Father and professor, Paul John Pena opens up about the joy of raising a son, the world their child is growing up with, and parenting in a same-sex marriage
It really doesn’t take long for a parent to realize that the experience of raising children runs parallel in all parents, regardless of family dynamic. Paul John Pena and his husband, Rhex, took a leap of faith when they began the process of adopting a child. Strolling through the ins and outs of parenting, Paul shares some insight on how they’re raising their son, Pablo, and their dynamic in being a family with same-sex parents.
A life changing moment
“We always talked about raising a family. It’s been part of the story we started to build after getting engaged in 2010, but more so after we got married in 2015,” says Paul. He adds, “We decided to have a family because we felt that all our hard work would have a deeper purpose if we could direct our efforts for the benefit of a child.”
The couple looked into adoption soon after they were married. It was a long and tedious process, as adoptions usually are, and the mental preparations that came with it weren’t any easier. “We lost the chance in our first attempt, so we stopped counting the days until we were advised that we were about to become parents,” says Paul. Although, he does mention that Rhex remained calm all throughout, as he was relentless and determined to start their family together.
When the time came for the couple to meet their son, Paul describes the experience as surreal. “The entire home was in a dazed flurry. And the first time we held him in our arms was extraordinary. The kind of special feeling that you can’t match to a particular word. It felt that our lives had changed at that very moment.”
It takes a village
A reliable and supportive inner-circle is a key component that enables a family to really thrive. To be able to move forward with confidence in their decisions, Paul considers themselves extremely lucky to have that village, and said, “We are very blessed to have parents—our family and relatives included—that have supported our relationship and our marriage, which made the idea of adopting children as a subsequent consideration feel natural and normal.”
An intriguing topic for most people, and uplifting for so many others, it’s not unusual to be asked how their family came to be. However, Paul and his husband view their situation from a different perspective, wherein they don’t see it as a unique case. “When asked, we do tell our story, but we rarely find ourselves in a situation in which we need to explain the situation. Most people say that our story is inspiring, especially those who have witnessed it from the beginning.”
Finding the right fit
Pablo is now five years old (turning six this July) and attending school. When it came down to looking for the right environment for their son, Paul and Rhex took their time to find just the right fit. “We went through choosing schools that would be welcoming, inclusive and would not question our family, especially the child. We were lucky to find schools that focus more on the child and their development over the family’s more private circumstances. All these schools we interacted with were more than happy to support our family, especially Pablo.”
He continues, “We also decided to place Pablo in an international school where being a child of same-sex parents is not considered a particular case. If he gets bullied, I suppose we would treat the situation just as any sensible parent would. Try to understand the problem first and the other children involved.” Paul adds, “More importantly, we would explain the situation to Pablo clearly. Children must understand context early in their lives, part of training their empathy as an essential life skill. Ultimately, no kid should ever have to be bullied. Period.”
Walking through life with absolute pride
While more and more families in the Philippines are putting off marriage, it can be said that it’s a privilege that most couples take for granted. Although same-sex marriages are still not recognized by Philippine law, this is not an issue for Paul and his husband.
“We don’t get around it in the sense that we do everything above board. As far as we are concerned, we were legally married in the United States. Marriages in the United States are recognised everywhere. When asked, we declare that, indeed, we are legally married. For example, when coming up to an Immigration Officer when travelling, and it is allowed to approach the officer as a family, we come up to the window together. We are, after all, a family with a marriage that was legally celebrated and witnessed in the United States.”
With a story truly deserving of a celebration, Paul only has words of encouragement for other same-sex couples looking to start a family. “Go for it. Don’t ever doubt your capacity for love and to love. Let love be your guide, and life will happen beautifully,” says the proud father. He adds, “You must also be emotionally prepared for the privilege and responsibility of being a parent. We are like any other parent, after all.”
A family life like any other
“The best thing about being a dad is that sweet kiss on your cheek or hearing, ‘Papa, I love you. So much.’ It truly makes life as a dad all so special!” gushes Paul. However, no stranger to the struggles of parenthood, he shares, “You get tired, too, just like any parent. You also get frustrated, like every parent. Especially in this pandemic, being a parent means you wear multiple hats most of the time.”
When it comes to the stereotypical gender-roles, Paul quickly shuts down any of the misconceptions, saying, “Most people probably think there is a dual-splitting of roles at home—there is someone who stands for being the mother and the other a father. For our home, it certainly isn’t the case. We are parents, ‘daddy and papa’. As far as roles go, we are daddy and papa, too.”
“We’ve never really formalised a way of divvying up our roles and responsibilities in raising our son. We are both involved in his schooling, particularly in remote learning. One of us joins him in his online classes in the morning while the other takes charge of the teaching at night. We also find ways to help each other when things get difficult, like managing overlapping schedules and other domestic and work-related responsibilities.”
Ready to face the world, and the uncertain future that comes with it
During these trying times, it’s been a whirlwind of emotions for parents. The pandemic has brought about a harsh reality we’ve learned to come to terms with, but the truth is that our concerns go far beyond it. Paul sees things no differently.
“I don’t think my worries as a same-sex parent are any different from a heterosexual parent. Our children, more or less, have the same challenges. I am worried that my child will live in a world defined by persistent poverty, climate change, and widespread inequality. Our sources of insecurity today are the same for all children. Of course, one could think that children of same-sex parents might have limited opportunities.This is why same-sex parents need to create opportunities for their children as best they can, which I think is also true for heterosexual parents anyway.”
The LGBTQIA+ community continues to fight for equal rights all over the world. As parents, we have the responsibility to teach kindness and compassion, but more so to be allies in supporting those who seek equal opportunities. “We find that there is more openness among parents, and I think the key to this is not to treat our (your) own case to be different from any other family’s.” explains Paul.
Regardless of family dynamic, parents share the same concern, hopes, and wishes for their children. As Paul puts it, “We think of other same-sex parents as just any other parent trying their best to give their children a chance at a better life, a better future.” And we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.