Everything I Learned About the Mommy Wars I Learned Overseas

It is time to broaden the argument over what makes a good mother. The dichotomy of working mom vs. SAHM means nothing to millions of women who leave their own children to work overseas.

Ilyn was my maid and nanny while I lived as an expatriate in the Middle East. A wisp of a woman who never stopped smiling, she helped me care for my son, cooked our breakfast and kept my house spotless five-and-a-half days a week.

Ilyn had two children of her own back in the Philippines, and she let relatives raise them while she and her husband worked abroad. “Was it hard to leave them, Ilyn?” I asked her shortly after she came to us. “Oh, yes, Ma’am,” she said. When I asked why, I already knew the answer: “To give them a good life, Ma’am.”

Before you judge me for having had a live-in maid who also doubled as a nanny, know this: expatriate life for westerners in oil-rich countries is cushy. You are offered a high, tax-free income; your house, car and kids’ education are paid for by your sponsoring company. It is a surreal life, to be sure. But you should also know that many people in the Gulf countries, even people in the co-called service class, have a maid-slash-nanny. In all, there are about 2.4 million domestic workers throughout the Gulf Cooperative Council countries.

In the Middle East they are simply called housemaids. Most are from poor South Asian countries: Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. International human rights agencies have had their sights on the GCC for years over abuses like forced labor, withholding of passports, beatings, sexual abuse and food deprivation. “With no labor law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women, ” said Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Over six years of living in the Gulf, I came to know many, many housemaids and their stories. Those who work for fair-minded families are relatively happy because they are treated and paid fairly. They are afforded vacations home and given internet and phone access. Others are trapped. They would approach my friends and me in playgrounds and beg us to send a taxi to their employer’s homes so that they might escape to their embassies. One came to my friend covered in bite marks, saying the children in the household had abused her. The employer came after her, berating my friend’s western mindset of being “too soft.”

I have seen some kicked by their young charges in the grocery store. I have seen sick and lice-covered runaways hiding out by the hundreds in embassy basements. I will never forget seeing one runaway who suffered permanent neurological damage: she had been hit in the head with an iron frying pan by her “Madame.” If this woman had gone to the hospital, she would be arrested for being a runaway. Suicides — some strongly suspected to be murders — are routine among domestic servants. Those who survive an attempt are arrested because suicide is illegal.

These stories aren’t exactly a secret to the women in poor Asian and African nations who come here. The home countries threaten labor embargoes regularly, but the fact is, the salaries of expatriate workers make up between 12 and 22 percent of their Gross Domestic Product.

While some women are pressured into working overseas, most are mothers and willingly choose the journey to give their children a better life. And it begs the question, what is a better life for our kids?

Ilyn’s children accepted her absence without question. They missed her deeply, but they were raised to look through the prism of education as salvation, sacrifice as love. They are thriving, and enjoying the benefits of a college education with professional jobs and children of their own.

Living without parents is within their realm of norm, and I believe that is true for all children everywhere. Half of all children in the US grow up with divorce, so isn’t that normal? Eighty percent of mothers work outside the home; why would anyone look at that as anything but normal?

Ideally, mothers are self-sacrificing: Some sacrifice a career, believing nothing is more important than staying home with the children. Others believe their kids benefit from a dual choice of career and motherhood. Still others have no choice but to work.

Ilyn had a choice. She could have stayed at home and raised her children in poverty. She did not leave them out of selfishness; just about every penny she earned went back to them, their college funds and their caregivers.

How can anyone say women like Ilyn are not good mothers? I think they are some of the best mothers in the world. Motherhood comes with some kind of sacrifice, and that is all that should matter.


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