There were talks of a major promotion for one of the vice-presidents of Chinabank*. Throughout her 19 years of working there, she had slowly worked her way to the top; drawing approval and encouragement from almost every board member (there were nay-sayers, but that was par for the course). Magnetic trinkets were covering every available surface of our refrigerator door; tokens she had collected from her nearly-monthly travels all over the country on those kinds of business trips the company pays everything for. She was a powerful woman in her field, a mere 4 months away from becoming the company president, when, at the age of 48, my mother decided to retire.
Contrary to popular belief, my mother did not retire because she was tired of 9 to 5 office hours. She was not a white person who, in the face of a midlife crisis, suddenly drops their job and feels the need to compensate all those years of overwork with vacations and cars not suited to their tastes anymore. Being born in a middle-class Filipino family with the mindset that hard work = money, she was determined to stay in that bank until her youngest child, a 9-year-old, had graduated from college. She also did not retire because of the new regulation the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) had set out that would put the bank in trouble. If anyone could fight and grit their teeth through that trial, it would have been my mother. Besides, that job was her life. When I was younger there were times when the bank took precedence over my childhood. A board meeting over my third-grade recognition ceremony, an overtime shift on my birthday. The abandonment (in the loosest sense of the word) was the very foundation of my preteen angst. But I’ve grown out of that, and this is not about me. It is impossible to believe that my mother would have given up on the employees she treated like family (who referred to her as Mama Bear, she would tell me on nights the withdrawal feels the strongest, her eyes wistful).
No, my mother retired because of my father. Unlike my pencil skirt-wearing matriarch who is used to air-conditioning and high-brow bosses in her work environment, my father works at his machine shop. Heavy-duty machineries are either tied to a ceiling beam with thick chains or placed haphazardly all over the property (but he swears that there’s a system, and anyone callous enough to try and arrange it always gets a heated lecture, right after a few seconds of furious yelling). Different models of cars are parked with their trunks left open, tools and gears spilling out their sides, looking very much like gutted fish on a chef’s chopping board. My father wears ratty shirts older than my baby sisters with holes all over, because what’s the use, grease stains are permanent anyway, and this is a machine shop. No one comes in for a car tune-up expecting you to look clean and presentable.
That is my father. He only owned a motorcycle, before. He used it when he picked up my mother after work, and he always insisted on picking up my mother after work. She would admit to me in a hushed voice (sounding both embarrassed, and mad at herself for being embarrassed at all), that she used to hate seeing that old Suzuki motorcycle parked next to the Toyotas and Pajeros of her colleagues at 4 pm every single day. She hated the way my father would lean back on the seat as he waited for her, eyes steely and determined, as if to say, Look at me, I’m proud of what I’ve become and what I’ve made for myself. Your gleaming cars do not taunt me. She hated that the one time my father went inside the building, she saw the president who had just come down from the executive floor automatically flinch at the sight of a tan, scruffy-looking man wearing a leather jacket covered in, you guessed it, grease stains. She hated the president for being so elitist that he immediately thought my father was a criminal, she hated my father for not even bothering to clean up before coming to fetch her, and most of all she hated herself for being in that job position, inflicting this mortifying situation on all of them in the first place.
She said it felt off-kilter to be working in a higher position than my father and making more money. The patriarch should have been the one financing the family’s needs. The mother takes care of her children and her house personally and does not leave them to maids. I want to try being a stay-at-home mom. Ever since you were born I’ve never been the proper mother that I should have been and I missed out on so much during your childhood, I don’t want the same thing to happen to your younger sisters. I nod in understanding, except then she adds, Besides, this set-up wounds your father’s pride, can’t you see? In an effort to restore to the natural order of the world, my mother quit her job and became a housewife.
Growing up in a generation more liberated and individualistic than her’s, I was speechless at the true reason of her early retirement. She left her well-paying job and demoted herself to housework all because she needed to pander to my father’s ego, what the ever-loving fuck, was my first impression. A woman should not be ashamed to be in a position of power when her husband was not. I looked up to her for breaking the glass ceiling all while being a compassionate mother figure to her subordinates. She has every right to be empowered. What were once hands that signed contract after contract, now washed dishes and picked up after her children’s messes. The resounding click-clacking of her heels as she left for work was now replaced with the frantic shuffling of her indoor slippers as she rushed to cook breakfast and press everyone’s uniforms in time for school.
A part of me loathed my mother for having such a low opinion of herself, misogyny so internalized that she sacrificed her lifestyle just to be on the same level as my father. She now stays home alone when everyone is at work or at school, and sometimes she cries. She misses her old life, has already forgotten what it is like not to have a job, and on bad days she takes it out on everyone around her. There were a lot of bad days on the first few months, and those were the days I truly despised my father for making her do this, involuntary as the influence may have been. But the few good days were really, really good. Trips to the plaza every weekend, dogs yipping happily in the background, the sun warm on our faces type of good. She was right on that front. Our family is closer now than we have ever been my entire life. When I see my mother in the kitchen alone, quietly washing the dishes, I come up beside her and try to do the chore myself. I have this ma, don’t stress yourself too much. She would take the plate back and softly say, It’s okay, anak, I love washing dishes anyway. She seems happier now, worry lines disappearing from her face, the circles under her eyes not so dark. There are still bad moments, but that’s to be expected. Sometimes, I still blame my father.
So you used your retirement money as full payment for his new car? The car he says is his own property? I once asked her, one eyebrow raised. His confidence has really boosted, she replies, placating. And when he’s happy, I’m happy. And that was that.
Disclaimer: I do not think washing dishes, cleaning up after children, or other types of housework are a form of “demotion”. I have great respect for househelp as I grew up with them and loved them. This piece is a merely a reflection of my knee-jerk reaction (which, admittedly, does imply something) and my still-ongoing journey in trying to understand my mother’s decision.
*Some details fictionalized to protect the privacy of my parents.
Kyla is a beauty queen who is currently taking up BA Communication Arts at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She is graduating on June.