As we look forward to celebrating Mother’s Day this Sunday, please remember there are many mothers in Singapore who are far from their children. Helper Novia Arluma explains what that feels like.
In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, we are posting a different first-person essay or interview each day this week. Today, we hear from foreign domestic worker Novia Arluma, who had to leave her 6-year-old son and 1.5-year-old daughter behind in Indonesia when she came to work in Singapore. Novia’s hard work and sacrifices have provided a better life for her family, but at what cost?
It is already many years ago that I first came to Singapore from Indonesia. I was in a difficult situation, and I saw no better solution in my mind. I had to support my two children after my husband and I agreed to separate. Just a year earlier he had abandoned us without any financial support, and I decided it was time for me to take responsibility for our future.
At the time my son was six years old, and my daughter only one and a half. I was merely a village lady; I did not have a good education. It is hard to get any job, let alone one with a good salary, for someone like me in Indonesia. My parents are farmers. At our family farm we plant coffee beans, bananas and coconuts to make our daily living. We have durian trees as well. I could have stayed and lived with them, but as I was now an adult woman with two children, I felt I needed to take responsibility for them myself. My parents had very little money; my kids had their daily needs, and there was also their education to consider. But of course they also needed the love that they should get from me.
It was extremely hard to choose: should I stay and look after them myself, take care of them with my love? They already had to miss half of that since they got no love or care from their father. But in the end I decided that I would make a sacrifice for their future. I felt I had to sacrifice my feelings. Because life must go on. So I told myself to be strong, especially in front of my children and my own parents.
After I left for Singapore we slowly adapted to our new conditions. In those days communication with family back home was not so easy. Time went by. My first job was with an employer without kids, and I just had to do general house chores, but at my second employer I had to take care of one-year-old twin babies.
I kept myself busy with work. Even though I was happy I could support my children in their needs, there were many times I felt empty. Here I was, looking after other people’s kids. I showered them, cooked for them, played with them. I even slept with them every night. From morning until it was morning again I would be there for those kids, even later when they started going to playgroup. My employer asked me to teach them how to count, and how to spell the alphabet. If they could manage that, they would raise my salary. I taught them with love and responsibility. It was a good job. But then I realised that I never had the chance to do all those things for my own kids. I missed all those precious moments.
I still go back to visit my family regularly. The second time I went home I was planning to stay longer, for several months, to spend time with them. My son was around twelve. But when I came home I felt at a loss. My daughter is a very shy girl. She did not talk with many people in my family except with my mother, her grandmother. And the worst thing was, she never spoke to me either. If she wanted to say something to me, she would ask my mother to say it because she was too shy to talk to me. It was the most painful feeling you can imagine as a mother, and I felt it was all my own fault.
Thankfully my son was happy to see me, he had grown so much. His attitude clearly showed that he wanted more attention from me, so I gave him as much as I could. But after three months I had to prepare to leave again. Before I left, I talked to my family, my children also, especially my son, who I thought was old enough to understand. But what he said made me realise that that had to endure so much without me. My son said ‘Mom, can you stay longer? You already left us for so long. And we have no father around, only you mom. Please stay a bit longer.’
I knew my parents were taking very good care of my children; my mother was a loving grandmother for all her grandchildren. I have five siblings myself, and my brothers’ and sisters’ houses are all side by side. They have their own families and children. But then my son said, ‘Mom, every time I come back from school or come back from playing outside, my cousins are welcomed by their mother and father. But for me, there is only grandma. And sometimes when grandma is at the farm, there is only the food on the table to meet me. It makes me sad. And once grandma comes back from the farm, me and my cousins all want to be with her, we all fight for her attention. Please mom. I also want your attention like other children.’
His comments made me realise that I had paid dearly for my decision to work abroad; their feelings had suffered. It was not just me that had made a sacrifice. I decided not to go again until my children would allow me. In the end, I stayed home for almost a year. I waited to leave again until my children, especially my son, could understand why I needed to go. He knew that I did not want to leave them, but that we had to live apart for their future.
Everybody was okay with my decision to work abroad again, and the preparations went smoothly until the day came that I had to go. My son skipped school and cried the whole day. My daughter went to a school that was near our house, and I went there at break time to say goodbye. She still never talked to me much. But then, that day, she cried and hugged me tight. I burst out into uncontrollable tears myself. If I could have thought of any better solution, I would have chosen to stay with them.
But day by day, life goes on, and my children are growing up fast. My son is 19 already, my daughter 15. They now understand why we have to live apart, why I have to work abroad. It is because of love. Because of my responsibility as a mother. Because I love them and I need to think about their future.
Novia has worked in Singapore as a domestic worker since 2012 and volunteers with HOME’s Sunday helpdesk supporting her fellow domestic workers when they have problems with their employers. She is also part of a dance group that performs classical Indonesian dances in Singapore. In the book ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’ she writes about her work with HOME and how it made her realise she has a big dream: to go back to Indonesia and help prospective domestic workers in her hometown by advising them about the dangers of working abroad, and preparing them for what is to come. That way she can continue her important work supporting migrant workers and be with her family at the same time.
Want to see Novia live? She is also featured in this film!