The Áte of the House

In the Philippines, to be the áte — “oldest” or “older sister” in English — in the family can be both a blessing and a burden for firstborn Filipinas.

Majann Lazo used to dislike doing the dishes.

“My dad and I used to negotiate with each other. I would tell him, ‘Dad, I would do all the chores, just not this’,” she recalls. “I overcame it, [thankfully].”

As the áte, or big sister, of two daughters, it is her duty to make sure that their household is running like clockwork: by taking care of both the home and its residents, and preparing for any unanticipated change. Say, for example, the arrival of two new members of their household.

Two of her distant cousins from the south of the Philippines have come to Manila and are staying with the Lazos, to help out with the housework and the work for Majann and her partner Chalk’s online toy store.

This means that Majann has to teach them how things are done in the house and for their business, and at the same time, fill in the gaps as everyone else adjusts to these new circumstances.

Looking after everything and everyone — her father, Elmerito, Chalk, their two dogs Jessie and Koko, and her sister who is living in the province — is no easy feat. But Majann does it with relative ease.

It is something she has learned, and perhaps perfected, from years of being “on the job” as the eldest child in the family.

“My mom died [in a car accident] when I was 10; I was in the fourth grade,” Majann says in Filipino.

“I told myself, ‘I need to step up for my sister, because we no [longer have a] mother’. Somehow, this just came to me on my own; although a big deciding factor was a letter from my mom, which she left me before she died. It’s like she knew she was going to leave us.

“In it, she said: ‘Áte, take care of your sister; take care of your papa. Make sure that they won’t be left behind, especially your sister’.”

Now that she’s 27, she has embodied completely the part of being the head of the house.

“Even though my dad is still alive, the thought of being the head of the house was instilled in my head early on because he had hyperthyroidism before, which, thankfully, was cured in 2018. I kept thinking that I always need to step up for them.”

In another household, some 19 kilometers north of the Lazos’ home in Manila, another áte begins her day.

16-year-old Jasmine Buenaventura prepares for another day of class. But before her schoolwork begins, she must first attend to the work at home.

Once her morning chores are done, Jasmine’s father Jonjon will drop her and her first brother, Janjan, off at another house within the same village, where her mother, Janet, stays in as a helper for the owners. Her second brother, Jacob, will arrive around lunchtime.

This is where the siblings will spend the rest of the day, attending online classes and doing their homework, while their mother balances doing housework and taking care of the children, and their father resumes his work as a tricycle driver.

“Our house is not the perfect place to study. We also do not have an internet connection. That’s why it’s necessary for us to come here to connect [to their internet]. I thank my mom’s employer, because this has allowed us to study somehow,” she says in Filipino.

The siblings’ day ends by returning home, where Jasmine’s housework resumes once more: preparing or serving dinner to her siblings, washing the dishes, and cleaning up.

For dinner, Jasmine prepared three servings of chicken adobo—a popular Filipino dish—for herself and her two younger brothers. It is up to her to make sure that her siblings eat well at dinnertime, since her parents spend their nights at her mother’s employer’s home.

Jasmine says her parents don’t really ask a lot from her, just that she does well in school and helps out at home — expectations which do not always come easy, as the eldest child and only daughter.

Despite this, the teenager says that she can manage, and she’s already used to the situation, because she believes that it’s what a good áte would do.

“Being the áte means being responsible, mature, and helpful to the family. Átes are also the ones that parents rely on the most,” she says.

But what does it really mean to be an áte?

For Filipinos, the word signifies a woman’s seniority in the family: It is used to refer to an elder female sibling — but not automatically the first child, who happens to be female — or cousin. On the occasion that the nephews and nieces have a significantly small age gap between their aunts, some Filipino families also use áte to refer to the latter.

And although commonplace in Filipino vocabulary, the word did not originate from the language.

“According to scholar Gloria Chan-Yap, áte came into Tagalog from Hokkien,” says linguist Vincent Christopher Santiago, referring to Chan-Yap’s 1980 book, Hokkien Chinese Borrowings in Tagalog.

“This along with eight other kinship terms are of clear Hokkien origin: ingkóng (grandfather), kúya (eldest or older brother), díko (second eldest brother), dítse (second eldest sister), sangkó (third eldest brother), sansé (third eldest sister), insó (eldest brother’s wife), and siyáho (eldest sister’s husband).”

He adds that the word has undergone “a process of semantic widening” over the years. Nowadays, áte may also be used to refer to any elder female who isn’t related by blood to the speaker.

“For example, we would not hesitate to use áte while transacting with sales personnel or communicating with people on social media. Some common variations I have observed, especially in social media, are clippings: that is, the shortening of the word, such as in ‘te, te, teh, and even tih,” says Santiago.

These terms of kinship, however, do not only denote one’s birth order in the family. These titles also carry with them certain duties and responsibilities.

Jasmine sweeps the floor while her mother Janet washes her baby brother’s feeding bottle. The 16-year-old says that her parents expect her to help them with the housework, as the eldest child.

And titles matter very much to the Filipino family, says Dr. Excelsa Tongson, an associate professor from the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UP-Diliman) who specializes in family life and child development and gender studies.

“When we have those titles, we also have expectations: How will these children behave, and what roles will they take in the family?”

For the eldest children in Filipino households especially, like Majann and Jasmine, these titles can greatly determine and forge the path their relationship with their family will take.

Dr. Tongson explains further:

“In Filipino families, gender stereotyping is already there from the very beginning. Eldest females are expected to act like their mothers — as good carers. But the eldest males are expected to be protectors and providers, together [with the fathers].

“That’s why when we discuss birth order, it cannot be separated from sex assigned at birth.”

Jasmine (left) tries to calm her brother by giving him his milk. Majann (right) comforts their dog Koko after the golden retriever tried to spit out his medicine. According to the idea of birth order, eldest daughters are expected to be good carers (in whatever capability or form), similar to what is expected of mothers.

Gender stereotyping is the act of attaching certain characteristics to an individual because of their gender.

Simply put, Filipino male children often are not brought up, or are not asked, to learn how to manage the home, such as doing carework and housework, in the same way that Filipino female children often are not tasked to protect, provide for, and lead the family.

This is because carework and housework — most of the time unpaid work — have been coded or viewed for so long as feminine tasks, Dr. Tongson says, resulting, at large, in gender inequality in the home, which occurs to this day.

Just last June, Oxfam Philippines released findings from its 2021 National Household Care Survey, which was collaborated on by partner organizations and conducted in the first quarter of 2021.

The data seems to corroborate the fact that women still are in charge of the unpaid work at home, spending up to 13 hours a day on unpaid care work, as opposed to eight hours for men — despite most men being forced to stay at home due to the health crisis.

Majann feeds their dog Koko (left); Janet, Jasmine’s mother, bathes her youngest child. As the women in the home, most of the housework in their homes still falls on them, reflecting data from Oxfam Philippines that women were still in charge of the housework during this pandemic.

For families with no sons or eldest male children, the role of provider falls on the eldest daughters. In these situations, átes would be expected to shoulder twice the responsibility: that of an eldest son, which is to provide and protect the family; and that of an eldest daughter, which is to care and serve.

Figures from a survey on 25 firstborn Filipinas conducted specifically for this story seem to support this premise. Based on the results, átes were expected by their families to give financial aid, first of all (56%); and then pay specific bills, do carework, and housework (all tied at 24%).

Based on firstborn Filipinas’ responses, the tasks expected of them and the actual duties that they do at home do not differ that much from each other (as seen in the chart above). The three priority tasks and duties are as follows: providing financial aid, paying bills, and doing housework.

Interestingly, the átes’ duties reflect the tasks expected of them by their families, with providing financial aid as a leading expectation, followed by paying bills (at 48%), and doing the housework (at 44%). “Duties”, in this context, meant the tasks that were actually being carried out by the respondents, whether or not they were expected to.

As the Covid-19 pandemic goes on, a small percentage of the respondents also said they felt compelled to take on new employment or work; had to assume the part of being the breadwinner; or that there was an increase in the amount of work they do in the home.

It is important to note, though, that the survey was limited only to women between ages 20 and 48, preferably living with their immediate families, and residing within the NCR Plus bubble: the cities within the National Capital Region, as well as the neighboring provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal, all located within Luzon island.

But although the scope of the research may be limited, Doctors Tongson and Rowena Laguilles-Timog, chairperson of the Department of Women and Development Studies in UP-Diliman, both believe that the pattern would most likely be observed in other regions of the Philippines.

A weekly meal plan and a cleaning chart, both made by Majann, are displayed on the Lazos’ refrigerator. Majann says that creating these charts has been entrusted to her, since, her partner says, she is the woman in the house.

“For me, it’s safe to say that it exists, [as long as] we have that concept of who the áte is, and the expectations of women remain the same, especially inside the home,” says Dr. Laguilles-Timog.

Indeed, the immense familial and social pressure on eldest daughters to comply with their assigned status, which persist to this day, has given rise to feelings akin to loss of freedom, or to emotional and mental distress, in some women.

Kat Sua, a Filipina-Chinese freelance writer and voice actress who asked not to be documented on camera for this story, admits that she can be hard on herself at times.

Just like the 16-year-old Jasmine, Kat is the eldest child and only daughter.

Growing up with two brothers, she had to deal with her elders’ belief that she had to be the most responsible and thoughtful child, on top of the already existing cultural conditions that come with being in a Filipino-Chinese family, such as financial and marital concerns.

“I do remember, growing up, that my mom would often set me aside and would kind of drill it into my head that I’m the one who has to be taking care of everyone,” the 31-year-old shares.

It’s a promise she managed to keep — and still does — when she acted as a third parent to her siblings, in the years leading up to her parents’ separation.

“I had to pretend that I could understand what was happening, [so that I could] shield my brothers from these things, so they could grow up without having to worry about these things.”

In a similar vein, 27-year-old Majann confesses to harboring some resentment towards her position as the áte of the house.

“I’m not going to deny that sometimes, these expectations are the source of my anxieties and of my depression.”

Being a devoted sister to her family meant having little to almost no time and space for herself and her needs & wants, such as getting her schoolwork — for her third year in law school — or her nails done; dyeing her hair; or simply buying new clothes, the latter at which she scoffs. “New clothes! Why buy new ones, when I’ll just be sweeping the floor in them?” she says with a laugh.

“Sometimes, I also want to be irresponsible. Until now, I get thoughts like, ‘I want to give up.’ But when I think of escaping — where will I go? What will I do? What will happen to my sister? What will happen to my dad?”

The stress from managing their home, worsened by her bipolar disorder, has also strained her connection to her family in the past.

The situation peaked when, in March of 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, an argument happened between her and her sister, resulting in the latter and her father moving back to the province, and the family members not speaking to each other for several months.

The family reconciled when Majann greeted her father on his birthday.

Therapy has helped greatly improve their relationship; and now, she and her family are in constant communication with each other, especially when her father stays with her sister.

Her relationships with her dogs and her partner have also helped bring her more comfort in these tough times.

Jesse, the elder of the Lazos’ two dogs, enjoys spending time with her “fur mom” Majann.

In spite of the difficulties, Kat and Majann say they accept, and feel privileged, to occupy the positions they hold within their respective families.

In the survey on firstborn Filipinas, more than half of the 25 respondents have expressed their acceptance of their role as the áte; but more than half also said that they have mixed feelings towards this role.

The more positive sentiments from the survey were thoughts of gratitude, joy, or empowerment at being able to care and provide for their families, or having a “training ground” for when they begin their own.

In contrast, some of the women revealed feeling helpless, exhausted, or trapped, like having no room to make mistakes.

One of the key findings of the survey on 25 firstborn Filipinas shows that more than half (68%) of the respondents accept, or already have accepted, their role as the áte of the family. However, also more than half (60%) of the women say that they have mixed feelings about this role.

“Somehow, some women are okay with it, and they like it; the position holds privilege, some power to it, too. But I’m sure there are many more who feel trapped, who do not want the responsibility, or even the privilege — whatever form it may take — that comes with it. That can be heavy, especially if they’re not ready,” says Dr. Laguilles-Timog.

She emphasized that it would depend on the degree to which these responsibilities “limit or dictate women, or push them into certain paths,” and, more importantly, women’s choice, in whether they accept these responsibilities or not.

On this Sunday, Jasmine’s family is complete: It’s her mom Janet’s day off from work, and they will visit relatives in the afternoon.

It’s Jasmine’s day off from school as well, but her chores would have to continue.

For today, she’s adding to her list helping her second brother Jacob with his homework, before the family leaves for their grandma’s.

Jasmine soon retreats to a spot by the edge of their one-room apartment after the tutorial.

The day after would be another day of housework and schoolwork for her. But for now, she rests — her face dimly lit by the glow of her cell phone screen, sneaking in some alone time in a house full of children and adults.

“I do feel bad at times when my parents ask me to take care of my brothers. They can’t seem to understand me,” she says.

The family’s misunderstandings also often stem from the 16-year-old’s intense dedication to her academics. Jasmine says it can be frustrating, but she just lets these slide, and instead focuses on the bigger picture — achieving her dreams of becoming a teacher and a lawyer someday — while keeping the peace in their home.

Over at the Lazos, Majann reveals that her cousins are no longer staying with them. Their departure means more work once again for her. She may even be on dishwashing duty for the foreseeable future.

But this áte remains committed to the promise she made to her mother.

Her message to other átes is one of hope and reassurance: “It’s a comfort knowing that, in spite of all the difficult things [we] go through, big sisters are actually loved and respected by their families.”

Hope also remains for all women.

While it is true that it may probably take several more years before Filipino culture can unlearn its patriarchal, sexist ideals on families and relationships, Dr. Tongson feels positive about the evolution of the traits that newer, younger parents nowadays prioritize.

“You just have to continue providing opportunities for people to realize that, regardless of the birth order, and regardless of whether your firstborn is male or female, all children need equal attention. They also need our care,” she says.

“And, regardless of their sex and gender, what we need to promote is family unity, family understanding and acceptance.”

© Maro B Enriquez, 2021

Disclaimer: This story was originally produced as a requirement for the Diploma in Visual Journalism program of the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.

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Freelance journalist and cat mom of six based in Manila, PH

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Maro B Enriquez

Maro B Enriquez

Freelance journalist and cat mom of six based in Manila, PH

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