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Nina Nana Filipina - Michela Spiteri

This time last year, when Nationalist MP Chris Said proposed financial support for grandparents looking after grandchildren, I was somewhat piqued. Having paid for quality childcare all my mothering/working life, I’ve envied other working parents getting the same benefit for free.

I refer, of course, to their own parents being free (in the other sense!) to help out. Now while I’m sure many grandmothers and grandfathers do the job most willingly, I reckon an allowance would make them feel more valued.   

And why not value actual parents, especially those who are separated or estranged, who juggle (and struggle?) full-time jobs with full-time parenthood? Primary care-givers need to be acknowledged; and in cases of separation, contracts should definitely reflect, financially, who’s doing exactly what.

A parent may not be working, or may be working reduced hours, for a very good reason – childcare. Such a person will be collecting children from school, chauffeuring all over the island, helping with homework, and navigating impossible school stationery lists.

The same person will be feeding and bathing bodies, washing and ironing uniforms, and watching endless episodes of My Little Pony or Power Rangers. To top it all, there’ll be sibling rivalry to manage, mood-swings too. And finally, there’ll be tears to be dried and bedtime stories to be read. That’s super-hero stuff in my book. 

You can’t possibly put a price-tag on that sort of round-the-clock commitment. But if you had to, you’d be shelling out thousands of euros every month (if you had time to earn them). So yes, I do believe that the parent with the lion’s share of parenting, whose earning power is thereby compromised, should be adequately compensated. And I’m not talking maintenance, that monthly sum covering a child’s basic food, clothing and daily living. I’m talking actual hands-on practical support. 

You don’t realise just how valuable childcare is until you need it, or lose it. I was 26 when I became a mother. Today my son is 18 and quite a few inches taller than me. He’s an adult with facial hair who argues with me and locks me out of his bed­room, and that makes it even harder for me to imagine a time when I was unwilling to leave him, even for a minute, in the care of another person.

That’s motherhood for you: a 24/7 battle inside your head. One moment you’re fiercely protective and vigilant, leaping to attention every time you hear a noise (or don’t): next, you’re mentally exhausted, craving time and space of your own, and wishing to be anything but a mother. So you go back to work – or rather you have to in order to make ends meet. Which leads to childcare.

Those who look after our nation’s treasures – our children and our elderly – deserve to be honoured

Any mother will tell you that hiring the right person to look after your child is a daunting task requiring intuition, knowledge and compromise. The person you can trust with your most precious cargo is the person who will be a very important part of your life and with whom you will have to establish a very special rapport.   

There’s a reason – a very sad one – why I’ve chosen this subject. Yes, I was a single mother on paper, but I had the most wonderful co-pilot, a mother herself, to help me. 

Shirley Valdez, a Filipina 10 years my senior, came to Malta – and into my life – in 2002, with the promise of staying for a year or two and then returning. She stayed for 14. And although she eventually left my home and moved in with a friend who, by then, needed her more, she remained an integral part of the family. Shirley finally left Malta in 2016 and left this mortal earth just two weeks ago, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.  

People die every day. There have been many occasions when I have wanted to write about someone’s passing and didn’t. Grief isn’t an easy subject. But this time round I’m determined to enshrine the memory of this loving and very unassuming woman and put her right out there – on the pages of one of Malta’s leading newspapers. Malta, you see, was a country she loved and which she considered her home. It’s the least I can do.

Today, in townhouses, apartments, duplexes, villas, playgrounds and parks all over Malta, Filipina nannies are taking care of our nation’s children or looking after our elderly. And they are doing jobs that not many of us would do (or are even equipped to do). In 2016, there were 1,500 legally registered employees from the Philippines working in nursing or some kind of domestic service. That compares with 410 in 2010, an increase of 256 per cent in just six years. 

And yes, there’s a lot that can be said for people who make the life-changing decision to leave their own families and travel to the other end of the Earth to find employment to support the very families they’ve left behind. I can tell you it’s not an easy life. 

I could talk about Shirley’s qualities: her unswerving devotion to my son (and her own son); her positivity – perhaps inspired by her deep religious belief – also her innate sophistication, her courtesy and respect. I could tell you that, in 14 years, I never once heard her complain (I’d frequently wonder how that was possible). She was, in fact, always discreet and restrained (almost to a fault). That restraint was eventually her own undoing. She never told us how ill she was. She kept on working.   

Perhaps Shirley wouldn’t really like all the attention I’m giving her; but I’m taking my chances. Those who look after our nation’s treasures – our children and our elderly – deserve to be honoured. They have much to teach us too.

Shirley, rest in peace, somewhere on your own faraway island. Your life’s work is over. Thank you.

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

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