When I hear my mum say this, during one of our biweekly phone conversations, I hear regret. Immediately, I rush to make her feel better. “Oh, you didn’t do that terrible a job!” I say convivially. “Anyway, all’s well that ends well, right?”
But the moment is uncomfortable. It’s the closest I have ever heard my mum come to saying she’s sorry — which, in some ways, is exactly what I’ve always wanted to hear.
I assume my mother is saying she’s sorry, only I’m not sure what she’s apologising for: Nearly a decade later, I don’t know if she’s still sorry for the fact that I became a sex worker, or for the way she reacted when she found out.
Growing up, my mum and I were best friends. It was because of her that I went to college. She was a secretary at a racetrack, raising me and my brother on her own, and she wanted to see that her daughter had opportunities she didn’t.
Our relationship changed when, during my sophomore year, I started working as a stripper.
In a piece for xoJane years ago, I first talked about the email she sent, confronting me about the fact that I was hiding my occupation. She said she was humiliated. “I know you're stripping,” she said. “I am not a stupid or naive woman.”
“This is all my fault,” it went on. “If I hadn’t been broke on my ass all the time and able to give you adequate spending money, none of this would’ve happened.”
She compared my having lied about my job to her ex-husband (my father’s) adultery. She said it made her want to puke. She ended that email, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” For her sake, from then on, I pretended I did.
These days, I don’t blame my becoming a sex worker for the rift in our relationship. In college, I began to realise that my mum and I had issues long before this. Parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s “best friends”; they’re supposed to be parents. Besides, we weren’t just best friends — I was my mum’s only friend.
I also know that my mum’s reaction wasn’t necessarily the likely outcome. Parents of sex workers don’t always automatically reject their children. Recently, adult-film actress Kitty Stryker shared her experience of how the revelation that she was working in the sex industry actually brought her and her mother closer together. When her mother discovered she was making adult movies, Stryker says that she and her mum began to talk more. They started sharing feminist writings on sex work and discussing the ins and outs of ethical porn. They talked about self-care. “My mother didn't yell at me, or talk over me, or dictate to me what I should or shouldn't be doing,” Stryker says. “She listened.”
Sex workers, current and former, aren’t the only ones with tenuous maternal relationships or no relationship at all.
As for me, I told my mum I knew what I was doing, but the truth is, I had no idea. At 19 years old, I was a relative child. I’d started stripping because I needed the money. As a student abroad in Mexico, I was bored and broke, so dancing naked in clubs for cash felt like a solution. But the solution became a problem of its own.
Experts say that human beings experience shame as trauma, and this trauma triggers a “fight or flight” response in the brain. Empathy expert Brené Brown talks about how, when we feel ashamed, time slows down. Our rational minds abandon us. We become the children we once were. These feelings, she says, stay with us long after the event.
My mother’s response to the discovery that I was stripping was hostile, negative, and shaming. That email exchange was the first and last time we ever talked about it. I knew implicitly that I was never to mention sex work in her presence, and so I didn’t. From then on, she showed significantly less interest in my life. We still talked, but less frequently and less about me. Her rejection tapped into deep-seated childhood fears that I was unlovable. The fear, distrust, and isolation I had already begun to experience as an individual working in the sex industry was compounded. My sense of self was shattered; my sense of trust in my mother destroyed.
A decade later, I call my mum every other Sunday. I call her because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. I call because I know that if I didn’t, she wouldn’t call me. It’s an unbearable thought, to think that I’d have no relationship with my mother, given that I already have zero relationship with my dad.
When my mum and I talk, we skate over the past as if it were a frozen pond. We stick to neutral topics, like the weather or movies one of us has seen. We talk about politics we both more or less agree on. She tells me about her job.
Underneath the surface, there are parts of myself that go unacknowledged. So long as I was working, any conversation about my finances would awkwardly avoid where that money came from. There are things about my life and my past that I know my mum can’t bear to hear.
I work to accept our relationship for what it is. Meanwhile, I’ve found other places to express my truth and sort through my past, including but not limited to my past as a sex worker. At 27, I went to rehab and got sober. I learned to share honestly at 12-step meetings and in therapy. And I became a writer.
Becoming a writer, coming clean, and telling the truth of my experience saved my life, even as it further complicated my relationship with my mother.
In 2010, I lost my job as a public school teacher when it became front-page news that I was writing and sharing stories of my sex-work past. On my last official day as a teacher, I published a heartfelt personal essay on The Rumpus. In it, I talked about the poverty I’d experienced as a kid, and how sex work was a means to socioeconomic opportunity. I talked about loss, and grief, and fear. I wrote of financial insecurity, and not knowing what I was going to do now that I’d just been rendered unemployable. I didn’t come out and say it, but at that time in my life, I felt tempted to return to the sex industry — which, by then, was work I’d grown to loathe. Instead, I talked about becoming a writer, and what my writing meant to me.
Some days later, my mum sent me an email. In it, she complained I’d painted a “distorted picture of [my] oh so poor childhood.” She threatened to discredit me publicly if I continued to embarrass her in print.
I wrote her back. I told her what I should have told her years ago, when she first confronted me about the fact that I was dancing: I said that I was sorry she was embarrassed by my work. I told her that I loved her; I loved her very much — but I would not stop living my truth.
Even though I’m still figuring out where I stand with my own mother, I’ve recently begun reflecting on the kind of mother I’d make, given my particular circumstances. And I’ve realised that I’m not the only sex worker who has grappled with this.
“There’s this painful thing that happens when you’re a sex worker and become a mother,” former sex worker Meg Vallee Munoz recently reflected. “You start to realize how incredibly intense a mother’s love is, yet start to question why your own mother’s love was not strong enough to reject stigma and accept you.”
At 36 years old, newly engaged, and on the verge of starting a family of my own, I wonder if I haven’t questioned this long enough. Lately, my mum likes to talk about my upcoming wedding. I’m glad that I can give her that. Sure, a part of me wants to deny her the pleasure, just as I have felt denied and rejected for so much of my adult life. But the better part of me knows this attitude would only hurt me. We’ve both hurt for long enough.
At the darkest times in my life, I didn’t think I’d ever have a family. Deep down, I feared I was unlovable. Damaged goods. I thought I would never want kids, and was afraid I wouldn’t make a very good mother. If I’ve learned anything from my relationship with my own mother, it’s that everyone needs permission to be who they are, even if that means making mistakes. I won’t make a perfect mum, but I’m sure I’ll do all right — because I know I’ll do my best. As for my relationship with my own mother, for now we accept each other as best we can, even as we struggle to accept ourselves.