The cost of being a single mother in the Philippines

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In the Philippines, being a single mom means dealing with a great deal of stigma… and rising prices. In photo: Franshey Abonita, a single mom, left her husband four years ago, and brought her three kids — Gavin, Francesca, and Francine — with her. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipino culture still largely upholds a sprawling family that, despite size, keeps tightly knit — but more and more kids are growing up in non-traditional family structures.

In 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority estimated about three million household heads without a spouse — two million of whom were female. The Federation of Solo Parents has a member base of 80,000.

In a dominantly conservative country, the stigma is particularly hard on single mothers. In May last year, Majority Leader Senator Tito Sotto was hit for a supposed joke, calling then-Social Welfare Secretary and single mom Judy Taguiwalo "na-ano lang." Although he has since promised to give solo parents a helping hand, the laughter that followed his quip was telling of a larger problematic culture: society still expects women to bear the brunt of child-rearing, but can’t take her seriously when she does it alone.

We sit down with some single moms and talk about what it took to raise a child alone: a lot of strength, a stroke of luck, and then a few budgeting skills.

Agnes Nieto began rearing Karl with the help of a friend. Starting with a ₱10,000 salary, she considered every independent purchase a milestone — right from her first caldero. She now has a home. Photo by JL JAVIER

Agnes Nieto, 53, and Karl, 24

Agnes Nieto was 30 years old when she had Karl. When his father said he wanted out of the picture, she did not bank on him. She was in labor for between 16 to 18 hours.

Karl was a smart kid — Nieto credits this to a lot of reading, among other brain games — and she never talked down to him. She always assumed he was capable of understanding. She took him on a seminar that helped him understand their family set-up. Before that, Karl had seen a white dress in her closet and asked if it came from her wedding; she explained to him that she never married.

She reached out to his father, who at the time already had his own family — not for her, but for Karl, “so [he] will not grow up thinking that [he came from] bamboo.” Later, when she asked Karl how it went, he said, “For as long as I know that I have a father, that's okay. I never grew up with him anyway, so I don't need a relationship with him.”

In her 30s, Nieto also made the bold decision to take a career shift into corporate. Since then, she switched jobs often — Karl quipped she was "actually a millennial" — and every job paid higher than the last.

Ang pinaka-importante [with] being a single parent is being real,” she said. “I’m not a teleserye.”

Tips for financial management

Nieto's job when she first had Karl paid ₱10,000 a month. As she struggled and was supported by her friends, she set aside at least ₱2,000 for insurance.

She made a habit out of it. When the Euro was standardized, the worth of her stocks went up. When Karl hit college, her insurance company called her up and told her that now that he came of age, she was entitled to a certain amount — enough to support him through college.

“Save as if you’ve spent it already,” says Nieto. "No matter how little [it] is, always leave some — so when you need it, you know there is something there. Do not wait for an extra. There will never be one."

Word of wisdom

“Don't fret over not being able to afford some things,” says Nieto. “Do not spend beyond your means ... First things first.”

But when it came to little milestones, she advises, celebrate. She cooked a good meal when she purchased her first caldero, and she lounged with Karl and their helper of 14 years when "Santa Claus" dropped off an air conditioner.

She and Karl still text “I love you” to each other every day.

Mai Padua, a liberal arts coordinator and De La Salle Zobel night school, lost her husband to lymphoma in 2016. “You really have to know your rights and privileges. Not for yourself, but for your child,” says Padua on how she's managed her finances while raising her child. Photo by JL JAVIER

                                                                  Mai Padua, 55, and Enzo, 16

Mai Padua lost her husband to cancer in 2016. Her son Enzo was diagnosed with moderate autism at two years old. He is now 16. They live with her sister, a polio survivor, and her own 21-year-old son.

Padua said after losing her husband and having a good cry, she fell into a paradigm shift: “This is not about me,” she says. “We take it one day at a time ... All of my energy, all of my goals are for his survival.”

Padua splits her budget between amortization for the house and groceries. Since Enzo is on a scholarship, her primary expenses for him are split between occupational therapy (₱500 a session), speech therapy (₱1,000 a session), and a yearly visit to a developmental pediatrician.

Her next goal is to set up a business for him, so there will be a sustainable source of income even after she is gone. She is also considering getting a trustee to handle Enzo’s finances in the future.

Apart from securing Enzo a scholarship, Padua is setting up safety nets for her son’s future. She keeps a multi-level insurance plan. She teaches Enzo to save: he keeps a piggy bank at home, and this is reinforced by a school policy that any leftover money on Fridays is deposited in a bank across the road.

Tips for managing finances

“You really have to know your rights and privileges. Not for yourself, but for your child,” says Padua. Under the Solo Parents’ Welfare Act of 2000, single mothers are entitled to an extra seven days of leave on top of current benefits under. She advises single moms to also inquire with their local governments about other possible benefits.

As a person with a disability, Enzo also gets a 20 percent discount in transportation and establishments like hotels and restaurants; he gets the same amount off for medicines and medical services, among other expenses as provided by Republic Act 10754.

She also takes note of a Social Security System benefit: As Enzo will be her dependent indefinitely, he gets a subsidy from government when she retires.

Word of Wisdom

"Even as he grows old he will still be my dependent. Pero eventually, that will work to your advantage," says Padua. "As I've mentioned earlier, it's knowing the options and really looking at each option and [choose] what would work best for your child."

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she adds.

A common trait among the single mothers we interviewed was their no-nonsense, unapologetic openness about their situations. While Mikah Franco seems at first softspoken, she also says, "I learned to tell the truth... You don't owe anyone an explanation." Photo by JL JAVIER

                                                              Mikah Franco, 24 and Sky, 3

Mikah Franco had Michael Gabriel, nicknamed "Sky," a year before she was set to graduate with a degree in theater arts. She took the next two years off, the latter juggling jobs — one as a talent for party event specialists, and one as a music instructor — before finishing college in 2017.

Having Sky pushed her to quit her vices like drinking and smoking. She also suffered from insomnia, and was diagnosed with postpartum depression. As she carried Sky and later nursed him, she had to go off medication — and she later found she did not need it anymore.

"Before having him, I was really insecure. When I had him, it was so fulfilling that I finally dared to dream," she says. "Because his life is dependent on my life, I have to be the best that I can."

Franco saves on rent as she lives with her grandmother, and opts to take Sky on walks to the park instead of malls. She also does not spend on milk. “Breastfeeding really empowered me as a mom,” says Franco, who is weaning Sky off breast milk this year. He is also not allowed processed food.

Apart from tuition, her major expenses for Sky include occupational therapy twice a week and speech therapy once a week, each session costing ₱750.

Franco is back to specializing in events, but she now faces a big break with the opportunity to work abroad — and possibly set up a new life for her and Sky.

Tips for managing finances

Apart from investment plans, Franco keeps multiple bank accounts: one strictly for emergencies, which she can withdraw from but which she does not touch; one for school; and one for immediate expenses.

She also maintains an insurance account for herself, and two separate ones for Sky — one for school, and one for health. The latter was a gift from Franco's grandmother. Around 30 percent of her earnings go to insurance.

Word of wisdom

Franco says one can't control the stigma, but she learned to "trust God in everything."

"I learned to really just tell the truth. You don't owe anybody any explanation, but I've gotten used to it," says Franco. "I don't focus so much on what other people say and just focus on what is necessary — meaning, our relationship. [I let] go of things that I know won't get me to where I need to go."

Although Franshey Abonita and her ex-husband had been sweethearts for many years, letting him go was a relief after the relationship turned abusive. Now raising her three kids on her own, she doesn't think of their family as broken — but whole on their own. Photo by JL JAVIER

                                 Franshey Abonita, 39, Gavin, 12, Francesca, 9 and Francine, 7

Franshey Abonita left her husband four years ago, and brought her three kids with her. The relationship had become abusive, and she found herself relieved to be out of it; it was even easier raising three kids alone than before.

"Andiyan ‘yung lalagyan ng labels ‘yung family mo — 'broken family,' kung anu-ano. Right now, I don't see myself as broken," says Abonita.

Abonita and the children moved in with her sister. She lost 20 pounds when she started a healthier lifestyle; with it, previous health problems with vertigo and menstrual cramps disappeared.

As she passed Quezon City Hall one day, she also chanced upon a gathering of the Federation of Solo Parents, which has several chapters across the Philippines. The organization — which holds events that provide solo parents with windows to legal aid, health, and jobs — became a support group and testament to how she was not alone.

Abonita worked at a pharmaceutical industry for 15 years, and is now in between jobs. However, she shares her disposition when it comes to finance is to believe there is always money — it just hasn't arrived yet.

Tips for managing finances

Abonita keeps a life insurance plan that doubles as an investment plan. She also advises solo parents to add another stream of income; in her case, she sells organic rice coffee on the side.

Anything out of the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and education is considered a luxury: movies, accessories, and dining out among them. They're still in the budget, she says, but in reduced proportions.

"’Pag simple lang ang buhay mo, simple lang din ang mga problema mo," she says.

Word of wisdom

Abonita confides that her younger self would never have agreed to an interview on the record. However, her motivations have since changed.

"I want to be the person I needed when I was struggling," says Abonita. "I wanted someone to say to me, ‘You're not alone.’"

She adds that she no longer considers herself a victim, and is eager to make herself better. However, this doesn't mean hiding or shoving any hurt.

"Dati kasi, binabaon ko lang siya. Right now, ‘pag rinaramdaman ko siya, I acknowledge those negative feelings," she says.

"If you see yourself as broken, as kulang — " Abonita breaks off to say that society has a way of making solo parents feel unwelcome. "May stigma talaga ... When in fact, ikaw as a person, special ka na. You're enough. You don't have to do anything to complete you."