I vividly remember the day a fellow classmate at Old Bethpage Grade School on Long Island paid me what felt like the ultimate compliment: She told me my mother was pretty.
I have no idea what about the peculiar elementary school economy made having someone compliment your mother so valuable, but it thrilled my second-grader’s ears nonetheless. Perhaps it was the idea that when you’re a girl, your mother is a projection of your future self, a nod to who you might one day be. My mom was older than most of my friends’ moms. She was strict and old-fashioned, with a sense of style probably forged as a high school student in the 1940s, not as a hippie in the ’60s, when most of my friends’ parents had come of age. I was elated that somebody thought she was cool and, by extension, that maybe I was, too.
I am now the very same age that my mother was when I was in second grade. And just like her, I am easily a decade older than many of the parents of my kids’ friends. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that in the weeks leading up to my recent 45th birthday—the one that appears to have inspired Facebook to start showing me ads for Metamucil in my feed—I found myself in the throes of a crisis of confidence: Am I a cool-looking mom?
It’s not that my boys care in the slightest. They barely bat an eye whether I’m dressed to the nines for a black-tie event or wearing yoga pants and Ugg knockoffs to take them to school. As for their own fashion sense, they are still in that blissful place where they dutifully put on whatever I hand them to wear each morning without so much as a word. (Except that my 6-year-old inexplicably refuses to wear jeans, but that’s a whole other story.)
But truth be told, I was starting to rely on the yoga pants and Uggs uniform just a little too much. Between being a stay-at-home mom for several years and then working part-time from home, I hadn’t regularly seen the inside of an office for at least 10 years. I’d lost all sense of what people were wearing any more, except for what I saw on the soccer sidelines and at Hebrew school pickup. I could name scores of Pokemon characters and sing the Phineas and Ferb theme song, but had let my subscription to InStyle lapse.
It is one of the oldest clichés in the book, but parenting is an exquisitely other-focused endeavor. It is far too easy, especially as a stay-at-home mom, to lose yourself in the shuffle, to focus so intently on making sure the kids are taken care of that you just do whatever’s quick and expedient for yourself with the scraps of time and energy left behind. In the early days, I walked around in a sleep-deprived haze, my clothes often quite literally sacrificed on the altar of new motherhood, with its messy stew of bodily fluids.
These days, getting two elementary schoolers out the door on time every morning, with the Pigpen-like blizzard of lunchboxes, gloves, field trip permission slips and violin cases, often takes just about everything I’ve got. Makeup? Hahahahaha. Hair done in some fashion other than twisted up and secured into a clip? Not if it means not having time to make coffee, buster. Sometimes I actually eat their leftovers for breakfast. I know. I know.
Granted, I have friends who appear not to have let motherhood cramp their style at all; friends who still look entirely put together at the grocery store and Ultimate Play Zone. And it’s not like I was ever a super fashionista before I had my kids. But I got by. And then in one sudden, horrific instant last fall, it dawned on me how far I’d inadvertently let things slide into momhagdom. It was like those anxiety dreams where you suddenly find yourself naked on stage, giving a speech to a packed lecture hall.
So I decided to do something about it.
My 45th birthday gift from my husband was an overhaul of my sorely neglected wardrobe. At the suggestion of my super stylish friend Beth, I made an appointment with the personal stylist at Nordstrom. (It’s free! And there’s no obligation to buy a thing.)
I spent a gloriously self-indulgent morning with a lovely, effortlessly chic stylist named Stacey Jones, who gently helped me try to rediscover my sartorial confidence. It was mostly fun, if at times a little overwhelming, in large part because it involved spending a lot of time looking at myself half naked in a dressing room mirror. (Note to self: Gym!). I ended up buying several cool pieces, including my very first pair of riding boots and a trendy (but non-intimidatingly so) color-block sweater. And Stacey firmly insisted, despite my protests to the contrary, that I really could wear skinny jeans after all, so I might just love her forever.
I know they’re just clothes, but as the new year turns our thoughts to renewal and rebooting, I can’t help but think that it really helps you to feel better when you look better. Years ago, I helped TV personality Carson Kressley write his first book, a men’s fashion manual called Off the Cuff. And
Carson says that it’s OK to care about how you look without feeling like you’re being superficial. That when you look pulled together and feel good about what you’re wearing—regardless of whether you bought it at Saks or Target—it can often be the first step in empowering yourself.
Of course, there’s always the kids to keep you in line. Emboldened by my burgeoning transformation, I asked my boys a question at my birthday dinner.
“So do you think Mommy looks 45?” I asked. I was fishing. I can’t lie.
Six-year-old Alec sized me up. “I think you look younger,” he said brightly. “Like maybe 43.”
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”