When my firstborn was a few months old, I dyed my waist-length curly brown hair into a bright red hue reminiscent of a fire engine. Emboldened by the transformation, I embraced the more alternative sides of my aesthetic, including a love for dark lipsticks, silky gold trench coats and fishnet tights. After weeks of sleep deprivation and a shift in my lifestyle so drastic that I don’t believe I’ll ever have the words to describe it fully, these looks helped me feel a little more like me: the me that existed outside and beyond motherhood.
I ventured to my first baby group shortly thereafter. The first of my friend network to have children, I was desperate to meet other parents. I wanted someone to talk to about nursing, sleep training and the struggle to "have it all" (a notion I was becoming more and more cynical about). I hoped that I would find community at these sessions — after all, wasn’t that the whole point of them? Weren’t they specifically designed to allow babies and toddlers to socialise while helping their parents feel less alone?
Walking into that baby group with my new hair, Dr. Martens and ‘90s-style brown lipstick, however, it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be walking out with a new mate. At least a dozen mothers and a couple of dads were sitting in a circle and it felt like every single one of them turned to face me. Eyebrows were raised, whispers were whispered and I realised that this wasn’t going to be the place for me.
As a fat woman (and a former fat kid and teen), I’m fairly used to feeling judged simply for existing. Still, I had convinced myself that new parents experiencing such an overwhelming transition would be somehow warmer. In the sea of muted cardigans, nude lip gloss and bright white trainers, though, no one wished to show me any warmth. Conversations carried on without me, not a single soul said hello and even the group leader skipped over my daughter Luna and me when greeting the rest of the room.
In the years since, I’ve had a second child. I’ve continued to experiment with fashion and makeup. I’ve found social media groups for alternative parents through which to meet people who would never react to my presence like those at that first baby group. Still, I’ve continued to notice that when I embrace more alternative looks — like when I shaved the sides of my head or wore a bright pink, puffy-sleeved, sequin mesh dress to a local café with my daughters in tow — my parenting seems to come into question in the form of not-so-subtle stares, dismissive healthcare providers and an awful lot of side-eye and silence from fellow parents at the park.
"I’ve definitely found I feel judged by other parents based on my look," Brookelle Skoyles, a mum and a 6ft goth, tells Refinery29. "The assumption seems to be that I’m a neglectful parent — that I let him run wild and be violent, and that doesn’t seem to shake even when they watch me talk to him and be very engaged. Sometimes people don’t even think he’s mine, which seems weird when he calls me 'mummy'."
Much like my experiences, Skoyles has felt judged in baby group environments. "At a group I used to attend weekly, I was very outcast and not really spoken to by other mums," she remembers. "My son bit another child (for the first time ever) and I was as shocked as everyone else. I took him to one side to talk to him (he was only about 20 months old) and I overheard another mum say, 'Of course it’s hers. We know to avoid him.'"
Pam, a Brighton-based mother, also attests to the toxicity of certain parenting circles. "I remember when my little boy was very small, walking into a room with lots of other new mums and feeling just completely out of place with my bright eyeshadow and Dr. Martens, compared to what I just saw as a lot of ‘normal’ people," she says. "I had a summer baby so I had tattoos out, [was] breastfeeding everywhere I needed to, and in that particular group I felt like a huge sore thumb." Nobody spoke to Pam while she was there and combined with her then undiagnosed postnatal depression, the experience was quite shattering.
Because she is also gay, Pam says she’s familiar with feeling judged. She also looks younger than she is, which may lead some people to think she’s somehow ill-equipped to raise a child. Many folks do seem to correlate alternative styles with immaturity — so when an alternative mother shows up, she’s perhaps assumed too juvenile to be a decent parent. This is something Sarah Hadland from Milton Keynes noticed during her first pregnancy.
"While my midwife had been amazing, I met the health visitor for the first time [...] on a warm day and I was wearing a vest top, which meant she could see my tattoo sleeves," she recalls. "I also have stretched lobes. She spoke to my mum like another adult but spoke down to me like a child."
Hadland actually devised a "mum disguise" to help her get taken more seriously by the medical world when seeking a diagnosis for her son’s autism. At 18 months, he "would have meltdowns so strong he would injure the both of us, scream so hard he would throw up, and he could just collapse out of exhaustion," she explains. "He never slept. He would sleep in the bed with me or [if I was] walking him around in the sling. He would just crash wherever he stood during the day. I was told to give him a bath."
When she tried to get a second opinion, she decided to wear leggings, a plain cardigan and a wig. "I got three sessions with a (shit) sleep specialist," she says. Hoping she was wrong, she dressed in her usual style when she later met with a speech and language therapist. Though this particular practitioner was fine, a new health visitor continued to speak down to her. "It was only when her car broke down and she had to wait at mine for an hour for AA that she got to know me, see what Fox was like and actually push forward for the diagnosis."
Hadland suspects there are other reasons people harshly critique supposedly 'alternative' mums. "I think because the way we dress is so personal, a mum having any sort of style or personal identity is seen as a vanity thing and therefore we don’t value our children as much." There is still a ton of pressure put onto mothers, in particular, to sacrifice their personhood in exchange for motherhood; to devote every waking moment and thought to our little ones, eschewing all the things that make us individuals along the way.
"I also wonder if some of it is class bias left over from the ‘70s and ‘80s (when most of our parents and healthcare providers’ generation are from)," she muses. "Punk and goth came out of the underclass, the poor, the working class. Many from homes on benefits, which today carries a bias furthered by conservative propaganda."
Hadland is hopeful that things will shift when millennials and Zoomers are in our 50s, as she believes we’re a "kinder generation on the whole". Still, coping with feeling outcast as a parent is one of the loneliest, most alienating feelings I’ve personally experienced in my transition into motherhood. At a time when people should be coming together and helping one another feel less stressed, anxious and utterly hopeless, mean parents akin to grown-up versions of the cast of Mean Girls are hardly what anyone needs.
Pam hopes that some of these parents can learn to look past appearances and whatever connotations they associate with those appearances. "Yes, I have short hair and I wear tons of makeup and I am tattooed, but I am the best mum my son could want," she says. "All mums have the same experiences, and we should be able to share them."