Recently, Time ran a cover story about what it’s like to be a Millennial parent, and reading it this weekend was this sort of crazy, looking-into-a-mirror-only-that-mirror-is-my-computer-but-not-like-with-Photobooth-open-just-like-with-an-actual-website-open-and-yet-still-I-saw-a-reflection-of-myself kind of a moment. By which I mean, I too am a Millennial parent. (And I know this not just because of how old I am or because of the fact that I’m a parent, but also because I took a quiz and got “Millennial Parent.” So.)
The existence of this quiz makes very clear that being a Millennial parent is not solely about birth year, but is rather about an unwritten and yet very clearly defined set of standards to which the modern parent is expected to rise—standards which are not just about being generational representatives, but which are rather about being “cool.” And for the Millennial mother in particular, these expectations are notable for being as frequently internally contradictory as they are difficult to attain on an individual level, to say nothing of the questionable desirability many of the attributes possess for the intended possessor—the mother at hand.
And yet: It’s still hard to deny the appeal of being the Millennial mom—the Cool Mom. Unlike the “Cool Mom” of Mean Girls fame, a woman who pranced around in a pink velour sweatsuit with rock hard nipples offering condoms to her daughter mid-coitus, the newest iteration of the Cool Mom is actually not necessarily a punchline; in fact, she’s no joke at all. Rather, this Cool Mom is the latest iteration—the natural evolution, really—of the Cool Girl. And, just like the Cool Girl, the Cool Mom is something of a myth; rarely sighted in real life, she seems to exist solely in magazine profiles, lifestyle websites, and/or as local playground lore.
But the really interesting aspect of the rise of the Cool Mom doesn’t so much center around what defines her (although that’s obviously revealing too) as it is who defines her: primarily other moms. Whereas the Cool Girl is defined by men (as per Gone Girl: “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2”), the Cool Mom is recognized by her fellow mothers as someone with whom they would, if not want to be, at least want to hang out with all the time, whether or not kids were present.
So what is the Cool Mom, exactly? (She is not really a who because she doesn’t fully exist, except on Instagram.) Well, if you were to believe the myths/magazine profiles/whole websites devoted to the idea of being a Cool Mom, as with the Cool Girl, being the Cool Mom means being a hot, brilliant, funny woman—but definitely hot. Being this Cool Mom also means you are nonjudgmental about any of the parenting choices that other moms make but you will admit that exclusive breast-feeding, no screen-time till your child is four, and a drug-free birth except for in the case of an emergency, life-threatening C-section is just what’s worked for you. Being the Cool Mom means no judgment at all actually, about anything, except maybe wait—other moms only have sex that few times a week? How do they even survive? As a Cool Mom, you have sex all the time, even though you’d never talk about it in too much detail because that will automatically make you a Cool Mom in the Mean Girls-way. Which is death, basically.
Being a Cool Mom is not “above all about being hot,” but it is also very much about being hot. Being a Cool Mom means you have a hairstyle that would never allow you to be mistaken for your mom from behind. It means you have a body that bounced back after having a baby and that if any surgical interventions took place they were limited to a breast reduction, because being a Cool Mom means you have never been lacking in anything, and were only ever cursed with abundance. It probably means you have tattoos. It definitely means you have glasses, even if you don’t wear them all the time. Even if you don’t need them ever. Being a Cool Mom means you would never use the word hot to describe yourself or any other woman you know, you would instead use the word “strong.” Being a Cool Mom means that when you read Gone Girl you laughed at the part when Amy declares that the opposite of a Cool Girl is a strong woman, because men hate strong women. Being a Cool Mom is being a strong woman, because being a Cool Mom, you know that strong is now just code for hot. Being a Cool Mom is knowing men are stupid (except your husband because he is the One Good Man). Being a Cool Mom means maybe having to raise a man anyway, but doing it right.
Being a Cool Mom means you work, but you also have all the time you need to be with your kids. Being a Cool Mom—let’s face it—means you’re rich. Being a Cool Mom means your kids have the right kind of names—nothing too quirky, no Pilot Inspektors in this generation—but let’s just say that names derived from Norse mythology are definitely on the table. Being a Cool Mom means your children wear diapers with unorthodox patterns and prints, made by a company founded by another Cool Mom. Being a Cool Mom means not caring that those diapers don’t work anywhere near as well as the diapers from Costco. The diapers from Costco never get as many likes on Instagram, and Costco never sends you any in exchange for a sponsored blog post. Being a Cool Mom means not caring about a lot of things, actually. Kids draw on the wall? Don’t care! Banana gets mashed into the rug? No problem! Being a Cool Mom means knowing every moment is a
teachable Instagrammable moment.
Being a Cool Mom isn’t about trying to have it all. Being a Cool Mom means you don’t want it all, because being a Cool Mom means wanting what you already have. Oh, oops! That’s embarrassing because, as it turns out, being a Cool Mom means you already have everything. Up to and including one of those big Dutch bikes that you can ride your whole family around in on only the prettiest streets in Brooklyn. Being a Cool Mom definitely means living on only the prettiest streets in Brooklyn. Or maybe up in Hudson. Or the Berkshires. Or Nashville. Not in Manhattan. Not anymore. Being a Cool Mom, after all, means knowing when things are over—including this description of the Cool MOm.
The danger of the Cool Mom, much like the danger of the Cool Girl, is that other women—both those promoting this image in the media and those just following it—actually think this mom exists. Partly this is because aspects of the Cool Mom most definitely do exist—sometimes quite commonly. And of course there’s nothing wrong with any woman who embodies these traits authentically (or even inauthentically—fake it till you make it, and if “making it” to you means using a lot of leaking diapers, knock yourself out), but it is still a problem. It’s a problem because this promotion of an idealized version of motherhood is presented to a population that is already vulnerable and overwhelmed and full of doubt and insecurity about their completely and utterly transformed way of life. The Cool Mom is presented in the most non-threatening of ways, despite her very existence being a threat to the precarious self-image of women who are trying to reestablish their identities as individuals, and establish their identity as mothers. And so when magazines like Time choose to present a portrait of how a whole generation of parents is “doing” parenting, it speaks to a larger problem that we have in this age of lifestyle blog-saturation, namely, that there is one right way to live a life, that there is some sort of shortcut, some answer key or CliffNotes version of parenting and motherhood specifically which will lead us all to the promised land of successful parenting and happy families. That doesn’t exist, of course, and it would be nice to be able to at least travel down the path toward the imperfect family life that we’re all going to create one way or another without the added burden of needing to look good on Instagram while doing it.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen