He shells out from his pocket so that the kids' schooling won't be interrupted by temporary cashflow problems come enrolment. The kids seldom refund him when their money comes in. Twice before she turned 18, he took his niece home from the hospital after she had given birth. Both times, the pregnancy was neither planned nor intended.
Unmarried himself, his monthly grocery list nevertheless includes diapers, pediatric drops, and infant formula. It's a no-brainer too to work out the reason for his popularity with pre-need agents.
He has borne quite well the trials of raising impetuous, strong-willed, and creative teenagers who bypass his locks and render his appliances inoperable. Every now and then he has to lecture on safe sex, but he draws the line at providing the kids the tools for it. I'm watching when he'll eventually give in. Without social security, his niece's hospital bills must have burnt quite a hole in his pocket.
At lunch, he wanted to know when the children would grow up. By that, I think he meant when they will start acting like responsible adults. I told him that would likely happen when the real parents die. But maybe not even then.
When parents abdicate, someone has to bear the burden of absentee parenting. My friend allowed himself to be elected for the role. Never mind that he did not ask to be voted in. Somehow the kids found their way to his home, and there they preferred to stay even though they had other choices. He leaves at eight in the morning and comes home at nine in the evening. He sees no point in laying house rules when he can't be around to impose, so the kids and their friends have the run of his house while he's gone.
I tell him he's way too easy on them, but I can see that he never holds the kids responsible for the fact that they are experiencing parental neglect. Responding with the children's best interest in mind, he tries to anticipate when his support would be needed. Oftentimes, this has to do with their physical wellbeing and schooling. The kids miss out on consistent discipline. Not being the biological, legitimate, or legally appointed parent, my friend hesitates to impose limits and values, oftentimes at the expense of his own convenience.
It is a welcome relief when the kids choose to get out from under his roof, but that usually happens only when he blows his top after the TV, the PC, or the DVD player refuses to work and nobody could explain why. It's only temporary though. Soon they come straggling back, knowing quite well that he doesn't stay mad for long. He's right that the kids are running wild.
His nephews and nieces are not the exception. At the last count, one out of every four adolescent has at least one absentee parent. That was three years ago. The figure could be higher today. I know for a fact that it is higher in my classrooms. The reason why many of my students could afford to stay in school is because they have one or both parents working abroad. This means that many of them do not have parents to come home to.
It is decidedly a tough world for these kids. Many of them live alone with only remittances and contact through cellphone and the Internet linking them with their biological parents. Those who live with their siblings end up parenting each other. Or they latch on to a likely surrogate parent among the adults in their experience. I try really hard to be gentle when my students call me Mommy. I have to remind them often that my first and foremost function is to instruct on academic matters.
With the array of distractions out there and the wherewithal to make individual choices, these kids define their identity largely without the guidance of a firm adult hand. As my friend knows, ensuring that requirements for physical wellbeing and schooling are met would be the easier part. But especially in the adolescent years, what the young need more is a parent who would set the boundaries, provide a role model for the adoption of a consistent value system, and remain a steadfast anchor in the child's quest for legitimate identity.
Nominal parenthood is not the same as the real thing. Whether it was deliberate or merely a technicality, a child would inevitably get to the point where he asks himself what he had done to merit parental abandonment. This was pointed out to us by a young man who was listening in to our lunch conversation.
We were glad to give our young man a fair hearing. This was after all his experience. He knows this ground. We know that he's treading the straight and narrow now after taking a lot of wrong turns in his late teens. Yes, he is still searching for the father he never knew.
Perhaps Malinowski was right after all. A child needs others to see that he came from an acceptable person. More importantly, the development of the sense of self worth comes largely from knowing for yourself that you came from a good person.
Every now and then, our young man still wrestles with the lying demon that tells him he deserves to be abandoned. He does not – he is an intelligent, sensitive, and caring person, but it's so hard sometimes to argue with the facts of life. It always goes back to that question. If one were indeed worthy, why was he abandoned?
Our young man tells us that the wrong turns he took were a compulsion. He knew they were wrong, but he felt compelled to take them to see which one of these would be the one that would cause him to be abandoned yet again. But soon he found out that whatever he did, his father would still not be around to retake the test. He realized how much pain he was causing his mother, how much his actions was punishing the parent who stayed.
He realized he could not bring back time and that he was not anymore a kid who needed his father to tell him why he left him. He grew up the day he realized that you don't have to do wrong for wrong things to be done unto you. So much for the golden rule. Well, at least, it does give you a choice. Our young man chooses to do right.
If anything, our young man gave my friend hope that his nephews and nieces might eventually grow up and turn out okay. Scarred by life perhaps, but like our young man nonetheless stronger for it.
(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).