The four scariest strung together words in the English language: “I’M BECOMING MY MOTHER.” Lately, I’ve been thinking without fear about becoming my mother, and not for the usual boring Oedipal reason. I’ve been having some trouble this year trying to get my book of gender-race theory published. While wallowing in frustration, I found that my mother was going through a parallel pain, trying to sell huge oil paintings in this particularly nasty economy. Before I think of this woman who birthed me as my mother, I think of her as an artist. She is a woman who has a degree in textile engineering, who married and gave up a career, followed her future ex-husband to America, then with a couple of weird kids in tow, went to graduate school, got an MFA, and followed her dream of becoming a painter. But my mother was never headhunted by major New York galleries, and making a living as an artist has been a tenacious crazy-quilting of teaching and self-promotion. For years I’ve watched her struggle, and actually be happy in this struggle. Now it’s hit me that I’m doing the same thing she is, except my paint is the keypad of a computer.
The protagonist of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy says of his mother: “I have taken her place. I must resemble her more and more. All I need now is a son.” With me, of course, my mother is still very much living, and to be completely “her” I would need a daughter as well. But I like this idea that becoming your mother (no matter your gender) occurs way before you become a parent. In the above picture, my mother is about the age as I am now, except that she already has two children, the elder of whom is 9 years old. In my mind, this is how I always see my mother: arms crossed in defiance, hard eyes, jeaned legs in battle position. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to become, considering that physically, it is what I’m destined for anyway. Looking at this picture of my flannel-and-jeans clad mother, I realized that I already dress like her: I am a flannel-and-jeans clad mother-minus-son-and-daughter.
I want to turn genetic destiny into a personal style. Lacking a uterus, and determined that my sperm will remain deadstock in this world, I want instead to dress like my mother in her 30s. But in copying her look, I don’t want to turn to any recognizably symbolic or iconic pieces of traditional femininity. For instance, I’m not going to do anything with her long-sleeved, high-necked dark butterfly print chiffon dress except keep it hung up like a painting. The femininity of my mother that I want to locate for myself is a less intuitive one. One that I know is there but was not always an apparent part of her life as “Mother.” I like to think about my mother as she would have been if she’d never married the man she didn’t like, if she’d aggressively used birth control nine months before my birth. My mother if she’d never been “mother.” I like to think about my mother as never needing to protect and swath her procreative areas with soft skirts, but pack them into a pair of hard tight jeans. I want to wear my mother’s jeans. Not “mom” jeans but “mother” jeans.
Not that “mom jeans” and “mother jeans” are unrelated. Mom jeans connote those jeans produced in the late 70s and most of the 80s, with a singular cut: high waist, give in the hip, restraining at the butt and thighs. The curvy silhouette that their seams suggest led to these jeans being named “Mom”—cuddly, nurturing, soft, feminine body. But the historiography of mom jeans is a little misleading, because they were actually not made for bodies intent on being comfortable as pie-baking moms. Look at this priceless instructive label from a pair of mom jeans made by Levi’s (from my personal collection):
What a cute text. The girl puts the jeans on and is sweating-crying in flabbergastation because they fit so ill; she looks like she’s wearing a barrel, an extra in a Loony Tunes cartoon. But never fear: the jeans themselves tell her to “wash ‘em HOT inside out” and tumble dry them until they have a HOT fit: “the MORE you wash ‘em the better they look and fit!” The “after” picture shows the same crying girl now all in smiles, with jeans tightly hugging her curves. This arduous process of making your jeans look HOT with hot water and air seems akin to churning butter. In this age in which elastine has invaded the jeans world, gals hardly need to go through a particular process in order to get the tight femininity they want from their jeans. But if this anachronism is what makes these particular jeans maternal, they are hardly “Mom.” “Mom” implies familiarity, ease, mundane comfort. These jeans are not actually that. These jeans are a process of becoming intimate with an unyielding and unfamiliar object, to make it get to know your body, to get your body to get to know the breathing pattern of a textile. So let’s give due dignity back to these kind of jeans, which were not always soft and comfy, but only became that way because their original identity is hard and unyielding: “MOTHER JEANS.”
The Welsh singer Duffy says of her own mother: “Always a good pair of tight jeans—that’s what she taught me. She used to sit in the bath for hours trying to make them fit.” I like it that maternal pedagogy here doesn’t have anything to do with nurture, kindness, or warm milk, but crafting the perfect denim pedestal for your butt. My mother never gave me this lesson explicitly, but I like to think that a woman who wore tiny miniskirts in 1960s Korea and fearlessly yelled back profanities to boys who made lewd insults would have gone in for some hard jeans that required hot water baths to grow accustomed to her body. The fabric of my mother’s jeans in that defiant photo doesn’t look particularly hard but I like to imagine that they once were.
Even if “Mother” is an identity that is granted by the use of one’s uterus, why should it automatically have a “soft” cultural identity? I never thought of the womb as a squishy place anyways. It seems less like a warm wet cavern and more like an industrial workshop in which fetuses are stamped out. Like the reverse of a callous: a hard skin that becomes soft with use. Mother jeans are hard jeans designed to give a hard outline to a soft shape. My mother may not have worn hard jeans, but she’d weathered enough shit in her life to give meaning to their designation. Mother jeans should produce hard femininity. After all, my mother expelled her children not through soft natural childbirth but a caesarian. Every time I put on my hard jeans, I’m stepping into the depths opened up by a gaping sliced mouth on my mother’s belly, and her legs are my legs.