“I’m shutting down the business.”
A few weeks ago, I received the most crushing news. Recalling it still introduces a heaviness into my limbs, the weight of loss and defeat.
My mother told me her news casually, casually enough that I cannot quite remember the details now–was it over text? Were we seated at the kitchen counter? What emotions laced her gaze as she conveyed this new reality?
“I’m ready to retire,” she told me with a wry smile. Indeed, her body has finally begun to catch up to her age, straining under the weight of sacks of flour and aching after standing up all day. The job of running a business, especially a baking business, lends itself well only to the young.
My mother was young when she opened up the business in 2004, fourteen years ago. Her life revolved around taming her two young children–both of whom had their share of developmental and social difficulties, and both of whom suffered a host of food allergies. Back then, before the era of gluten-free trendiness, my mother couldn’t buy her children food from the grocery store, save for the most basic of oddly chewy pastas and painfully dry breads. Most everything we ate, from pizzas and soups to cookies and cakes, my mother made from scratch.
At this point in her life, my mother felt powerless. Her conceptions of the future crumbled around her: her plans to return to the MBA program she was a handful of courses from completing remained dangling, any chances of the career she had imagined for herself teetering along with them. Her life was reducing to a daily struggle of cooking and babysitting and stressing. Her individuality and agency caved to the greater well-being of her family.
My mother had immigrated to America just a few years prior, and that transition already ripped away certain parts of her. She left her social life, her family, her language, her way of life behind in India, and the pressures of being displaced to an unfamiliar country flattened the contours of her identity. The demands of her newly formed nuclear family stripped her of her last threads of independence. She was nothing, now, but a mother.
Powerlessness didn’t suit itself well to my mother, an incorrigibly strong woman, so, as time passed and her allergen-free cooking skills crescendoed, she decided to start up her own business. She had no experience, no employees, and no promise of much financial reward. But this enterprise served as a means for her to reform her identity in this new context, use the life circumstances that pulled her down to construct a new reality.
Over the years, the business grew, as did the symbolic role it held in all of our lives. The business physically manifested throughout our home, trays of cookies constantly filling our fridges and packaging materials littering the counters. The “ladies,” who my mother soon enough hired to work with her, would come in and out of house, their hours usually coinciding with school schedules. Our home became the business. The business became our home. My sense of family and warmth became tied up in the smell of baked goods and the crunch of packing peanuts and never-quite-cool ovens. I’m sure that the rest of my family, too, came to realize the intertwinedness of these two entities.
The business represented more than just a feeling of home for my mother, though. The business took over her every waking hour, the phone calls and unpaid invoices and unshipped boxes. Though the always put her family first (and emphasized this fact heavily), the business became somewhat of her child. She nurtured it and gave it her money, time, and love. And, just as motherhood comprised a central facet of her identity, so, eventually, did the business.
There’s a fundamental difference between her role as a mother and a small-business owner, though. The former comes, to a great extent, from an external society, its pressures and responsibilities communicated through various codes and practices ubiquitous in our lives. The role of “mother,” though individualized and claimed by my mother, did not call upon her agency or choice. However, the latter role, while shaped to some degree by laws and the local economy, came about completely through her own construction. My mother controlled how much importance the business held in her life, and just how much of her identity meshed into it. While the mantle of motherhood fell onto her shoulders from above, the business came from below.
While liberating and empowering, shaping one’s identity through their own actions lacks one major component–community. Society almost universally accepts, respects, and validates motherhood, for instance, but does anyone really consider the emotional and spiritual significance of small-business-ownership? Most people probably perceived my mother’s business as just a job, a way to make money or pass time. My mother’s identity as the owner of Pure Gluten Free Gourmet Solutions belonged to her and her only, so she had nobody to share it with.
I like to think that the business held a part of my soul, too, though it never comprised a part of my identity the way it did for my mother. I loved the business, and I still do–for in the business I saw nothing but my mother. All the hours I worked over the years, packaging and drizzling and rolling and loving, I spent alongside my mother. We bonded in a way few other mother-daughter pairs can replicate, I think. I, as time passed, gained access to this sacred and powerful part of my mother’s identity–it became mine to savor, if not share in.
My mother, my coworker, my friend. The business was our ritual, albeit a laborious one. The tasks it required of my mother, I often participated in, from the Costco hauls to the last-minute UPS rushes. We worked to the tune of Friends reruns when it was just the two of us, laughing and talking over brown paper bags. When I visualize my mother, I see her with her hairnet, its delicate lace pushing against her forehead, and one of her many garish aprons, hand-sown by my grandmother from garage-sale fabric. In my mind, my mother is a baker, precisely because she is my mother. And my position as her daughter rests upon our shared experiences with the business, to some extent.
But the business is her, not me. I’m not the one who often worked pre-sunrise and post-sunset to get orders out on time. I’m not the one who had to deal with unpaid checks and aggressive stores. A lot of the
things my mother did for the business came from a sense of necessity; my involvement, meanwhile, stemmed from a place of comfort and convenience. Though I felt a deep bond to the business, my identity did not hinge upon it.
Indeed, my mother’s identity grew into the foundation of this business, and in a gradual reversal of the dynamic in which it was constructed, the business came to have significant power over my mother. She could not escape its grasp, even when it exhausted or infuriated her. She found it hard to balance the demands of her business and the needs of her son, for instance; my mother ended up commuting back and forth from my brother’s apartment in New York City to our suburban home three or four times a week, in an effort to balance these delicate spheres of her life. The business drained her health, physical and emotional. The business overpowered her.
But powerlessness didn’t suit itself well to my mother, and she knew that it was time to quit. Unequivocally, her family came first. The business, too, had begun to slump: her stores had begun to drop away slowly. It didn’t matter, though–she didn’t have the resources to fill their orders.
I still can’t imagine my home without the business. I know that its time has come, but I wonder–what will fill this vacuum? I am losing more than an intermittent job. A piece of my life is draining away. But I imagine that the floods of loss wash over my mother to a greater degree than I can imagine.
A few weeks ago, my mother posted on her business’s Facebook page that the business would “have to take 8 – 10 months off.” When I asked her why she would say that–lie like that–she replied, coolly, “Just in case I hate retirement.” I don’t think she can return to her old life, honestly, but I don’t think she can escape it, either. The business is her.
My mother, now an aspiring writer, spends most of her time with my brother in New York City. She thinks, relaxes, and rediscovers parts of her lifestyle the business had robbed her of–in the last few months, she has read more books than she had the time to over the last fourteen years. She’s reshaping her identity once more. Yes, she burned the old structure of her life to the ground, but my mother will never lose the experience and strength the business brought her over the last fourteen years; she enriches herself through this self-renovation. I trust my mother’s sense of identity will only grow stronger, as she undertakes this new adventure. I trust her power.