“For me, love always wins—which is why I have three children with three different dads.”
This was how my mom began her speech during my sister’s wedding—tongue-in-cheek and irreverent, with the kind of wry, self-deprecating humor my siblings and I were raised with.
It was an apt opening, too, for the “wedding” we were in was one not sanctioned by either Church or State; it was a “commitment ceremony” that my sister and her female partner chose to undergo, to seal their love for and commitment to each other.
Mom was right: in our family, love always wins.
* * *
Biologically, my siblings and I are all half-siblings with a multi-cultural twist: my biological father is British, my younger sister’s biological father (whom my mom married and who gave us all his surname, Terol) is Filipino-Spanish, and our youngest brother’s biological father is Australian. Despite the genetic differences and despite the fact that none of her relationships with our fathers worked out, Mom raised us all as one tight unit. As far as we all were concerned, we are siblings who came from one womb; we were raised by one strong woman whom we will love and protect; and we will always have each other no matter what happens.
And even when we discovered that we (technically, just my sister) had a half-sister on our dad’s side (technically, just my sister’s dad, but we grew up with him as “Dad”, so this should simplify things), my mom welcomed her into our home with open arms, too. We had play dates and sleepovers, and there were times during our childhood when we kids would be happily playing in the room while our moms were chatting away in the living room like old friends.
Those early memories gave me a glimpse of the kind of woman that my mom was: magnanimous, forgiving, and very open-minded. For her, our dad’s past was really all in the past; what matters was that we kids grew up knowing each other as siblings and without any issues among us.
“None of you asked to be born this way,” Mom would say. “The adults’ issues are our issues—we should leave you kids out of it.”
* * *
In 2001, my mom had a series of mild strokes that had her (and me as her caregiver) going in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time. The reality of mortality dawned on her, and she called for a family meeting that involved everyone—including our dad’s partner at the time.
“If something happens to me, you’re going to have to learn to live with her as your dad’s partner,” Mom had told me then. “So she has to be part of the family meeting—and you have to build a relationship with her.”
It felt strange that my mom didn’t think it disloyal for us to spend time with our dad’s partner, but it also gave me a sense of relief. Throughout my college and early adult days, when I was getting really close to our dad and rebuilding a relationship with him, I also softened up on his partner and began treating her as a tita and a friend. There was girl talk and adult talk between us, and I started accepting that if our dad loved her, then we should at least get to know her, too. Knowing that this wasn’t a “sin” in my mom’s eyes lifted a huge burden on my shoulders, and allowed me to accept and love them all as human beings—and as part of a circle of love that, in the end, was going to be good for us kids, too.
The scenarios and characters have since changed, but those days taught me important lessons in openness, non-judgment, forgiveness, and compassion.
* * *
Our family has had more than its share of drama, but to me, what really defines us is how we turned a horrifying event into one of our greatest blessings ever.
In 1999, my then 16-year-old sister conceived a child out of one of the worst things that can happen to any female (and one that I wouldn’t wish on any human being, even as a joke). Our parents were outraged and heartbroken, but we did what we’ve always done in times of extreme hardship: we rallied together and made sure that my sister and her baby would feel our love and care when they needed us most.
The journey certainly hasn’t been easy. My parents lost the cases that they filed against the perpetrator; our family had to move several times in the years that followed that, to avoid being followed and harassed; and, in the meantime, we had a little girl to raise in a world that we knew was far from ideal. Through it all, my mom became my niece’s staunchest protector and her second mom.
When my niece was seven, my friends asked her who her best friend was. “My Mamang (what she calls our mom) is my best friend,” she said matter-of-factly.
At every point that my sister and my niece needed my mom, she was there. She was there when we needed to explain some of life’s toughest realities to my niece—when she finally learned about her birth history, her mom’s gender identity, and a host of other issues that must have been overwhelming for a child. My mom has been my niece’s dearest mentor and most ardent cheerleader, all the while showing us, her own children, what it means to always expand the heart’s capacity to forgive, love, and care.
Now that my niece herself is 16, we ask her what her friends think of her quirky “modern family.”
“They think we’re cool,” she says. I once asked her if she had ever been bullied because of her family background, and her answer had been, “I won’t let anybody bully me, Nini. Don’t worry.”
To me, THIS is my mom’s greatest victory: that our family has been able to raise a teenager with the kind of confidence and self-assuredness that can only come from a sense of security—despite all our issues and struggles. “It takes a village to raise a child,” a saying goes, and I know this to be true because of how my mom has raised us all and how, in turn, the whole family is working together to raise my niece.
* * *
“Different strokes for different folks.” This is how my mom would define her parenting style, and was her line of defense whenever I’d ask her why she’d treat me and my siblings differently. Instead of adopting the same parenting style and the same cookie-cutter methods to me and my siblings—and, now, my niece, too—my mom would always treat us as individuals and give us what she thought was best for us, irrespective of what the other family member did or had.
In hindsight, it was this respect for our own individuality that made us all the strong, driven, and independent people that we are today. Mom never lorded over us “because she was the mom.” She always gave us enough space to explore, learn, get hurt, get back up, and learn and explore all over again. She respected our individual choices and decisions, but was always there whenever we needed back up. She never said, “I told you so,” (that was most often me, the ate, saying it) but she would simply open her arms to us whenever we needed her. She is far from perfect—and it was, perhaps, her flaws, too, that forced us all to grow up sooner than later and be as independent as we could be early on in life—but she was always loving. Always.
* * *
Our family is far from the textbook-type of family you’d be proud to introduce to your parents. We would need more footnotes and disclaimers and would probably require our own user’s guide. You’d need to be more politically correct with us, even if we’re as politically incorrect as it can get, because we’ve shattered way too many taboos. But my mother has raised us all to turn our potential weaknesses into some of our greatest strengths, and if there’s one thing you need to learn about us, it is this: we probably love more deeply, more intensely, and more loudly and expressively that most families because in here, in our family, love always, always wins.