By Jaime Levy Pessin
As a stay-at-home mom in my 30s, it was easy for me to walk unnoticed through my Brooklyn neighborhood.
Each morning, all the moms in my building marched out to their days: Working moms with stylish totes and statement necklaces handed their toddlers off to their nannies before clacking through the lobby in stilettos; stay-at-home moms with older kids headed to their workouts, their narrow waists and defined triceps functioning as testimonials for the local Pilates gym.
I, on the other hand, trudged along with unwashed frizz spilling from my ponytail and dirty gym shoes on my feet—an ensemble suited to sidestepping dog poop, opaque puddles and dripping construction scaffolding, the trail markers on my hike to my daughter’s preschool.
On Halloween in 2016, I deviated from my uniform of ratty workout gear. I had somewhere special to go: after dropping my daughter off, I’d head to Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters for a day of phone banking. My fellow gun violence prevention activists were meeting me there, all of us planning to dress as “gun sense superheroes”—a goofy attempt to inject levity into work that swung from exhilarating to depressing fast enough to give you emotional whiplash.
My costume was simple: a “Disarm Hate” t-shirt, black leggings, an orange tutu, and an assumption that someone in my volunteer squad would have an extra cape for me to borrow. Most days, personal grooming took a backseat to the daily indignities of motherhood: at one of my first haircuts after my daughter was born, the stylist woke me as I dozed in the washing chair when she found a coil of hair so tangled that she had to cut it out, holding it up as proof of my insufficient showers between feedings. But today, knowing the pictures we’d take would make it to social media, I made a point of washing my hair and applying makeup. My vanity required extra effort on days likely to involve selfies.
As I walked out, I thought better of wearing the tutu to my daughter’s Chabad preschool, run by a rabbi’s wife whose code of modesty required her to cover her real hair. I stashed the fluorescent pouf in my entryway, intending to grab it on my way to the campaign office.
As I pushed the stroller through my neighborhood’s labyrinth of construction sites, I started hearing whistles. I ignored them, knowing they were meant for some 20-something ingenue on her way to work at a fashion house or art gallery—or maybe one of the moms with the sleek haircuts and fitted button-downs. But the whistles followed me. And, with sincere apologies to the sisterhood, I liked it.
I know. I know. I’m a feminist. I was going to work at Hillary Clinton’s office, for god’s sake! Before kids, my response to a catcall would have been a fusillade of expletives. Now, two years later, I could write pages about the entitlement it takes for a man to harass a woman who is merely trying to take her kid to school.
At that moment, years of maternal invisibility had allowed a minor identity crisis to take root. Being a journalist had been a fundamental part of who I was since I joined my middle school newspaper. But with my husband working grueling hours, it made sense for me to give up my career to raise our kids. And though I leaped into motherhood gratefully, I hadn’t anticipated spending days endlessly loading and unloading the dishwasher, devising academic theorems about which rack was best for bowls.
When my first child turned one, I hired a sitter for an afternoon each week and dabbled as a freelance reporter, finding some validation in seeing my name in print. But a few years later, the shooting at Sandy Hook changed my trajectory. Pregnant with my daughter, I found a new persona in my advocacy work, a laptop warrior mobilizing teams of volunteers to stand up to the gun lobby. Still, I had trouble defining myself: did it count as work if I wasn’t getting paid?
I envied both the career-chic moms and the fitness moms; they seemed to know who they were, and they dressed the part. Perhaps I’d never achieve their high fashion, or tight abs. But if a minor amount of effort could win me some attention—even the wrong kind—maybe I could harness it to find a way of presenting myself that would help me regain my identity.
The workers’ whistles pierced through the roar of their construction equipment. Now, confident that a few swipes of mascara had transformed me from sleep-deprived hag to striking beauty, I strutted with the attitude of a supermodel, hips swaying and hair flipping along my urban runway.
Then came a tap on my shoulder. I turned, intrigued to find out whether my fabulosity had spurred a construction worker to cross the line from lewd whistle to physical contact. Who could blame him, really? I looked incredible.
“Excuse me,” the woman walking behind me shouted over the rat-a-tat of jackhammers. “I thought you’d want to know…your leggings are totally see-through. I can see everything.”
Well. That explained the catcalls, but it made for an awkward walk into Chabad, where I kept my back to the wall for fear of insulting the rabbi, his wife, or the long-skirted teachers. Before I left, I stole my daughter’s sweatshirt from her cubby, tied it around my waist, and scurried home to retrieve my tutu.
In New York City’s rush hour, a tush encased in orange tulle attracts less attention than you’d expect; I wore the tutu like a shield, protecting my backside from the gaze of speed-walking commuters. But as I walked, I kept some swagger. Even without men hooting at my unintentional burlesque show, I remembered the feeling of moving through the world as someone who introduced herself without hesitation.
Since becoming a parent, I had been trying on identities one at a time—frazzled stay-at-home mom, occasional writer, hard-charging activist—but perhaps I could figure out a way to wear all three. Maybe if I spent a moment each morning making sure I looked decent on the outside, my inner sense of self would follow.
I’ve always assumed the see-through leggings joined my kids’ crumpled candy wrappers in the trash that Halloween night. But recently, I spotted some stretchy material peeking out from one of my drawers. I can’t be certain it’s the same pair, but I find myself wondering if, as I recovered from my semi-nude stroll, I purposely kept those pants—a spandex reminder to smear on some lipstick before I leave the house once in a while, even if I have nowhere special to go.
Jaime Levy Pessin is a writer and activist who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, all of whom have become skilled at spotting dog poop on their route to school. Follow her on Twitter at @jlpessnyc.