Day 8- Support
I’ve been a caregiver for most, if not all of my life.
I was the eldest of 6 siblings, all boys.
My mom was a stay-at-home mom, which is a nice way of saying she was a housewife.
There were too many of us for her not to be, and besides, my dad focused on building a business and making enough money to support all of us.
In the early years, my dad was a DJ. He told me he used to collect scrap metal and recycle cardboard to also make ends meet. The kids kept coming.
Then, he became an apprentice to a welder/electrician/machinist and honed his skills until he had enough capital to open his business.
It didn’t take him long either. I must have been five years old when we moved from our rented home in Bell Gardens to a beautiful, peaceful neighborhood in Norwalk.
By then, my mom was pregnant with my third sibling and we lived in a 3-bedroom, one-bathroom home with a big garage and a yard.
We were poor that first year, and had a roommate in one of the bedrooms.
People also kept coming in and out of our homes, always my mom’s family members. My grandma, my cousin Evelyn, my aunt Jenny and her child/ren, my uncle Carlos.
It took a few years for me to finally have my own room and for my brothers to all share one bedroom together while my parents occupied the master bedroom.
We had many parties. My dad loved hosting events and would even DJ them. Once, we had a quinceanera at our house. Another time, we hosted a wedding in our backyard. Always, we had family parties and gatherings. My dad loved to cook and enjoyed showing off his cooking skills, his home and his big, beautiful family.
But my mom wasn’t really the most successful stay-at-home mom, to be honest, and my dad’s family members looked down on her.
She was young, pretty and very intelligent, but somehow she was never good enough for them. She didn’t cook enough, she didn’t keep up with the house well enough, and there was always a mess of laundry and disorder that she could never catch up on.
Much later in life, I learned that she suffered from postpartum depression that turned into full-blown chronic depression.
She’d enlist other family members to come help her but after a while, they’d grow tired of assisting her and then she’d be on her own again until she found someone new to lean on.
We had many housekeepers and nannies but the result was always the same: my mother simply couldn’t keep up and things never stayed organized for long because there wasn’t a firm system set up to make things successful.
I was different. By the time I had my room, I loved to keep it neat and organized. I loved to wake up early. I enjoyed learning how to cook and clean. These things naturally interested me.
More than anything, I loved helping my mom. I wanted people to stop saying mean things about her, and I also wanted to take pride in my own home and not feel ashamed anytime someone new came over and looked at everything with judgmental eyes, especially our family members.
I began learning how to cook and bake. I volunteered to vacuum, sweep, mop and organize. By the time I was eight I knew how to do many chores. By the time I was ten, not only did I know how to do everything around my house like my mother, I could also do it better and faster.
I became her right hand woman and after a while, I also became her crutch.
Moreover, I loved school. I did my homework without being asked to, and I loved to read. So there I was, a quiet, shy, very neat girl in the middle of a home filled with chaos and disorder. I would perpetually kick my brothers out of my room. I would get stressed out about mess and felt compelled to clean it up. I would often go to my grandmother’s house on weekends because things there were neat and clean and peaceful like me, but when I would come back home the mess would be waiting for me to clean up.
I’m not sure why I felt so responsible for saving my house and for helping my mom. I could just tell she needed more support since my dad worked so much, and there had been times when my dad would get so angry and frustrated that she wouldn’t clean and wouldn’t cook that I just wanted to show him that she just needed more support.
So I became her support. In return for all the things I did for her, my mom spoiled me. I had my own room, my own computer, and everything I wanted I received.
But when my dad left things changed.
I was no longer just the daughter that supported her mother. I was her only support. I was another parent. I was a parentified child.
My dad left us for another woman from his past, and my youngest brother at the time was only a few weeks old. We were all devastated by it, but the only thing we could do was help my mom through it. I, the more stoic and strong one, was the one that kicked my dad out of the house upon learning that he was seeing someone else but still wanted to live at home with us until he was able to move out with some semblance of stability.
I put out his stuff in boxes and shooed him away with a broom.
The house began crumbling apart and I tried my best to hold it together with my housework and babysitting, but my mom got sick and a nanny had to come to the house to take care of her while she recovered from some complications resulting from childbirth.
After that, I was expected to be home directly after school to help with the baby, and when she started to go to work, I was expected to watch my infant brother overnight until she came back from her graveyard shift.
It was really tough, but having to stay home and be this responsible led me to do the only thing I could do—study. I studied my ass off and got amazing grades and by the time my senior year came I was accepted to Long Beach State, Fullerton State, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
As soon as the letter from UCLA came the reality hit me that I was finally going to get out of here.
I accepted the offer and moved into the dorms and decided not to look back. I had grown resentful of being my mother’s main support, and my previous joy at cooking and cleaning and helping to take care of my siblings became a source of frustration because now, instead of me doing these things for fun, I was doing them because no one else cared to or could, and I wanted to have my own life instead of being responsible for someone else’s. I was eighteen and deserved to go on my own personal journey instead of remaining my mother’s rescuer. Besides, by that time I had realized that caring for my mother, sibling and home to the degree that I did was never my responsibility to begin with. My childhood was altered completely because of all of the duties I had to fulfill, and at the time I did not feel like I had a choice because I felt that this was my way of being a good daughter proving that I was worthy of love. I felt important in my role as the second mom to my siblings, and yet, I knew there was something unhealthy about feeling like I was better than my mother. I should have had my mother as a mentor and a guide instead of as another person to care for and counsel.
Because of all of these added responsibilities, I was never really able to focus on my dreams in the ways that I wanted to. I learned how to be an expert caregiver by default, but I lacked in the opportunities to become an expert musician and vocalist, apart from the occasional voice lesson that I received for free, out of the goodness of my mentor’s heart, now that no one could afford to pay for it.
Thus, I entered my freshman year at UCLA as an English major, because that was the subject I did best in.
I had missed my opportunities to apply as a music student for multiple reasons. 1) I was insecure about my abilities as a vocalist 2) I was distracted by my domestic and family responsibilities and my prime romantic relationship and secondary situationship 3) I didn’t have the resources to be able to submit an audition package to the music schools 4) I didn’t know how to read music and didn’t play an instrument.
In other words, I lacked confidence in the ability to really move forward with my dreams beyond the high school level, and the only support I received with these dreams was through my high school choir teacher and mentor, Ms. Lanpher.
Alone and mostly friendless, I wandered through my freshman year as an English major and took my general education classes, but I took additional classes, like the History of Opera, to prepare myself should I be awarded the opportunity to transfer into UCLA’s music program.
I had met with one of the heads of the department of music to find out what I needed in order to transfer and he suggested taking the general music classes. He also suggested a music theory class but it was unavailable to students outside of the music program so he advised that I learn on my own with the help of a tutor. Unfortunately, my tutor wasn’t the best and I also felt so intimidated by the material that I lacked the diligence to really be able to move through it.
I auditioned for an a capella group and was never called back, and didn’t take the rejection very well.
At this time, I was also working as an Italian opera singer at Macaroni Grill on weekends to make money to take care of myself as I attended school, but I also used that money to fund my weekly voice lessons with one of the faculty members at the university, who charged me $100 an hour every week for lessons that I didn’t really feel were all too helpful.
I lost my motivation and my commitment to practicing the exercises dwindled. I got sick in the Winter and my desire was further mitigated. Moreover, he would try to convince me to stop singing at the restaurant because I had picked up too many bad habits and needed to retrain my voice before I was truly ready to sing publicly, but I couldn’t afford to let go of my job so I didn’t listen to him.
By the time Spring auditions came around, I was rejected from the music program and utterly devastated as a result.
I was poorly prepared, poorly dressed and extremely nervous. I also had a sore throat that morning. I showed up feeling and probably looking like someone trying to get in but not really believing that she could…and that’s exactly how it played out.
After being rejected, I gave up on my goal to enter the music program. I wish I was more determined, but I wasn’t.
I had been a big fish in a small pond for so long that I didn’t really know what it was like to be told “no,” and the disappointment and feelings of shame were so deep that I never wanted to place myself in a position to feel that way again. More importantly, I equated their rejection with a confirmation from the Universe that I truly wasn’t cut out to be a big opera singer. I already felt marginalized in a campus filled with people who had been training all their lives to make music and there I was, a poor Latina on grants and student loans barely making her way through. I remember trying to make music friends and being met with polite detachment. I had never been around such an apathetic society of people before and it was a huge adjustment for me. Where was the support?
So, I continued my freshman year as an English major while licking my wounds and preparing for the next adventure of my life. I had decided to learn how to read music anyway, so I enrolled at Cerritos college for a basic music theory class and decided to move back to my mom’s after Spring semester ended. I even financed a brand new, weighted 88-keyboard from guitar center and had a co-worker teach me piano lessons on Saturday mornings.
Later that summer, just before entering Macaroni Grill to clock in and begin my singing shift, I got a call from an unknown number.
When I answered, a guy asked, “So I heard you’re singing opera now?”
I asked, “Who’s this?”
“Alex. So it’s true? You’re an opera singer now?”
“What’s up Alex? Long time no talk! Nah, I was but I’m not into that anymore. What’s up?”
“I just opened up a studio pretty close to your house, here in Bellflower. Come through when you’re done at work!”
And like that, I went from wanting to sing dead people’s songs to learning to write and sing my own.
I had been someone’s rescuer for so long that I resented it and longed to be rescued, myself. But in the real world, I learned that no one was gonna be my hero except myself, and all I really needed to do was ask for what I wanted, to really try my best and to never give up. I needed to hold my vision and never let it waver, no matter what kind of temporary defeat assailed me. But I was too young too understand that, and went out of my way to find myself a new rescuer.
And this was how I ended up deliberately sabotaging my relationship, mixing business with pleasure, getting the short end of the stick in the process, getting knocked up and becoming a pregnant teen at 19, and in my sophomore year of college.
But more on that later.