03/10/2014 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Children They Left Behind

The day that some important people came to visit my community center, nine-year-old Ricardo buried his face into my stomach.

Now, this was not typical Ricardo behavior. During my experience in the Peace Corps Paraguay, Ricardo and his twelve-year-old brother Manuel have run on the roof of our community center, thrown mud at me, pricked my teenage students repeatedly with a needle, set my computer class on fire, dumped handfuls of ant eggs on my head, and touched me in very inappropriate ways. But anyway, that day, Ricardo was hugging me. And I hugged him back, because God knows that life couldn't have been easy for this kid.

"Oh, look at that," said the nicely dressed Paraguayan man, taking a picture of the barefoot child attached to my waist. "Seguro que no tiene mamá." He must not have a mother.

Ricardo squeezed me a little tighter. And I squeezed Ricardo a little tighter, fighting the urge to walk the child away from whatever fragment of cruelty flew at him next. Instead, I glared at the important man and waited for him to understand his faux pas. But I guess he didn't, because his next step was to ask the child directly if he did, in fact, have a mother.

The answer is yes, Ricardo does have a mother, but he doesn't really remember her because she moved to Argentina years ago. Like so many other residents of third world countries, Ricardo's mother was forced to choose between the meager employment options available to her in her community and higher-paying work in a more developed country. But choosing to move abroad comes with an enormous emotional trade-off; her children would grow up without a mother.


What does this mean for families like this one? With money coming in from abroad, they tend to be somewhat more economically stable than other households in my barrio. Still, as one young woman explained to me, "The children get money, money, and more money from their parents. They have everything they need... except for love."

The children in my community miss their mothers. They show me pictures if they have them. When we share our dreams, they state quietly that their dream is to move in with their mother. Sometimes they tell me that she is coming home that week. And then they are hurt, again and again, when she doesn´t.

The relatives who raise the children left behind are well-intentioned but cannot replace real parents. They do not want to deal with the many disciplinary issues or the failing grade in math. They have their own work, their own children to raise. This child is not their child. They host the children in their home, and that is the extent of their responsibility. As The Global Report on Migration and Children discovered, "when both parents migrate, caregivers are not always adequate for parental guidance" and this lack of parenting has "negative impacts on school performance and psychological wellbeing."

This is the reality of the first link of what has been called the "global care chain": a nanny leaves home to care for the children of another woman who leaves home to care for the children of a family in a first world country. In her article, "The Nanny Chain," Arlie Russell Hochshild asks some disturbing questions: "Is time spent with the first world child in some sense 'taken' from a child further down the care chain? Is the Beverly Hills child getting a 'surplus' of love, the way immigrant farm workers give us surplus labor? Are first world countries such as the United States importing maternal love as they have imported copper, zinc, gold, and other ores from third world countries in the past?¨

For me, this concept is very troubling. As a child, I felt very close to my housekeeper Lorena. My sisters and I played with her constantly. She taught us a few words in Spanish and bought us presents for our birthdays and other special occasions. I knew that Lorena had left three boys back in El Salvador, but it never occurred to me that the time and love I shared with Lorena came at their expense. Guilt, guilt, guilt.... Are there no bounds as to what we the privileged can take from those with fewer resources? Should we feel some accountability in the fact that we are a link in the chain and therefore a part of the problem? Or is it not our fault, it's no one's fault, injustice is the way of the world and why should it be our problem if we were lucky enough to be born in the richer part of it?

Separated from their mother in my community in Paraguay, Ricardo and Manuel are allowed to roam the streets barefoot. They are known for being abusive to animals and other children. They were expelled from their elementary school and neither can read. Their grandmother has told me that they act up worse every time their mother calls, and that even their older sister Monica refuses to bathe or go to school sometimes for weeks afterwards.

But the deep emotional impact caused by the absence of one or both parents affects more than just the individual family; it affects the entire community. The behavior of these two kids has driven away so many children from my community center that the parents' commission has had to meet about the problem. But more than that, when those two kids draw penises on the walls, beat up other children, or chase little girls screaming that they will rape them, they draw in other children. They create abusers and victims. They create a culture of violence in the schools and streets of Paraguay.

The choice between economic stability and social stability is not one that any parent should have to make. But in order for them to not have to, we need economic development on a mass scale, an initiative that is usually out of the hands of community-based Peace Corps Volunteers. But besides for grassroots economic development projects, there is another thing that volunteers can do to make a world of a difference to the children who stay. As The Global Report on Migration and Children notes, although all over the world, "There is growing concern with the situation of children in left-behind households. There are no systematic government interventions to buffer the consequences of migration." The programs that do exist "lack clear objectives, financing, and trained personnel."

While not usually targeted specifically at the children of migrated parents, Peace Corps activities for kids and teenagers are initiatives that can fill this void. While the actual material we teach is definitely important, the social fiber we create by supporting our youth and fostering youth-youth relationships is equally as important, if not more. These programs don't substitute for the presence of an actual mother, but it does begin to provide the guidance, care, and love that the kids used to have but was exported.