“A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.” —Victor Hugo
“Stacy’s mom has got it going on.” —Fountains of Wayne
Last month, my husband came home after a week of work travel. He brought me this incredible dress from a street market in London — a steampunk mashup of leather and lace with a thin brass chain dangling from the neckline that somehow reads as both sweet and sexual. It’s the kind of completely impractical piece of provocative clothing he knows I adore but would never buy for myself. I went into the bathroom, slipped it on, then walked back into our bedroom.
His face lit up. “I love it,” he said quietly, looking at me like I was the only person on the planet.
Our two boys, who’d been busy opening the souvenirs he’d brought them, stared at me.
“Awkward silence,” the 8-year-old stage-whispered.
And then this, from the 12-year-old: “Mom,” he said, “you don’t look like you.”
Lately, that’s the problem. Society has finally caught up with the fact that women are no less sexy after we’ve made babies, and I’ve finally gotten confident enough to see my strengths instead of obsessing over my weaknesses. It’s the era of “hot moms” (a ridiculous phrase that I hate), and I’m letting myself enjoy it. But all that zeitgeist-y fun is colliding with the fact that my body shares an apartment with two adolescent boys who are increasingly aware of all things female.
The “awkward silence” that my youngest loves to point out seems to bubble up whenever I wear something that draws any attention to my body or whenever I flirt with their father and electrify the air between us for even a moment. Understand: I’m not walking around the house in lingerie. But the boys seem to think I’m breaking the rules just by wearing a T-shirt that doesn’t hide the fact that I (ssshh!) have breasts.The boys seem to think I’m breaking the rules just by wearing a T-shirt that doesn’t hide the fact that I (ssshh!) have breasts.
If you can’t figure out where your sexy self fits within your life as a new mom or you’re simply too busy learning to mother tiny humans to worry about it, the easiest thing to do is set aside that part of yourself for a few years. But once those years pass and you’re ready to reclaim that piece of yourself, what happens to that sexy, badass girl who has been hibernating inside?
If she has preteen sons, they may look at her like she’s a crazy person when she re-emerges.
Would this be easier if I were French? Because in America, sex is everywhere — in every commercial and every piece of pop culture that surrounds us. We’re constantly marketed products and services designed to boost our sex appeal, and we’re fed sexual imagery so we’ll buy things that have nothing to do with sex. (Stay classy, Carl’s Jr.)
But we’ve still got this powerful Puritan legacy just under the surface that tells us mothers must be pure, lovely, gentle creatures. The collective script summons us to pretend (when kids are in the room) that sex does not exist and never has. We’re supposed to build some kind of wall between our growing kids and the reality that people are sexy, even though sexy people in sexy advertisements are everywhere.
American women are encouraged to be hot and encouraged to be moms, and now we’re supposed to be grateful for the public permission to be both. But merging the two is always presented as kind of impossible, unless you’re cool with being vaguely embarrassing (we’re looking at you, Stifler’s mom) or a transgressive rule-breaker living on the fringe (Cher in Mask, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and most everyone with a child on “Sons of Anarchy”).
Where does that leave the rest of us? I don’t own a motorcycle and the last thing I want to do is make my boys cringe. But I also I refuse to give up the next 10 years that way.
Obviously I’m not going to walk around the house naked or serve dinner in a lacy camisole. But I’m also not going to wait a decade to let myself look hot in an effort to keep my kids in the cultural equivalent of a padded room.
So do I play it safe? Do I prevent myself from looking even vaguely sexy except when they’re not home? Or do I ignore their mild discomfort, and my own, and just figure it’ll fade away eventually?
I think mild discomfort is the only option. I’m going to make some missteps as I try to merge the hot girl of my 20s with the mother I became in my 30s and the confident woman I finally am in my 40s. But that’s better than consciously keeping a part of me buried, which only reinforces the stereotypes that have dogged women for far too long.
I am going to flirt with my husband. We can’t be expected to squeeze our entire romance into the two or three hours between the kids falling asleep in their beds and us falling asleep in ours. Our romance is the reason that these boys exist, so they can deal with knowing it’s still strong.
And I am going to wear that leather dress the next time we go out on a date, even if it makes the good-night-boys-and-please-behave-for-the-babysitter moment a little uncomfortable. Awkward silence is better than keeping a central part of myself under wraps for one more day.
With all respect to my sons, in that dress I do look like me. Women are sexy (and not just the ones in Photoshopped advertisements) and they’re not transgressing by letting the world notice that without apology. If my boys are going to understand what a woman really is — a whole woman, not the media stereotypes — they need to see me, their mother, as I really am. It’s time.