MANILA, Philippines — As a mother, the issues that exploded and reached my office early in 2020 really hit home.
As we prepared for the 18th birthday party of my youngest daughter, I remembered Carina, the 15-year-old girl who was prostituted inside a Philippine offshore gaming operator (Pogo) sex den.
I recalled meeting 23-year-old Ivy from Taiwan, who was frightened for her life after being illegally recruited and held against her will. Then there are the child brides as young as 9, carrying their own children in their arms.
What woes their mothers must go through, seeing them carry burdens well beyond their years.
After closely watching my four children all their life, I was reminded that I was slowly letting them out into a world that is not always kind.
Although a mother’s worry never ends, I let out a sigh of relief at seeing how my kids Kiko, Issa, Ianna and Sinta have all grown into kind, wonderful people. As a mother, and even more so as a solo parent, I consider it as one of life’s greatest rewards.
I had thought that I would grow old with my husband Frank Baraquel, a captain in the Philippine Constabulary at the time when I was a peace advocate. We were best friends and married in 1990. In 2005, he suffered a heart attack caused by severe asthma.
The morning after
No one tells you what the first morning after the funeral would be like when your best friend had been buried, and the relatives and friends who had held your hand had left. There was no one to distract me and I woke up in what I felt was liquid gas or plasma.
No one tells you either what it’s like to be both breadwinner and homemaker, and to have to master both because it is often a matter of life or death. No one tells you what it’s like to be left alone with four children, including a son on the cusp of adolescence and a 3-year-old toddler.
One of the things that saddened me the most was when a friend told me that I could be my son’s father, but I could never be a man. It was one of the greatest pressures I felt, realizing that I would have to navigate who my children were on my own, while navigating who I was as a mother, and as a widow.
But there was no time for grief or worry. Wrapped in sadness, I went to the supermarket to buy groceries the next day and lined up at the bank to pay the bills. Numbed by grief, I took three of my older children to school each day and played with my youngest.
As a parent, there’s a sadness you must carry on your own, especially with four children looking up to you. Through those emotions that I had to sort out, I had to remember that my children lost someone, too: their father.
Frank’s death was so sudden, I couldn’t imagine how confused they must have been. I had to be my children’s North Star, even if I myself was disoriented.
Soldiering on meant jumping head first into the uncharted territory of raising four children alone. Soldiering on meant carrying on, no matter the weather.
One school year, all four of them were studying in different cities. That year, the Parent-Teacher Association meetings were happening all at the same time. As a congresswoman at the time, I also had a duty to my country. Being a mother and a congresswoman were jobs I had to perform optimally at the same time. I could not give one up for the other. Efficiency and organization became my best assets.
NOT ALONE AFTER ALL Frank Baraquel, a captain in the Philippine Constabulary, weds best friend Risa Hontiveros in October 1990 (top); the widowed senator (2nd from left) and her “life’s greatest rewards:” Kiko, Ianna, Issa and Sinta. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
But I could not be everywhere, and found it a challenge to balance work while physically taking care of my children. When he was old enough, my eldest son took the initiative and stepped up to take my daughter to school early in the morning, even if they studied in different cities.
As an Akbayan representative at the time, I would take my youngest with me wherever I went. When I couldn’t bring her with me, her brother and sisters would take care of her.
One time when I was working in the field and my youngest got an allergic reaction from her medicine, it was one of my daughters who rushed her to the emergency room. It was an Hontiveros-Baraquel family effort.
My comrades at Akbayan would also adjust my schedule as much as possible so that I could attend my kids’ events. I used to tell myself: “Political tasks can be delegated; but only I can parent my children.”
As sole breadwinner, I found that money woes were not far behind. I remember having to pay my son’s tuition in installments. My children’s godparents would lend me money and wait patiently until I could pay them back. Others even refused to take my money.
I was not alone after all. The cashier at my son’s school was as happy as I was when we paid his last high school installment. We celebrated together at that moment as she remarked, “Ma’am, you made it!”
Yes, we made it. My three older kids are now working and pursuing different careers. My youngest is now 18 and entering college in a couple of years.
Like a marathon
I now look back at those days and sigh in relief, like I’m on my way to the finish line of a marathon that used to stretch endlessly before me. I recall the anxiety and confusion of raising my children in their younger years. I recall how much I wanted to give them everything, but was afraid that it would not be enough, that I would not be enough. Could I fill in the empty space that my husband had left?
Looking back at these experiences inspired me (now as a senator) to file the Expanded Solo Parents Act, which will allow solo parents a parental leave of seven days a year, and entitle them to a 20-percent discount on goods and services in private establishments, the cost of childcare, and their children’s tuition. The law also mandates government and private companies with more than 100 employees to create day care facilities.
My friends, relatives and my children shared with me what they could — resources, wisdom, a hand and a shoulder. It was that support that carried us.
And as my anxieties have melted with the years, I share this hope with other solo parents — that they do not grieve in their solitude, but instead find strength and solace in the law.