"What I truly believe with children, is that you get the soul that you were meant to have, regardless of how you get them. These boys are so connected to us. Our “souls” work together and I feel like we were always meant to be together and we found each other through these crazy paths that lead us to become a family."
They’re the words of the remarkable Quynh Mai, a woman who not only shares insights into motherhood that leave us weak at the knees, but would – without doubt – be the most coveted parent at the school gate. As the founder of digital agency Moving Image & Content, Quynh has not only been nominated (or won) a major industry award for the past five years, but has also worked with the likes of Sephora, Google, Girls Who Code, and yes, Kanye West.
Having arrived in America as a child with her family as war refugees from Vietnam, Quynh grew up with a view of motherhood that differs dramatically to her experience today. Then, it was “more about providing safety, resources and education. I saw my mother as a provider, but not necessarily a confidante, friend or there for emotional support,” she said. “I was aware of how much my mother sacrificed for us. We could fast track our paperwork to get out of Vietnam because she sold her own jewelry to bribe an American official. She played that role of the caretaker for our entire lives.”
Conversely, Quynh sees her role as mother to her two boys – adopted sons Desta and Tian – as a relationship that involves being together, talking and discovering. “I see motherhood as a journey,” she said. “I have these two beautiful beings that I am able to guide. I get to open them up to ideas, experiences and the world through travel and exposing them to new things. I am not here to mold them or to form them. Rather, I’m here to give them opportunities and experiences that will shape who they are so they can be their own selves, independent of me or my husband. My role for them, which will probably be my role for the rest of my life, is to be that invisible hand that helps them in life, but never gets in the way of who they are and what they want to become.”
And with that, Quynh has become the mother all wish we had, or indeed, who we aspire to be.
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?
When we arrived in America as war refugees from Vietnam, my family settled in California. At that time, there was a lot of racism directed at our wave of immigration as Americans connected us to the war, which most Americans did not support. As a result of this animosity towards us, many of us were labeled “boat people.”
My entire family experienced culture shock when we arrived. In Vietnam, my parents were well educated and from the upper-middle class, but when we arrived in the U.S. they were treated terribly. They managed to support us with odd jobs until I was older and Silicon Valley started to develop. The desperate need for talent to support and grow the burgeoning tech industry finally allowed my parents to use their educated minds (if not their language) to get ahead.
My parents were incredibly strict on us growing up because they didn’t understand or accept American culture. Education was emphasized in our house as my parents believed it was the only guaranteed pathway to success, especially since getting technical degrees in Silicon Valley is what allowed my parents to lift our family into the middle class. They were determined that I would get the chances in life that they could not.
Growing up in the US - with a mother who escaped from the Vietnam War - what was your impression of what motherhood looked like? And how did this differ from your own experience?
Motherhood for me, as a child of war refugees, was more about providing safety, resources and education. I saw my mother as a provider, but not necessarily a confidante, friend or there for emotional support. I was aware of how much my mother sacrificed for us. We could fast track our paperwork to get out of Vietnam because she sold her own jewelry to bribe an American official. She played that role of the caretaker for our entire lives.
For me, my experience of motherhood is much different. The education and opportunity she provided me allowed me to have the luxury of taking care of my children, but also the ability to really “be” with them.
Since I own my own business (which means you are basically working all the time), I make it a priority to spend as much of my free time with my kids as possible. Our relationship revolves more around being together, talking and discovering. We travel, eat and explore together.
I try to be home every night for dinner so that we have at least one moment each day to be together and talk about what is happening in our lives and what we are thinking about.
Now as a mother yourself, what does motherhood look like for you? What type of mother do you aspire to be?
I’m sure everyone feels this way, but motherhood today is HARD! We need to juggle being moms, our careers, our relationships with our partners, our health and well-being, our personal passions (if we have time for them), our friendships – and if lucky, a connection to spirituality.
For me, I see motherhood as a journey. I have these two beautiful beings that I am able to guide. I get to open them up to ideas, experiences and the world through travel and exposing them to new things. I am not here to mold them or to form them. Rather, I’m here to give them opportunities and experiences that will shape who they are so they can be their own selves, independent of me or my husband. My role for them, which will probably be my role for the rest of my life, is to be that invisible hand that helps them in life, but never gets in the way of who they are and what they want to become.
Can you share with us your experience of adoption and what led you to adopt your two beautiful boys?
Adoption is so much harder than people think, especially internationally. My husband and I joke that we could have had two kids biologically during the time that it took us to adopt our first child.
My husband always knew he wanted to adopt, but I was a bit more reticent. Part of me wanted to have the “experience” of carrying a child. Our compromise was that we would adopt our first child then have our second child biologically as we did not want our adopted child to feel secondary in any way.
Our first son, Desta, was adopted from Ethiopia at three years old and no joke, it took about three years for us to get all the paperwork cleared for adoption. We started the adoption process close to the time he was born!
Our second son, Tian, was adopted just a year and a half ago from China. Coincidentally, he was born around the same time that we brought our first son Desta home from Ethiopia.
What I truly believe with children, is that you get the soul that you were meant to have, regardless of how you get them. These boys are so connected to us. Our “souls” work together and I feel like we were always meant to be together and we found each other through these crazy paths that lead us to become a family.
On the more practical side, there are so many beautiful, loving children in the world that need a family and we felt that we have been so fortunate in our own lives (especially in regards to my own family’s sacrifice for me), that it felt like adopting our sons was a privilege.
What was the process like from start to finish?
Adoption is really just a lot of paperwork. Not invasive, but grueling. You are asking the US government to grant citizenship and it takes at least a year just to get all the paperwork in order. Then, you wait another six months to be matched with your child. That waiting period is the most difficult part – you see photos of your future child, but have to wait to bring him or her home.
What advice would you give to other women who might be thinking about adoption?
If you are even remotely considering adoption, start the process immediately, it takes at least a year to even qualify. So, start the paperwork process as soon as you can. You can make your final decision later.
What has motherhood taught you?
Motherhood has taught me patience and the ability to give unconditional love. I can nurture and love, but as my children grow, I need to step back and let them form into independent, smart and strong beings.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood to date?
Motherhood is pure joy. The biggest challenge is that you have to reorganize your priorities between family, work, health and friends. It’s hard to have it all, so I had to pick which of these facets I was willing to relinquish, for the time being.
What about the most rewarding?
Seeing my children grow into fearless beings – unafraid to try new things, speak up and accept and love who they are.
I always tell my husband that the best thing we can teach them is to not worry about what other people think, but to make decisions based on what they think and want. Hopefully, this will avoid years of therapy and regret!
What do you love about raising children in NYC?
I love that they live in a culturally and racially diverse city. They get to see and experience the world without leaving home – through food, art and by exploring different neighborhoods.
You’re the founder of a hugely influential strategy and digital marketing agency. Was this entrepreneurial path always part of your plan?
I was always a bit dissatisfied working for other people. My parents instilled in me a very strong work ethic and I wanted to channel that into my own company to have the freedom to choose my own path and lifestyle. I wanted to create a company that serves a purpose, helps build businesses, creates jobs and truly has an impact.
You have worked with a great selection of brands - from Google to Sephora. What has been your career highlight to date?
We have had the honor of being nominated or of winning a major industry award every year for the past five years. It means a lot to me to be honored by a jury of my peers.
But one major career highlight was working for Kanye West when we premiered The Life of Pablo through a global live stream to over 400+ cinemas all over the world. It was great to be a part of such an important, and global, cultural moment.
You’ve also worked with some of the world’s top artists and entrepreneurs. Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by fearlessness. People who are willing to do what has never been done before, because greatness comes sometimes with being first.
Do you set ambitious goals and targets for yourself? Or do you approach your career with more of a go-with-the-flow attitude?
Every year, I think about what is missing in the marketplace and try to create agency services that meet those needs. Rather than asking clients what they need, I try to lead them into the future of digital marketing.
We take the reins in identifying where and how they need to shift – making it our responsibility to advise and guide them. Our purpose is to not only provide a service to our clients, but to build lasting relationships that are built on trust, transparency and longevity in their road to success.
How do you make the balance of motherhood and career work? Do you have any tips for mothers attempting to do the same?
Having something that you do purely for yourself on a regular basis can really keep you sane and happy. For me, I splurge on a private Pilates class each week. It helps me focus and build a strong body, which in turn has strengthened my mind and changed my diet.
With such a demanding schedule, how do you make time for yourself? How do you approach self-care?
I do not do a good job at this. I work a full day, come home for dinner, then get back to work when the kids are in bed. So many moms have created a similar routine that is built around having those precious few hours at night with their families.
Today we’re living in a climate that is (pleasingly!) shedding a light on inequality and sexism. As the mother of two boys - how have you been engaging in conversation with them about this?
I try to show, versus tell my boys, how to treat women. My husband and I have a strong, respectful relationship where we are true equals. At work, they see me interacting with my team and clients and see how we treat each other with great respect and kindness. I talk about things I see or read and try to discuss real world examples of modern equality in sex and race. It’s really challenging, especially in this time when racism is actually on the rise.
What legacy are you hoping to create with Moving Image & Content?
My aim is to create an agency that has a truly symbiotic and collaborative relationship with their clients. Moving Image & Content is a company that is consultative and strategic in its thinking but is also executing innovative and breakthrough creative work that serves the customer as well as the brand.
Too often, brands are creating marketing initiatives that are self-serving for themselves and their most loyal customers. They need to start thinking about how to spread joy, inspiration and informative content that creates a true symbiotic relationship between themselves and their clientele. I want us to be the agency that helps them bridge the two sides.
What is on your little list of loves?
- A shot of Casamigos Reposado after a long day (less sugar than a glass of rose)
- A hike at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation followed by lunch at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean George
- Sushi at the counter at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market (the freshest fish in NYC!)
- Roezen Beauty Mask, made with fish roe and essential oils (it’s like an instant face lift)
- Torres Black Truffle potato chips paired with a crisp, cold glass of Sancerre
- “Street Food” series on Netflix
- Anything from German denim company, Closed (designed in Germany, handmade in Italy)
- Clogs from Toffel
- La Mer lip balm
- Amarcord Vintage shop in Williamsburg (great designer vintage finds)