Everyday, I take a 15-minute ride to the school where I teach. And since I don't have the luxury of hiring a nanny, I take my two-year-old son with me. I drop him off at his dad's, and pick him up on my way back home. On days his dad is too busy to watch him, I take him to school with me. Sometimes my friends take care of him; sometimes I even take him to my classrooms! But no matter how the day fares for the both of us, it always ends with another dreadful 15-minute ride home.
Fifteen minutes may not seem long to most people, but to me it is always uncomfortably long. Day after day, I get the same questioning stares and knowing looks from other passengers. And, no, I'm not a local celebrity, and I am certainly not paranoid. I'm just your average single mom.
On better days, other passengers just smile at me and my adorable little boy. But, there are days when people can't seem to resist a question or two. "What's his name?" "How old is he?" I am a friendly person, and not too bothered by this. "His nickname is Kyamoi," I reply. But when the questions start getting a bit too private and when complete strangers start dropping unsolicited advice about what I should do with my life, I automatically drop the conversation and shut them out.
Surprised that people actually ask strangers intrusive questions? You must hear this, then.
It was raining one day, and I was running late. So, with my bag hanging on one shoulder, carrying my son with one arm and holding an umbrella with another, I hailed a jeepney. Inside, I saw an old man sitting beside me give me a piercing look.
As the jeepney drove on, I saw him shaking his head as if in irritated sympathy. Like I said, I'm not paranoid but, sometimes, instinct lets you see right through a person. I honestly felt insulted and invaded. But I have been socialised to revere older people.
Minutes later, unable to contain himself, he finally spoke to my son. "Hi there, little man," he started. "Hello," came my son's weak reply. "Where are you going?" he asked. My son looked at me as if asking for my consent, and when I didn't say anything, he answered "To Papa." "You poor guy. Your father left you and your mom, didn't he? And I bet he doesn't even visit you; that's why you're the one who goes to visit him, isn't it?"
I felt blood surge to my face. A greater part of me wanted to slap him then and there, no matter how much older he was. But I just stared at him, because the smaller part of me - which felt like I deserved it - won.
I'm a young mother without a ring on my finger. What could I expect from individuals when society declares it indefensible? I so wanted to cry.
The rest of the passengers who heard what was said were looking at me, waiting for something to happen. They looked as uneasy as I was. The old man, on the other hand, did not so much as wince.
I knew the best thing for me to do at that moment was to just grit my teeth and show the respect his old age afforded him. And so, I just looked away and prayed to whoever was watching over me that my son would not be affected by this incident. Respect or cowardice? You be the judge; but I know that doing otherwise would have only set more tongues wagging at the insolent young mother who had no ring on her finger. And I'm tired of that.
At school, I couldn't concentrate. I found my mind wandering to the morning episode. I began to doubt my convictions. Was I doing the right thing? Was I only being selfish? My son will soon grow up and meet people whose families are perfect or, at least, not as dysfunctional as ours. Would he still be content with having just me and a part-time father? Would he be able to understand why I did the things I did?
I had always been sure of myself, confident and secure. I chose to be a single mother. I have my reasons, and I do not have to explain myself. But that episode served as a reminder that society, with its high rise buildings and cosmopolitan culture, is not yet forgiving of those who stray from the norm. At most, it is more tolerant than it was, but accepting it is not!
As for my son's happiness and contentment, that will depend on how grounded a person I raise him to be. If he grows up with good judgement then I know he will understand my decisions and my intentions. And he might even admire me for that. But until then, I'll just have to keep my faith.