On a hot day last summer, I took my eight-month-old son to the mall to get his passport picture taken. The photographer sat him right on the edge of a high stool, with me holding on to the back of his tiny overalls to keep him steady. The kid is a wiggler, and my grip must have loosened just long enough for him to free himself and launch face-first to the floor. Picture me grasping at the puff of air left in his wake, followed by his nose breaking his fall on the cold linoleum. When I scooped him up, he was rigid with silent tears as blood began to pour from his nose. I bolted from the store, holding him against my body, to look for help. I had the info desk call security, who arrived in the form of one man casually lumbering down the hall toward us. (Maybe he was even whistling?) When he reached me, struggling to project a dignified though bloodsoaked urgency, he told me to “calm down, miss.”
With those shaming words, I saw the scene through the security guard’s eyes. I saw my scruffy ponytail nub peeking out from my Blue Jays hat, the faded men’s button-down now streaked with blood, the bleached-out cut-off shorts, the grubby white Vans. I saw my lip piercing and the tattoos snaking around my arm and hand. He doesn’t take me seriously! He thinks I’m a delinquent mom! He hadn’t even asked what happened to put my son in this state, presumably because it was so obvious: I was getting high in the McDonald’s bathroom.
Just to be clear: that’s not true. I’m a (mostly) responsible parent, though I did become one kind of reluctantly, after finding out I was pregnant at 28. I was married and had recently finished grad school in fashion studies, living in Brooklyn and working as an underpaid everything to pay off all that fancy education. Not exactly the worst situation for a surprise pregnancy, but I liked my life the way it was, living in our little one-bedroom full of my accumulating wardrobe and Vogue collection, staying out as late as I wanted, with plenty of time for creative projects and drinking too much wine with my friends. No one in our circle had kids yet, and we knew we’d be making it up as we went along.
So when the mall cop sized me up and seemed to settle on Bad Mom, I felt defensive. Hey, buddy! You can’t tell, but in a completely different context, I look like a cool, carefree young mom! But really, the sting of his dismissiveness was about somethingmuch bigger than that day’s sloppy outfit. It shone a light on something I’d been ignoring for months: my post-baby wardrobe. My life has changed drastically since becoming a mom, but the way I dress hasn’t. I still like baseball hats, short skirts and boys’ clothes. This is partly for practical reasons (who wants to buy new clothes just to get them smeared with banana?) and partly because I’m not done figuring out what I want my style to say about the new me. Yes, I’m different now, and I care about different things. But I still want to belong in the same places as before, with the same friends: outsiders, artists and the other various weirdos who find one another in their 20s in big cities. However, now I’m also supposed to belong to a bunch of new spaces, like daycare centres and playgrounds and, unfortunately, sometimes the ER. I don’t often feel like I fit in with groups of other first-time parents, but I don’t really mind. What’s important is that my kid is OK (which he was that day after his fall, thanks for asking). Is it so bad to admit that I’m OK with the mall cop deciding I’m irresponsible if the rest of the world might think I’m cool—someone young and hip who also happens to have a baby?
I’m white and from a middle-class background, so I’m very aware that whatever disrespect I get is less severe and consequential than it is for almost every other kind of parent. But that just makes me more convinced that clothing, and all the assumptions that come with it about age, or marital or financial status, shouldn’t be a factor in assessing our ability to parent our children. If I’d been dressed in a way that screamed “Mommy” that day at the mall (something cozy, functional, possibly pastel-hued) I might have gotten more attention from the security guard, but I also would have felt like I was wearing a costume.
Clothing is fundamentally a method of storytelling—expressing to the world how you see yourself. And most of us do see ourselves differently after becoming mothers, so why shouldn’t our clothing reflect that? But I think we’ve been sold a too-narrow version of what mothers should look like. We’re trained to think of moms as soft, warm, feminine and comforting, and to forget that they’re also prickly, anxious, leaky and lazy, or whatever else regular people get to be. If those we interact with day to day can’t tell we’re working our butts off, whether we’re in pink cashmere cardigans or camo crop tops, that’s their problem. Let’s leave them to their confusion and get on with our complicated, real and still-evolving lives.