Estephanie: Motherhood Without My Life Partner

“This is story 10 of 10 of LoveYourzStory’s Motherhood Series. 10 mothers give us a glimpse into a small portion of their motherhood journey. I am so grateful that these 10 women gave me the opportunity to share their stories on my platform. Though they focus on different topics, each mother has gone through challenges that tested their strength, patience, and sense of self. Thank you again for sharing.” -Marinelle, LoveYourzStory

This is Estephanie’s story, written in her own words:

“My name is Estephanie, but friends call me Juelz. I’m the proud mother of Elían, fiancé to Tone, Founder of Divine Eye, LLC, Licensed Esthetician, and Body Sculptress at Adriana’s Beauty Salon. 

When I first found out I was pregnant my exact words were ‘holy shit,’ as I smiled. This is not something our family knows, but our son was planned per say. We knew our future wouldn’t be easy and that it would be scary, but we loved each other and knew that we would figure it out. My son turns 4 in January, and man he has been our biggest blessing. Being a mother to me means endless amounts of  strength, courage, and resilience. It’s a feeling that no other can ever fulfill. 

You can have the crappiest day, but even when your child is figuring out their emotions, they manage to still make you smile. You sit and observe them, you then realize, ‘My God, you were in my stomach. I created those beautiful hands, that smile.’ And then I think, ‘Damn you sound just like me.’ Like Faith Evans said, ‘I never knew a love like this before,’ because my family is different in many ways like many others. We’re all unique. I’m a single mother to Elían while my life partner, Tone, is incarcerated.

Honestly, my mom was aware of our situation from the beginning. However, Tone isn’t just someone I met 5-6 years ago. I’ve known him my entire life. We’ve been a part of each other’s lives since we were 12. We have history, we dated in high school. Puppy love, right? But I always knew he’d be an amazing partner. My fiancé was fighting a case previous to our relationship’s beginning. My mom knew about his past, and they have an amazing relationship. My family didn’t know about his case, and I was very private about people I dated. So when I finally brought someone to the family they were excited. His situation wasn’t my story to tell. It was Tone’s private matters. We didn’t want the negativity to surround us. People are ruthless sometimes with questions and overstepping boundaries.

 But of course, secrets always find a way to come out. My family became aware of his case while I was 7 months pregnant. By then, they had gotten to know him for who he was and witnessed how amazing, hardworking, and loving he truly is. They witnessed how attentive he was while I was pregnant and after I gave birth. He made sure to stay home and give his son time. By then, it was too late for the judgement. My family loves Tone. I feel like we just didn’t give room for judgement. We focused on ourselves.

We had a lot of court dates, even before I was pregnant. We never knew which court date they would remand him. My anxiety was pretty high. His case is a federal case, and the judge truly had the say if he’s remanded before his sentencing or not. During my pregnancy, all we did was plan and discuss how we would raise our son. We discussed scenarios because we truly never knew which court would be the last one until it was.

May 15, 2018 my fiancé, my son, and I were joined by other family members as we walked into the federal courthouse located in Oakland, CA. The day had come for sentencing and we believed a miracle would happen due to his many accomplishments and life changing choices.

 My life changed in a blink of an eye when the judge sentenced my fiancé to ten years and eleven months. My son was two days away from turning four months old. It was devastating to hear. I dropped to my knees. I couldn’t believe it. It was his first time being sentenced – never missed a drug test, attended all court ordered classes, and worked a full-time graveyard shift (he does drywall). Minimum for each count was 5 years. Tone was just as surprised. 

Life was great up until that point. I was doing amazing in my career. My son was healthy after a difficult delivery. We had just mailed out invitations for our wedding. I was very hesitant to plan our wedding, but I said ‘Why live in fear?’ Tone was waiting for me to give him the okay to plan the wedding. I was afraid this would happen and it became my reality. I don’t regret it one bit. Life had different plans for us. We knew the possibility was high, but like everyone, you pray and hope for the best. 

The people closest to me understand my position of wanting to wait for Tone. There was concern, but in regards to my mental state. They reminded me of all my options. Reminding me that I too matter and that any decision I took, they would stand by it. Meaning if I waited they would support it, and if I decided to walk away they would support me too.

I haven’t wanted to throw in the towel because of the love and respect I have for Tone. I know I don’t owe him anything. I know this case has absolutely nothing to do with me and I know it’s me putting a lot of hope into the relationship. I cannot get up and leave, I say that because I’d be leaving for the wrong reasons. I’d be leaving because I’m ‘lonely,’ not because I don’t love him or because he doesn’t treat me right. Of course I want my family to be complete, of course I want to have date night to get dolled up while holding hands with my partner, but if I walk away, that’s walking away from my family.

The journey hasn’t been easy. Single moms and mothers like me, who aren’t single but due to circumstances have to do it alone, we forget to praise ourselves for all that we do. There are lonely nights where we stay up to cry, wake up with puffy eyes, and handle business. When there’s so much to be done you don’t know where to start but you do. The amazing memories we create with our children, good and bad that you can look back and laugh. 

Motherhood was never supposed to be easy. It is the next step of growth. Motherhood teaches you to unlock those traumas you’ve been avoiding because you don’t want to project it onto your child. Motherhood gets you in a loophole of emotions, but doing motherhood alone without your life partner is hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a partner pass away. I’m blessed to be able to receive a phone call, an email, or these days – even a visit. 

The first years I struggled with my depression and anxiety but I managed it. I lost myself in that process. I lost my glow. I lost my happiness because I was stripped away from what I thought was my perfect life. In reality, what is perfection? I don’t think anyone knows what that is. I just knew I needed to fight, and that the fight wasn’t going to be easy. Everyone’s first thoughts are, ‘Oh she’s going to leave him, watch,’ or ‘Oh, she’s going to cheat on him if she waits, watch,’ or even worse, ‘Watch her wait and the relationship fails.’ Like sheesh, can we be a bit more optimistic here please?

It truly takes a village, my support system has helped me so much with my child. When I needed to go back to work, all hands were on deck. My mom, mother-in-law, and sister-in-laws helped me take care of my son. Mondays and Wednesdays my mom would watch him, the other days my sister-in-law would watch him, and when she couldn’t anymore my mother-in-law took over. My cousins would come over to help me so I could catch up with laundry or cleaning while they helped me with my son. They watched me break down crying an endless amount of times. My cousins and close friends gave me a safe space to vent and plot my next moves. My mom motivated me even on the days I just wanted to be alone, she made sure to get me out of my comfort zone.

I found love in food. It was my coping mechanism even when I was a teen. However, I knew I needed to do something different but didn’t know what. I created myself a routine. Every week looked the same. But I grew tired of it. I would begin books and I couldn’t finish them. My attention span was so small and I couldn’t understand why if I truly loved reading books. Then it was time to dive deeper. I knew I needed to go back to therapy. I tried it but I was afraid to open the doors of Pandora’s Box. So I stopped, but I started to journal. Not every day, but I tried as much as I could. I prayed a lot and I cried a lot. 

 As a mother, naturally you  are a nurturer. I love nurturing my family, that means my fiancé as well. Not only do I have to learn to cope with my roller coaster of emotions, but I too have to attend to my man’s needs and his vulnerabilities so he doesn’t lose his mind for not being here with his family and witnessing our son grow everyday. That’s his biggest fear because he grew up without a father too. 

It’s far from easy for Tone. This was his biggest fear: not being able to watch his child grow up every day. He wishes he could be here, but he has his moments of depression and anger. He writes Elían letters and draws beautiful artwork so he could see them. It’s been harder for Tone when we did have visits – to sit in front of your child and not be able to hug them or even hold their hand due to COVID. If you break the rule, Tone can be sent to solitary confinement. Tone has been in solitary confinement many times during this pandemic, caught COVID twice, and was freezing because it was so cold in those cells.

What hurts the most is not knowing how he will come home from the traumas he’s endured during his life in prison. How he will handle the changes I’ve made during the time he was gone. I worry if we will be able to adapt to the new life after the honeymoon stage fades of having him home. How my son will handle his father being home, if he will react negatively when his dad wants to correct him or if it’s going to be awkward for him. 

I can relate with my son because I also had to visit my father in prison until I was 25 years old. I know the feeling when I see my son watch his father enter the visiting room, how his eyes glow, and he cheeses under his facemask. The pandemic has been far from easy – it has been our biggest challenge. As of right now, we have no visits due to COVID-19. The facility is unaware when the visits will begin again due to cases rising. In the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic I organized a protest (#YOSOYTUVOZ Lompoc, CA) with the help of my family and other families to bring awareness to the inhumane acts that were taking place in the prison. 

Not seeing each other for almost one year, and now being able to see each other and not hug each other is difficult. Helping my son understand that his daddy does love him but can’t hug him is devastating. Especially when he compares himself to other children and their fathers. I know that feeling because I also would do it as a little girl – but now as a mother it’s by far the worst feeling.

Growing up without a father was difficult. I didn’t understand why my father committed the same mistake knowing the high risk of being away from us. My father has always battled with addiction and being in and out of prison. The time my dad was home we have great memories of him, but I also have nightmares of him. I would take care of my dad when he was coked out. I would intervene in the physical beatings my mother received while he was under the influence. I worried if he would come home or not, and if he came home, I feared what state he would be in.

 I’m a daddy’s girl 100% however, it does get overwhelming. It made me a giver and a nurturer yet gave me a cold heart. Although my father is no longer incarcerated, he struggles with his addiction. I can’t believe that although I’ll be 28 next month, I no longer have a healthy relationship with my father. When I’m dealing with heavy stuff I switch to survival mode. It’s been a journey to calm down the survival mode because I have a son now and can’t just get up and leave.

I feel that maybe my family is sympathetic towards my current situation because my mom went through the same thing with my dad. But my father was nothing like Tone. My family didn’t meet my father until after I turned 2 years old because he went to prison while my mom was pregnant with me. My dad wasn’t the best partner for my mother, a lot of healing needed to take place. And with Tone, it was peaceful, no drama, loving, respectful, and family oriented. It was a different experience my family witnessed with Tone. He had similarities like my dad given the choice of lifestyle they chose for various reasons, but he has my Papa’s (grandfather) hard working attitude and detail oriented when it comes to family.

The only thing my son and I can relate to is that Tone is incarcerated for mistakes that were previous to our relationship. The way I’m helping my son with not having his dad around is by teaching him coping mechanisms to help with his emotions while being frustrated. We do a lot of breathing techniques, drawing/painting when he’s sad or having an off day. When he’s mad I tell him to go to his room to take a breather, use the punching bag, or to use his drums. I like teaching him things Tone would teach him, and showing him movies Tone loves. I bring him to work with me, I’ve taught him how to fold towels, and help me with laundry. I do things with him that his dad and I emphasized we wanted to do. I speak highly of his dad and I remind him no matter where his daddy is, that he’s always thinking of him and loves him dearly.

Elían wants to know everything about his dad, from what he eats to what kind of cologne he wears. Sometimes at night is when it becomes harder for me. The hardest question by far has been, ‘Why daddy don’t love me or hug me? I miss him.’ Those were the words I heard the first time we visited him after COVID-19. It was a new facility we were going to and the first time seeing him since the last time we visited pre-pandemic. It was very rough for my son. Again, hearing that from a 3 year old was devastating. It was so hard to put the words together as I cried with him because as a child, I remembered that feeling.

My son is very attached to Tone given the circumstances. Their bond was strong even when I was pregnant. When he would hear his dad’s voice, he’d have a whole party in my belly. One thing about my son is he’s very curious and asks a lot of questions. This year we officially told him his dad was at a camp. He knows that his dad is at a camp correcting his actions by having an adult timeout. And sometimes, as adults we make mistakes and everything has a consequence whether it is good or bad, but when it is bad the timeouts are a little different. They have to go away for a little bit to learn new habits.

 However, we emphasize that if it were up to his dad, he’d be at home with us every single day. I emphasize to him how much his daddy loves him. I have pictures of his dad everywhere. My son’s godparents have bought him a Build-a-Bear with his voice recording telling him how much he loves him so he can hear it everyday. Books about his daddy (wonderbly.com), also blankets with pictures of him when he was a baby with his dad. 

Obstacles in life will always happen, no matter how great your plan is, no matter how good of a person you are, life will challenge you. I am learning to believe in myself because of motherhood. Everything life has taught me has led up to this moment. So when I find myself asking, ‘Why me?’ I now say, ‘Okay, so what’s the lesson here and where can I grow?’ Being a mother doesn’t mean having all the answers, it means figuring it out with the answers you do have and working from there. 

It sounds so simple, but trust and communication is how Tone and I maintain our relationship. We are very raw with our conversations. We have conversations that couples find difficult to have – our fears, our regrets, our happiness, our past, our traumas, things we like about each other, and things we find difficult about each other. I am very open with my emotions and I’m like a firework. And Tone is more reserved and quiet about his emotions. But I can sense it just by the first moment I hear his voice. I cry a lot to him if I’m being honest. I get a sudden rush of guilt for complaining to him and he reminds me that I’m his partner and he needs to talk about these things with me. We pray a lot. We read the same books so we can discuss them to create conversation. I bought a deck of cards for couples to ask questions to get to know each other even more. We try to know everything about each other because all we can do is use our words to explain what and how we feel on a daily basis since we don’t have each other physically here.

I am hopeful Tone will be able to come home sooner than we ever expected. I am hopeful that this nightmare will just be a chapter in our story where we can look back on 20 years from now and say, ‘Damn, baby, we did that.’ Where we can tell our future grandchildren and great grandchildren our love story. Like not only did we overcome this sentence, but a whole pandemic too.  

The best advice I can give someone that is dealing with this same scenario is to learn from each other. LEARN EACH OTHER’S TRIGGERS AND LOVE LANGUAGE. Learn to compromise, learn to understand one another. This journey is far from easy, there will be nights that you feel your heart is truly hurting and the tears won’t stop running down your face but it’s during those moments you grow. It’s during those moments you learn that although you feel like the world is against you, it’s not. Never say, ‘Why me?’ Say, ‘What do I need to learn during this time?’ Take this time to truly get out of your comfort zone. Learn to trust yourself because the doubt will eat you alive. Don’t listen to the bystanders, pay attention to the support and love you receive. No one will understand your relationship better than you and your partner.” -Estephanie

11/07/2020

A letter to my future kids about this historic day.

Kids,

This is on some How I Met Your Mother shit, which is totally like me, so don’t even act surprised. Anyways, I wanted to write and document this day before some time passes and I forget some details…

For reference, let me rewind it 4 years prior to this day. November 2016. I’ll never forget going to school the day after America learned that the next president would be Trump. Going into school was depressing. There was such a heaviness in the air on San Francisco State campus. Trump being president was the topic of discussion in every conversation, every class, and on the news. Everyone was disappointed and scared of what the next 4 years would be like.

My journalism teachers were especially devastated. Journalism is already a challenging profession, but to also have a president that claims certain news outlets as “fake news” would make the job that more challenging. My professors would always add how we are going into the industry at a very delicate time. There will be people that don’t believe us, will question our credibility, and will refuse to talk to us – following the lead of Trump. They were worried for their students’ futures and the country. What would the next 4 years be like?

I can’t believe its been 4 years under Trump. In these 4 years he has caused so much hurt and divide. When he was elected, it brought to light all the broken parts of America that still need fixing. Suddenly, racism wasn’t something to be ashamed of anymore, locking kids in cages wasn’t seen as inhumane, whether black lives mattered or not was now a debate, and following orders to stop the spread of a disease was taking away rights. Just 2020 alone is so bizarre. And some of us in America had enough. Especially with a pandemic to add to all the turmoil that Trump had caused, we demanded change.

Kids, I’m sure your textbooks will go over what kind of human Trump was. Your textbooks will probably have screenshots of some of his ridiculous tweets and statements, you’ll probably see videos of things he’s said and done, and you’ll probably wonder, “how the hell was this guy the president?!And I’ll be sitting there just as confused as you are. I’ll be there to tell you my experiences – being a college student studying Journalism and Women Gender Studies when all of this was going down. Unfortunately, I’ll have to share how decisions under his term hurt people I was close to and made a lot of people fear for their safety. How he acted and influenced others made me fear for my safety as a woman. I’ll even have to open up about the divide it had on the world and in people’s homes. What weird times.

I felt especially guilty because I didn’t vote in 2016. Yup, I admit it. To this day, I still feel so ashamed and embarrassed. It was a mix of knowing California was going to be blue anyways, thinking no way Trump would be elected, and honestly just not taking initiative or making time to register. Right after Trump was elected, I made sure to register and vote for everything that came after. When 2020 came around, I knew I had to redeem myself. If I wanted change, I had to be a part of it. If I wanted to complain and bitch, I had to make sure that I had a say in the decisions being made.

Seeing how America decided to vote in 2016 scared me. To add to that, the pandemic made people hesitant to vote in person. I voted through the mail, and did it weeks in advance to make sure it was recieved in time. Me and your Ninang Merl had a voting session where we sat at the livingroom couch going over props and candidates for Daly City. We debated over certain things, but it helped because it made us take into consideration the opposite side. It forced us to ask ourselves – who would this effect? What’s the pros and cons? For presidency obviously it was an easy Biden / Harris vote of course. Kids, did I mention this was the year that Kanye West was on the ballot? Remind your Papa Lando about this and you’ll hear an earful. Hahaha.

But, we filled out the ballots about 2-3 weeks in advance and we mailed it in that same day, right after visiting your Great Tatay Jacinto. That is also another story… By this time we were about 7 months into the pandemic life. We usually visited Tatay Jack’s place every other Sunday along with all your great aunts and uncles, aunts and uncles, and older cousins. We would gather and have dinner, putting on animal planet shows because that was Tatay’s favorite, or America’s funniest home videos. Tatay also didn’t have cable on his TV. But with the pandemic and Tatay being 96, we had to stop the gatherings. It was too risky. So, he spent his 97th birthday Sheltering in Place. It still makes me sad to think about. But your Papa Lando, Ninang Merl, and I would try to drive by every Sunday to drop off some bread for Tatay and Tita. And when I mean drop off, I literally mean drop off. We wore masks, stayed more than 6 feet away, tried not to touch anything, said hello to Tatay, and left. The whole encounter would take about 1 minute max.

That was around mid-October when we mailed in the ballots. But when November started to loom around the corner, I started to get nervous. I did my part, but would the rest of America do its part? I wasn’t the only one stressed. It’s all everyone and anyone could talk about. We had your Ninang Cam’s baby shower on Halloween. It was a good little distraction from the election. Your Ninang Justine, Ninang Lyn, Ninang Cam’s mom, and I planned it for your God brother, Jojo. We were so excited because Kuya Jojo was the first baby to be born in our group. Even though it was in the middle of a pandemic, we kept the event small and made sure people were taking proper protocols. But once the baby shower was over, all of our attention went back to the dreaded election.

The first couple days of November was nerve wrecking. Once it was November 3rd, my eyes were glued to my phone. At this time, your dad and I had moved in together, but we didn’t have cable, only Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime video etc. So I didn’t have access to the news. Now that I think about it, refreshing the results on my phone was probably better for my anxious ass, since your Ninang Merl was saying that hearing the news anchors’ 5 cents made her more stressed. Everybody was saying that it would take days – maybe even weeks to know who the winner was. Especially since voting was taking place during a pandemic. Some states said it would take a week or two to count up all the mail in ballots. Still, I refreshed and refreshed my phone on November 3rd.

I woke up November 4th and went straight to my phone, thinking that I would have a notification with the winner. Nope. Throughout the workday I would refresh my phone, making myself anxious looking at the percentages. I couldn’t help it. It was like watching a train wreck. I just couldn’t look away. And even if I could look away, I’d be getting updates from your Auntie Hong at work. She was on it. I loved working with your Auntie Hong. She’d give me updates while she was on break and I was on duty about the election. Little did she know I had the tab open on the laptop as I did my work, refreshing every 10 minutes or so.

Kids, when you’re in distress, turn to memes. I will say that the memes about waiting for Nevada and how fuckin slow they were counting their ballots was what kept the situation light. The memes made it funny, even though inside everyone was trippin out. By Thursday and Friday, I just assumed that we weren’t going to know the winner until atleast November 12th – the date Nevada gave us regarding their mail in ballots. I tuned it out of my mind, but still I refreshed my phone screen everytime it came to mind again.

On November 7, 2020, at around 8:12 AM, your Papa Lando and Ninang Merl came to pick up your dad and I from our San Francisco house. We were going to meet up my Auntie Salvie, your Uncle Michael, Uncle Ryan, Kuya Jacob & Brayden, and Ate Ava to go hiking. This is something we starter during quarantine. We couldn’t be at Tatay’s house, and we were all cautious about social distancing. But we missed the family hangouts. So we would hike every Saturday, wearing masks and catching up.

“Here.” Your Ninang Merl texted me.

Your dad and I got in the car, and we were on our way to the hiking meeting spot. Of course, all we could talk about was the election. Your Papa Lando and Ninang Merl kept talking politics, talking about which states we needed to win, how corrupt both parties are, etc. Through all this noise, your dad pulled out his phone. He said out loud that Biden won and showed me his phone. I looked at the top that read “The Associated Press has called this race.”

“Wait. The Associated Press called it. That means its official?!” I said in disbelief, searching it on my phone.

We all couldn’t believe it. But something in me was hesitant to believe. So I waited it out. We went on the hike, and your Uncle Ryan and Auntie Salvie started getting notifications through apps and websites. We had a new president. I was still hesitant to look at my phone. I didn’t want to be taken out of the present moment to be glued to my phone, so I saved my stalking and fact checking for after the hike. I couldn’t get it out of my head the excitement and relief I felt. This was really happening? I couldn’t believe it.

After the hike I went on social media and everyone was posting about it. We had a new president. We got Trump out of office, and by his tweets, he was not happy about it. I was in awe. I will say that I had little to no faith in America to vote Trump out. I really hoped we would, but was I confident? Hell nah. I really thought that these swing states were going to disappoint again. I’m so happy that they didn’t though.

I had so many things racing through my mind. Trump was out of office! But there was a lot of work to be done, voting him out was the first step to rebuilding. And then I thought… holy shit, our Vice President is a woman. Not only a woman, but a Black and Indian woman. The first woman to be vice president. I couldn’t believe that I was living this historic day in history. I got to see the first black man become president, and now, I got to see the first black and brown woman to be vice president.

This was big. Your Papa Lando was dropping us back to our San Francisco house because we still had a lot of laundry to do. But I knew people were going to start gathering on the streets. I knew there were celebrations about to explode. And I was right. People took it to the streets, from San Francisco, to New York, to even Canada. I wanted to go out and celebrate as well, but your Papa Lando was afraid for our safety. Which I was hesitant about too. Not only that, but your dad reminded me that we’re in the middle of a fuckin’ pandemic. So, your dad and I celebrated by ordering food and gorging ourselves. By 8 PM we decided to swing by the Haight. Your dad had something to pick up, and we decided to pick up some pizza while we were there. It was dark, cold, and getting a little late, but people were still driving by honking and cheering.

We ordered our extra large pizza and waited outside, that was the new thing to do in the COVID era. I remember looking into the pizza shop and seeing their TV on the news. They kept showing scenes and clips from different parts of America of people celebrating. Clips of Biden and Harris filled the screen. That was our new president and vice president. I thought of how historic this day was. How cool it was to finally have a woman as a vice president. Thinking it won’t be long until we have a woman as a president.

I was hopeful for the future. The last 4 years under Trump was like watching a Circus shit show. The end to his presidency was what America needed after a rough 2020. Kids, I hope by the time you read this that the world has changed for the better. I hope you’re in complete shock that a woman was elected for the first time in my lifetime, because there are so many women of color in office as you read this. I hope this post ages well, and I can tell you that Biden and Harris did a hell of a good job. I hope they do, and it’s up to me and other Americans to hold them accountable.

Kids, that’s what I was doing on Saturday, November 7, 2020, when history was made.