What Happened When My Mother Went Freelance
It brought us closer together.
My mother is a successful financial consultant. I’m a freelance writer. There’s an unspoken rule that mothers and daughters are inherently opposite, but with my mother and I, our contrasting natures are sitcom-esque. She plays tennis every Saturday morning without fail. She always has tissues in her sensible LeSportsac purse. In the 80s, she paid her own way to England from Hong Kong to pursue a degree in computer science. Cheesecake is her only vice. Me? I’m trying to monetize a dreamy disposition and a curiosity about cities’ underbellies and strangers’ smartphone secrets. She is the only person I love that I’ve never had a drink with.
She still lives in Hong Kong, where she raised me. I live in Toronto. These days, we talk during my morning; she’s twelve hours ahead. Bookending each other’s days helps us feel closer, and she’s not the type to have an early night anyway.
We weren’t always close, exacerbated by my decision to uproot my life for another one abroad. It’s a decision that I sometimes still feel guilty about. As the stereotypical creative black sheep of an Asian family full of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, pop culture has finally thrown me a bone. When Master of None’s “Parents” came out, I imagined millions of Whatsapp messages being sent at once from all points of the globe — London to Shanghai, San Francisco to Nigeria — telling the parental receiving party to watch the episode. (“Don’t worry, you can find it on Netflix. Yes, it’s free if you’re already subscribed.” “📺👍🏽.” )
Growing up, we hardly ever talked about money — or what it really means, the wherewithal to let go of your hard-earned legacy. She worked incredibly hard at the accounting firm she stayed for most of her career. Often we wouldn’t see each other until the weekend, where we would spend most of our family quality time in one of Hong Kong’s many malls because it was just a thing that most families, colleagues, friends, lovers and everyone there did. The city is magnificently shameless, with no qualms about situating luxury boutiques mere minutes away from the wet market, where stone-faced grandmothers could wipe the chicken shit off the soles of their Ferragamo loafers with gift receipts. It bred my imagination and destroyed my discipline.
My childhood in Hong Kong painted my mother’s success in Technicolor. But she hid from me its logistical reality, the struggle of her initial ambition that soured into obligation as responsibilities piled high. She once showed up to my junior high volleyball game eight months pregnant in a power suit and block heels, the only parent on the stands. Everyone stared, but I was quietly thrilled by her presence, it being the first (and as it turns out, only) time I was in extracurricular sports. After giving me a quick post-game pat on the shoulder — we wouldn’t hug until years later — she left for a conference call. We’d lost, but I felt like a medalist: Even in her third trimester, my mother still showed up and still went back to work. Yet when I asked about it that night, she was dismissive. “I’m a boring accountant,” she said. “There’s nothing else to it.” Sociocultural pressures had silenced her burden, but her strength was symbolized by an unforgettable silhouette.
So I learned by example. When I screwed up a dream piece, I never told her. When I got my first job writing, I didn’t tell her until weeks later. Like me, she had left her roots, but in pursuit of something better and more practical abroad. It seemed crazy to make the same move a generation later but towards the economy that was collapsing. I left to struggle with, in the words of Gary Shteyngart, “overeager immigrant prose.”
Shame is tricky. It takes different forms depending on its culprit. Across generations, shame operates like a cancer. It’s isolated, and your shortcomings are understood by only yourself and those like you. But across cultures, shame feels more like the common cold, coercing you to endure the company of those in denial of their sickness, tainting everything it touches until you have to barricade yourself with an ocean. When I moved out at 17, we were virtually strangers.
Nowadays, when we talk, the thing my mother brings up the most often is “the real world.” It’s the idea she uses to benchmark my plans, anchor my fantasies, or explain the faults of others. Sometimes she uses it to refer to a place where invoices are guaranteed by nothing but gratitude or prayer. She used it when the man I was interviewing with for a job interrupted me to complain about his “bitch ex-wife.” The real world can enable all kinds of professional dreams and horrors, which my mother discovered for herself a few years ago when she was ousted by her company of 20 years over a personal dispute and went freelance.
Like all kids, I’d judged my mother too quickly. It was a professional move entirely against the nature of the quiet, pragmatic woman I know. It requires her to travel for weeks on end and sell her skills to strangers. She has to spotlight herself, instead of the corporation she worked for. She panics about presentations and is endlessly adamant about chasing down a payment. (“Polite, but MUST.”)
Sharing these professional — and by nature of the freelance world, personal — woes gives me hope for other similarities between us, to be uncovered at a future date. Our chat history already unearths a few: A mutual penchant for shows like Homeland and House of Cards, full of decisions poor enough to distract our insomnia; Nancy Meyers; an addiction to useless domestic tchotchkes, which we both see as more productive purchases than clothing or food, but just indulgent enough to satisfy. I’m a step in her pre-takeoff routine: a text, either “be careful” or “stay warm,” depending on the season. I send her a picture of my cat on Saturday mornings.
It’s been ten years. These days, whenever I allude to this in a series of 2 a.m. guilt texts, using words like sorry and tolerance and so many years, her response always manages to be gentle and sobering at once. (“I LOVE not tolerate,” she would write.) Our relationship slowly got better this way: in twenty minute intervals, leaving us to both translate and reckon the piece we’d shared with each other in the course of the day or night, only for us to do it all over again in those twenty minutes for another piece.
Whenever Mother’s Day rolls around, and my feed is inundated with hashtagged odes and grinning, near-identical faces, I used to feel sad, annoyed, or envious. Those posts read like they were decades in the making, written by women whose mothers were definitely around for their first periods, dates, and breakups. Those posts mean no harm, but I can’t help but be reminded of a mouthy blonde in university who, upon hearing I’d never been to a family cottage, squealed, “That’s literally the saddest thing I’ve ever heard of.” The implication being that I was exempt to a particular kind of bond, because I was brought up differently, hung in the air.
Getting to know each other as working women has shaped my empathy and judgement in truly invaluable ways. I’ve seen shades of her in the female executives who are the objects of my colleagues’ wrath, and defended them. I know how to get paid. My workhorse-ness is genetic.
I’ll never get those pubescent years with my mother again, but I learn something new about her — and myself — every time we speak. About her time in England: “I was in volleyball team. What else do you want to know.” (So that’s why she showed up to the game.) Whether or not she likes Hillary Clinton: “I don’t like politicians.” Thoughts on being a grandmother: “😱 so old.” I’m glad it wasn’t too late.
Support The Billfold