Can A Mom Survive The Vibe Shift?
On aging, irrelevance, and the invisibility of motherhood.
This is the free edition of Rich Text, a newsletter about cultural obsessions from your Internet BFFs Emma and Claire. If you like what you see and hear, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Rich Text is a reader-supported project — no ads or sponsors!
Last week, Claire’s son was home sick with a stomach bug and then Emma went on a trip. Unfortunately, this meant we weren’t able to record our weekly podcast. We’ll be back with another episode soon! In the meantime, here’s a blog about the vibe shift discourse from Claire, who insisted she didn’t care about keeping up with current trends but mysteriously now has a middle part AND mom jeans.
The tenth episode of Sex and the City, which first aired in 1998, takes place at a baby shower in Connecticut. The expecting mother, Laney Berlin, used to be the wildest member of the foursome’s social circle before she got married and moved to the suburbs. Now she’s simultaneously a figure of smug domestic bliss and pathetic irrelevance. The cost of claiming her victory at traditional womanhood is instant social obsolescence. Her life as a hot girl who flashes her tits at Manhattan house parties is definitively over, as she discovers when she gets FOMO and shows up, heavily pregnant and ready to rage, at one of Samantha’s bashes. No one wants to look at Laney anymore.
When women talk about “having it all,” “all” is typically scanned as meaning both a career and a family, as if those are the two components that make up a full life. But the “all” that makes up a life goes beyond the professional and the maternal. After my son was born, I slowly realized that my conception of an ideal modern motherhood hadn’t merely encompassed maintaining my career; I wanted to be the mom who wasn’t, as Miranda rather nastily says about her two sisters in the episode, “lost to the motherhood.” I envisioned myself as essentially unchanged: someone who still lived in the city, took the subway to the office and to drinks with my childfree friends, went to museums and yoga classes, dressed in reasonably on-trend outfits and took mirror selfies.
There would be new components to my life, of course. An entire human child, for example; daycare pickup and weekends at the playground. Mommy Instagram accounts filled in more details: tasteful wooden toys, cute but practical footwear and nursing-friendly dresses. These social media images presented me with a possible future – created through an abundance of undiscussed money, taste, paid assistance and effort – in which my life would expand to fit my child, rather than contracting around him. Though I didn’t verbalize it this way, this entailed continuing to be someone who was seen and paid attention to in my own right, and not simply as the gatekeeper to my child.
And though I’ve never particularly thought of myself as someone who valued being looked at, motherhood forced me to admit it: I do.
This week I read two lovely essays that are, through different angles, about how we grow into invisibility, and how we struggle against it. Allison P. Davis’s piece “A Vibe Shift Is Coming. Will Any Of Us Survive It?,” a twist on the eternal angst of aging, is pegged to a Substack newsletter written by one of the guys who coined “normcore” a decade ago. The newsletter entry, “Vibe Shift,” argues that what Davis terms the “dominant social wavelength” is on the verge of a sea change – and, most chillingly that, as she puts it, “not everyone survives a vibe shift.” Some of us won’t adjust to the new trendy shoe brands, the new music scene, the new denim rise. We’ll never be cool again.
This is hardly new, but as Davis points out, none of us were really prepared to spend two years in social lockdown only to venture out and discover that the ground had shifted underneath us so drastically. “I have a choice to make: Do I try to opt in to whatever trend comes next, or do I choose to accept that my last two good years were spent on my couch gobbling antidepressants and wearing ‘cute house pants’ and UGGs?” she writes.
Though I have always rather embraced my own uncoolness – the awkward teen to awkward woman pipeline is real – this spoke to me. But as I read the essay, I realized it wasn’t really about me. When she wrote about texting her friends about the vibe shift, she specified she contacted “mostly the ones without kids.” Her friend who just had a baby asked Davis if her anxiety was about wanting to have a baby. Is having a baby the alternative to keeping up, like RSVPing “no” to the vibe shift? Did I opt out three years ago, without fully realizing it?
I’m admitting to my own naivety here. No one chose the pandemic, but, as I’ve written before, new parenthood resembles the lockdown lifestyle. I did anticipate, unlike my childfree friends, spending the beginning of 2020 in a domestic cocoon, taking a months-long vacation from happy hours, concerts, and caring about the emerging new eyebrow shape. I even thought I understood that my old life would be gone forever. It turns out, deep down, I just didn’t think I’d be out of circulation long enough to lose touch. But the more intentionally you have to cling onto your proximity to coolness, the more a disruption throws you for a loop. Teens and twenty-somethings will dictate and ride through the new vibe, even if they, too, were in lockdown while it shifted; us 30-somethings have to muster the energy and the ingenuity to stay on the scene without coming off as a little desperate.
Many of us tragic millennials thought we’d be able to ease through this transition into our mid-late thirties, or into parenthood, or both, while keeping one finger on the pulse. Instead, we Rip Van Winkled through the pandemic and woke up to discover that everyone has a middle part and we have no foothold on what kind of jeans to buy. WHAT KIND OF JEANS SHOULD I BUY?? And if I figure out which ones are the right ones, will anyone even notice that I’m wearing them?
In her New Yorker piece “The Hidden Mothers of Family Photos,” Lauren Collins weaves together two threads: the Victorian practice of having hidden or obscured mothers holding their children still for the long exposure time then required for photographs, and a public conversation in France about mothers who find that because they take most of the family photos, they rarely appear in them. One mom shared on Twitter that her family calls her “Mamarazzi.”
“It’s hard to square the phenomenon of the absent mother with the ubiquity of the female image, particularly on social media. How can the Mamarazzo be living in the same era as the Instagram Husband?” Collins points out. But this seeming contradiction is its own explanation, I think. These mommy influencers are selling other women a constellation of products and fantasies, but prime among them is that after motherhood, you will continue to be seen. Most mothers I know in real life don’t have Instagram husbands or professionals tailing them around their well-appointed homes, and they don’t have the time or resources to put together their own thirst traps. Those presentation skills are turned towards their families rather than themselves, like Victorian mothers who were hidden under draperies to hold their babies for photographs rather than sitting for their own. Instagram mom influencers exist in large part to answer that anxiety, to fill the void of maternal visibility. They show the rest of us what we might look like as mothers, even if no one is taking pictures of us anymore.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but after my son was born, I truly agonized over how uncurated, how un-Instagrammable my life was. Our tiny apartment was covered in drifts of burp cloths and unopened mail. The only clothes that fit were baggy leggings and pilled T-shirts, and my hair, in almost every photo for a year, looked as though I had been lightly electrocuted. We couldn’t actually afford to dress him in the cute hipster baby clothes I yearned for, just bins upon bins of dinosaur-covered Carter’s sleepers. By the time I felt confident enough to take him out of the house for anything like a chill brunch with a friend, Covid had hit. None of it looked like the cool, intentional urban mom life I had dreamed of, or that had been advertised to me. Instead it was invisible suburban tedium, crammed into a two-room box. And while we endured that, the world was moving on without us. It continues to do so, while we wait for our toddler to be vaccine-eligible.
I guess I thought I’d be able to stay the level of cool and visible that I was before I had a kid. Who promised me this? No one, to be fair! There’s just something so vintage about having a baby and instantly becoming irrelevant. Women are encouraged to be deeply invested in polishing their own images, keeping up with the current fashions. If that only holds until we have babies, then that exposes that it’s still not really for us, the way we pretend that it is. It’s about being on the market – a market that we’re officially off of once we’re partnered and parenting. The social invisibility that follows having kids is jarring, because it conflicts with everything pop feminism has told us: that our makeup and cute outfits are for us, not men or any potential partners; that we are more than our identities as mothers or non-mothers; that we can have it all.
The painful scene at the end of “The Baby Shower,” in which Laney gamely tries to flash her tits at Samantha’s party but is thwarted by her full-coverage maternity top, ends in humiliation. After everyone watches in silent uninterest while she struggles to disrobe, her friends step in to politely usher her out of the party and put her in a cab. “Laney, it's not who you are anymore. It's all right,” Carrie says. It doesn’t matter what Laney thinks about who she is; it doesn’t matter who she wants to be. Irrelevance comes for all of us, especially women. One day you wake up and you don’t know what jeans to buy. It feels like not knowing who you are anymore. Maybe not being able to tell the difference is the worst part.