I asked my mother if there were any fairy tales she had grown up hearing.
She responded with a sharp – No.
Disappointed in her response, but knowing that this was her story, not mine to tell,
I let it go.
My mother has often been a woman of many words, and I have recently learnt to truly hear them. Words spiral out of my mother’s mouth as she shifts between mother tongue and languages of learnt speech as effortlessly as the sun rises each morning. Yet despite all the words she’s had to give, I’ve never known my mother’s favourite colour or favourite food. As a child, I assumed she never had one. Now at 56 and still working as tirelessly as ever, her worth has been measured by her role as a wife, a mother, a nursing assistant, her entire life built on servitude. It’s only as her own children leave the nest and take flight that she learns how much her own wings have been clipped when she attempts to fly.
My mother is 4’11”, Filipino, hardworking and meticulous, seldom taking a moment to put up her feet. She was born to a family of rice farmers in the village on Antique, Tibao moving to Talisay, Cebu in her adolescence. My mother’s tiny frame curls even smaller when she bends down to help others to their feet, namely the three children she birthed and raised in the suburbs of Melbourne. She has fire in her voice when needed, a gift I have gracefully inherited.
One memory stands out from my childhood involving my mother: I ask her how my parents came to choose my name. I don’t remember the answer. I do remember, however, that she told me she would have liked to have called me ‘Cinderella’.
She said as a young child she often felt like a maid as she attended to the never-ending demand of domestic work, and when she soared continents and nested a new home in Australia, she found herself doing much the same. At the time, I didn’t truly understood what she meant. As a small child, a first generation migrant, the disparity in choice, opportunity, and privilege my migrant parents had graced me with was unbeknown to me. The only homage I have payed to Cinderella is my own extensive shoe collection, my ode to Imelda Marcos herself.
The plight of women like my mother is not uncommon. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild explore this in their book Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. This provocative text explores the way in which mass migration and economic exchange of a globalised world affects women working in domestic services. Many women from the Global South are fulfilling domestic service roles in the developed world to appease the desires of the affluent West. As the position and opportunities available to women continue to steadily increase in the West, this is not necessarily a global phenomenon. While growing prospects mean that migrant women are able to better financially support their families than if they were teachers, and nurses back home, it does not discount the love and devotion that could be provided to their own children left back home that is now being diverted to the children of women in the West.
There is a secret love affair between the Global South and the affluent West, that does not openly proclaim the commodification of women in a globalised world. Perhaps there is shame in admitting this reality. One particular example from the text stands out – a woman named Josephine who has worked in Greece for many years as a nanny. Born in Sri Lanka, the woman has sent money back to her homeland to support her children’s schooling. She has only had the chance to return home to Sri Lanka twice. The consequence of this has been her own children, namely her oldest, have been acting out, as she attends to disciplining and nurturing another woman’s child on the other side of the world. In a world where women of the West are having doors opened and expectations raised, often it takes the love and nurturing of someone else to fulfil the impossible demands imposed upon women today who are expected to ‘do it all, have it all.’
In the first chapter of Ehrenreich’s Global Woman, parallels are drawn between experiences by women from both the Philippines and Sri Lanka. When I first came across this, the comparision caught me off guard. Born to a Filipino mother and a Sri Lankan-born father, this was the first time in all my 23 years that I had ever seen these two cultures described in the same sentence other than in describing myself.
Named after my father’s family servant, I wondered if, while not being called Cinderella, perhaps it was by way of name and culture that I too had taken up a life of servitude. I work professionally as a social worker and spent my university career in roles of mentoring, facilitating and training. I tell myself that I do these things because I want to. Perhaps it is because I feel that this is the role that I am meant to play.
Next month my mother shall be heading to a ball. She asked me if she could borrow one of my tiaras. I realised that my once-thriving collection is now almost barren, an attempt on my part to rid myself of the unnecessary lavishness I feel I don’t deserve. Perhaps I have begun to morph into the Global Woman Ehrenreich describes in an attempt to find home. I now realise that it does not have to be this way.
My mother may be wife, mother, and nursing assistant, but she is also woman, spirit, fire, and queen.
She is both the Cinderella who hems the dress and scrubs the floors, and the woman who dances till midnight, the belle of the ball in sparkles and silk. When she does head to the ball, which I am adamant she must do, she will wear my tiara, and she will dance the night away.
The woman who gives so much of herself to serve those around her shall regain her title as royalty, though she may only allow herself to wear her crown for just a moment. I shall be her fairy godmother and the songbirds will remind her that she too may take flight in her own Cinderella story. Like a glass slipper that finds the woman who never stays away from her work too long, allowing people to recognise her royalty, in this moment, will be the right fit.