By Elizabeth Lolarga, VERA Files
WHEN her first child Ibarra was born 20 years ago, Matec Villanueva, then 32, felt like she was a Ms. Universe contestant onstage answering a crucial question asked, the question being "What is the essence of a woman?" Her quick answer at that point in her life would have been "Motherhood!"
"It was real and spot on, not some lofty, nice-to-hear answer. At that moment, I knew what the essence of a woman meant, and I was feeling it, for real," she said.
Like many talented women, she had issues with her mother. She said, "I wanted to be a better mother than her."
But when the child was nearly two, she began to worry. She noticed that Ibarra or Bubba just wanted to play alone. He seemed to act deaf at times when she and her then husband Kiko Gargantiel knew that he wasn't.
Villanueva recalls, "The most telling sign was he appeared not to have eye contact with the people around him, including us. Kiko and I talked about it, and we started to seek professional help. In my gut, I knew he was autistic. I was just hoping I was wrong. I had to know for sure."
Around this time, she bore another son, Lorenzo, now 17.
Villanueva didn't think she was hit with a double whammy when the second child turned out to have special needs, too.
"He also belongs to the autism spectrum," she said. "How did I cope? I accepted the reality that my sons had learning disabilities. I decided not to waste time moping or feeling bad. My ex-husband and I decided to do as much as we could to help our sons."
Along with sending their boys to the right, i.e., accepting and supportive, schools and classes (Community of Learners and restaurateur Waya Araos-Wijangco's cooking classes tailor-made for kids with special needs), the couple was aware of the future and their mortality as parents.
Villanueva said, "We knew that we were going to die some day. We had to make sure that they could be independent and not be a burden to their youngest brother (Franco, now 15, has no disability like his elder brothers). We sought all the professional help they needed. We read up and tried to learn as much as we could. We sought the best professional help we could find. More importantly, we loved them for what they are."
Because of the intervention steps the former couple took (they remain friends), Villanueva reports like a proud mom: "Ibarra and Lorenzo are well-behaved and have developed adequate life skills. At first, it was hard to be firm with our resolve, but I just had to accept that it was for their own good."
Her firmness sometimes surprised people who weren't aware of where she was coming from.
She said, "I've encountered people who didn't know better and found me a bit too harsh because I refuse to give in to their tantrums. I took the time to explain that my sons had special needs and I was merely doing what I should. I resisted the temptation to pacify them by giving in to the tantrums. It all paid off because Ibarra and Lorenzo are well-behaved. They have adjusted to normal living."
The same resolve and toughness made Villanueva, who is 53, the chief executive officer of Publicis Manila, a multinational advertising agency.
She has managed to find time to monitor the boys' eating and lifestyle. She said, "People with their disability tend to either be picky or obsessive eaters. I trained them not to eat more than they should, take sandwich and salad for dinner and to exercise every day. Ibarra swims at Celebrity (Plaza in Quezon City) for an hour, three times a week and walks for an hour for the rest of the week. Lorenzo walks for an hour after dinner for his exercise. I am very thrilled to say that they are fit and not overweight. And yes, I imposed my lifestyle on them: eating well and exercising."
Asked if she feels she has crossed a difficult bridge and can relax a bit, confident that the boys can fend for themselves, she answered cautiously, "They have gone a long way but far from what I had in mind. I am still working at it to make sure that I give them a chance of having a life."
To parents who may be going through a struggle of accepting that they have a child with special needs and may be at a loss of where to turn, Villanueva offers this advice tinged with the voice of experience: "God gave them to you because He knows you will do a good job. Don't fail God. And most especially, don't fail your child."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for true.)