Married, jobless and a mom at 18: How I ended up working and writing for global emergencies

I have almost done it all.

I got pregnant and was prematurely married at 18. It may not be that shocking today, but in the 80s and in a quiet, conservative Filipino family, it was like a whistle bomb dropping unexpected at a family lunch.

It broke my parents’ hearts big time.

Doing this after finishing valedictorian from a rural high school, my reputation took a nosedive in a small village where my mom was a respected public school teacher. Everyone in the village thought I just ended my world.

I stopped university for two years, tried full-time motherhood and worked in our coconut farm, all the while lamely convincing myself I can’t be doing it forever!

I eventually picked up the broken pieces of my life to finish a degree in Public Relations. My dream was to become a writer but I can’t remember how I ended studying the course. At that time, coming from Mindanao located at the southern part of the Philippines where there were then very few university options and studying in Manila for a college degree was difficult and expensive.

Dreams have a price

To do this, I lived in a small room shared with my cousins and tried to live with the small allowance my parents sent irregularly.

Going home from Manila to see my firstborn, we have to take a one week trip with an overloaded ship. We cannot afford a plane ticket. This transport option was only for the rich.

A year before I graduated, I gave birth to my second daughter.

I had three children in all at 27, became a single mom at 28. To survive, I juggled on three jobs — a day job at a rural electric cooperative, a weekend job at an export business and a Thursday night job as secretary for a Rotary club.

These were apart from accepting writing work that burned too many night candles. But that journalism dream didn’t fade away. It blazed quietly, finding a way out. It didn’t quit on me and I gave it its due.

For six years, I was freelance correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer writing stories from Mindanao. I suspected my stories got published not because I wrote them well but because I sent them the earliest ahead of competition.

You’re fired up by your passion

Every published story gave me fireworks. Remember I was still having those three jobs on top of this one. I took every excuse to write. Getting published was actually a bonus. No writing work was too small or boring for me.

When I landed a communications job in an aid agency, it felt like I have won the lottery. I can do what I love and get paid for it. I worked like no other communicator can. It became normal for me to do 20 stories in a week’s assignment.

I even topped my record to 25 stories when I covered the communities affected by mining in Palawan. I rode battered motorcycles to my interviews, braved floods, climbed mountains, rode on rickety boats while delivering food supplies in one island and slept in gecko-laden guesthouses.

But in every assignment, I woke up early — no matter how late I slept — excited to go for that next story. I cried, felt sad, angry and scared, drained and exhausted. But the next day, I’d be like the phoenix rising.

Life’s ups and downs are a rollercoaster

You need to brace yourself when it’s going up and especially when it’s hurtling down.

I was raising three growing children on my meagre income. But that didn’t stop me go for that dream. I worked hard and played harder as a mom. I slept and dreamed and woke up writing stories. I must. I often wrote about the “nobodies”. Their stories must be heard.

I don’t usually buy “Oh, there are no stories here” replies when I ask for recommendations. Every person has a story. Millions are waiting to be written. I just know I will never run out of work.

Things got more challenging. My first big humanitarian work was the 2003 typhoon in Quezon province that flooded two municipalities with mudslides. I hardly took a two-week break and it was followed by the 2004 Asia tsunami where I got deployed for two years in Thailand. It was my first international assignment. I got the break because I was available at the right time and where I am needed the most.

It was followed by a string of disaster work: the aftermath of East Timor conflict, the Horn of Africa drought, Haiyan floods which was then the biggest storm in the world, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq internal displacement crisis, the Nepal earthquake, the Southern Africa El Nino and recently the Uganda refugee crisis.

Keep your focus on what you love to do

All through these challenging assignments, I never gave up. I almost did. But I know I won’t because it was a job I am passionately committed with.

When we pursue our dreams with dogged determination, the path opens up. You’ve read this one a million times, right? I also did. The path does open. The light comes out starting in cracks and then as we keep going, they become floodlights. Never ever doubt.

I always hear mothers say they were not able to do the things they loved for the sake of their children. While I respect their decision especially if they’re happy about it, I believed I would be unfair to my children if I did not pursue what I want and tell people it was because of them.

At 49, I saw them complete university and pursue their own life’s dreams. Their dreams are fast becoming mine.

Looking back, I can say many of my principles worked. One thing I have proven — when you have a dream, never give them up. Don’t quit. Don’t trade. Don’t say you can’t. Just don’t.

Kathryn Stockett wrote her bestselling book The Help for five years and wallowed in 60 rejections for three and ½ years before she got it published. She chased her dream like mad. To repeat, she NEVER gave up.

There is a Stockett in you and me

I am no Stockett but I am like her. There is a Stockett in all of us waiting to be unleashed. My persistence got me sailing through the rough seas with large stone boulders but I cannot imagine not trying to cross it and smash the barriers.

Who knows? I can end up doing a bestseller and beat her to the draw by having 200 rejections. Watch me. Yes, I am on to my first book!

So dream away. Then work hard for it. Never quit. They come true. It may take time, but they will. Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s far sweeter if you do your best and love what you do. My biggest achievement was making my father, who only studied grade four because they were too poor to go to school, proud before he died.

You see, I have almost done it all but I am still at it. I’m not dropping out of the game. At 54, I want to prove to myself that no one is too old for another dream. Winners never quit. Keep telling yourself that. I do!

Never settle for anything less than what you love doing and do well. — Colin Powell

Over the years, these are the top 5 lessons I always go back to as guide

  1. I always ask myself everyday — What do I want to do? Is it the one I am doing right now? These questions always trigger a series of ideas and reflections. I write down most of those my gut tells me to pursue. There’s always one that will open the path. In my case, I always navigated towards writing work.
  2. I read self-help books that fire my belly and challenge my direction. At least daily and I double this when I am traveling. Even when I was a young mom, I borrowed books and never stopped reading. One of the very first inspirations I found was from Iaccoca; An Autobiography. As a mother and an aid worker, it taught me the value of decisiveness.
  3. I stop myself -or even anybody- from saying, “The problem is …” A situation can always be stated in a positive way that looks at a solution and not dwell on the problem. I did not see my situation as a mom of three as a problem to pursue a job I love. I saw it as an opportunity to educate my children to be responsible at a young age so I do not worry when I am away.
  4. I strive to be happy with everything that I do. You cannot fake this. You have to love what you do, share a lot, aim for people to benefit from what you do and be positive. Every time I am in a 24-hour shift in a disaster, I do not wallow with the misery around me. I always look for something that can draw people’s hope. Smile genuinely at people. Listen to them. Often it’s enough to bring the good out of a situation.
  5. I keep dreaming. Dreaming keeps us young because we look at the vast horizon full of opportunities to achieve and do more. I started as an aid worker at the age of 37, which is probably when most people in other countries are preparing for retirement. In my 16 years, and while in my 40s, I got my biggest (and toughest) assignments. Age is just a number. But it also made me mindful of taking care of myself by running regularly and watching the food that I eat.

An invitation

I have written and published inspiring stories of women from Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines and Zimbabwe in my blog istoryya.com. Please come and visit!

“So the pie isn’t perfect? Cut it into wedges. When faced with a challenge, evaluate or assess the situation, gather the good things in sight, abandon the bad and move on. Focus on the positive. Stay in control and never panic.” — Martha Stewart