying a child around at family reunions has opened a new world to me, as curious household helpers interrogate me: What milk do I give the child? Is he in preschool? Why don't you have a yaya?
Inevitably, they open up, and talk about their own children, and I realize how we've cruelly wrenched these women away from their own homemaking. When I asked how old her youngest child was, one helper told me, "Four months." I was aghast and asked if that was the child's age when she left. No, she clarified, the infant was a month old at that time.
Another one told me how she had been married off — illegally, I realized, because she was only 14 at the time. She had her first child at 15, and another at 17. Her father married her off to someone who he thought was rich ("may kaya") but it turned out he was even poorer then they were. She was 18 now, and caring for her employer's toddler.
Their children are left in the care of the grandparents, or of a husband, often mentioned with much anxiety and with the most unflattering descriptions: "babaero" [womanizer], "sugalero" [gambler], "walang trabaho" [jobless]. I could tell that the 18-year-old, from her eyes, from the way she responded to people moving about, had fled to Manila, away from domestic violence.
Mu and Pooh
There's another angle to homemaking, and this is the difficulty of taking care of spiritual needs. I took up Zen meditation after becoming a parent, which means I can't join long retreats or sitting (meditation) sessions at night and on Sundays, which is the only full day I have for the home.
At home, there's the challenge of looking for the right time to sit, which often means before the crack of dawn, around 4 or 5 a.m. (depending on whether I have to do an Inquirer column), and even then, keeping one ear alert for the baby. With practice, I've actually learned to sit, at times, with children around. I confess I have to recruit Mickey Mouse and Barney and Tigger and Pooh for this, and it's not always easy turning the cartoons off in my mind.
But children, too, learn to adjust. When I fold up my legs into the lotus position, my son does too. He had once asked me what I was doing in that strange position and I replied, "muu," which is Japanese for "nothing," so central to Zen. So when he imitates me he also goes "muu," lasting a few seconds, and then goes back to Barney or to his bike.
I am learning, from mothers and from children that there are many ways to "meditate," finding many moments of peace in the homemaking itself.
My days of Mu and Pooh are full. I have no regrets about having to turn down invitations for dinner or a night out, an overseas lecture or consultancy. In fact, I've become almost zealous about my time for homemaking, learning from a pediatrician friend to gently warn people that weekends and evenings are private time, meaning no meetings please, and I can't answer e-mail, or phone calls or texts.
I know that what I'm doing horrifies conservatives who think it's unnatural for men to take up women's homemaking roles. I can understand those fears. As men take up homemaking, they begin to better appreciate, all too concretely, the range and importance of choices and opportunities in women's lives. Religions will be kinder and gentler to women (and maybe men, too) if more of its bishops and ayatollahs father—and I don't mean just biologically, but socially.
Homemaking is about visions for the next generation, about the kind of men and women we want our children to be. I know that if my son grows up seeing me as a homemaker, the chances are that he will define his masculinity to include joy and fulfillment from such "menial" tasks.
One time I was cleaning a small cut on my father's back and he came up, insistent about helping while offering some consolation: "Kawawa Lolo..." ["Poor Grandpa…"]
His Lolo was proud, asking him, "So you want to be a doctor someday?"
I thought, silently, "I'd be just as proud, maybe prouder, if he becomes a good homemaker."