There’s a photo from June 13, 2003 that I can’t stop looking at. Two days after my first birthday, my parents had taken me to the zoo. My mom stands in front of the zebra enclosure, carrying me. I’m not smiling, but Mom is. And she’s radiant. She’s smiling with the warmth of her youthful charm.
Mom is only twenty-five years old in this photo. She looks different than she does now, and not solely because she is twenty years younger. In the photograph, doubt and unease simmer behind her joyful expression.
My mother has never shared with me what her first experiences were like as a young mother. But when I called her last week, she told me how her days spent caring for a one-year-old Patrick were marked by uncertainty. “I was the first among my friends, none of them were moms,” she tells me. “I was on my own.”
Part of me doesn’t believe that she was scared. Even now, she downplays the fear and confusion of twenty years ago: “what’s there to say about it, really?” Besides, could she really claim to have been a fearful parent if she eventually had seven kids?
When I was two, my first brother was born. Three years after that, my mother had my next brother, and then two years later, a sister. Then two more brothers two years apart from one another. And finally, my youngest sister. Today, she is a proud mother of seven children whose ages range across thirteen years. “I wasn’t expecting to have this many children. If your dad had told me that on the day of our wedding, I probably wouldn’t have married him,” she says, laughing. “You can’t really plan kids. We left it all up to God. And they just happened to me and made my life better.”
I spent afternoons as a child holed up in our apartment in Manila, waiting for her to arrive home after running errands. When our large wooden door would finally creak open, I’d run to embrace her and ask if she had brought me a surprise from the mall. As a teenager, I was proud of how young she was. During student-led conferences, Mom and I would walk side-by-side around aisles of desks. While other parents exhibited wrinkles and donned graying hairs, she stood apart.
In retelling these vignettes, however, I’m ignoring the sacrifices and struggles of early motherhood. Once, I asked her about her flashy job at the United Nations’ New York office as a fresh college graduate. She left the job to start a family with my dad. “It was all just paperwork, anyway,” she recalled dismissively. Another time, she mentioned how all her fellow parents for her first three children were always ten to five years her senior. She’d watch my plays and talent shows in grade school, acutely aware of being the youngest parent in the room. I can only imagine how isolating this might have been.
At Yale, our sense of accomplishment is solely self-centered. The thirteen weeks of a semester are a never ending hustle towards our own ambitions and what we want for ourselves. We spend hours a day applying for high-ranking positions in student organizations or fancy internships at consulting firms. We sacrifice time vying for coveted spots in frats, sororities, and secret societies that weave us deeper within the university’s social fabric. We spend a day a week in the lab, afternoons at college teas, and evenings in club meetings, getting ahead or ensuring that we don’t fall behind. When we inevitably fail, fall short of what we want, we’re often embarrassed and devastated.
This mindset makes it easy to dismiss my mother’s achievements. It’s tempting to romanticize the different lives that my mom might have lived, ones that match this insatiable drive all around here at Yale. Maybe if she were still in New York, she’d be meeting influential political figures on the weekdays, and eating at Carbone on the weekends. Her LinkedIn headline would be Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer at the United Nations.
But Mom doesn’t mourn what this other life would’ve looked like. Instead, she tells me proudly, “Everything I aspire for is through my children. Their dreams are what’s fulfilling to me. My children are my trophies—if I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have anything else.”
We seldom talk about familial relationships as if they’re accomplishments worth dedicated effort and time, or as if the people in our lives cannot be the meaning of our existence. We reject the possibility that dreams of loved ones can be dreams of our own in defense of the religion that is American individualism.
But dreams can be lived through other people. And through her seven children, Mom is living hers.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be a mother of seven. But I am an older brother to six. For several of my siblings, our age difference is too large for me to say “we grew up together,” but just enough for me to say “I watched them grow up.” Sometimes, I too have tried to live dreams through them. Last year, I spent virtually all my spare time helping my younger brother curate his college applications. More hours were spent reading draft after draft of CommonApp essays than reading texts for my own classes. During the first years of adult life, I dedicated afternoons bringing my younger siblings to playdates and watching their plays or sports games when my parents could not. Friends often joked that I was “basically a stay-at-home dad.” I sometimes question now if surviving through the demanding pressure cooker that is Yale is worth not watching my ten-year-old brother or eight-year-old sister grow up.
“Kids are blessings,” Mom says. “Through my children, I’ve learned to be selfless. I don’t think my life would be as rich or as beautiful if I didn’t have seven kids—they’re pretty much the treasure and meaning of my life. After having each child, I feel like I became a better person.”
I smiled and clapped with pride watching my brother deliver his high school’s graduation speech. I’ve shared videos of my sisters acting and singing on my Instagram story the way millennial parents do. Whenever I return home, the large wooden doors of our house creak open and my younger siblings run to give me a warm embrace. In moments like these, I am certain that what Mom says rings true.
Sacrifice has brought my mom a long way. Maybe that’s why she looks different from that photo at the zoo. Behind charismatic expressions now, she is confident. She is the first person her friends go to when seeking advice on parenting. And whenever she’s asked if having seven kids is challenging, she smiles like it’s easy. “What’s there to say about it, really?”