Overcoming childhood trauma, with Dana (part 1)

Born in the Philippines and raised in America, she sacrificed so much to make sure the children in her life were looked after.

Episode 16


Get the podcast before anyone else!

Enjoy part one of my conversation with the incredible Dana, a Filipino immigrant to the US who overcame childhood trauma to make sure that the kids in her life were looked after. She went through so much as a child, but that hasn’t stopped her from living her life to the fullest, becoming a guardian to her godchildren and a role model for many other young people who look to her for support. When she met her husband, they found that they shared fertility issues, which became an unspoken ally in their decision to embrace a life without children. Dana is a testament to how we can go through so much in our lives, and to not just survive, but thrive.

Support the Show


Dana: There’s still this need for some form of female autonomy of, “You will do X because you’re a woman, and we know better”. And it’s kind of like, “No, you don’t. Like, have you been in my shoes? Have you? Would you like a guided tour of what I went through? Because I’d like to compare notes, and see what you think”.

Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome back to We are Childfree, a podcast that celebrates childfree lives and shares our stories. This is part one of my conversation with the incredible Dana, but before we jump in, I have a piece of good news for you all: On August 1st, International Childfree Day, We are Childfree was named Childfree Group of the Year! The selection panel includes some iconic childfree activists, and it’s an honour to be so warmly embraced by them – and so quickly! I relaunched We are Childfree this January, with a handful of stories, this brand new podcast, and a dream of showing the world that childfree lives are diverse, fulfilled and worthy of celebration. Amazingly, I now have 1,500 childfree people waiting to share their stories with 45,000 social media followers, and to top it all off, this award! If you want to read more, including a lovely nomination from WAC fan Julie, you can find a link in the Show Notes. Pretty soon, I’ll be launching an online community, a space for you to make new friends, share resources and support, and meet up with childfree folks in your area. If you like the sound of that, you can be first to find out when the community launches by signing up at wearechildfree.com Back to my conversation with Dana. I could have spoken to her for hours – her story is so incredible, nuanced and emotional, that I didn’t want to cut it short. So today’s episode is 1 of 2, in which Dana takes us through her childfree journey. Dana went through so much as a child, but that hasn’t stopped her from living her life to the fullest, becoming a guardian to her godchildren and a role model for many other kids who look to her for support. When she met her husband, they found that they shared fertility issues, which they now see as an unspoken ally in their decision to embrace a life without children. Dana is a testament to how we can go through so much in our lives, and to not just survive, but thrive. Enjoy part one of my conversation with the incredible Dana.

Dana: The decision, I think it came in various milestones in my life. And as I hit those certain milestones and came to the decision – or conclusion, as I like to call it – it kind of either actually reinforced the overall decision of not having a child, or at least forced me to rethink that decision. But still point in direction of “Nope, I definitely want to be childfree.” So hopefully, I can kind of articulate this because I was trying in my head to kind of visualise, like, how do I explain this? So, I think the earliest honestly was maybe when I was age seven – and now give a little bit of background. I was born in the Philippines. I was the youngest of three kids, I have an older sister and brother. And my mom, after she had divorced my dad, she made the decision to come to emigrate to the United States, pursue the American dream. And the funny part with that is, in reality, when she divorced, when she was in the Philippines, I mean, she was basically, I would say, she was the modern woman – I mean, she grew up from a poor family, did well in school, got her degree, successful career. I remember my siblings telling me that my mom was doing so well that they would tell me, “Oh, we lived in this really nice house in Manila. We had a nanny, we had a maid, mom had it all.” But unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out very well. And with the Philippines being very Catholic. So, the concept of – I think, at the time, my mom left, not really not just to pursue a better opportunity, but I think she also knew that if she stayed, she was going to face the hurdle of being a single working mom, and I think she felt that society wasn’t ready for that concept. So, she went overseas, and obviously, she couldn’t take us. So, she left us in the care of her parents and her siblings – she was the eldest of six – in her hometown. And I will say that growing up there, I’m going to say, somewhat diplomatically, that it was a mixed bag. We were taken care of but I don’t think in the way that when I look back at it, it was proper. Let’s just say my relatives kind of took things that they disagreed with, like, I knew they didn’t like my father very much. And they just took that and amongst other things out on my siblings and me, physically, emotionally, mentally. And I witnessed things that happened to my sister and brother that, I mean, I still break out in a cold sweat thinking about it. And remember what I went through sometimes, and kind of seeing the unfair treatment that my siblings and I had in comparison to our cousins. And in a weird part, by the time I was seven, and at that point, my mom had returned from the United States, to take my siblings and I here in the US. I think that the trauma that we went through was, it was enough for me to kind of develop this – at the time, it made sense to me, but now like looking back, it’s a little warped – I kind of saw that I didn’t want to have kids because I kind of saw that childhood could be weaponised by adults. And I’m being told, “You’re an inconvenience, we’re just putting up with you, because your mother sends us money back to for us to take care of you” – that type of thing. So, I kind of as a child, I kind of viewed children and childhood like it’s a bad thing. It’s something that adults did not look forward to handling. And I just kind of kept that to myself, because I saw very quickly once coming here in America adjusting to the new life and culture and realising very fast that my friends didn’t have the childhood that I had. They had loving parents and they were taken care of, there was like, affection – concepts that we take for granted like affection, food, shelter, education – there weren’t conditions associated behind it. It I think helped initially, like kind of chip away at my fear of not having children, because it’s a terrible thing being like, “Okay, maybe it’s not a bad thing, maybe what I experienced was just different”. But it was enough for me to kind of be still be terrified. I could remember even playing games with my friends, like, “Oh, if you got to marry so and so, how many kids would you have?” and I’d play along with it, but I know, emotionally, I was just terrified. I was just scared at the thought of kids, because I was afraid that I was treated like trash, my kids are going to be treated like trash, or I might treat them like trash. It was just that fear. And I think that kind of got amplified more when at age 12, when my siblings and I hit puberty, and I hate to kind of say this, when you mix puberty plus trauma, it is never a good mix. And I think my witnessing my siblings just what they endured, just suddenly, burst out in the floor. And my parents; my mom and my stepdad, trying to navigate kind of figuring out where did this come from? How did this occur? And even for me just kind of I didn’t have the outburst, but I became more withdrawn, because I was watching my siblings express, basically, what the three of us had witnessed and experienced. To me, it just kind of, I think it amplified it, I felt myself regressing back to my original decision at age seven in that, “I don’t want to have kids because look at what the grown-ups did to us, we’re so messed up”. And I think that kind of got me a little more scared in terms of “I never, I never want to have children it’s like, I had too much trauma, I want this to die with me.” I had that weird, that just, that mindset. But like it’s kind of funny, because it seems like it’s just, I had this decision, and it changes in less than 10 years, because the next milestone was, I think, when I turned 18 – six years later, after that decision – at this point, I’m getting ready to leave for college. And at the same time, my brother had gotten married, and had his first kid, my niece. And I think I was surprised at how I reacted towards her. Because I was initially thinking in my head, “Yeah, I’m happy, my brother’s becoming an adult, he’s going to be a dad, he has this healthy kid”. But I always kind of harboured this fear of – because he asked me to be her godmother. And I knew, I knew the responsibility behind that. And I was, even though I accepted, I was frankly very afraid of, “Am I going to be a good role model for her?” especially with what I went through. And the funny part was, I was already like a grad, a high school senior on my way to college. And the few months that I got to spend with her before I left, I was actually kind of surprised, just that level of care. I really didn’t think “Oh, my gosh. What I went through? How is this possible?” I thought that got sucked out of me or got beaten out of me for lack of a better term. So, it kind of had a look, I guess, that gave me a bit of a lightbulb moment in the sense of, maybe there is a chance, maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, in terms of my mindset of, I still didn’t want children, but I was actually comforted knowing that it didn’t kill off whatever ability of caring and affection. And I was actually really comforted by that when I left for college, because, I was already thinking back of my head. I was like, “Well, I don’t know what to expect in college, I might be dealing with kids, maybe because I need to earn, I might have to tutor in order to pay for my books or something like that.” And it was funny that even through college like that, I think that might have kind of helped me soften at least the reasoning behind my stance. I wasn’t interested in having kids of my own, but I was at least becoming more open in terms of other kids. I seem to be able to care for them. I seem to not be able to pass any kind of trauma because I kind of started maybe, because I’m now seeing it as like a tool of, “This is what you are not to do. This is what is not acceptable, for you to do to children.” So, it’s kind of weird, like just talking about it, because in my head, like I think about it mentally in my head. I was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” But saying it out loud. I’m like, “Wow, like this sounds…” It’s kind of like a weird stop-and-go journey.

Zoë: Right, right. Yes. Yeah. I mean, yeah, this is something you aren’t alone in this either, this kind of worry and concern about repeating a cycle of trauma, and I get messages from people a lot about traumatic experiences, traumatic childhood that they had, and the concern and the worry about repeating that is huge. And it – I mean, it doesn’t surprise me because having a child, yeah, it can change people. And that in the back of your head, you’ve been through so much, you’ve dealt with so much. And I’m just so happy that you can see there is light at the end of the tunnel and having that god-daughter you absolutely can love and, and share that with, the world, and with people that you do love. So, that’s, I’m so happy that you’re in that place now.

Dana: Yeah, I am, too. It’s kind of hard because I think that’s kind of the hard challenge, I think, for anyone undergoing a trauma is you do wonder, “When will I hit that point where I can crest over that wave that’s holding me back?” Looking back, I think I was looking trying to see it as like, “I need to find that point.” And it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t going to be a single point in time, it was going to be a series, it’s going to be small. But then you realise, when you look back, actually, for me at least in order to crest that wave that was holding me back, it took a series of little ones for me to just keep climbing. And I was eventually going to get to the other side. And I think with being childfree and I think in that way, it was just almost like the whole, just the construct of the idea of children and then having children and being responsible for children. It’s like, it was all just so tightly knitted, I think it was just so hard to kind of be able to tell them apart. And then you realise, that it’s not just because of what you experienced, but also, you are kind of also maybe directly or indirectly contributing to it. And I guess that explains the next set of milestones I hit. I was 22 when I graduated, and at that point when I came home, I found that not only do I have my niece, but she also had a little brother, my nephew. And at that point, I returned home finding out that my brother and his wife were in the middle of a divorce, a pretty nasty one. And the kids were in the middle. And I think for me it was kind of like that homecoming kind of was difficult because the trauma that I thought that I had kind of neatly packed away because, I was puttering my way through college, figuring out who I was just came rushing back and I just remember kind of being torn between, I wanted to get away and I wanted but then at the same time I looked at my niece and nephew being like, “I can’t leave them in this scenario because I’ve been here. And I don’t want them to experience what my siblings and I went through, what their dad went through, especially”. And it was funny, because at that time, I’d actually was in the process of enlisting in the army. Because I’ve always wanted to go to the military, but my parents told me, “College first. And if that’s still in your system, go ahead”. And so, I went through the process, and I was basically, literally, a few weeks away from being shipped to bootcamp. And I guess it just, I had that milestone of I had to watch the kids for some reason, I think my parents were working, my sister, my older sister was working. So, I was at home with the kids and just kind of playing with them. It’s kind of funny, because it was just something so mundane, like putting the kids down for a nap. And both my niece and nephew, they didn’t want to sleep on the bed, they wanted to sleep on my lap. So, I plopped on the couch, I turn the TV down on low, and I think I was watching something like, a cheesy soap opera, that I wasn’t really paying attention to. And just watch them as they both fell asleep. And I kind of sat there and I was just kind of going in my head, I was going like, “Oh, gosh, so many things I have to do before I get shipped to bootcamp.” And then I stopped. And I just kind of went like, “I can’t leave them.” It’s like, if I go, I don’t know where I was going to be shipped. The US was still in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think I knew in the back of my mind; I would eventually be shipped to one of those locations. And then I thought about that and then I thought, “I don’t know how long I’m going to be away.” It was weird. It’s just all these questions: do I want to be not there for them? And it was funny by the time my parents came home, I just kind of made the decision of like, I’m giving up my dream. But I don’t think I could live with myself leaving my niece and nephew behind. So, I didn’t go.

Zoë: You made that sacrifice.

Dana: Yeah. And I was, frankly, a little surprised with myself in that because in my head, I was going like, “This was an opportunity”. This was something that I knew I wanted, but I was giving it up for kids that are not even mine. They’re my brother’s kids. So that’s kind of why I get a little sensitive when I hear people go like, “Oh, you’re so selfish for not having kids.” And part of me wants to, in my head, I want it to go like, “Oh, if you only knew. I gave up a lot.”

Zoë: I mean, yeah, these assumptions, they hurt. They really hurt people. They don’t know what’s going on with people’s lives at all.

Dana: Yeah. And in a weird sort of way, I don’t regret it. I feel like that decision, I won’t hesitate to say was as painful as it was, it was indeed the best decision – because in exchange for maybe not having kids of my own. I mean, my niece and nephew are going to be as close as I’ll have. And now that they’re in their early 20s, I feel immensely proud kind of knowing that they feel comfortable around me, that they’re willing to come to me, even my husband, to talk about things that they don’t want to talk to my parents being that even their guardians or even my sister as their aunt or even their biological father, my brother. To them they’re like, “I’m more comfortable talking to Aunt Dana.” or “I prefer to get her advice.” And for me, it’s just kind of, that’s awesome, Because I don’t know, for me, it’s like, I don’t know. I think we all have this weird fear of how are people going to remember us when it’s our time. And I’m actually in a way like seeing my niece and nephew how they’re turning out, I’m comforted kind of knowing that, yeah, I can comfortably say that they’re going to be my legacy, because they’re turning out to be, they’re turning out okay, they’re turning out to be decent adults. And for somebody that I that, frankly, I’m not thrilled about my past – gosh, I’ll go swim with the sharks, if I could, if that would be the chance for me to change my childhood. But, I’m okay with this. And I think that’s kind of why with hearing, hearing other women talk about their decision to being childfree, I can never quite understand why people or society is so fixated on that statement, but then don’t bother to see or hear all the other things that these women have done or are doing, just because they chose not to be childfree. Some of them are amazing aunts or godmothers or mentors and tutors, or at least just being positive role models, that strangers can look at and go, “I want to be able to do what she’s doing.” It’s kind of, it’s really strange. And I think that’s kind of where I am. And we’re sort of with this journey of figuring out my, what’s my role, even though coming from a culture back home where it’s like, “Oh, you’re female, you’re going to be a mom and a wife.”

Zoë: Right. It’s large families, yeah.

Dana: Yeah. For me just like, “Well, what if I just want to be wife? What if that’s the best that I can give?” And it’s weird. I kind of accepted back home there is still that mindset, but then coming to the US and it still surprises me that, that mindset is also here as well. And I just can’t wrap my head around that in terms of like, “What do we have to do?” that kind of. I guess, I don’t know, if this prove, disprove illustrate, I don’t know.

Zoë: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of it is shocking to me, a place like America that you can have an idea of, well, it talks about family as being the most important thing. But the way it treats, mothers in particular, and children as well, it’s kind of shocking as an outsider looking at how, really it can be worse than some countries which are maybe more developing countries from what I hear. So, it’s kind of shocking to me, yeah, the differences between different countries, how women are treated, but there is still a general feeling of women are the second-class citizen, in every country, it’s still there. Even here in Germany, hearing from the women, their experiences, we just have so far to go. But I mean, I’m super interested for you, coming from the Philippines and, and seeing both of those, the comparison between those two countries and still feeling like, “What is it that we have to do?”, it’s really sad.

Dana: It is. At first, I tried to reason, is it because of – the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, and the church does have – it still has influence, I think in terms of the cultural norms. But I feel like here in the US, I’m sure people might disagree with me on this, in terms of, there’s a little bit more flexibility, I guess. And it just surprises me that, there’s still this need for some form of female autonomy of, “You will do X because you’re a woman, and we know better”. And it’s kind of like, “No, you don’t. Like, have you been in my shoes? Have you? Would you like a guided tour of what I went through? Because I’d like to compare notes, and see what you think”. And I also find it weird and this is kind of where, no pressure on you and your series, but I’ve always been fascinated with, I think, why is there, at least to me, it seems like there’s a bit of a gap, amongst females – those who choose to have children and those who don’t. And I always kept thinking, like, “Wait, aren’t we all on the same team?” We’re all kind of facing the same issues. But why are we kind of sniping at each other, so to speak. And I know for me that’s a bit of a struggle, because in where I work, well, not my current job, but like, in my previous jobs, sometimes I was the only female in my team that didn’t have children. And I kind of picked up on the weird little nuances, like, “Oh, it’s okay for my coworker to, leave early because, her kid’s sick, and she needs to be picked up from school.” But the exchange might have been like, “Well, Dana, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to, you need to cover for your teammate and work longer hours” – things like that. I don’t mind those in a weird sort of way if it’s just from a, for the sake of working as a team, keeping the peace, sure. But I kind of feel like for that one, I’m okay with that so long as it’s always a two-way street. And unfortunately, we’re just not seeing that. And even my niece has actually asked me that question being, “Will it be better when it’s my time?” She would ask me, she asked me once, and I felt bad and kind of telling her that I don’t know. I said, “I feel like, your question is going to be one of those questions that it may take your generations are the one after you to kind of sort out.” I think I said somewhat jokingly just to comfort her. I said, “You know your aunt is a cynical old bat.” And I was like, “I don’t have much faith in at least my generation figuring that out because I think we’re kind at the moment, we’re kind of recognising that reckoning.” I was like, “So I guess in a way, that’s good. Unfortunately, for your question of, are we going to be able to solve it? I don’t think so. But it’s comforting to hear you ask these questions, because I think that’s where we need to start is, start asking the questions – why?”

Zoë: Yes, yes. Absolutely. That’s, that’s what we need. Absolutely, we need more people asking, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing it because I want to do it or because I think this is what society tells me I want?”

Dana: Yes. And that’s my biggest hope in all of this is that, people are having the conversations because of that question. Is it because, having children or not having children? Is it because it’s what I want, I genuinely want versus, is it because I’m being told by society that I should? Even if there’s a strong possibility that I am not equipped. And I actually laugh at that too, because, I guess, in continuing with my milestone, I discovered at 27 that, biologically I can’t have children. That apparently, I found out the hard way, I got pregnant and my doctors pretty much told me that, “Your pregnancy won’t be viable because your body wasn’t structured to carry it to term.” So, I honestly just had a choice, so my choice was to terminate, or I can risk trying to carrying it, but it wasn’t going to have a positive outcome. And I ended up just choosing the former. I think, in a weird sort of way, I kind of saw this at the time, at least, I saw it as there was no way I’m going to provide for this child. I’m already supporting my niece and nephew. And, at the same time, I just kind of viewed it, and also from a pragmatic perspective, my relationship with my boyfriend at the time was already on the rocks. And it reminded me of what my mom went through, because, at least, I found out much later. It didn’t impact my influence at the time. But I found out much later after the fact that my own mom, I think she had my siblings and I, because she thought it would help the marriage. And I kind of looked at that as, I don’t, I don’t want that, that just goes back to my childhood mindset of “children are weaponised” not just like, I’m not going to do that. And I think in a weird sort of way to be broadly speaking, I knew no one was going to win in this outcome. So, I had the procedure done to terminate the pregnancy. But in a weird sort of way, it comforted me knowing that, I think this kind of helps. I felt like my medical condition is almost like an unspoken ally, in why I choose to be childfree. It’s because I’m not biologically structured to do so. And then, of course, that always brings you out, but there’s IVF, and all of that, and it’s like, “Why do I want to do that?” It kind of brings up again, the question of, why is there a need? And again, I don’t know if this is just a personal thing, or is this just because, again, this is what society’s dictated to us. Why is there such a need for having children that is genetically yours, when there’s already so many kids in the foster system, in orphanages that want loving homes – and that always kind of boggled my mind. And, it’s funny, because the sad part there is, it’s hard to even come up, how to articulate that reasoning in a way that doesn’t hurt feelings, especially now, I’m in my 40s, I’m married for almost 10 years and my husband and I still get questions of like, “When you’re going to have kids?” And before I can’t say like, well, age, but that got blown out of the water, because everyone goes like “You can have, IVF” and all that. And I’m like, “Yeah, yay, science for that.” But, I was like, “Yeah, that there’s that and it’s wonderful. But at the same time, there are kids out there who I think are equally deserving of love and affection from adults that strongly feel like they’re capable of providing that”. What’s the hurdle? Why not that option? It’s something that my husband and I have always talked about, would we want to adopt? Because when we were dating, I was very blunt with him. I bluntly disclose my medical condition, and I even told him, “I also have a niece and nephew that I am very active in raising. If this is not your cup of tea, I’m not going to be offended”. And, I mean, I guess I had a keeper because he went, like, “Cool. Cool, when can I meet them?”

Zoë: Did he say that he didn’t want kids at any points? Or?

Dana: Well, when we were dating, I think we both kind of talked about we want kids. Yeah. And it was funny, because I think in his case, he was, I found that much as we stated further, that he was trying to be very careful with his wording and a sense of, he didn’t mind children, but he had already, he came to his own conclusions that he was fine. If he was in a relationship that had children, he was fine that they weren’t his, that they weren’t biologically his. And I think for him, when I prodded him enough about it, he actually brought up that he was born a preemie. So, he remembered growing up and undergoing a lot of medical procedures. And unfortunately, one of those drawbacks was it basically impacted his ability to help in the progress, I’m just going to very politely pointed that way. And I think he kind of viewed that as a bit of a handicap, he had been worried when he started dating that, would that be something that would be taken against him? That he was not going to be viewed as a man in society because he had faulty equipment. And I think it was for us, we kind of joke now about it, but I think that’s what kind of helped our relationship when we were dating, when I got comfortable enough to disclose to him, like, “Look, if you want kids, like, I can’t provide that for you. I got faulty equipment.” And I think for him, he was just like, “Oh, my God, me, too.” And we both were kind of like, “Awesome.” Yeah, I think it for us, it was a blessing in the sense of, I think it became that unspoken ally for him and I, in terms of why we chose to not have kids. It was both personal and, frankly, medical. And, yes, we could use science to fix us. But my husband and I kind of want them when we talked about it. We both came to this decision, just based on what we went through. And also, for him, I told them about my pregnancy, and why I had to terminate it. And he kind of viewed it as, he’s like, “As your partner, I refuse to have you go through that kind of trauma as my partner” And to him, he kind of use it as that. And he’s like, “It shouldn’t matter – if we open our home to a child, it shouldn’t matter whether the kid is ours or not. You and I have always had the mindset of whoever comes into our home, is family.” And he’s like, “That’s not going to change.” And he’s like, for him, he’s like, “Hey, if we decide in our 50s that we want to raise kids, I’m perfectly fine that they’re not biologically ours, because at the end of the day, what’s going to matter is that they can look at us and go, ‘They love us’.” And I think I’ve kind of learned in all of this, at least and what I’ve been through so far is that, honestly, that’s kind of what matters. It doesn’t matter who you are, who your kid is, or whether you don’t have kids. If you have the ability, if you have the ability to give love, and at least show kids like, “This is how you take care of each other, this is what it means to be a good human.” I kind of feel like, well, isn’t that the whole point of when people say, “Well, we reproduce to perpetuate species”, I’m like, “Well, yeah, but I think it’s also at the same time, abstractly, we perpetuate our species by teaching folks how to be good humans.” That’s kind of part of the equation. And I think in a weird sort of way, I’m kind of seeing for those of us that choose to be childfree. I think we’re kind of taking that in a weird sort of way, kind of taking that mantle.

Zoë: That was part one of my conversation with Dana. Tune in next time to hear the rest of her incredible childfree journey. We are Childfree is hosted by me, Zoë Noble, and produced by James Glazebrook. If you liked this episode, please leave a review on your podcast app, as this really helps other people find us. Head to wearechildfree.com to read more inspiring childfree stories, find out how to share your story with me and to be first to know when the We are Childfree community launches. Speak soon lovelies!