“Can’t do it without my mobile phone”: Transnational mothering and telecommunication

Four years ago, Odalia and I chit chatted about the amazing and intensive use of mobile phones of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. They were always seen on the phone or texting messages on public transportations, in markets, while picking up employers’ kids from schools, and walking employers’ dogs in the neighborhoods. We were fascinated and puzzled by their intensive use of mobile phones. This becomes the starting point of our research on transnational mothering and telecommunication.

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Foreign domestic workers have a fairly long presence in Hong Kong. The earliest group of foreign domestic workers came from the Philippines in the early 1980s, followed by those from Indonesia and Thailand, and lately from Bangladesh. By 2012, over 300,000 foreign domestic workers worked in Hong Kong, with the majority being female. Many are transnational mothers who have to leave their children behind in their home countries.

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Filipina domestic workers have been a dominant group of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong for almost three decades. Out of the curiosity of their mobile phone usage and with research interests in their mothering practices, we started a project on transnational mothering via telecommunication in 2009. From May to August, 2010, we interviewed 27 Filipina domestic workers at various places in Hong Kong, from the crowded boarding houses in Jordan, to the parks and squares in Central, and the beautiful seashore in Sai Kung. These mothers happily shared their mothering experiences with us, but broke into tears when talking about the difficulty of mothering from afar. The importance of mobile phones in helping them perform maternal duties is crystal clear in their descriptions, as one of them said, “I don’t know how I could survive without a mobile phone.”

From these rich, vivid stories of how transnational mothers use mobile phones to provide emotional support and moral discipline to their children, we discover three differentiated patterns of transnational mothering via telecommunication. In our study, nine mothers adopt intensive mothering. These dedicated, hands-on mothers are actively involved in every aspect of childrearing despite their physical absence. Thirteen mothers use collaborative patterns. They closely work with the substitute caregivers (many are fathers) of their children and attempt to achieve a relatively egalitarian arrangement of child care with their left-behind husbands. Five adopt passive mothering to avoid the pain and frustration they experienced in transnational mothering. Their diversified, impressive experiences inspire us to reflect on the double duties (or burdens?) of transnational mothers and rethink the question asked thousands of times by feminists: how far are we from gender equality in child care, both ideologically and practically?

By Yinni Peng and Odalia M.H. Wong on their article, “Diversified Transnational Mothering via Telecommunication: Intensive, Collaborative, and Passive,” published in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society.

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One thought on ““Can’t do it without my mobile phone”: Transnational mothering and telecommunication

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