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I Hate It When People Say I Don't "Dress Like A Mum"

Photo: Courtesy of Elyssa Starkman.
I work at one of the biggest media companies in NYC. I’m covered in tattoos. One of my favourite things to do is to change my hair colour. I lift heavy weights. I ride big horses. I’m an only child. I’m divorced. I have a daughter. I’m a little bit of a lot of things, but when it comes to how I’m supposed to dress, why is that last part the only thing that seems to matter?

I hate when people say I don't "dress like a Mum." Why is it that when a woman has a kid, people automatically assume she should dress differently? Where did the rule come from that you need to lose your sense of individuality or sexuality?

Personally, I don't feel like I found confidence in my personal style until I became a mum. Six and a half years later, my style is still evolving, like every other facet of myself. But unlike everything else, my style started to become a direct reaction to the assumptions placed on me; I started to care much more about how my clothes reflected my personality once “mum” became a word others used to define me. "Working mum," "good mum," "cool mum," "tattooed mum," even occasionally "MILF"...the list goes on. The labels assigned to me after I birthed another human made me realise that I was the only one who should have the power to label myself. (Actually, truth be told, I don’t get mad when my daughter labels me a “fashion mum,” but anyway.)

When I went back to work after maternity leave, I was most excited about the clothes I could wear again. I wanted to burn the loose, stretchy, boring clothes I wore during my pregnancy and return to what made me feel like me. In the three months I was on maternity leave, all the mummy magazines, blogs, and Facebook posts I read were accompanied by these photos of hot-mess mums in drab clothes with spit-up on them. I didn’t see myself reflected in any of these portraits of motherhood (don’t get me wrong; I had spit-up all over the burp cloths, just not all over myself!). As someone who had always taken pride in being true to myself and my individuality, I was horrified at what seemed to me an expectation to stop caring what I looked like now that I had a kid.
Photo: Courtesy of Elyssa Starkman.
Based on what I saw, “mum clothes” were meant to hide your baby weight, cover the cleavage your milk-filled boobs gave you, and make it clear that you weren’t taking care of yourself (because you were taking care of someone else). If mums took the time to dress up, it seemed, they were being selfish. This might say something about my personality, but I retaliated against that — hard. For the first time in my life, I gravitated towards bold prints. I broke out my favourite vintage T-shirts and paired them with palazzo pants. I didn’t cover up my new cleavage, and instead of mum-approved flats, I opted for five-inch stilettos. That’s when the comments started, and “you don’t dress like a Mum” became something I heard regularly.

At first, I gave myself a little pat on the back, celebrating the fact that I was defying expectations. But then, I thought about those expectations — the ones that are put on women once we become parents. Not to get all “I am woman, hear me roar,” but seriously: Why couldn’t I be a mum who wore a tutu? Becoming a mum helped me find both inner and outer confidence, and I knew that no matter where I wore that tutu (to a newborn checkup or to work — hey, it fit within my company’s dress code), I owned the power I felt in it. Isn’t the most important part of personal style personality? It really bugged me that my identity as a mum in the eyes of others was so tied to how I looked.

As I kept pushing myself to try out new trends, experiment with new shapes, and test out different styles, I stopped being known as the mum who didn’t dress like a mum. I was just Elyssa, full stop. I found more confidence in myself by not defining my style in one way, but rather by allowing it to represent all the aspects of my life.

I knew the "rules" really didn't matter in my world when I asked someone senior at my company whether I needed to cover up my tattoos and start wearing blazers. She told me, “If someone judges your ideas and leadership because of how you look, that’s their problem.” I understood in that moment that the judgment others may bestow upon me as a mum only made me more fearless and more willing to stand up for who I am.
The style choices I make are made for me alone. I care, not because I want to get validation from others (although who doesn’t like a compliment?), but because I want to validate myself. I want to validate the confidence I have found now that I am a mum, and I want to validate the individuality I feel, even though my life is forever tied to my daughter's. I hope that, as the definition of "mum" continues to change, so can the definition of "mum style."

One of the greatest gifts of motherhood, for me, has been learning empathy, confidence, and self-awareness — all the things that have allowed me to own my style. While the way I choose to present myself makes me interesting, the fact that I have a choice in the first place is the most interesting part of all. So often, I feel, Mums are made to feel second to their children, their jobs, or their significant others — that their lives as mothers are supposed to be more fulfilling and yet less interesting than they were pre-parenting, especially when it comes to style.

In the years since I had my daughter, not only has my life changed immensely (divorce, dating, a new job, new hair, lots of new tattoos!), but so, too, has the way I express myself. I’ve learned so much about style because I’m a mum. As my daughter gets older, I love that I can instil in her that style is a form of self-expression. The other day, she turned to me and said, “You were born to live fashion.” After drying my tears of laughter, I realised what that meant to me — that allowing myself to challenge expectations and to have fun with my outward appearance makes me trust my inner self.

So, if you are a mum who feels you’ve lost your sense of style or individuality — if you feel the pressure to swap your clothes for sensible shoes and conservative blouses, here’s my advice: FUCK that.

P.S. Please don’t tell my daughter I used a “cursive” word. I don’t want a time-out!