Thursday, December 15, 2005

Be Cool, Mama

Be Cool, Mama by Andria Brown
Photo by Erica Carter

"Man, I hope Justin Timberlake doesn't see me checking for milk leaks."

As soon as my brain articulated the thought, I started to laugh. Right there in that sentence was the summary of my mamahood. As I was standing at a fancy music industry event, vaguely remembering all the times I'd been in the same room for other shows, the exhilarating nights that dissolved into exhausted mornings more gracefully than a film montage, my most overwhelming concern was whether or not I was staining the front of my dress.

I would be lying if I said I used to be cool. Pre-baby, I was still the buttoned-up, tee-totaling, hairstyle-challenged doof that I am today. But I did get to do some pretty cool stuff. My job sent me to fun places like Boston, New Orleans and Orlando, where I spent days running conferences and nights running around with my remarkably entertaining colleagues. Thanks to marrying a music professional and then wading into the industry myself, I spent a more than reasonable amount of time in bars and clubs, listening to and occasionally hanging out with artists from all over the planet. I cranked out content for websites, newsletters and columns, and eventually gathered minor credibility as a sporadically amusing writer. I could even make doing nothing seem cool - going window shopping at hip boutiques, seeing independent movies, reading hardcover books by NPR contributors.

Now that I'm a mom, that carefully constructed veneer of cool has all but worn away. My inner geek is out on full display, wearing practical shoes and whistling Barney songs in public. I held on to the cool as long as I could, going so far as to drag my pregnant self to New York for a whirlwind 30 hours just so I could sit in Letterman's green room for an evening, but that was nearly three years ago and everyone's pretty much over my Will It Float? Model stories by now.

It's not the concept of motherhood that eliminates cool - see exhibits A-D: Susan Sarandon, Erykah Badu, Anne Lamott, Stacey Greenberg - but the mere practicality of it. Hitting two Pint Nights a week isn't really an option when you're carrying around your own double-pints. Dancing till dawn becomes less appealing when the sunrise signals breakfast rather than bedtime. And of course, the division of non-labor is possibly an even bigger issue in most marriages than who's doing which chores. Since we can't consistently afford childcare, there's a constant low-grade struggle over whose turn it is to re-enter the World of Grown-Ups. This involves a lot of complicated math, geography and psychology. I probably still go out "for fun" with more frequency, but since I am generally with the child nearly 24 hours a day, I contend that what seems like a carefree night on the town is really just equivalent to my husband leaving the house for a regular working day in a regular office (see Jeff's counter-point in his own upcoming essay, entitled "Why Engaging In Daily Battle With The Ever-Pissy Hydra Of Academia Is In No Way Like Doing Shots With Hootie").

It’s still not really the same, though, and of course it can’t ever be. I think I’ve adjusted pretty well, but just when I think I'm okay with my new tragically unhip status, I realize that I'm digging into a job or project or material object for the sheer purpose of maintaining some semblance of cool. It doesn’t benefit my sense of inner calm to take on the promotion of a hot young songwriter or chase after prestigious writing gigs, but I can’t seem to help it.

I thought this was just some deep personal flaw relating to childhood lunch table issues, but as I’ve talked to other new moms (and especially mostly-at-home moms) about the ways they fill their teeny remnants of spare time, I’ve realized that many of us are downright driven to seek validation however we can. The word “productivity” comes up a lot. It may seem like insanity to tackle a volunteer calling or a freelance assignment when we’re still barely able to match our own socks, but in fact it’s these outside endeavors that keep insanity at bay. It would be nice if caring for babies were as socially esteemed as, say, NASCAR driving or insider trading, but until it is, we here in the oatmeal-filled trenches are going to go to whatever lengths necessary to get a little bit of positive adult attention. We with the fragile self-esteems and nagging doubts about our parenting, anyway.

So maybe some moms are motivated by the desire to hear someone say, “You’re such a valuable member of the campaign against illiteracy,” or “Great work decoding that genome; we’re one step closer to winning the war against cancer!” Me, I’ll settle for, “Cute purse.” It seems shallow, but when you’re stretched this thin, it doesn’t take much to reach the gooey middle layer. Clinging to the trappings of cool means still being recognized as an independent, self-assured, fun-loving woman during a time in my life when I feel most needy, uncertain and ornery.

As a mother, I recognize that I now have a more important purpose than I ever had before, and I’m willing to make the sacrifices required to fulfill that purpose to the best of my ability. I’m completely aware that what really matters is how much I love and care for my daughter, and she doesn’t care how cool I am or was or ever might be (besides, in about ten years, she’s going to be mortally embarrassed by me regardless).

But in my stolen free moments or on a rare evening out, I’m still going to seek those opportunities that might allow me to think, ever so briefly, “Hey, Justin Timberlake is looking at my boobs.”

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