Inspiring Woman: Michelle Aventajado
It’s been nine years since Michelle Aventajado moved to Manila with her family – and she admits it hadn’t been easy. Born a New Yorker, it took a while to adjust to life in a different country and a different city, not to mention a different culture altogether.
Michelle is a hands-on mom to four kids and she writes about her life in the Philippines in her blog, Momma ‘N Manila. Just like other mummy blogs, she tackles parenting and home-related matters (especially food), but Michelle’s reason for blogging sprouted from a very special seed: as a platform for sharing her family’s story with Gelli, her youngest born with Down Syndrome.
But just as her life is filled with countless commitments that she try to balance, her blog reflects her many interests as well. For someone who claims not to be a typical career woman, Michelle’s days are as busy and purposeful as any hardworking mummy out there.
Tell us a little bit about who Michelle Aventajado is.
I was born in Manhattan and grew up in upstate NY. I grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was very much a suburb of Manhattan. I knew early on that I wanted to become a teacher. In fact, I wanted to teach in the areas that were underserved. I have always believed that education is the key to any kind of real change and I felt that becoming a teacher would allow me to do my part in the world, while still allowing me to take care of my own family, if God graced me with a man to love and children to raise.
When I met Nino, I knew that our story would take me to Manila. I may not be teaching full time with my own classroom but my involvement in organizations and the activities of my own children allow me to still spend time with kids in a meaningful way.
I don’t think you can call me a career woman. Although, as I have gotten older, and with the birth of Gelli, I do feel like I have a “job.” From writing and contributing, to blogging, and volunteering with organizations that help other families with children who have been blessed with a little something extra, I’m pretty busy.
You were not always based in Manila, but it seems that your family is now settled in the Philippines. Why did you choose leave New York to raise a family?
Sometime, after the birth of our second child, my husband expressed his desire to come home. I met him here in Manila, so I knew that our journey together, would eventually take us back to where we met. Nino is proudly Filipino, so it was an inevitable move that we put off as long as we could. I felt that we needed a really strong base in our relationship as husband and wife before we could move here.
Actually, he asked me to move shortly after we got married. I begged him to stay in New York for just a little while longer, and he obliged. In 2006 I could see my husband really wanted to go home. It was at that time that we started putting things into place so that we could leave NY.
How easy or difficult has the transition been? Are you happy with your decision?
Of course, it’s a bit easier here to raise children because we have help in the house. But there are trade offs with everything. I am lucky I have a sister and some extended family here for when I need a little help with the kids, and for when it’s important to have family around. Plus it helps that Mom and Dad come for six months out of the year to visit. I’m lucky that they are retired and can spend quality time with my children.
To be honest, Grace, I really thought it would be an easy move for me. I identified myself as Filipina-American while growing up and felt that I had strong roots to my mother’s culture. Once we moved here, I realized so many different things about myself, my family, and my world before Manila. At first, it was really difficult. I was adjusting to being away from MY family, closer to Nino’s family, and the culture. There were some things that I just didn’t understand. But once I let go of what was comfortable (from back home) and embraced the newness of living in Manila and the differences, I was able to settle in.
At around the 3-4 year mark (we are going on 9 years now), I had a really difficult time. I wanted to go back to NY and to what was comfortable. I was disillusioned and still felt like there were days where I was still experiencing culture shock as a smack in the face. I am thankful that I found really nice friends at that time who were kind. They were kind to me and that made all the difference. As another blogger friend had once said “Kindness is underrated.”
Nine years later…I’m very happy with our decision to move to Manila. I have learned so much about the Philippines that I love. I have still yet to explore all the beautiful places here that are on my list and believe me, the list is long ☺
One gift that moving to Manila helped me with was to see my own mother in such a different light. And that somehow connects me to my own motherhood. Many years ago, my mother left what was comfortable behind to make a new life in NY. And that’s where she met my dad. There is a parallel there that I cannot deny…my experience has given me so much more respect for my own mother and I am grateful for that.
Let’s talk about your blog, Momma ‘N Manila. What is it about and what are your plans for it?
I started my blog almost three years ago to share our story about Evangelina. But I didn’t want the focus to just be about her and the fact that she has Down Syndrome, because my life as a mother in Manila is so much more than that (just like she is so much more than her diagnosis).
I enjoy exploring The Philipppines with my family, and sharing that as well. I love cooking and spending time in the kitchen, so naturally I share recipes and kitchen finds that make my life easier. I try very hard to live a life of wellness through practicing yoga, eating well, and being a mindful parent.
Much of what I end up focusing on in my blog posts is what brings me joy. So the collaborations that I end up working on with other bloggers and other mothers are things like Crafternoons and my newest endeavor of Mothers Who Brunch. The idea is that when you gather women, mothers, people, you find inspiration in the energy and the sisterhood that is shared.
Let’s talk about parenting and your very special journey. You’ve been very open about your daughter, Gelli, and Down Syndrome. Can you tell us how life is these days and the advocacy you actively promote?
Life with Gelli is so much different than I envisioned it when I was handed the diagnosis by the neonatal doctor who examined my daughter. It’s joyous. Filled with gratitude, and it’s mindful. I didn’t know that she was what I needed at the time, but I sure am glad she chose me for her mom.
Grace, we have so much work to do! I’m active in three different organizations and I promote two more movements, which can be a bit hard to balance, but somehow, I am still managing.
Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines Inc. (DSAPI) was the first support group we turned to after Gelli was born. They provided a real sense of direction for me and Nino, because we felt lost and completely alone. Everything we knew about parenting (I felt at the time) had to be thrown out the window. The playing field changed and the rules were adjusted. This meant I felt like a “New Mom,” again, and that was pretty scary. Attending that first Early Intervention Seminar was exactly what we needed to see that we just needed to make some adjustments to be the best parents we could be for our daughter.
Best Buddies International began 25 years ago with Anthony Kennedy Shriver in honor of his Auntie. I like to describe it this way: If teaching allows me to help change the world one student at a time, Best Buddies enables me to help change the world, one friendship at a time. We started a Best Buddies chapter in my children’s school, De La Salle Zobel, last year, and with all of the work that we have done, we are being nominated as a “Chapter of the Year” (from all the chapters all over the world). DLSZ has a sister school where we have teamed up with the faculty and staff to pair the students in a one to one friendship. One typical kid + one kid with IDD = fun, friendship, inclusion.
I sit on the board of The Center For Possibilities (TCFP). I met Dolores a while back through another common friend. She invited Gelli to be part of a documentary on children with special needs. I agreed for Gelli to be featured as long as the language of the film jived with what Nino and I want for our daughter. And after a few edits, the producer and director made sure it did. TCFP goes into communities and assists parents where they don’t have any help. There are many families in rural parts of the Philippines with children who have special needs who have never been seen by a therapist, or even a developmental pediatrician. TCFP aims to make a difference in these communities.
The #ChangingTheFaceOfBeauty campaign started last year with one Momma who wanted to change the world for her baby girl. Katie Driscoll is a photographer who decided to call on retailers all over the world to Change The Face Of Beauty through inclusion. When I say we have work to do here in this country, this is a great place to start.
And, I advocate to #EndTheRWord. (For more info, please click here.)
You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to be a mom. What is the biggest surprise about motherhood for you? What do you enjoy the most about it? What are the challenges you face?
What a good question. The biggest surprise for me about motherhood has been the education of me. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that my kids can teach me as much about life as I can teach them. From the quiet moments when my son has asked me poignant questions about faith and God to the pivotal moments when my fourth child was born and I experienced a complete paradigm shift.
My kids can hold a mirror to me like no one else can. I think that’s the beauty in parenting that I never realized. When I think about it, I always remember my dad being the best dad ever. My mom was clearly the original Super Mom for me. As children, we look up to our parents and just have this perception of them.
My hope is that my children will look up to me, but not as this mom who can do no wrong… more as a mom who tries really hard. I try really hard to show my kids the best sides of myself, with vulnerabilities and flaws, and feelings attached… but I do it this way, because they inspire me to be true, and real, and better.
Plus, I have often said that Gelli has made me a better person. Her extra chromosome helped me see things much differently than I did before her birth. And because of that, I find it even easier to enjoy the little things…
I don’t think my challenges are much different from other moms. Most of the time, I feel like I’m not doing enough. I wish I had more time with each child individually. I try and date each of my kids by doing something that THEY love.
It’s not always easy… but when I do get quality time with each of them I also try and document… even if it’s not for the blog… it will be something for us to remember later on.
You are also a yoga teacher and practitioner. Can you tell us about your practice and your work? Why is yoga important to you and what does teaching it mean to you?
I found yoga after the birth of my second child, and I have been exploring the many different facets and practices ever since. While I have a little bit more time to experiment and explore my edge, while living here in Manila, I must admit it’s challenging to stay committed to my practice. It’s really a balancing act to take care of everyone and meet their needs and then meet my own needs to get on the mat as well.
I found that yoga practice improved upon the person I was just like Gelli did. I always feel more centered during the times I am committed to my practice. I feel like I’m a better mom too.
I founded Yoga for Kids when we first moved to Manila through Bambi Manosa and Grace Hetherington. Grace ended up becoming my mentor through my year long certification process and I am thankful that she taught the free class that Gia attended that day. Teaching yoga for kids was an easy way to bridge my desire to stay fit and my desire to get back into the classroom. It was like bringing two more parts of myself together… seamlessly.
I don’t offer regular classes so much anymore, but I do miss it. I work with my daughter’s volleyball team and also find time to volunteer every now and then as well. One day, I hope to certify in Yoga for the Special Child with Sonia Sumar.
I love food! And it looks like you do too. You also seem to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Do you have any special, signature dishes?
Yes. I love food. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, and many times, it’s often therapeutic for me.
When I first moved here and was still trying to find my bearings, you would find me in the kitchen with 5 burners going and an Eggplant Parmigiana in the oven. I suppose it’s all the time I spent in the kitchen with my mother growing up that offers me comfort to this day.
While I have ventured into cooking more Asian dishes recently, I would be so bold as to say that many of my signature dishes revolve around an Italian American type menu. I have learned my “Sunday Gravy” from my mother who learned it from my grandmother… and I’m sure you know as well as I do, that there is nothing more precious than a recipe handed down through generations.
I make a mean apple pie. I have served my Mile High Apple Pie quite a few times in The Viking Range Showroom as the brand ambassador for Viking Range Philippines.
You also have projects and collaborations. What are these? How do you balance all your passions and commitments?
I love to work with people who can teach and inspire me to be more. Many of the projects and collaborations I involve myself in have to do with everything that I am passionate about.
Balance? Gosh. I’m so guilty of double-booking, of over extending, and biting off more than I can chew. But I guess that’s where the passion comes in. If you love what you are doing… you’ll even surprise yourself with how much you can do in a day. I wish I had more time in the day and more hands, but I have learned to be a bit more realistic in what I take on.
Between my responsibilities and commitments in the organizations which I am active in, community projects, volunteering at my kids’ schools, and blogging, I can still find time to put together fun projects like #MothersWhoBrunch.
My new favorite tool is Google Calendar. Hopefully, I can coordinate my schedule more efficiently with this new (to me) tool.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year? Anything exciting on the home/family/work front?
We have quite a few plans for our DLSZ Best Buddies Chapter. This is our first year as a full-fledged chapter and not a promoter chapter, and I’m looking forward to planning some fun activities with the students of DLSZ and IMAI (Integrated Movement Academy, Inc.) to further INCLUSION.
I would also like to call on Filipino apparel companies to join me in my desire to further inclusion through mainstream advertising… but I need help with this campaign. We have other mommas in our community who believe in this campaign and are working towards change as well but we need help from influential people in the fashion industry to make this happen.
I am particularly enjoying the time I spend with other mom bloggers in The Viking Kitchen Showroom through #MothersWhoBrunch. I want to show mommas that they can have fun in the kitchen with friends and find inspiration in just being together. That inspiration can spill over into everything we do.
And on the home front, we will be building our new home very soon. It’s going to be a huge change, but I welcome change so, hopefully, it won’t prove to be too difficult. This is the first house that Nino and I will be building from the ground up so it will surely be a learning experience every step of the way.
With a very busy daily schedule like yours, how do you balance your time between your work, blogging, advocacy, and your being wife and mummy of four?
Balancing is really hard.
I have help and I have a considerate partner in life and marriage. I ask for help from friends, family, and of course my partner. And sometimes, things that need to take a back seat to life… do just that. I put things aside when my kids need my attention, when my home needs to be looked after, and when my husband needs my support.
On the other hand, how do you take care of yourself?
Ahhh. I’m getting better at this. Promise.
I have always put the needs of my kids before my own. I think that’s something that happens once you become a mother. You suddenly realize you don’t need as much as you thought you did when you were single and only looking after yourself.
I love to sweat it out in the hot room in Bikram Yoga Alabang. My practice falls to the way side when everything else pulls me in different directions, but I know when I practice, I’m a better mom, better wife, and better person. I have so much more patience for everything else in my life because I take time for myself.
I relax by going to lunch with my momma friends who “get me.” Having women in your corner to listen to, relate to, or just have a couple of laughs with is a HUGE stress reliever.
I try to eat well by preparing healthy food for my family, and I am sure to drink water through out the day.
I also take care of my skin and myself by visiting Vietura Spa regularly.
I always say that there’s a “Spoiled Mummy” in each of us. What do you think makes you, Michelle Aventajado, a Spoiled Mummy?
I’m a Spoiled Mummy because I am able to pursue my passion. This is a luxury that allows me to also do my small part in this world… and for this, I am grateful.