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Essay: 'Anak' and 'Distance' on Agency and the Filipino Mother in the 21st Century

As movies, Anak and Distance illustrate two opposite extremes of the challenging reality of motherhood in the Philippines.

Women should have choices. It is their choice if they want to go abroad. However, going abroad should not lead to their victimization and oppression. They are there because they want to earn a decent living and that should happen.

- Patricia Licuanan

In the transition between the third and fourth waves of feminism in the 21st century, the question of improving agency for mothers remains to be examined. In her article Matricentric Feminism: A Feminism for Mothers, O’Reilly (2019) suggests that there needs to be a kind that caters to the needs and wants of mothers themselves. Despite feminism's victories in various legislative movements, there has not been a directed focus on mothers beyond issues like female working rights, legalized abortions, and birth control in select countries, as well as the implementation of paid maternal leaves.

While there has been significant progress in liberating mothers in the West, as exemplified by the mentioned resources above, it is less compared to the prevailing limitations and experiences of mothers in the Global South. As the call for immigration rises with the fall of birth rates in developed countries, the Filipino mother faces a dilemma—whether to stay under battered economic structures or leave for better pay elsewhere. What happens when they choose the latter?

 Anak 'The Child'  movie poster
Photo: Anak 'The Child' by Toho Co. LtD

In director Rory Quintos' 2000 film titled Anak, Josie, the mother, faces the same dilemma when her husband returns from overseas after struggling and missing home. As reiterated by Tarroja (2010), the Filipino family is generally comprised within a nuclear setting, with traditional roles for mothers and fathers still likely upheld. With no other option to sustain their family financially, Josie decides to work as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. In the six long years since her departure from her family due to this, along with the death of her husband, strains in her relationship with her oldest daughter, Carla, have increased.

According to Parreñas (2001), the emotional stresses that transnational mothers experience due to distance include anxiety, helplessness, loss, guilt, and loneliness—all apparent in Josie’s psyche and behavior throughout the film. In the same article, it is noted how transnational family arrangements cause emotional and mental distress for affected children due to the absence of a maternal figure in their development. The intensity of distress is further contextualized by the prevailing attitudes regarding the difference in parenting styles between mothers and fathers, as reinstated by Alampay and Jascon (2011). Even in the 21st century, the role of the Filipino mother is still constricted within the confines of the patriarchy, with the domestication of the housewife being a key example.

The intensification of the distress and ambivalence experienced by the 'left behind' children results in the formation of resentment toward their mother, as per Graham and Jordan (2011). With the death of the family father, Josie’s children are left to fend for themselves with only a caretaker in sight for their youngest sibling.

The lack of a maternal figure in a child’s development has negative effects, which can be examined through the three siblings’ behaviors: Daday is initially overwhelmed by Josie’s sudden appearance and the information of her being her mother, Michael struggles to socialize with his schoolmates and confess his love for his friend, and Carla clings to vices and fleeting intimacies due to her anger towards their mother’s departure.

Participating in the international labor trade as a mother in the Philippines means choosing between providing financial stability that is often unattainable at home and leaving their children behind. Consequently, many Filipino mothers find themselves grappling with the decision to settle for domestic salaries or leave for better wages. This not only limits their agency in decision-making, presenting them with two extremes that both take away something essential, but also pressures them to focus solely on their identities as mothers.

By the end of the film, after the journey of confrontation and reconciliation between Josie and her three children, she returns to Hong Kong for work for the second time. While the family has rekindled their relationship, similar to how it was before Josie left, she herself is still not given agency due to the circumstances that forced her to leave again. The ending portrays a positive light on her relationship with her family, especially with her daughter Carla, but it also serves as a reminder that she is still in the same situation of separation and defamiliarization, albeit less extreme than before. This prompts us to ponder―what happens when Filipino mothers choose their own agency over their children?

In Perci Intalan’s 2018 film, Distance, Liza, the mother, returns to her family in the Philippines after spending five years in London. On her first day back home, she encounters a previously befriended old woman who questions her decision to return. Liza responds, saying that she has to, though her smile doesn't reach her ears. At home, her children—Karla and Therese—are confused about the reason for her decision, as both Liza and their father Anton kept it a secret. While Therese, the younger sibling, is eager to reconnect with their mother, Karla is guarded due to the secrecy surrounding her return.

As supported by Garabiles (2017), visitations by transnational mothers to their families are crucial to revitalizing connections. Liza attempts to fulfil her role as a mother after the long departure, but the gracelessness of her interactions with her family prevents her from truly rekindling a relationship similar to what she had with them before she left. Despite her efforts to maintain peace, Karla uncovers the reason for Liza’s departure after meeting Adi, a senior actor-member in the theater organization she is a part of in college. In a flashback, it is revealed that Karla witnessed her mother and another lover kissing, an incident that instilled distress in her younger self and continues to pose challenges to her current sense of identity.

After the admission that Liza abandoned her family to stay with her lover from high school during their last years of living until their death to cancer, tensions rise to a long-awaited confrontation. The film does not paint Liza’s decision in a favorable light, deeming it selfish to choose her lover over her legal family. However, as mentioned earlier, it has been implied by Liza’s interaction with the elderly woman that she feels restricted as a mother. From her perspective, she never wanted to become one, leading to her decision to prioritize herself.

While Liza’s choice to leave proved detrimental to her family, for her, it meant freedom—a conclusion reminiscent of Laura's in director Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours. It is a reminder that not all women are eager to be mothers themselves, and that motherhood should not be forced. While the plot of Distance is an extreme example of choosing one’s agency over their family, it sparks a discussion on the nuances of motherhood and its effects on both willing and unwilling mothers.

The pressures imposed on mothers from decades ago persist today, leading to challenging decision-making and a constrained sense of identity. The two movies provided serve as examples, with the first depicting the choice of family over self-agency and the second portraying the opposite. Together, they illustrate two extremes of the challenging reality of motherhood in the Philippines. Often, the pressures placed on mothers by prevailing social structures go unnoticed, allowing these structures to endure and perpetuate a state of ambivalence for the Filipino mother.

In conclusion, it is imperative to foster a more nuanced discourse on motherhood—one that transcends the romanticized ideals we often confine it to. The Filipino mother, undeniably a survivor and provider, deserves more than the roles society prescribes to her. She should be granted reprieve, freedom, and, most importantly, the opportunity to explore and connect with her other identities beyond her familial role.

To achieve this, a critical examination and reevaluation of existing social and economic structures are essential. The limitations on her agency as an individual need to be acknowledged and addressed. By implementing adjustments and cultivating improved cultural perceptions, we can empower the Filipino mother to authentically express herself and become the person she truly aspires to be. In doing so, we not only uplift individual mothers but also contribute to the broader transformation of societal attitudes towards motherhood in the Philippines.


About the Writer

A. L. Sarino is an emerging writer hailing from the Philippines. Aside from reading as a daily ritual, they take an interest in discussing prevailing social structures and injustices through literary film analysis. They study Creative Writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts and serve as a general editor at The Trailblazer Literary Magazine. 8Letters Publishing distributed their first book at the Manila International Book Fair in 2023. They can be found on Instagram at @a.l.sarino.

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