I bought a tankini this summer. Personally, I thought I looked pretty good. My teenage daughter didn’t agree. The first day I showed up at the pool in my new gear, she just looked at me and said, “Ugh. That’s such a mom bathing suit.”
She had a point. But I’m a mom. I’m pretty sure that makes it ok. In fact, at our swim club, tankini-clad moms roam the concrete walkways like migrating wildebeest.
And yet, my teenager says “mom bathing suit” like it’s such a bad thing.
I kind of get it, though. Before having children of my own, the “mom stigma” was one that I categorized right up there with things like “fascism” or “the Kardashians.” Being a mom meant having a mom haircut, wearing mom jeans, carrying a purse that was more like a “Swiss Alps survival kit” than a fashion statement and, of course, driving a minivan. It was as if, once you gave birth, you became a card-carrying member of the un-coolest club in school and it was your obligation to uphold the standards or face certain exile.
While these stereotypes are not true for all mothers by any means, they make sense. I spent a lot of time trying to be the anti-mom. I held on to a bikini possibly longer than I should have. I still have long hair. I’ve never owned a minivan (or a “sport utility van” as my brother insisted on calling his). But I put a lot of energy into not fitting some categorical description, when in reality, I could have made life a lot easier for myself by being more focused on what worked for me.
The mom stigma is something that forms in our heads at a very early age. We looked at our own parents as if they were antiquities who dedicated their entire existence to the pursuit of embarrassing us by wearing, driving and owning the least fashionable things possible.
For years, the very word “minivan” made me cringe. Minivans were the mode of transportation for most of my childhood and it was SO not cool. It became even less not awesome when I got my driver’s license and that was all I had to drive. Yeah, that’s right. I could be seen cruising around town…windows down, music up and car seats in the back. By the time I inherited my older brother’s 1974 Volvo, I truly thought it was a step up. This was a car surviving on four gears and a dream, but it wasn’t a minivan and that’s all that mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t judge my mom for her less-than-stylish van. She had five children. Sports cars were kind of out of the question. Minivans were spacious. If it was raining, one could climb all the way into buckle a squirming toddler in a car seat. No one had to climb over anyone else to find a seat. There was room on the floor for sports gear or a dog, depending on the outing. It makes perfect sense if you think about it.
It’s not as if we walk out of the hospital with a new baby and get handed a pair of sensible shoes and a matching diaper bag. “Mom” things – short haircuts, spaciously cut jeans, big bags and, naturally, minivans – are not things that we all grow up dreaming of having. They happen organically. They are our tools of survival. Even tankinis. If you’ve ever tried to chase a toddler down the beach while wearing a bikini, you know what I mean.
As a parent, you grasp at straws of necessity along the way. You learn what you like and what you don’t like. And you find out what works and what doesn’t. Take, for example, skinny jeans. I own them, but these are not my going-to-the-park or shopping-with-kids pants. They are only for special, child-free occasions when I don’t need to walk. Or breathe. However, put me in a pair of reasonably-sized boot legs and I’m like Usain Bolt; which is good, because when you have kids, agility is more important that one might think.
A friend of mine recently sent me a picture of her new haircut. It’s short and super cute, but her caption read, “I know, total mom hair cut. But it’s just so easy.” As someone with long hair that stays in a messy bun for months at a time, because it is too much effort to wash, dry and style, I get it. My friend refers to it as her “casual-to-formal hair,” because it doesn’t have to change. One quick brush and she’s ready to go to play group or out to dinner. As an added bonus, it won’t get yanked on, chewed on and ultimately pulled out by toddlers.
Simply put, becoming a mom doesn’t mean you stop caring about what you look like, but it does mean that you also have other people to bathe, dress, transport and present to the public. You do what you’ve got to do. I spent a lot of time worrying that if I did certain things or wore certain things and most definitely if I drove certain things (I’m looking at you, minivan), I would be selling out to the stereotype, instead of just being where I am at this point in my life.
It’s actually kind of encouraging to look forward these days. When I was in my 20s, the mom stigma loomed large and ugly. But now that I’m smack in the middle of it, the next stage is looking pretty good. After all, most empty-nesters aren’t still rocking the swagger wagon. And even my own mother dresses pretty hip these days. I’ve got years to be age-defying in my coolness. But for right now, I’m going to do us all a favor and invest in another tankini.