Interrogating the politics of caregiving at a distance: Critical reflections on a seminar presentation
Over the past years I have been working on a research project that critically examines the role of ubiquitous smartphones, mobile social media, and mobile applications in shaping the conduct of transnational Filipino family life. In 14 June 2019, I had the privilege to present a paper entitled, Standby mothering: Temporalities, affects and the politics of mobile caregiving, in a seminar organised by the UCL Centre for Sociology of Education and Equity. The presentation was made possible through an invitation from Professor Jessica Ringrose, one of the co-directors of the centre. Professor Carol Vincent, a Professor of the Sociology of Education, was the reactor for my paper. The seminar was attended by students and scholars.
The Philippines is a labour exporting country. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), there were 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who were deployed in 2018. 1.28 were women working in various sectors, including education, hospitality, aged care, and so forth. The steady outflow of skilled and femininised labour is key to the sustenance of the Philippine economy, with remittances contributing to ten per cent of the country’s GDP.
It must be noted that much literature on the intersections of Philippine migration and transnational communication has centred on the ways through which Filipino migrant mothers use mobile devices to deliver care to their left-behind children. To date, little attention has been given to how left-behind mothers in the Philippines enact caregiving at a distance through mobile device use among their overseas children. My presentation addressed such lacuna, setting a vantage point to rethink the provision and complexity of transnational and gendered caregiving practices. In the presentation, I particularly highlighted how mobile caregiving was shaped by the entanglement of the technological affordances of mobile devices and platforms as well as stringent and pre-existing social structures and political systems. It is through this articulation that I coined the term ‘standby mothering’, showcasing how left-behind mothers were placed in perpetual, technologically mediated, unpaid, and ambivalent condition.
I illuminated the paradoxical consequences of mobile device use in the delivery of transnational caregiving practices among left-behind mothers in the Philippines. In this vein, I mapped out the benefits of mobile device use in caregiving from a distance. As presented, left-behind mothers utilised mobile technologies and social media platforms to access relevant information about their overseas adult children, which were then interpreted for decision making and deployment of care practices. Yet, as much as these mothers were given the chance to be a mother again for their distant children, they were also burdened with the tensions, frustrations and ambivalent feelings of tech-based carework. Here, I critically reflected upon such contradictory affective experiences as a result of the constant management of transnational connectivity as influenced by the overseas adult children’s work commitments and visa conditions, gendered and familial roles, and socio-technological literacy. It is through such point that I reiterated how family-based, femininised and unpaid caregiving at a distance can be used as a focal point in inquiring about the politics of care practices on a transnational and even global scale.
It was such a great experience to engage with the participants of the seminar. Professor Ringrose facilitated the exchanges of ideas, stressing the need to rethink the outcomes stirred by the entanglement of socio-technological affordances, gendered structures, and economic and political systems. Notably, some of the participants reflected on their own experiences of having a ‘standby mother’ in their lives. Here, the discussion uncovered the asymmetries of expectations that often engender and undermine familial mediated communication. I was also moved by the feedback given by Professor Vincent on my paper. She particularly highlighted how my work complemented Nancy Fraser’s work on the contradictions of capital and care. Professor Vincent’s feedback paved the way for assessing how social reproduction is constantly re-shaped and undermined by financialised global capitalism especially in countries like the Philippines. Nevertheless, the interactions in the seminar presentation provided an opportunity for pinpointing and dissecting the ironies, disruptions and marginalisation embodied and negotiated by left-behind mothers through mobile caregiving.
The seminar was fundamental in further developing the concept of standby mothering as symptomatic of a neoliberal agenda and gender-based inequality. In the context of the Philippines, neoliberal policies have not only paved the way for the proliferation of a distributed household or the transnational Filipino family. Paradoxically, family separation also cements pre-existing divide, hierarchy and marginalisation in Philippine society. Here, separation sustained through virtual connectivity becomes a source of commodified care practices, which fuel and even boost profit accumulation for multinational companies and the billion-dollar industry of Philippine migration. The flow of money transfer and care packages keeps the Philippine economy afloat. Sadly, it may also absolve the Philippine government in providing job opportunities and social welfare services to its citizens. Evidently, care denial from the Philippine state has led to the delegation of care responsibilities among Filipino women in the household, such as left-behind mothers.
I am very grateful for the opportunity provided by UCL. As an Early Career Researcher, the seminar fostered an important space for developing a nuanced and gendered lens in approaching mobile caregiving. As I work on the paper for publication, the inputs during the seminar were instrumental in strengthening the study’s key arguments. Significantly, a collegial and scholarly environment at UCL stirred a much needed conversation in interrogating and exposing the hidden ruptures experienced and negotiated by women. By foregrounding the pains and laborious coping mechanisms managed by left-behind mothers in the Philippines in delivering mobile caregiving, the presentation demonstrated a critique of social systems, processes and mediated connections that often disempower and exploit women in a networked and global society.
Dr Earvin Charles Cabalquinto is a Lecturer in Communication in the School of Communication and Creative Arts (SCCA) at Deakin University. He was a Visiting Scholar in the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) in June 2019. He is also a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. His research lies at the intersections of digital media, mobilities and migration.