Britney Spears and I have nothing and everything in common. I’m a Gen-X, West-Coast-born Scorpio to her Millennial, Southern, Sagittarian roots. But she was always around when I was young-ish, the way people who get world-famous are. She was present as I worked my way up in a career, her “Baby One More Time” video on constant rotation at my sports pub. She even filmed her writhing-schoolgirl scenes at a high school near my childhood home. There was something different about this artist, who seemed to own her space in a way other female singers did not.
Then, I got married; so did she. I had my first girl, Faith, in April 2005, and she had her first son, Sean, in September of that same year. Having undergone failed fertility treatment before giving up and having a baby somehow, I was shocked to discover I was pregnant yet again. I had a second girl, Eden, in March 2006, with Britney’s second son, Jayden, arriving in (I assumed) similar surprise fashion in September 2006.
My husband and I were living in a little house in the flats of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley; Britney and her husband were said to be living in the hills just to the West. Whether I was looking for a pediatrician, baby group, or double stroller, she was always at the same place minutes before I got there. People joked that she and I should betroth my daughters and her sons to each other. You develop a relationship with your celebrity pregnancy double, reading what you want to read into the nuggets of information the media doles out. I projected onto Spears that she, too, was struggling. Having been blessed with two bundles of joy within the same year was different from my new-mommy friends, who had settled into life with one child and resumed some normalcy.
One day, 13-month-old Faith bumped her head learning to walk — reaching down to grab her, I was slower in my reflexes because two-month-old Eden was in my arms. That night, a clip of an expectant Britney was on “Extra,” or maybe “Access Hollywood.” She looked stressed. I was sure Britney felt like me, wondering what happened to her identity and her freedom, worried whether she could do right by two precious souls who were so needy at once.
I started crying a lot.
The doctor begged me to resume my old antidepressant, saying those who had back-to-back pregnancies, or who’d taken fertility meds, were prone to postpartum depression, and I’d done both. I got babysitting help and hit the gym. I got better.
But Britney did not seem better — she was getting a divorce and starting to “act out.” What followed was the infamous, prolonged meltdown, as Britney ran from one paparazzo horde or the other. By the time she had shaved her head, and attacked a photographer’s car with an umbrella, I agreed with the consensus: This was one hot mess, embarrassing chick.
Like the rest of the mob, I pointed fingers about her fitness as a parent when she drove with Sean on her lap. Never once did I wonder whether my pregnancy twin’s behavior was due to a total invasion of privacy at a personally-challenging time. I even leaned in when Diane Sawyer heartlessly probed her about her breakup, and sexy persona.
Right on camera, Sawyer made Britney cry.
Time passed. My girls grew. So did her boys. I added another child to the mix, and an emotionally-rehabbed Britney had a triumphant Vegas residency. I did wonder why, if she was fit to headline an intricate live show reaping $138 million over four years, she still needed her father as conservator of her estate, but it was a fleeting thought between carpools and trying to rebuild a career. Then, I turned on Hulu to watch a documentary about the lens through which the public has viewed the star’s troubles, “Framing Britney Spears” (produced by The New York Times).
There it was: The public flogging of a lone girl-turned-woman, doing the best she could with the world waiting to pounce. It all came rushing back: That year in the late ’90s when I worked for the parent company of the music magazine where her paraphernalia littered the office — after all, she had hit our publication’s Hot 100 list for chart-toppers 32 weeks in a row, a record for female musicians. I can’t recall which job at the place I had by then, but I remember passing her poster in the hallway as one of the white, male bosses commented on my dress length. Every time I hit that hallway, I had to hear a description of whatever post-grunge outfit I was wearing as older, powerful men assessed me slowly, head to toe. I always gave the same fake smile, an oversized Britney winking from above.
I realized that my generation of females had hung poor Britney out to dry. It was because the casual aggressions of the hallway had hardened us into believing that if we — the un-revolutionary girls who only dared aspire to be junior bosses, who struggled to dress fashionably but carefully enough not to bring harassment upon ourselves — lived quietly, we might get by, get promoted, get married. But Britney was younger and more rebellious. She hadn’t followed the rules we’d internalized. The singer who could belt a tune like no other had, literally, refused to be quiet at all. Britney and her life were loud, messy. She paid a price, and is paying still.
Somehow, Grammy-winner Spears — holder for 15 straight years of the record for biggest album sales in a week by a female artist — doesn’t command the respect her ceiling-breaking accolades should confer. Today, she’s known as a bit of a hack who might still be bonkers. Meanwhile, consider the men with very checkered pasts and not as many statuettes who are still thriving, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Robert Downey, Jr. to Billy Bush. Britney’s worst crime was …what, exactly? Having sex as an older teen with steady boyfriend Justin Timberlake? Grabbing lattes while wearing the tragic ’00s fashion combo of miniskirt and Uggs? Getting married young and splitting up, like half the population?
I had once joined the societal shaming of Britney, but it was I who was now truly ashamed. She and I had been through the same things, and I’d been blind to my own prejudices and misogyny.
There, on my couch, I cried.
For Britney Spears, who I thought of (in a very strange way) as a friend. And for my younger self, for not knowing better. For letting all of the Timberlakes of the world exist unquestioned, simply due to their default male status.
There was only one thing to do: atone. It was late, and a school night, but I made my way to my daughters’ bedrooms and woke them up to tell them of my crime, and make sure they understood there will never be justice or peace in this world until we learn to judge people on the basis of merit. Faith and Eden, now 15 and 14, were indignant on Britney’s behalf. Seeing their natural passion to defend the bullied was humbling.
As much as I was relieved, it’s my task as a parent to help build a better world for this new generation, who views different as a good thing, to someday soon inherit. My Faith and Eden — and Britney’s Sean and Jayden — are almost grown. And when they go out into the big world, I pray their humanity will be, just maybe, at least as important as their gender identity.