I left my kids in the Philippines to work as a nanny in Toronto
In 2002, I was living in Muñoz, a city in the Philippines, with my husband, Castor, and our children, A.J. and Alyssa. Castor worked as a bus driver and a farmhand, but wages in the Philippines are dismal, and we could barely eke out a living. My cousin suggested I apply to work alongside her as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in Hong Kong. I’d always dreamed of living in Canada, and this experience would help me get a work visa. My kids were just two and six at the time. Leaving them would be excruciating, but they deserved more than a life of poverty.
I worked in Hong Kong for the next two years. Every month, I sent home as much money as I could—usually about $300, which goes a long way in the Philippines. I spoke to my family every day, but the distance was hard: my kids couldn’t understand why I’d left. I sobbed uncontrollably every time I hung up the phone. It was particularly hard to be away from A.J. He was just a toddler, and I wasn’t there as he learned to speak, or to see him off to his first day of school. I got through my pain by focusing on the future.
I applied for a Canadian visa as soon as I was eligible, and got a spot in the live-in caregiver program. In 2004, I landed in Mississauga, where I cared for two boys from Monday to Friday. I continued to call my family every day. Sometimes, I’d spend my last few dollars on calling cards instead of groceries. When my kids cried on the phone, asking why I’d left them, the only way to soothe them was to make promises. “Someday,” I told them, “you will live in Canada, too.”
Despite how often we spoke, Castor and I didn’t tell each other everything. When A.J. had to be hospitalized for asthma attacks, I found out only after he was released from the doctors’ care; Castor didn’t want me to worry. Meanwhile, Alyssa would cry herself to sleep, calling out for her mother—a fact I only learned later. I never told Castor how miserable I was without him and our children. On both ends of the line, we feigned happiness: the kids reported their good grades and I congratulated them. We never talked about our loneliness.
We found creative ways to keep in touch. As Alyssa grew older, we chatted over Yahoo Messenger to avoid long-distance charges. On her school lunch breaks, she would rush to the Internet café and tell me about her crushes online—the only semblance of a mother-daughter relationship we could muster while 13,000 kilometres apart. Castor often sent long letters meticulously describing his day. He would tell me A.J. and Alyssa’s shoe sizes, tracing outlines of their feet, and attach their art projects and photos. Through his letters, I watched my children grow.
After six years and bureaucratic wrangling, my family finally arrived at Pearson on March 9, 2008. As we left the airport, Alyssa and A.J. saw snow for the first time, and we all had a snowball fight. At that point, I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with my cousin at Bathurst and Roselawn. As we pulled into the driveway, Alyssa and A.J. thought the entire building was our new home, instead of the small apartment on the first floor. We put a bunk bed for my kids in the master bedroom, where Castor and I would also sleep, while my cousin stayed in the other room with her two kids. This was where seven of us would live out our new Canadian lives.
It wasn’t easy for my kids to adjust. Though they spoke English fluently, they were mercilessly teased about their Filipino accents. Alyssa often cried about how much she missed her grandparents and her home back in the Philippines. I also had much to learn. After six years away from my family, I needed to figure out who they were. Castor frequently had to remind me that the kids liked rice, not cereal, for breakfast. I relied on him to pack their lunches because I had no idea what they ate. I made mental notes each time I learned something new about them. Sometimes, going to work felt like an escape—I knew the children I babysat, but not my own.
We reconnected slowly: I forced myself to memorize all their favourite things and tried to attend every event at their school. When I discovered that Alyssa was interested in music, I saved money and bought her a keyboard and guitar; Castor helped her learn to play them by watching YouTube videos. When A.J. joined the basketball team, I took days off work to volunteer at games. Soon, the kids were opening up to me. After years of chatting about crushes online, Alyssa told me—face to face—when she found a boyfriend. We spent hours talking about him.
Today, we’re like any other Toronto family. Castor has a job at a steel factory, I work for March of Dimes, and we live together in a Scarborough townhouse. Alyssa is set to graduate from Ryerson, while A.J. finishes high school. As the children have grown up, they’ve come to terms with why I had to leave them behind. At her 18th birthday party, Alyssa made a speech thanking me for all of the sacrifices I made. “I wouldn’t be the person I am without my mother,” she told the guests. I was moved to tears. She finally understood.
Raquel Torres is a personal support worker in Toronto.
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