PERSPECTIVE: "[My children] are growing up without knowing me as their mother, without experiencing the love and care that I am giving to other people’s children whom I work for here in Singapore."
Three years after giving birth to her third child, Elizabeth Libre Gong made the difficult decision to leave her children behind in the Philippines and come to Singapore to work as a domestic worker. She dreamt of providing financial stability for them, to give them a better life.
In her essay "It's Not Too Late" — first published in Call and Response 2: A Singapore Migrant Anthology by Math Paper Press — Gong reflects on the sacrifices she has made as a mother who has spent most of her children's childhoods away from them, and the hopes that she has for herself and her family moving forward.
Call and Response 2 is an anthology that brings together more than 70 writers and poets, who all have different relationships with Singapore and the word "migrant", to cover topics ranging from homesickness to prejudice to romance to friendship. More information about the book can be found here.
Here, we have published an abridged adaptation of Gong's essay.
By Elizabeth Libre Gong
I am Elizabeth Libre Gong, 42 years old. I am from the Philippines and I have three children left behind in my country. I have been separated from my husband for ten years now.
This is a common scenario of a Filipino wife, to choose to work abroad to support their families since there is no work in the Philippines. My husband was not willing to leave to find work, so I made the sacrifice to be far away from my children.
I am trying to improve my life so I can provide for my children and so that I can be with them. I don’t want them to grow without my proper guidance and care.
Older sister worked so I could go to college
We were not a rich family but my father was a good provider and he always made sure that we would get all that we need inside the home in school.
In 1996, I graduated secondary school and that year too, Elisa, my second sister decided to work abroad because she wanted to help my parents to send me to college. She said my success will be her success too.
I was enjoying my studies when my sister returned for her first holiday back home in the last quarter of that year. But my happiness and school ended when she returned because she said that she couldn’t go back any more to work. She was pregnant!
So I talked with my parents and I decided to just finish the first year of my college then I will find work so I can also help with the expenses in our home.
In March 1998, I finished the one-year course and I started working in June.
Met my husband and had children
On the 22nd of February 2001, I met my husband through mutual friends. I was celebrating my 22nd birthday in our house when our common friends came together with him.
I got pregnant with my first child, and I gave birth to my first son on the 4th of June 2002.
On the 18th of January 2003, [my husband and I] got married and my mother was the happiest person on that occasion. She whispered to me, “Promise me that you will try to learn to love your husband”.
June the same year, my mother was diagnosed with third stage bone cancer. No cure, no chances even if she were to undergo a bone marrow transplant. The doctor said a miracle would happen if she lived eight more months.
In December, my mother passed away. The death of my mother was like having one of my feet cut off, I was so dependent on her. With everything I did, I asked her and considered her opinion. I now had no choice but to move on.
I still had my loving father and I had my son too. I tried to do what my mother had asked me, to learn to love my husband. So I did, the result was the pregnancy for my second child.
Three months before I gave birth, the company where my husband was working closed. The company paid him 25,000 Php (S$885 during that time). We were forced to move to his province in northern Luzon, even though I hated to leave my father.
We used the money he got from his company to start a small business, a small store. But it didn’t last for more than a few months, because all our expenses were more than our revenue.
Our move to Luzon was the start of the worst hardship and difficulties I have experienced and never imagined I could have in my entire life.
When I gave birth to my second son, the store was already closed. My second child didn’t get to taste bottled milk, wear disposable diapers, or even get a baptism. My husband earned 150 Php (S$5.31) per alternate day driving a tricycle (three-wheeled motor with sidecar).
I grew up in Manila, I’ve never experienced how to live in the provinces. I tried to learn how to live in that place. I learned to drive a motorcycle, so when the time my husband came back from driving, I could get his tricycle and ride in the street hoping that there would still be some farmers that wanted to sell their un-milled rice to town.
10 Php per sack of rice (S$0.35). I could carry seven sacks of rice plus the owner of the rice and earn 80 Php (S$2.83). I also learned how to harvest corn and tobacco leaves for other farmers. They paid me for 150 Php (S$5.31) for eight hours.
Without my husband knowing, my father also helped me. He sent a small amount of money at the end of every month. My father was a big help for me during my difficult days even though we were far away from him.
Worst financial problems of my whole life
January 2008, I gave birth to my only daughter. And that was the start of the worst financial problems I have faced in my whole life. When I gave birth to her, I did not have even a single peso in my pocket.
I had to deliver her at home, on my own, with no alcohol, no oil, no soap and no midwife to cut her umbilical cord. With the help of some neighbours, they called someone working in the health centres to check on my daughter and me. I gave birth to my precious daughter in this very difficult situation.
As the day passed, I whispered to my daughter that one day, things will change and we will be fine. I whispered that I will do everything just to give her a life, like what I had when I was still a girl and when I was still under the guidance of my parents.
Three days before my birthday, I received a heart-breaking message from my eldest sister, asking if I could travel back to Manila and bring my kids as soon as possible... my father had died. I felt that heaven and earth were falling down on me.
My father was gone! I did not know how I could live without him. Who was I going to talk with when I needed financial help? I could not ask my siblings because they also have their families.
My life was becoming worse and worse as the days passed by. I begged my husband to find work, find anything he could do for money to feed our family, but nothing changed. To be able to feed my children I started working in other houses. I would work the whole day and just got a salary of 150 USD (S$268.5 back then) per month.
Explored option to work abroad
I thought about working abroad so I could earn more money. I decided that I would just wait until my daughter turned three and started to talk before I would pursue work abroad.
In September 2010, I finally talked to him one night in front of my three sleeping children. I asked him, "Why don’t you go abroad to find work, even just for two years so that we feed our children and maybe we can save and we can start a small business again?"
His response was a cowardly:
"Elli, why don’t you go, yourself go abroad and work and I will stay with the kids and will take care of them like the way you take care of them."
After hearing his reply, I knew there was no way I could ever truly love him.
I vowed to leave and make the sacrifice to be far from my kids to give them a better life. I applied at a recruitment agency owned by our neighbour who was married to a Singaporean. My husband didn’t know anything of my plan.
In just three months, all my papers were done and I had an employer who interviewed me by telephone and hired me. My flight was on the 26th of January 2011, three days after the third birthday of my daughter.
One week before my flight, my husband still knew nothing of my plans. Part of me hoped that he would go find work or do something to support our family so I would not have to leave, but he never did.
Worked in Singapore to support children
My first year working in Singapore was worse than I expected. But I didn’t give a damn about the hard times and difficulties I experienced, because in my mind, I just needed to work and earn money for my kids.
I was working 13 days morning until night before being given eight hours off for Sunday. The employer would stare down at me while I was having my meals with them. They talked down to me and made me feel as if I was a beggar or rodent.
I was expected to cook and clean for them, but I had to serve their every need from bringing them water in the middle of the night if they were thirsty to taking care of them and cleaning up after them when they were sick.
I was willing to accept all this because what matters most to me was just to earn money for my children.
There were a few changes when I got my second employer in September 2012. It was a bit easier because they treated me more as a family member. But I was still given only a few hours off on two Sundays a month.
In April 2013, we moved and I stayed with them for a year in Egypt. Staying there turned out to be very difficult. My time was six hours later than my kids, so we communicated less. The telephone calls were too expensive for me to do so every day.
This was the year that my husband started to cheat on me. But the worst thing was, he started to ignore all the needs of my kids and was not taking good care of them. He started to spend the money that I was sending for my kids on himself and on his other woman.
I started to stumble. I was not focused on my work and was stressed.
Three months after my visa expired, I talked to both of [my employers], telling them that if they couldn’t process my legal papers or renew my visa I would have no choice but to leave them and go back to Singapore.
This was a very difficult decision because they really treated me nicely and I loved their daughter. I raised her as my own since she was seven months old.
Went home to Philippines
April 2014, I went back to the Philippines and took my kids from my husband’s province and moved them back to Manila. I had some small savings of 2,900 USD (116,000 Php, or S$3262.09). I thought I could start a small business again and I could cover all our needs.
I opened a small store using the money I had saved for the last three years. Sadly it didn’t last, running for just five months. Just like what happened before, the daily income of the store was too little for our needs.
So I decided to go back to Singapore in the last quarter of 2014.
I feared that the next time I came home again, with very little savings and no work in my country, the same thing would happen again. So I decided that I would just stay in Singapore and work until my children finish their studies until college.
I thought that as a single mother dreaming for her children to get a better life, having a good education and not struggling for any difficulties along their lives, this was the only solution to my situation. I was willing to work and stay longer in Singapore and be far from them just to provide for their needs and make their lives easier than when I was with their father.
I accepted the fact that I would not be a part of their growing years as long as they have all the things they wanted and needed. It was breaking my heart when I planned all this, because I knew it would be hard for me and much harder for my kids.
I had been looking to find a way to change the situation. I had heard from the recruitment agency that some employers are willing to sponsor their helper for their studies. So I planned to go back to school once I got back to Singapore.
Returned to Singapore to work and study
September 2014, I am in Singapore once again. My only option was to go back to the same work I had done before. I started to work for an Indian employer, once again having only two days a month off, having curfew during off day, waking up early, as early as 5:30am, then working all day as late as 11:30pm.
So planning to go to school when I have time off would simply not work. I looked but I could not find an employer that was willing to sponsor me or give me a day off weekly so I could go to school. Like what I did before, I swallowed my pride again as the important thing was that I am earning money and I can still send it to my kids.
May 2016, I finally finished my contract with the Indian employer, so I started to look for a new employer. I found a young British couple with a great offer, willing to sponsor me for study if I really wished to study. They would give me one day off every week and even public holidays.
They opened the doors for my dreams. I can say they are the angels that I was waiting for to guide me to the right path. My boss enrolled me in a charity school program exclusively for domestic workers run by Aidha (a non-profit organisation empowering women).
Aidha provides financial literary courses such as money management, computer literacy, leadership and entrepreneurship for us who have lower incomes. Now I am starting to build my goals, I really want to have my own business, back to my country where I can be with my children and take care of them. Studying in Aidha feels like a large step ahead for me.
I am also volunteering to assist some of the mentors in the school. I have also been attending some free seminars on how to save and invest money wisely.
I want to be there for my children
I really want to move forward with my life and work to the next level. I don’t want to be a house helper for the rest of my life.
I don’t want my kids to grow up without me beside them. I want to be there to see them grow up with my own eyes. I want to march with them when they receive their diplomas and certificates. I wanted to celebrate with them on their birthdays and all special days in their lives.
I can only do all these things once I reach my goal of becoming financially literate and business-minded and save enough money to start a successful business so I can support my kids and be with them.
I love my children with all my heart and more than anyone in this world, and it breaks my heart every day not to be with them. In the past eight-and-a-half years, I have only been able to see, kiss, hug and be with them for 14 days every two years.
I am doing the best I can, but I can’t stop thinking about the fact that they are growing so fast. They are growing up without knowing me as their mother, without experiencing the love and care that I am giving to other people’s children whom I work for here in Singapore.
I am writing this story to seek help from anyone who can help me to reach my dreams more quickly. I am confident that there are people or organisations that are willing to help a person like me with strong determination to change her life.
I want to learn more, I want to prove to all people who look down on me that I can change my status. I am doing this not just for myself. I am doing this also for my children.
Top photos courtesy of Elizabeth Libre Gong.