How I Parent explores the ins and outs of modern day parenting with moms and dads from all over the country, who are raising their own unique families and sharing their best advice and most heartfelt lessons with PEOPLE. Want to be a part of it? Email what makes your family so special to howiparent@peoplemag.com.

By Diane J. Cho
March 01, 2019 01:17 PM
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Name: Tina Kim Shek
Location: Dix Hills, New York
Occupation: Stay-at-home mom
Family situation: Married for 23 years with three kids, ages 19, 17 and 10.
Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: As long as you tried your best, that’s all that matters.

What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
It’s been a complicated journey. Originally, I did not want any children. I grew up in a very typical Asian household, where it was expected of you to get married, have children, and then your whole life would be centered around kids.

Growing up, my mom was always in the kitchen. She picked us up after school, made sure we did our homework, and she mended all of our clothes. As much as I respected what my mom did for us, I didn’t want that lifestyle. I had these career goals that I wanted to accomplish and I wasn’t ready to give that up yet. But once I got married, I found out that I couldn’t have children. I knew I didn’t want them … but I also wanted the option to have them if and when I was ready. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (POCS), which made it a lot more difficult to conceive.

We went through two years of IVF and back then, infertility treatments weren’t covered by insurance so it was very expensive. We tried everything for a really long time and finally, after miscarriages and disappointment after disappointment, we decided to give up. Then, when I went for my last check up, I found out I was 14 weeks pregnant with my oldest.

The unexpected part of my parenting journey became the fact that all three of my children have had a series of health issues, especially my oldest. I never expected to visit so many hospitals and specialists. At one point, we thought we were going to lose him and that was extremely hard.

My oldest son was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cyst when he was two. It was around a week after my daughter was brought home from the hospital. We went to go check on him and we realized something was wrong when he was sleeping one night. His lips were blue and he wasn’t breathing. Then, he started convulsing. We had never seen a seizure before.

We called the ambulance and they took him but he wasn’t responding to any of their treatments. They weren’t sure what was going on. They told us it wasn’t a big deal and that a lot of kids have seizures. But then it happened again, and this time the seizures were lasting longer. They went from under three minutes to almost a half hour. He would experience memory loss and other complications afterwards. Finally, after having some tests done, they found a brain cyst on the left temporal lobe. We were told if we tried to remove it, there was an 80 percent chance he wouldn’t survive the surgery and a 100 percent chance that he would never walk or talk again because of where it was located. As a family, we knew we did not want to risk his life so we continued our fight to find the right doctors and hospitals. Currently, he’s doing a lot better and is attending college in Virginia. He’s building a life on his own. Letting him go was a life lesson in itself for us but he’s happy and that’s all we want for our children.

My spitfire daughter, who is an amazing young woman, was diagnosed with a small hole in her heart. She was also allergic to many things but she overcame a lot of that. Now, she’s determined to change the world. She’s accomplished so much in her young life, including writing a letter to the Suffolk County legislator Steve Stern to ask if she could put blue lights in his office during April to honor Autism Awareness Month. My youngest child was diagnosed with autism and she’s been fighting on his behalf.

All three of my kids are so brilliant in their own ways. I am very proud.

How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?
I’m definitely more of a strict parent because that was how I was raised. My children are growing up around their friends, who are okay with calling grownups by their first name. In my household, I don’t allow that. My oldest knows that when he comes home from college, he still has to text me where he’s going and if he’s going to be late. Same thing with my daughter. They’re not allowed to go out without me knowing where they are.

When I grew up, there were no excuses. If I got a 60 on a test, I got the back of the hand. With my children, I always ask if they did everything possible to prepare for their test. Did you get extra help? Did you ask for a tutor? Did you ask for help from your teacher? If you still got a 60 and you did everything you’re supposed to do, I’m okay with that. But we’re going to do a little bit better for next time. In that aspect, I am more lenient with my kids, but at the same time, I still do a lot of what my parents did.

The one thing we’ve always told our kids is that we might not always approve of what they do — but no matter what, if they’re in trouble and they need us, we’ll be there.

What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
It’s definitely seeing them happy. It’s those moments when my son, who’s only 10, comes over and sits on my lap and says, “I just wanted you to hold me. I just wanted to cuddle you.” Or, reflecting on how my oldest has become such an established young man, living on his own and accomplishing his goals. Or, when my daughter gave a speech in front of the Suffolk County Legislation about autism awareness. She had such a fear of public speaking but she was determined to do it for her brother and other children with autism. She had conviction. When your kids are doing things like that, you can’t even describe the feeling. It just blows your mind. It sounds corny but it’s so true. It’s unbelievable.

What’s the hardest part?
The hardest part is, of course, making sure they are healthy and taken care of. That is always an ongoing concern for me as a parent.

How do you find time for yourself and your relationship?
It’s been 20 years … and we’re due for a date. It’s hard. The way I’m raising my kids is probably a lot different than how other parents are raising their kids. Many people use babysitters but we feel what’s best for our relationship is spending all of our extra time as a family. We always do movie nights at home or we take family vacations. Don’t get me wrong, every once in a while we’ll run to Starbucks without the kids, but we feel like our relationship is strong is because it’s so family-centric.

What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
Initially, I had that very typical Asian mentality, which is to control my kids and have them do exactly what I say. But it was my husband who said, “It is what it is. Our kids are going to be who they are and all we have to do is make sure they’re happy. Everything else will fall into place.” It’s very hard given what our family has gone through but it’s the best advice I’ve gotten and I try to remember it often.

Our job is to help guide them, not to try and control every aspect of their lives because, as you can tell from my story, life is full of unexpected surprises. It’s okay to make mistakes. Do what you need to do. It’s your family. Raise them the way you want to raise them. Trust your instincts and always try your best.

How do you embrace the most unpredictable moments of parenthood?
My first reaction was to say “tequila,” truth be told! But in all seriousness, it’s just knowing that somebody else out there has it more difficult than me. Whatever comes our way, we’re going to figure it out and get through it together as a family.

What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
I would want them to say I was always there for them and that they grew up in a happy home. Now that my first two kids are getting older, I want them to find what they love and do what makes them happy. Same thing with my little guy. I just want him to be happy. Everything else will come.