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EXCLUSIVE: Actress-Author Maricel Laxa-Pangilinan On What It Takes To Get Parenting, And Parenthood, Right

To all the parents wondering if they're doing a good job, this mom of five and author of new children's book "Maya at Laya" has great insights for you

What does it mean to get parenting right? 

It's a question that might sour an otherwise lovely Sunday brunch and invite heated discussions to take over.

Does it mean that your kids are obedient 99.9% of the time or more, that they share the same values and principles as you, that they learn to embrace differences and individuality, that they're compassionate, or that they're achievers and grow to become bold and fearless leaders? 

Actress, author, parenting advocate, and beaming mommy of five, Maricel Laxa-Pangilinan simply sits back and smiles, no longer alarmed by the query like she was all those years ago. 

Everyone can learn a thing or two from her.

"There's so much that people can say, but have you ever asked your kids what they want?" she begins.

"I've given my children license to speak to me, if they have to stop me or feel violated. This was a very crazy concept when I started doing it because you just didn't do it. You just don't talk to your kids like that. I think I made too many mistakes by being too traditional in the beginning," she reveals.

As it seems, "good parenting" isn't solely dictated by what moms and dads and other primary caregivers believe it is; good parenting involves those on the receiving end, it teaches but also learns, and most importantly, it's about putting children first as you set aside all these things you think they should be/become/have/want.

"I learned that you have to honor the design of each child, just as much as you honor wood, steel, and cement if you are an architect. Because if you honor these materials, so much so that you have to honor these children, these people," Maricel tells Metro.Style

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After writing four children's books and two others for adults, it's a lesson that Maricel has learned again and again, and one that she constantly finds new ways to share with other parents who might need reminding. 

Just this year, Maricel wrote and published her latest title, Maya At Layaa charming story inspired by her growing up years with her brother Melvin. It features illustrations by Jamie Bauza. Maya and Laya are sisters who have a blast playing, learning, and laughing together, until they realize that they have differences that sometimes make them fight and feel mad and annoyed. In the end, however, they realize that dancing around those differences is worth it, especially if it means they can keep playing together for endless and endless days after they learn to embrace each other's uniqueness.

With its crayon box color palette and playful illustrations, Maya at Laya is every bit a children's book on the surface, but like all her works so far, it holds subliminal messages targeted towards moms and dads, titas and titos, lolas and lolos. 

"My children's books are actually for adults!" she laughs.

"I am not talking to the kids. I want the parents to be able to read the stories to their kids and then hear them say these things so that they can be reminded that when they come to this point and there's a challenge in the home, they can transform a negative situation into a positive experience," she adds. 

"For the parents reading it, I want them to know that things are going to be fine," Maricel smiles. 

It's a message that needed to be sent, more so in times like this when children are—for lack of a better word—forced to spend days and evenings with their families under one roof. It's unnatural for most kids who once had to be in school most of the week, looked forward to weekends with friends, devoted afternoons to extra-curricular activities, and had parents who also had their own daily itineraries to be around mom and dad for so many hours. But perhaps the time has come for them to embrace the experience. Doing so can only bring more good than bad, after all. 

That goes for everyone—kids, parents and everyone in the family. 

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Maricel's modern take on family life results from a seamless combination of two things: first, there was her childhood spent with her mother and grandmother who were both single parents, and then there is her educational background (she holds an undergraduate degree in BS Social Sciences and a Master's Degree in Family Life and Child Development from the University of the Philippines-Manila, and the University of the Philippines-Diliman, respectively) that formed the backbone of her advocacy. 

Reflecting on her youth, Maricel traces her best memories of the time to all the days she spent with her lola who, despite only finishing second grade and never learning how to read and write, was a grand storyteller and a master of imagination. 

"She poured every single day into telling us stories about her life, her adventures. That's where my love for writing and reading comes from. She ignited so much of this imagination in me that really sparked so much longing for learning," Maricel shares. She'll never not smile at the thought of them sitting by the radio, nightly before dinnertime, absorbing every line and word from the picture-less dramas it broadcasted. 

Her mom, on the other hand, was an unwavering provider. She showed her kids how to find wholeness despite coming from a place of brokenness, how to still have dreams despite sometimes falling short on material things.

"She fought for us to have the best of everything, whether it was for our food, clothing, or shelter, or where she sent us to school, it was always the best she could give. She was very instrumental in developing my commitment to a purpose. If you're going to raise your kids, you might as well have a clear purpose for how and why you're going to raise them," says Maricel.

Maricel turned 50 years old this year and yet she still quotes lessons her mom taught her when she was young, as if she'd just heard them yesterday. And she'll keep quoting her mom again and again, for years to come. 

Having come of age in an unconventional family setting, it was only natural that Maricel would nurture a desire to learn more about the influence of family on a person's development. 

By the time she was completing her post-graduate degree, she was already a mom and juggling a career as an actress. It wasn't easy, certainly not, so much so that she'd over-extended her program and was required to take a penalty course by the university.

It would've been such a pain to complete, but in the end, it was meant to be; Maricel found herself learning from the wonderful Carla Pacis, an author herself and an influential voice in children's literature, who taught the course on creative writing for kids. 

Maricel was sold. She knew what she needed to do next. The seed that would eventually blossom into her work as an author was sown right then and there.

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More of Maricel's biggest moments in life validated her calling. 

When her son Benjamin underwent an open heart surgery when he was four years old, Maricel wrote Super Benj, winner of the Catholic Mass Media Awards in 2012. It wasn't only his story of healing that unleashed the words to flow forth from her mind to her fingertips, but also seeing people read at Benjamin's bedside to energize him and hasten his recovery. In fact, those moments of Benjamin's at the hospital were so inspiring to Maricel that she brought the practice home with her. At one point, she found herself hospital hopping, visiting different children's wards to read them stories, portable speakers and mic in hand. 

There was also that moment when Maricel was hit with a tsunami of appreciation for her husband, Anthony Pangilinan. Growing up without a father, she found herself in awe of how present he was for their children and how he was living his life in service of his family. 

"Seeing him love my children makes me feel loved. I never experienced that but at that moment, I did. There's a verse in the Bible that says 'Taste and see that the Lord is good.' I tasted it at that moment. I wrote about that in Meet My Superdad," she shares. 

There's also the fact that Maricel was part of the team that launched the very first Philippine Parenting Convention and became a respected columnist whose pieces focused on health and family. 

Collectively, these moments, big and small, have turned Maricel into what she calls a parenting advocate—someone who equips parents, especially Filipino parents, with the tools necessary to shape families in the best ways possible.

"I want to equip parents to raise better generations. I have seen in my own life, growing up, how parent [can be] really purposeful in raising their kids," Maricel tells us.

"I've seen so much of my friends' families be in so much trouble and all these manifestations of being lost in the world because there's no direction. For people who have so much in their lives, I wonder how can that be when they have everything? They may have material things, but they didn't have good parents. I vowed as a young girl that one day I will make my mom happy and proud to show her that all the work she's done will not go to waste," she says matter-of-factly. 

The cherry on the cake is that Maricel's mom is still around. She has seen her daughter, and her grandchildren, grow into the people they are, all of whom are reflections of the life of giving, hope, and commitment she lived. She was around to see her daughter become an award-winning author whose work tells of the life they lived together all those years back and aims to inspire other families to keep becoming better and better. 

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As an author and a parent, Maricel has gone a long way. The journey is far from over, but  there's no doubt that she has arrived at a point where she can look back, feel proud of all that she's accomplished, and celebrate all she has laid down. 

Today, she's able to relax at the thought of being a mom of five (Ella, Donny, Hannah, Benjamin, and Solana) and simply laughs at her family's most recent experiences together from the past months. She describes in detail how it was such a ride to be her husband's "guinea pigs." Anthony, who trains management consultants by profession, treated his home like a well-oiled machine, briefing everyone about daily plans, food rationing, and crisis management know-how. Her kids on the other hand (Donny in particular) took charge of a mini feeding program for pandemic-affected families in surrounding neighborhoods.

It was crazy, she chuckles, but it's clear that she wouldn't have had it any other way as she got to experience it all with the people who matter most to her. Who knows? Maybe one day, these anecdotes might make it to one of Maricel's books. 

In the end, parenting isn't difficult. Parenthood is not synonymous with the state of being stuck and not knowing how to get things right. 

It's seeing that in a family, it's not only kids who grow, but that parents grow with them, too. And when you grow together, what happens next is that your family—no matter how traditional or non-traditional or big or small it may be—becomes rock solid, airtight, kept safe and sound by each and every member. 

Maricel Laxa-Pangilinan's latest children's book, Maya at Laya, may be purchased online through National Book Store's website.

Photos from @mommymaricel