The Cool-Mom Myth

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

Someone told me recently that I seemed like a cool mom. I’ll admit I was flattered at first. Wow, I thought, this person thinks I’m not like other moms — I’m different. Growing up, the coolest mom I knew was my friend Rowena’s. She was a single mom, older, with a blunt-edged haircut that always looked expensively maintained. She worked as a set coordinator on a hit TV show and her house looked like an adult’s (whereas our house looked like adults had briefly tried living there and then just given up). Looking back, the things that made Rowena’s mom seem exciting and fun to an 8-year-old were all the ways in which she stood out from the other mothers. She seemed to exist separately from my idea of what a mom should be: She wasn’t around all the time, she had a full life outside of Rowena, she went to fun parties, and she wore cool jeans.

As a mom myself now I still think about her, about how much I admire her for breaking the mold of motherhood for young me — but I also cringe at how limited and cruel my perception of mothers was.

Which is why my satisfaction at the idea of being considered a “cool mom” — that I was so quick to embrace the idea that somehow I was unlike a mom — quickly turned into remorse. Separating myself from the label of motherhood doesn’t separate me from the act itself; it doesn’t shield me from the labor or the costs or the judgment that comes with being a mother; it doesn’t inoculate me from the burnout of managing work and care and always kind of feeling like I’m failing at both.

The sheer idea of this label implies that the default, the “Regular Mom,” is inherently undesirable, unlikable, and unappealing.

And of course this being motherhood, everything ends up being used against us eventually and the cool mom label itself is often played as a joke on the mom — she’s Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, someone so desperate to cling to her youth and her pre-mom self that she lingers a little too long in her kid’s room, wears clothing too “young” for her, and is ultimately worthy of our derision for not understanding and embracing how she should look and act. Even a cool mom isn’t allowed to be that cool.

Still, look online and you’ll find all kinds of ways women are marketed cynical alternatives to the norm. You can get a “rebel mama” T-shirt or a “hip mommy” mug or whatever other signifier that can be slapped on some customizable merch and attached to motherhood that acts as an explanation (and an apology) for having kids in the first place. It’s an escape hatch, a way of eluding the default image of motherhood that tries to convince us moms are automatically boring, homely, and invisible.

It’s an image I fear myself. Sometimes when I’m out in the world without my kids, I wonder if strangers on the street can tell that I’m a mom and too often I hope that they can’t. I want to know if I carry myself in a way that automatically conveys that I spent 20 minutes this morning cutting grapes into halves and cleaning dried spaghetti off the dining-room floor. If you didn’t know me, would you know that when I read Where the Wild Things Are at bedtime, I do scary voices for every monster and make up funny names for them too? Why am I so quick to want to hide those parts of myself from other people? Why do I want to put a more exciting word in front of mom that will deny or at least hide the tenderness, earnestness, and vulnerability that makes up so much of this experience?

Motherhood can feel like a performance. Sometimes I’m performing a version of “mom” that I think my husband and kids want; other times I’m doing it online, posting my highlights and lowlights for social media, offering up a digital parent that I hope comes across as honest yet confident and put together and happy. But just as often I’m performing for me, trying to convince myself that I know what I’m doing and that I’m still the same person I was before all of this. Maybe I liked hearing that I’m a cool mom because half the time I don’t even know if I’m pulling off “mom.” And yes, feeling like I was being seen as more than just a mom, momentarily relieved that maybe I hadn’t been entirely consumed by this role.

What I always loved about Rowena’s mom was her ability to be so many things at once, to not deny the fulsomeness of her experience to either her children or to herself. Everything that made her cool, also made her a great mom and she never pretended otherwise. I hope I can do the same.

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The Cool-Mom Myth