WHILE many students worry over their insensitive boyfriends or not having enough allowance to spend in the mall, graduating Literature student Cherifer Mendoza-Santos is more worried about her three-year-old daughter Chloe’s education, food and milk, and the electric and water bills.

Cherifer is married to Rafael Alfred Santos, a former UST Journalism student. She and Paeng were neighbors in the España Tower—he lived on the 16th floor while she lived on the 30th. While fiction and romanticism were part of her daily life, Cherifer says that the proverbial love at first sight was not applicable to her situation. She and Paeng always bumped into each other in the building, but they never gave each other a second glance. It was only while waiting for students to file out of class, that she noticed him when he stopped and started a friendly conversation.

They had been dating for a few months when they took their relationship further.

“I was 18 when I got pregnant in my second year,” she recalled. “Three months after I found out I was pregnant, I went home to Bicol. But I didn’t tell my parents yet. Nobody knew, except me, Paeng, and his best friend.”

Being the only girl among five siblings, and having parents who were both medical practitioners (her father is a doctor while her mother is a nurse), the true situation came out soon. But suprisingly, her parents didn’t get mad.

Cherifer took a leave of absence from UST for a year and a half. It was a hard and sad time for her as she battled the foreboding responsibility of being a mother.

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But she never let her pregnancy get in the way of her education. While in the province, she enrolled in a Nursing course at a nearby university. But for months, she was confused. She didn’t know what to do because it was not just her education at stake, but her future too.

It further infuriated her that Paeng, after learning of her situation, suddenly left for Baguio.

“Sinabi ko sa kanya, kung hindi mo kayang panindigan ‘yung bata, ako na lang.’” Santos said. “Hindi ko rin naman siya masisisi kung bigla siyang umalis, siyempre, kailangan rin niyang lumayo para pag-isipan’ yung sitwasyon.”

While Paeng exiled himself in his parents’ home in Baguio, Cherifer’s mother called his parents to inform them about the situation. Unfortunately, Paeng’s mother wasn’t very accommodating.

But a week before Chloe was born, Paeng suddenly arrived on the doorstep of their home in Legaspi, without his parents’ knowledge.

“Hindi niya alam kung saan ‘yung bahay namin, basta hinanap niya ako,” Cherifer recalled. “Hinarap niya ‘yung parents ko at ipinaglaban niya ‘yung karapatan niya bilang ama ng anak ko.”

After Cherifer gave birth to Chloe Francesca on June 7, 2003, Paeng asked Cherifer to marry him, even though he never got the blessings from his mother. The civil wedding was a small and intimate one, witnessed by their close friends and Cherifer’s parents.

Starting a family

Cherifer has had to deal with not being accepted as a daughter-in-law by her husband’s family. Luckily, her family was very supportive about her situation. And even though her parents wanted her to concentrate on the baby, they still believed that she should graduate from college first before becoming a full-time mother.

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Cherifer considered this arrangement a risk to her relationship with Chloe, since the baby would grow up with her grandparents. But she decided to follow her parents’ advice.

“I owe my life to my parents because they helped me move on with my life,” Cherifer said. “I admit I abused my freedom and I paid dearly for that. But I don’t regret having Chloe and Paeng in my life at all.”

Like all young relationships, the couple have had their own share of fights and disagreements, but Cherifer believes that this has made their relationship stronger.

“We’re already married for three years and going strong,” she said.

Her married life, however, is not always that smooth.

“We got married at such a young age, so even though it seems like it’s been a long time, there’s still an immaturity in the relationship.”

Paeng currently writes for the Manila Times and pays the monthly bills of the apartment they share, although Cherifer also throws in whatever extra money is left from her monthly allowance that her parents send her.

“You’re never mature enough for anything that involves the family in an age like this,” Cherifer said. “Kahit anong gawin ko, kahit nagmamadali akong tumanda para magampanan ko ‘yung aking responsibilidad bilang ina at asawa, nandoon pa rin yung hint ng pagkabata.”

Parenthood at her young age is a great challenge. The patience, the determination, and love needed to raise a child is twice magnified. Giving is more important than receiving, and for Cherifer, who grew up in a household where education is given much importance, she was forced to see life at a different angle.

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“Noong first and second year ako, happy na ako kapag nakakuha ako ng tres, basta pumasa,” Cherifer said. “But when Chloe and Paeng came into my life, it suddenly had direction. My grades went up and I even made it to the Dean’s List in my third year.”

Even though she had to give up a lot for her family, she says it doesn’t matter anymore because it is for her daughter and husband.

After graduation, the young family hopes to move into a more spacious place, since living on the sixteenth floor of a building could pose dangers for Chloe who, Cherifer said, loves to go exploring on her own. She also hopes to take a Master’s degree in Literature so she could get a better job to support her family.

“My dad always tells me, don’t turn your back on your problems nor avoid it,” Cherifer said. “So I faced it—and I’m glad that I did.”

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