*Posted with Lyn’s permission*
It is the stuff that Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott Novels are made of; female camaraderie and companionship woven into the complex fabric of women’s private and public lives. The way women raise up a community and how communities of women raise each other up. This week, I am staying at my friend Lyn’s family home. It is located in Luna, La Union, a small town by Pilipino standards (2010 population: 35 300, according to Wikipedia). It is fairly remote: it has no internet access, intermittent electricity and non-potable running-water. It is surrounded by jungle and the rocky coast of the South China Sea. It is an hour away by motorcycle from the official bus route. Lyn’s household rests in the middle of family-owned land. The extended Bautista family lives on this long strip of land, in houses of concrete and perpetual opened gates. Everyone visits everyone else on a daily basis.
This particular family home owned by my friend, and where I spent last week, feels like a micro cosm of this aforementioned view into the private lives of women. The only man who seems to exercise a real presence in this house is Monica’s husband. Monica is Lyn’s eldest daughter. As one of the youngest adults in the house (at age 20), his authority over the women of the house is non-existant. He contributes to child rearing with his wife and happily plays with all the extended Bautista family kids who spend their days at the house. He may not contribute to household chores quite as much as some of the women, but it feels as though this is more a product of his age and being an overwhelmed young parent, then his masculinity. But enough already about the one guy.
This house is filled with women; the three women who live there permanently (Lyn’s aunt, Lyn’s sister and Lyn’s daughter); Lyn, who owns the house (visiting regularly from Canada) and the neighbouring Bautista women who come in and out of the house with their kids. These visiting aunts, sisters, cousins, cook and clean together. They care for each other’s many children. Most of all, they gossip and build for each other a world of mutual support and unconditional love. None of them are rich, but it seems that in pooling resources and sharing intimate secrets, all are able to come together, ensuring every one has what they need-weather it involve physical goods or emotional and spiritual support. Older daughters take care of their younger siblings and all kids grow up together as kin so that they will never be alone in the world. This, I believe, is what women bring into the world and to their loved ones; a strong sense deriving from this love, that you will never be totally alone in the world. This love, then, indubitably marks you as having a singular place, a role to play in the world-as if a woman’s love bookmarks an interstice in the universe, reserving it just for you. It makes you want to live a life that will make you worthy of that woman and her love.
That isn’t to say things are easy at the Bautista household. These women sacrifice hugely for their families. Some, like Lyn, make the ultimate sacrifice of leaving their children and loved ones behind to go work abroad, in the hopes that this sacrifice will pay off. Possibly one of the few reassuring things then, while they are abroad, is knowing their children are being cared for by a community of strong caring women whom are trusted and loved.
Sometimes, conflict arises. I did witness one such instance. But then, women sat in a circle on one of the beds and calmly named their truth, sharing with compassion and love, trusting that a solution could be found. I’m not suggesting that real conflict and more lasting ruptures don’t happen. I am sure they do. My sense is though, there’s an emotional wholesomeness to this home that women are perpetually building. My body understands it better then my conscious mind-I could feel through the relationship dynamics here that growing up in such an environment would equip you well for adulthood. It’s multiplicity of loving adults available for parenting would promote secure attachment and ready progeny to face hardship and responsibility, progressively and in age appropriate ways. I see younger women of the family surrounded by strong female role models to pick and choose from, I see older children asked to help out in increasingly mature ways so that they may learn child care, house keeping, skills and trades in a secure environment.
This is wholly different then what I grew up with in middle-class North America. As a child, your parents are completely dedicated to you. As such, you are given very few real responsibilities. Then, “suddenly” you are off to college are you are on your own, often ill equipped to deal with this load of new responsibilities. For me, it was a shock to the system. Often, young adults sent off to university do not quite possess the skills to manage without panic. This is a recipe for unhappy and poorly grounded adults who are left to manage their mental and emotional health alone.
Where I am from, there also is a certain prejudice against women who stay at home to care for their children. In Luna, I sense nothing could be further from the truth. I sense that here, Men and other women don’t expect women to do household work despite a failing to recognize it a work (as seems to be the crux of the matter in North America), but specifically because household work is work, and every one must contribute labor towards upholding the home. Women do so by caring for the children and household chores.
Of course, there is the issue of choice. There is a profound unfairness about not being to choose your occupation and weather or not you would like to be the primary caregiver. I’ve also been thinking about this in complex ways, but it is not what I wanted to write about. I am noting it here, however, in order not to completely invisibilize it. But I digress.
This, this is a house that women built, no man has more authority within it’s walls then any of the women who have built it; quite literally. Lyn had it constructed with the money she earned abroad. She paid men to build a home which women run and administer. I have spent my week here playing with children and hearing women speak freely about their hardships, periods, joys and the hacks of motherhood.
At home it isn’t always easy to feel pride in being born female when constructs around femininity are so obviously negative. Here, I am gaining some much needed pride in femininity and even, traditional gendered work and roles. Which, even though we like to pretend have been abolished in North-America, endure in the most insidious ways. Maybe then, the lesson of my week is: “pretending” none of this exists, results in our being alone with burdens no one cares to acknowledge, while making truths surrounding gender roles explicit possibly encourages celebration and mutual support.