THE WOMEN IN MY FAMILY BIRTH THEIR GHOSTS
Feature photo by Kaylyn Mok
My family's demons, unattended to and uncared for, reproduce themselves generation after generation. And that is why I will never have a child.
ELIZABETH RUTH DEYRO
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
There was never a time when I truly saw myself becoming a mother, even when everyone else around believed I’d one day inevitably bear a child, as though parenthood had been written in the stars for me. To be fair, most Filipinos do tend to think it is a fundamental part of life—an absolute, never an option.
I’ve spent at least a good decade juggling unsolicited nuggets of wisdom from adults, even strangers I just happened to come across at random. In my younger years, new at the realm of teenage life, the advice was typically about boys and pre-marital sex, which, looking back now, is as inappropriate as it was uncomfortable. When I reached my 20s, the advice skewed to childbearing, being told I was ripe enough to hatch an offspring, and that one day I will—because I should. That maybe that one day can be next week.
In my first semester at graduate school, I assisted in a study on teenage pregnancy for which I met girls not even over the age of 18 who actively sought pregnancy at such tender ages. Similarly talked into the idea of childbearing as the ultimate purpose of a woman, these young girls believed that children will complete their being, and having them early meant early accomplishment.
Today, my mother still thinks that family planning is futile, as pregnancies “should not be planned at all,” and I am still left wondering whether having me was a happy accident or one that quietly crushed certain dreams.
I grew up as the firstborn in a typical, lower-middle class household in the outskirts of Metro Manila. I learned to care for a child at the age of five, when I welcomed my baby brother into the family. By the time my mother had my sister when I was 11, I was already a pro. I knew the proper way to hold a newborn baby. I knew how to prepare her milk, clean her up. Clearly, motherhood was poised to be some highly anticipated culmination to my existence, and I was supposed to spend my entire life preparing for it.
Despite knowing this all along, I never realized just how conservative the family really is until I left to attend a state university for six years, predictably radicalized by freethinkers I met in classrooms and out on the streets. Developing left-leaning, progressive ideals meant I’d become some sort of black sheep to the family. Dinners grew awkward when Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential seat and half of the household, comprising the eldest members, approved his unorthodox, corrupt, and heavily lascivious ways of running a nation. They became harder to get through when I stopped practicing religion altogether in a home with at least two altars for the Catholic saints. When I became a feminist, the women of the household did not retract sexist remarks even at the face of confrontation. Through years of being outnumbered (as my allies are but my under-aged siblings), I learned to make peace with the fact that sometimes dated principles can be wrinkled but never poked through. And so I settled with quiet coexistence with my bloodsake whose politics I do not agree with, and in a largely unspoken sort of compromise, they did the same.
Except for one catch: I was still expected to bear children for the sake of continuing a ‘legacy,’ as if my family had enough generational wealth and social capital to build one in the first place. My mother, in a half-meant jest, even demanded an exact quantity: three grandchildren from me, and the same number from each of her other children. I am now 23. I am a full-grown woman with a Bachelor’s degree who’s no longer 100% financially backed by the family, which means that these jokes casually thrown at my siblings become more intentional when addressed to me. Balang-araw, magkakaro’n din kayo ng sarili ni’yong mga pamilya ("Someday, you all will have a family of your own"), I’d always hear, so much so that I am now repulsed by the overuse of the phrase ‘pag nagkaanak ka ("when you finally have a child").
And I’ve tried to be vocal about the honest truth that I have no interest in raising a child, much less three, but my reasons are often dismissed as temporary notions hatched by immaturity. Darating din ang araw ("Your time will come"), says my mother, explaining for the twentieth time that family planning is a ruse.
I guess I couldn’t blame them for not fully grasping my complete lack of interest in becoming a mother. Whenever I’d explain, I’d cite the state of the world today and how the planet, the country, the community no longer feels ideal for any child. I’d cheekily say that I intend to counter long-standing expectations from women to be homemakers and child bearers. Of course, they don’t appreciate these reasons since we do not see each other eye to eye, politically speaking.
But the aspects of this truth left undiscussed are ones that are most crucial. Beyond the rather conceited stance that this is my grand feminist statement in solidarity to bodily autonomy and Mother Earth’s healing, the greater reasons for my choice to never have a child are those I cannot easily articulate.
I am not emotionally stable, although at the time of this writing, I am quite uncertain about the full extent of my disability. I’ve been misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder at the university health center during my undergraduate years. Three years ago, I told a new, well-paid psychiatrist that I thought I had bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and he had not really given me a conclusive diagnosis aside from these self-identified illnesses. One year into this pandemic and the country’s neverending lockdown, I’ve observed patterns in my behavior and thought process that are suspiciously comparable to symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whatever issues I have with my brain, I believe they did not begin with me—and they will not stop with me.
My grandmother, whose stubbornness no longer respects the bounds of sound logic, has long exhibited serious signs of a borderline personality, and while I’d rather not give an amateur diagnosis of my mother, her complex behavior is reminiscent of at least three illnesses.
The problem is not the presence and persistence of emotional instability in the family, but rather the way it gnaws at ties among family members, particularly us women, and how these effects are treated solely as issues of different personalities clashing instead of symptoms of medical conditions. Nanay did not have an easy childhood; most of her life, she has carried some pain, some form of hatred for her own mother that has stacked up over the decades, often spilling over the rest of us every now and then. I cannot speak on behalf of lola, who claims no memory of the neglect that has shaped much of her daughter, but what I can say is that behind every argument is a shard of history that still stings them both, and no amount of apology can erase the indelible, especially when it has become a part of the shadows ever-cloaking the mind.
I had things easier growing up. I was not neglected the way she was; I was financially provided for. But gaps remained in my relationship with nanay, mostly due to her unaddressed emotional demons and my own that I usually struggle to keep at bay. The same applies to my strained relationship with lola. In essence, I live at a home dressed in black mold that everyone prefers not to acknowledge. The mold has latched itself onto the walls, poisoning everyone residing within the premises, sanity always at a brink.
And this is why I will never have a child: the family has a frayed history, and if I am not stable, then my child will likely inherit these demons I cannot outgrow. Two lines on a pregnancy test is good enough to assume that I already have a shaky relationship with the unborn. I always remind myself that if I cannot be the best mother to a child, I’d rather not have a child at all. I will not be one to think that all it takes to be a parent is the financial means to support another human being’s basic needs while I allow her to suffer for illnesses I gifted her.
That is not to say that I blame my mother nor her mother. I celebrate the mothers of my bloodline despite the silent wars waged among us, never forgetting that I owe most, if not all, of my life to them. They, too, are victims of their own, and their ancestors likely endured the same fate.
Women, after all, bear the brunt of this tireless cycle among Filipino families. Generations’ worth of mental disorders remain devalued due to a dire absence of mental healthcare in the country and a social stigma so deeply rooted in our culture. Everyone is trapped in a false binary of being either crazy or sane, leaving no one to speak out in fear of getting thrown out of social circles. Those who succumb to the problems of a challenged mind are branded faithless, because since the first day Catholicism stepped into Philippine shores, God has always been portrayed as the cure to this nation’s ills.
And it never is the man who grows crazy, no matter the anger issues, the alcoholism, the substance abuse. It always is the woman, trapped in the Sisyphean system of household chores and childbearing, who are burdened by a society so forgiving of problematic, aggressive men who cannot put a lid on their ill tempers and lack of control. Abusive households are ever so familiar among Filipinos that perhaps the staple trait of being family-oriented has always been a mere marketing ploy, a lie we keep telling ourselves over and over for some semblance of pride and comfort, ever so comparable to how the common folk are portrayed as resilient amid disasters that plague the country. Maybe, just maybe, women are rendered unstable because of the violence imposed on them since birth by the men who hover above them.
This is why I never have a child: the biggest problems she’d face will not just be inside her head, and neither I nor her can make things right in an instant. Not now, when a macho-fascist has carved a vast social divide on one land, permitting that women be violated in broad daylight even by uniformed men, that women be murdered if they muster up the courage to talk back. Not now, when I can’t even get myself to trust a psychiatrist not to misdiagnose me and give paralyzing medication so I use any tool at arms’ length to get by, even if it used to mean I had to hurt myself. Not now, when my lola can even understand the ways she damaged her daughter, when my nanay cannot even realize she has been doing the same with hers. Not now, not in this cycle of trauma and abuse where the key perpetrator is also the former victim. Probably, not ever.