new mom

Rediscovering Vanity, As a Mom

Illustration: Pippi, age 5

NEW MOM explores the brilliant, terrible, wonderful, confusing realities of first-time motherhood. It’s for anybody who wants to be a new mom, is a new mom, was a new mom, or wants really good reasons to never be a new mom.

“I’m pregnant,” I told my dermatologist. “Is there anything I need to stop doing?” I put a protective hand over my belly and laughed, certain she’d wave away my excessive concern as my other doctors had done.

“Congratulations,” she said instead, handing me a long list of ingredients to avoid, including all perfumes. I stared, struck dumb by imminent loss, as she explained that these ingredients could potentially harm a fetus, triggering anything from hormonal issues to serious birth defects. “Oh,” she added, “and do you plan to breastfeed?”

Pregnancy restrictions didn’t overly faze me. I had the occasional glass of wine. I didn’t mind avoiding cold cuts or sushi. I was cool with staying away from herbal teas. But my beauty regimen? Without retinol, peels, serums — would my face start sliding away, like that notorious melting Nazi in the first Indiana Jones film? Without perfume, would my refined sense of smell wither and die, leaving me unable to tell the difference between L’Air du Desert Marocain and Axe Body Spray? I’d have to do without my great small luxury, my bedtime rites, not just for the duration of pregnancy but breastfeeding, too.

I’ve always been an anxious person, a worrier. I soothe myself with rituals, and beauty rituals have long been my preference. My rituals were a math problem, each product part of the formula. Layer, add, subtract, blend. Conceal and highlight, dab and brush. Treat and prevent.

I had counted on my rituals to soothe my anxiety in pregnancy. It had taken me a long time and a lot of money to get pregnant, and I worried about my growing daughter. Would she be healthy? Would she be happy? Would she be born? I’m a skeptic and agnostic but a terribly magical thinker, and routines felt like made luck; they kept the questions from multiplying. I knew I wouldn’t sleep while I had young a baby, but I had counted on retinol to help my face look as though I did.

I first learned the comforting math of beauty when I got a job selling cosmetics at a department store. It was not a job I had wanted — it was a job I took the first time my life spun out of my control, after 9/11 wrecked the economy. I chose high-end cosmetics sales because you could make commission, and to my surprise, I had a talent for it. I loved the way it felt, tackling logic problems, empowering customers to solve their own skin woes. There was always a solution for X. Exfoliator plus anti-aging cream plus serum for the anxious single teacher turning 40. Body wash plus perfume plus body crème for the ribald grandmother who just wanted to smell like sex.

The cosmetics company sent us to classes, dressed us like doctors in slim white coats. I was therapist, bartender, and mad scientist, rolled into one salesgirl. Women told me their secrets and dreams. A newly blind woman cried when I helped her figure out how to apply makeup without mirrors. A comfortable-looking mom bought six hundred dollars worth of skin care and whispered that she was leaving her husband for her lover that night. Women told me over and over again that a lipstick was the only thing they ever bought for themselves, and how small and good a thing a lipstick could be. I saw the power in their belief in beauty, and I began to adapt rituals of my own.

I know, I know. Baby-friendly beauty! It exists! (Well, sort of. Thing is, no pregnant woman wants to be a tester’s guinea pig, so there’s just not enough definite information about what’s safe for developing fetuses.) But this wasn’t just about keeping out toxins. This was also about my relationship with motherhood.

I was ambivalent for a long time. And then when I decided I wanted a child — desperately — I discovered it wasn’t easy. My daughter was wondrously wanted. My life didn’t feel interrupted or inconvenienced. I’d traveled the world, written books, had several wild lives. What I wanted, now, was to be All Mother. I wanted to throw myself into the service of care. I wanted to lose myself in my child, in the way most mothers dread. I’d spent too many years with only myself.

That’s not to say that giving up beauty wasn’t painful. It was. But it was an almost ascetic pain, purposeful and holy. It wasn’t that I decided to be slovenly, though certainly I let my roots grow longer, and I didn’t wear much makeup. It was more that I thought about myself in a different way — if not quite a temple, then certainly a sort of sunny nook where we could grow together, my daughter and I.

So I canceled my beauty box subscriptions. I stopped reading beauty blogs and buying Allure. I started buying baby-food cookbooks, reading mom blogs and dad blogs and breastfeeding blogs. I learned to make homemade purée.

Control, of course, flees the scene as soon as the baby is born. How will the baby sleep? Will breastfeeding go smoothly? What if the baby has allergies (mine did) or is too big or too small or has medical needs? What if your greedy-ass baby loves breastfeeding so much it’ll be years before you get your boobs and life back? (Reader, it happened to me.) Any illusion of agency I had maintained through my pregnancy was gone.

After six months, the mother-buzz wore off. After a year of no beauty rituals, I started to lose myself. Am I wrinkling faster, or is that sagginess lack of sleep? What can I do about this acne? What are all these new products I’ve never heard of? On a rare day off, I wandered a Sephora like a still-sleepy Rip van Winkle, bewildered and blinking at all the newfangled creams and acids. I knew every inch of my daughter’s soft round face, her night sky eyes. I could tell you the exact width of her smile. But what about me? Where had I gone?

I decided that when my daughter stopped breastfeeding, I would be ready. I would find out what was new, and what was needed, and I would create my own rituals again. Instagram made it easy to discover brands, and I found Korean beauty and here — here was a religion whose altar I could worship at. Ten steps! Or more! Beauty had become as high/low as fashion, and that was exciting given my limited budget (thanks, day care). And MASKS. What were they? They lived messy in jars before — now they were easy and fun, like shots of expensive Champagne.

On the day breastfeeding was done, I picked up my retinoid at CVS, checked out my cart full of perfume samples on Twisted Lily, and hit the “buy” button on Sephora. I cried a little at this new separation from my baby, and I cried for all our future separations. And then I bought waterproof mascara, the kind with fibers to fill out my aging, thinning lashes. I cleared the diaper rash creams and changing pads off of my vanity and set up my beauty station: cleanser, toner, serums, retinoid, peel, masks, sunscreen, moisturizers, under-eye cream, lipsticks, lip gloss, mascara, eyeliners, cream blush, highlighters. I bought a little box with a silver clasp for my perfume samples, and my husband bought me a full-size bottle of my favorite (Serge Lutens’s La Fille de Berlin.) I sighed, happy. There I was.

So much of what happens in the years after your child is born is a slow process of finding yourself, lumbering out of that warm mother cave and shivering in the delicious chill. You find the things you loved, and you look them over with strange eyes. As my daughter learned to walk, talk, sing — I’ve found new favorite fragrances, face masks, and methods of staving off my own aging. As she’s discovered vanity, playing with my makeup brushes, accessorizing with sequins, so I’ve rediscovered vanity. In this post-modern world where anything can be art, or play, or both, I’m planting my flag firmly on the beauty product peak. And eventually, I’ll invite my daughter to join me there.

Rediscovering Vanity, As a Mom