Moms Gone Wild

Motherhood can obliterate you — or it can set you free.

Photo: Jena Ardell/Getty Images
Photo: Jena Ardell/Getty Images
Photo: Jena Ardell/Getty Images

Two years ago, slowly unclenching from the stress ball of pandemic parenting, I treated myself to a session with an intuitive — a more palatable term for psychic — who had been passed around my friend group with enthusiastic reviews. My two children were both under 5, and the one foot I had kept in the workforce post-kids had been whittled down to more of a pinky toe. I was unsatisfied and unmoored, and happy to spend $200 to hear someone prescribe a solution.

She cautioned me against the typical self-care recommended to mothers: rest, yoga, the kind of pedicure where they bring out the hot stones. Instead, she explained, something about my star chart or tarot cards or general vibe suggested that I needed to lose control: to drink too much tequila, to spend a night in a hotel having an affair (or at least flirting shamelessly with a stranger and later masturbating in my room), to take time alone and away from home, doing something unexpected, and refuse to divulge any details when I returned.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been given this advice. After I had my first child in 2016, I was so unhappy with my long days of solo parenting, cursing my husband for every additional minute of his commute home while I attempted to perform motherhood for a bewildering, overwhelming bundle of need, that my therapist deemed me a “cheating risk.” While I am married to the man to whom I lost my virginity, it wasn’t an actual desire to sleep with other people that was the problem — it was my own deep sense of emptiness, and my fear that I would never be able to uncover, let alone fulfill, my own needs. If I couldn’t figure out how to reconnect with myself and what brought me joy, my therapist said, I could end up transgressing just to feel something.

But the only way to get through early motherhood appeared to be suppressing any and all of my own urges. I had absolutely no tools to heed my therapist’s warning. I was too busy making order out of the chaos I was experiencing as a new mom. I was a slave to the nap schedule and reading up Janet Lansbury, determined to protect my children from future sociopathy by being the most responsive motherfucker on the playground.

When I had a second child just two years after the first, as I believed I needed to do, I felt like I had been punched while already down. But with this one, I vowed, I would be less depressed and unmoored. I would be a natural, like my mother had been. Of course it didn’t turn out that way. Feeling guilty, I spent even more time home with my second baby than I had with my first, though my husband’s move to a company that provided non-birthing parents with extensive parental leave slightly softened the blow. But I hated the scraps of work I did while I paid other women to watch my children. I found many of my mom friends both under-stimulating and triggering to my fear that I was somehow failing my children. Then, just before my daughter’s second birthday, we went into lockdown and my drive to be a perfect mother went off the rails.

The good news was that mothers began sharing their suffering, and I took solace in my text chains with other moms and the cries for help that mirrored my own suffocation. “I have nothing left,” my friend Courtney texted me in August 2020. “I am parenting like Celine Dion or something, except my heart will NOT go on. It has reached its limit.”

I found the mom rage compelling, and gave into it freely, screaming in my car with the windows up and going on “rage walks” (taken as quickly as possible so as not to upset your dependents, preferably with the female punk band 7 Year Bitch blasting in your ear buds). But when the rage subsided, I was no closer than I was before to being a person who didn’t need to cover her ears and yell “I CAN’T!!!” at the dinner table on a regular basis.

When I wasn’t mad, I was deeply depressed about how little I could manage the mothering with which I was being tasked. After an older neighbor found me sobbing in the driveway one day, explaining, through my snotty tears, that it was just so hard to put on a good face for my kids every day, he kindly nodded in understanding and suggested “maybe you don’t have to.” Admitting to my children that the pandemic also made me sad was one thing, but showing them the true extent of my misery, which began long before lockdown, did not feel like an option.

Heeding the advice of the intuitive, I began to look for something other than the occasional massage or Zumba class that could provide some semblance of “self-care.” I began to imagine a kind of mother who spent her time in ways that actually led to an expansion of herself: the Wild Mom. Her answer to the obliteration of motherhood was not to accept it as ongoing and inevitable, nor to obliterate herself further. Because while she — er, I — love my children, being their mother is not enough. Being myself is paramount.

I tried my best to be wild. I gave myself permission to dwell on sexual fantasies. I did MDMA with a friend at the Russian River and communed with some redwoods. On a “girls trip” to Mexico for my sister’s 40th birthday, I tried very hard to drink too much tequila, which for me was not very much at all. I peed on the beach, stole a cocktail glass, and sang karaoke in the sand until a sleepy surfer bro politely asked us to quiet down.

It all felt a little wild, sure, but I didn’t quite know where it was leading.

The more I experimented with my wild side, and the more I opened up to other moms about my endeavors, the more I realized that I wasn’t the only one trying to loosen up the reins. Sure, I had friends — most of them, like me, cisgendered women in heterosexual, monogamous marriages — who were absolutely scandalized by the idea of spending even a few nights away from their child. But there were other women, more and more, when I started to look for them, who seemed to be going wild with gusto, and who were eager to talk about it.

There was my friend Emily, a 41-year-old married mom from San Francisco, who weaned her baby so that she could attend a transformative ayahuasca journey, and who had been experimenting with some pretty wild-sounding group sex with another married couple. (Emily, like most of the mothers I spoke with, asked to go by a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) My other friend Andrea, who had been married with older step-children for years, now left her toddler with her husband at least once a week to go Flamenco dancing, searching for what she called duende, a Spanish term, she explains, that evokes a heightened state of emotions or authenticity.

I found other women — through friends of friends and posts in online mom groups — happy, some almost visibly blushing, to share their stories. (Though several did balk at my prompt — one mother responded, “On the contrary, I’ve found motherhood to be a very efficient way of removing most opportunity for deviance,” with two emoji, one laughing and the other crying.)

Allison, a mother of four from the Midwest, developed an intense crush on a guy from her choir and asked her husband of over ten years for an open marriage. Clara, a 45-year-old mother of two from the Boston area, opened up her marriage after emerging from a pandemic “breaking point,” where she lost her job and found herself the primary parent and homeschooler while her husband consumed himself with work and conservative politics. Sasha, from the San Francisco Bay Area, went off to the coast for weekends, often with MDMA and her boyfriend, while her husband stayed home with their 8-year-old. Brandy, a 20-years-married-with-two-teens research librarian from Massachusetts, became obsessed with the K-pop band BTS after a friend shared one of their music videos and traveled to New York, L.A., and New Jersey for concerts and to meet up with other fans. Anais, a queer Oakland mom, found a form of wildness in sobriety, where she could no longer lean on the crutch of drinking as an escape from parenting.

This was not, perhaps, the tequila binge that the intuitive had envisioned, but in every case these acts had the effect of bringing an extreme level of joy and presence to their actors. For these women, listening to their urges, even the urge to abstain, was a form of relinquishing control.

When I asked Dr. Rachel Carlton Abrams, an integrative health physician based in Santa Cruz, California, and author of BodyWise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing, to describe the mothers who come to her seeking help, she replied, without hesitation, “dead inside.” “The era of parenting of the past 25 years has been a swing toward focus on the child’s activities and the child’s needs,” she said. “It’s a problem.”

Amanda Montei, author of the forthcoming Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent and Control, describes a perfect storm of conditions leading to today’s mothers seeking out “the unruly or ungovernable.” In her book, Montei sheds light on the trend that Dr. Abrams observes by explaining that, “Today, women who become parents are expected to study and perform ideal motherhood at the cost of all else by consuming online parenting content to meet their children’s needs with monkish detachment.”

But, according to Montei, it’s not just this swing toward intensive parenting, documented in places like Ariel Levy’s New Yorker story on the “gentle parenting” movement — which almost brought me to tears with its validation of my own sense of erasure under the guise of responsiveness to my children — that is bringing the suffering of mothers to a head. It’s also the Me Too movement and revisiting our own difficult histories with consent. It’s the cultural conversations challenging the institutions of motherhood and marriage, calling out domestic inequality. It’s the war on women’s bodies that the Dobbs decision made more visible. It’s the pandemic-fueled realization that no one gives a shit about us or the children we are trying to raise. Mothers are tired. Tired of the particular flavor of American motherhood being doled out, but also tired of fighting so many battles both in and out of the home, just to assert our existence.

Montei offers a simpler version of this take, too: “A lot of women are for the first time realizing that they never really asked themselves what they wanted.”

After a lifetime of accommodating others — dampening my emotions so as not to be “too intense,” faking my orgasms — figuring out what I wanted was a daunting assignment. But as I watched other women around me model it, as people like Montei gave language to my experience and permission to imagine more for myself, my desires began to come into relief. I wanted to parent less intensively, to share the housework and mental load. But I also wanted to heal the trauma created by years of giving my body over to others — first, the high-school boys who had little concern for my desires, then, my husband and children. And also, I wanted to be ungovernable. But I didn’t want to leave my marriage or my children. I wanted it all.

About her group-sex partners, Emily said this: “I’m not trying to blow any shit up. I’m not trying to be with that guy.” Rather, she saw her child enter kindergarten and the next seven years of this phase of parenting stretch out predictably before her, and she knew she would have to be intentional about how she lived it. “After you breastfeed for two and a half years, and a baby comes out of your vagina, and you turn 40, and all of the unresolved sexual and body stuff is still there,” she explained, it was amazing to discover that she could feel and receive desire. “I think my kink is being desired. I want to be wanted, not in a ‘mommy mommy!’ kind of way.”

For some women I spoke to, it wasn’t about being desired, but feeling desire, that wildness allowed them. Of her open marriage, Clara says, “It woke something up in me.” One day her daughter noticed this awakening and told her, “Mama, you look pretty!” For Sasha, exploring ethical non-monogamy isn’t just about sleeping with other people. After spending decades working in nonprofits, serving those around her in a zero sum pursuit, and approaching every weekend by asking her husband what he wanted to do, having a relationship with another man allowed her to finally access and express her own needs, she says, which helped her “unhook” her fulfillment from that of the man she was married to. Her boyfriend sometimes spends the night at her house with her, her husband, and child, and though she knows some might judge this as inappropriate, she finds it liberating.

“The arc of parenthood is long,” Dr. Abrams says. “Each human deserves to be able to explore their own growth and wholeness and each of us is a whole collection of different personalities. And desires and contradictions and capabilities.” Abrams teaches her patients about the “shadow self,” the parts of ourselves that may be difficult to accept — that want to fuck our neighbors or fly 3,000 miles to meet a stranger at a concert or actually face our traumatic pasts. No matter how challenging this is, integrating our many identities, rather than believing these needs are mutually exclusive to being a mother, seems to be the key, or else, shit gets too wild. “I think it’s very dangerous,” Abrams explains, “to keep a zoo in your shadow.”

There are lots of aspects of my days that are, of course, different now that I am a mother. I am at the mercy of the whims of others. I talk a fair amount about the evolving states of Pokémon. I worry about whether I can financially support my family. But there is something else; before I became a mother, I had forgotten how to be an artist.

Many have written powerfully about how hard it is to be an artist and a mother at the same time. I have my own stories of that struggle, which began in earnest at the beginning of the pandemic, when I suddenly felt that if I didn’t write I would die.

But I am pretty convinced that, had I not become a mother, had I never obliterated myself, had I never tried to teach a small person who came out of my body how to have a good life, I would never have written again. I’d tucked my writer self away, like a passing teenaged indulgence, until I realized, with the help of other mothers around me, that if I wanted the duende, I would have to chase it down. I could easily have continued to structure my life, as a woman in this culture, around the fulfillment of others, but motherhood forced my hand.

Chicago-based mother and playwright Hallie Palladino describes motherhood, and particularly mothering through a pandemic, as a “radicalizing experience” which helped her finally give herself permission to write about being a woman, something she’d always been steered away from on the grounds that these issues weren’t relatable. I too have been letting myself write about my actual experiences.

And I am working on being wild. I go on retreats, every few months, with my writers’ group. These are deep, edge-pushing times. We take risks, make mistakes, call each other out, apologize. Often, there is dancing. My friend Christie wonders why she can’t find retreats like this online, but even with all those marketers out there trying to brand maternal self-care, the good shit, I mean the really good shit, is hard to commodify.

My husband and I stay up late talking about our relationship, and I tell him all the things I thought I’d rather run away than say out loud. That I sometimes fantasize about other men. That I can’t imagine never having the experience of making another woman orgasm. He doesn’t share all of my feelings, but he has his own wildness that my explorations inspire him to invest in. I go out every Thursday night, and sometimes I am lonely. I sit at the local bar and chitchat with the waitress and wonder if I’m wasting my time. Sometimes I miss my children.

There is an emerging trend in the world of parenting advice that seems to view maternal self-assertion as critical to good parenting. In Essential Labor, Angela Garbes gives us a vision of motherhood that takes it all seriously but is not precious, that is thoughtful but unapologetic. In The Breaks, Julietta Singh shows us how to mother from a place that views maternal identities not as in conflict with, but as fundamental to parenting choices. KC Davis wants mothers to stop worshiping cleanliness and order as signs of a happy home, but instead to create spaces that function better for who we actually are. Amanda Montei believes in the proliferation of maternal narratives as a way to fight back against a culture that desperately wants to pigeonhole mothers and pit them against each other.

The Wild Moms continue to inspire me and to defy categorization. Allison told her husband about being dumped by her choir crush, and he handled it amazingly well. “He actually was comforting me,” she said. Like many of the other partners of the women I spoke to, her husband also began to explore his own desires and to continue to support hers. Andrea has been noticing that when she is dancing more, she feels less of a desire to sleep with other people, something she views as “way too complicated.”

Hallie bought herself a drum set and has been retreating to the basement to wail on it. Recently her 9-year-old daughter told her that her favorite activity was “thinking.” She realized she’d been modeling intellectualism, as well as joy and privacy, which she distinguishes from deception. Deception being “always an alienating force that creates distance between the self and friends, partners, or the community” and privacy being something absolutely vital for well-being.

Emily feels that her journeys with psychedelics (she has had more since the Ayahuasca weaning trip, and is considering getting trained to guide other women through similar experiences) have made her a better parent. Now, when caught up in a spiral about some choice or dynamic with her kid, she reminds herself that “The universe doesn’t really give a fuck what I do. Your kid’s gonna suffer. How do you want to do this?”

On a cold Friday night in February, my friends and I went dancing. Andrea was there, showing off her moves. There were mushroom pills — not for the blacked-out abandon of our youth but for a more intentional, subtle high. As Ginuwine’s “Pony” came on, I backed myself up against the good-looking man dancing behind me. I locked eyes with Andrea, also grinding with a stranger from behind, and periodically checking her boobs to see if she needed to pump in the bathroom. We exchanged grins.

I didn’t want to go home with the man whose hands were firm around my waist, and thinking about crawling into my own bed, the sounds of my family snoring around me, didn’t bring me dread. I imagined myself shuffling to the breakfast table in the morning, the pleasure still radiating from me, the imprints of my strapless bra still visible on my ribs. I couldn’t wait to tell my daughter, her doughy little body full of desires and contradictions, as I added a handful of coveted Cocoa Pebbles to her Cheerios: “Mommy had a wild night.”

Moms Gone Wild