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How Is a Mom Supposed to Look?

Are mothers subject to the same standards as other women?

In Getting a Life, U.K. writer Helen Simpson’s collection of skewering short stories, she describes a group of mothers waiting for their kids at the end of the school day. The moms judge each other—not about their parenting, but about their fingernails. The best mothers, they say, are the ones with the scraggliest hands: who has time for superficial things like manicures when you’re busy with the needs of your needy children?

When my son was tiny, I met another mom of a baby the same age on the street. We chatted, and vented, about the incredible efforts of parenting an infant.  Then she said “I’ve even resorted to waxing my own eyebrows!” I was a bit taken aback by this as I had not even registered having eyebrows in the past three months, much less grooming them. Who was this woman who was able to manage her unwanted hair growth and her new baby’s feeding schedule at the same time?  Or was I the weirdo because I couldn’t even find the time to look in the mirror?

Are moms supposed to look less together than other women?

At the time, my main thought was that this eyebrow-obsessed mother was clearly not my kind of girl. I must come clean here and acknowledge that I have a rather strong history of “letting myself go” for distractions less altruistic than motherhood. Grad school, book deadlines and bad moods have all been responsible for intermittent lapses in grooming. I didn’t do this deliberately—I just have the kind of mind that tunes out things like fingernails until my attention is called to them, whether it’s by an unexpected scratch or a comparison with a woman who takes all this self-care stuff seriously.

As a kid, I was taught that beauty management was a low priority. My own mom was notoriously nonchalant about her looks when I was growing up. (Not because she was spending that time and energy on me.) I did not appreciate this much back then, but in retrospect I think it was a huge gift.  I did not follow in her footsteps entirely, as anyone who has seen my closet and cosmetic collection will attest.  I love dressing up. Style as self-expression is hugely important to me. What I learned from my mom, though, is that sometimes, other things are more important than what you look like.

Of course, you say! Who would argue otherwise? No one would say so with words. But the way women spend their time—and their money—tells a slightly different story. So much in media for women is about how gorgeous we can get. When making ourselves beautiful is such a big part of the focus, we start to see time spent on our appearance as central to who we are. Likewise, letting that stuff slide is seen as an example of an unhealthy selflessness. How much of the “me” time mothers claim for themselves is dedicated to making themselves more attractive to others?

Not that it doesn’t feel good to feel pretty, and for many (myself possibly excluded) it feel gross to look ungroomed.  The beauty myth has evolved into a kind of reality. Focusing on how we look can feel like a relief compared to the heavier issues we all deal with. And time spent on our appearance does have certain benefits…like other people finding you more attractive.   Hey, I love fashion and shopping as much as the next girl. I just can’t always be bothered to put the time and effort into it. And I sometimes look at my closet full of products and wonder whether all that money could have gone to better use. Which is why it’s nice when you have the opportunity to get your hands on some stylish stuff for free via Babble’s sweet Stella and Dot jewelry giveaway going on this week.

Do you find yourself spending less time on your appearance as a mother?

photo: maessive/flickr

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