The Daddy Difference

(Originally a speech for the 5th National Conference on Autism held by the Autism Society of the Philippines on April 23, 1999. Speakers were given the title, “The Daddy Difference” and were suppose to talk on how we made a difference after their kid(s) were diagnosed. I did something unexpected.)

On graduation day, a young girl was giving the valedictory address. In her speech, she customarily thanked the principal, her teachers and her parents. Referring to her parents, she said, "I thank my parents for having me." At which point her father, shouted from the audience, "Don't thank us, it was our pleasure!"

I start with that anecdote to highlight a reality in which we have to raise our children. That it is ultimately the wife, the potential mother, who has in her consciousness the desire to raise kids. I found this true in my experience and in the experiences of other couples as well. It is the women who long for, wish and consciously look forward to conceiving, giving birth and raising children. The men? Well, mostly they are there for the pleasure. That while women are in it for procreation, for many men the bottom line is sex.

Many men may react violently to that and would argue that there are always exceptions to the rule. In light of that, I decided I wanted to be an exception. And as far as this talk goes, I might deviate wildly from the expectation that has been raised. For one thing, I am expected to talk about how I related and bonded with Erika from the point when she was diagnosed as autistic and how I would make a difference from then on. But there is nothing to say there. The fact is, I related, bonded and made all the difference in the world with Erika before she was diagnosed. I would go on further to say that the difference was made even before she was born.

As the exception I wanted to be, I was actively involved in consciously thinking, longing and praying for our still unconceived daughter. Yes, I wanted a daughter. I prayed fervently for one. I prayed earnestly for a daughter that would look like my wife but acted like me...maybe that's why she's autistic.

Erika was born and we also made the decision that raising her would be our full-time project—no yayas (househelp specifically tasked to be a caregiver to a child). We had househelp, lolos (grandfathers) and lolas (grandmothers) who would pitch in sometimes, but raising Erika was a full time project for both Liza (Liza Manayon) and myself.

I gave Erika her baths, changed her diapers, sang her to sleep, and played music. She heard the full repertoire of my music collection from gospels to heavy metal rock. I took her on car rides, just the both of us, no mommy to rescue daddy in cases of emergencies, it was just me and Erika sitting in her baby car seat. We went to malls, to my office and other places where normal daddies would not dare tread without mommy or a yaya in tow. We tickled each other, cried together, fought, and yelled at each other...all this before she turned two years old. We had bonded to the point where we can intuitively communicate with each other without words. How close were Erika and I? There was one point where I know I understood her better than my wife.

Then she would turn two. It became apparent that she was not improving in her verbal skills. Eventually she would be diagnosed as autistic. Oh yes, we went through the denial phase. Both Liza and I are psychology majors in college so we knew enough to acknowledge or deny the reality. As people pointed out to us that there was something wrong with Erika, we had ready answers to argue otherwise.

People would say, "Erika is autistic, because of this and that;" and we would reply, "Just a quirk." Or, “so do some other kids.”

People would say, "Erika is autistic, because they say autistics have intelligent parents" the we would say, "Tsk, tsk, you're right, Erika is autistic."

So goes the dream as the reality that Erika may never function normally in society sinks in. Perhaps that is my greatest frustration and source of anger. There was also the unmet expectation of telling Erika my funny jokes and stories as she grew up. There were lots of disappointments and frustrations. To say the least, she did not for one moment diminished as the child we prayed for and longed for. We loved her deeply as ever. All these would mean that she would be my baby for the rest of her life.

To our consolation, she was diagnosed as a high functioning autistic. Non-verbal as she may be, to a certain degree she would interact and relate to Liza and myself so I had my bonding with her to draw upon on. All was not lost. The tickles, winks, hugs and the kisses still meant a lot for father and daughter. Our bond was still there.

These days, I would actually say that I make less of a difference as therapies and play groups now take a significant place in Erika's upbringing and as I run around making money to pay for her schooling. Extra work may mean time apart from her and so on. And now that our son James is around, we actually had to concede some of our pride and give in to the idea of having a yaya.

But while many may be fighting an uphill battle, I can boast of a tail wind. That’s because I know I made all the difference in the world was already made.

Yeah...nice talk...but how does all this help us who just got our kids diagnosed yesterday? Well nothing is too late. I can talk about giving baths, changing diapers, taking kids to the mall and all that, but remember those are only surface issues. It is easy to reduce all those to quotas and start counting time spent with your child and still not make a difference.

There are heart issues that need to be met if one is to make a difference as a father.
Firstly, decide to be a daddy. As I said earlier, there this male logic that is pleasure oriented vs. the feminine procreation orientation. Men or boys are in it for the sex and raising kids come only as an afterthought or perhaps even an accident. Why do you think we have all these teenage pregnancies?

Fear or inadequacy may force a husband into retreating into his career and to take on the purely bread winning role. He provides the money, the wife or the yaya or the therapist raises the kid. While providing the finances may be an expression of being a daddy—especially in the context of the high cost of special education—it does not constitute daddyhood in its entirety.

Deciding to be a daddy means proactively taking responsibility. Do not shrink back behind the veneer of bread-winning. Take an active role in raising your child. It is not entirely the role of your wife as this is a conjugal affair; and heaven not surrender your parental prerogative of raising your child to the yaya, the therapist or the teacher.

Secondly, decide to be a daddy now. Not tomorrow, not later when you are making oodles and oodles of money, not when the mortgage payments are over and you already have your own house and lot, not later when the economic crisis is over, and not in the next millennium—now. But that goes against the very grain of the masculine psyche. For one thing, in the frustrating realization of having an autistic kid, the only source of security a man may have is his career. To learn that your child is flawed is like hitting a brick wall, and to a man the only still point in this dizzying realization may be his work.

Men should step out of that shell. If one is to be a real man and a real father, one should step out of the masculine comfort zone and take the role of nurture and care. It may mean a lot of balancing act especially if there are loan payments to be met. But put things in perspective, career and making money are not the end or the goal but the means to the higher goal of raising a family.

I would be the first to admit that my present financial status is rocky. My main career does not pay much by its very nature and my sidelines are affected by the economic crunch and competition. And it does make me worry. But that is not the whole world—my family is; and should financial constraints affect Erika's schooling and therapies, no fear for the ground work has been set. I can deal with her by myself if necessary—I have already made and will make the difference.

There is a third item that should be mentioned. Be a gracious daddy. In this world where we measure life in terms of return of investment (ROI), we would probably think that by making a difference in our children's life, we would have some return to make us proud and feel that all our effort was worthwhile. But the reality is that after everything is said and done, for many, our child would never graduate valedictorian (or school at all), be able to run a business or be someone like Tumtum Mendoza. I do not know for sure that all the effort I am exerting would be rewarded by something in Erika's future. That remains to be seen, and with equal probability, Erika would never amount to anything in society except be my daughter.

Grace is unconditional love; I would choose the path I have taken even if Erika is a vegetable—even if she never returns any of what I have to give her. Daddies should make a difference, whether his child is autistic, normal or a genius; daddies should choose to be and be one in the present. And all daddies should unconditionally love their children, autistic, normal or a genius.