Empowerment

The Milestone I Didn’t See Coming

What I learned when I stopped giving a crap what people think.

Written by Brandy Ferner

I’ve been a mother for over fifteen years. I’ve hit all the usual motherhood milestones such as finally being able to sleep in, using the toilet alone, and being called “Bruh.” But I just passed through one mothering milestone that was never on my radar.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I decided I would stop coloring my hair to hide the grays that had been coming in hot since my last kid was born – probably somewhere between the meal planning slog for my family who all eat entirely different things, and trying to decipher if my kid who claimed they were too sick to go to school was telling the truth or flexing their pandemic power.

Just how does a mom have time to color their hair when they’ve been shouldering the burden of a pandemic for nearly two years? And maybe a better question is why do any of us feel the need to spend the crumbs of alone time we’re allotted faking our way to looking younger? So I am expected to be the safety net for my entire family, filling in the gaps of our culture’s broken systems and current crises, and I’m also supposed to look good while I’m giving up my career growth and ambitions to do this completely unsustainable and inhumane work of being the one who holds it together all the time?

Yeah, no.

Or so I realized when I went from, “I will slowly grow my grays out,” to clippers in hand, shaving my head on New Year’s Eve. I not only wanted to start fresh – all gray from the get go – but I wanted to give a middle finger to the cultural expectation that women should look young even as they care for everyone and everything around them.

And, I’ll be honest, I didn’t only shave my head because I wanted to kick gender norms in the nads. I had fantasized about shaving my head for years. What would I look like? (Probably a mole, I told myself for so long–but in reality, I looked like me. The post-apocalyptic renegade version.) How would it feel to run my hands over it? (Turns out, it’s every bit as sublime as I imagined.) And how would it feel to walk out of the shower and be done, like dudes get to? (It’s indescribable, but bliss comes close). Shaving my head was a bucket list item, and it suddenly struck me: Am I really never going to shave my head in this lifetime just because I’m scared of not looking traditionally pretty?

Screw it. Bzzz.

Clumps of my hair fell into the bathroom sink, and with it, the belief that I must be deemed cute enough by the male gaze to be worthy in this world. It was wild all the agreements my hair had been holding on to. As I stared at myself in the mirror, drunk with empowerment, I ran my hand over my head stubble, giving myself goosebumps at feeling an entirely new feeling. Brand new solo experiences – much less sublime ones – are rare when you’re living the day-to-day parenting grind, so I spent about ten straight minutes getting high off rubbing my own head.

The next couple of days, I tried to fight the urge to wear heavy make-up and big earrings to make being the lady with the shaved head more palatable at the grocery store, for myself and for everyone else. A woman who shaves her head faces a whole series of stereotypes and misconceptions, and so there I was that first week, using mascara and silver hoops to make sure everyone knew I was the opposite of a red flag (which in itself is a red flag, I’m aware). I wasn’t yet comfortable in this new skin as I got stares along with emphatic apologies when anyone was in my way at all. I assumed people were mislabelling me as a cancer patient. Or a lesbian. Or punk rocker, maybe, if there is such a thing anymore. But I was just a mom sick of this all-sacrificing version of motherhood that felt too small for me.

Oh and did I mention I’m also exhausted and would rather use my “free” time to nap and then feel refreshed rather than blow out and flat iron my hair?

I wanted to simplify my life, start fresh with something, see a new version of myself as I grow into this next stage of life. Nothing felt wrong about that. Everything felt right, and I dropped the mascara and silver hoops shortly thereafter and was just me. Unfiltered me. When my very traditional, 80-year-old mother saw me for the first time via FaceTime, her jaw dropped and she blurted out, “You’re beautiful!” I think it surprised her as much as it surprised me.

I don’t know where I’m headed. Maybe this was just the scenic route to the pixie cut. Who knows if I’ll stop there or decide to grow it back out? But being a woman with a shaved head has seeped from my follicles and into my subconscious somehow, as more than once when I’ve found myself faced with a hard decision, I stop and think, “What would a woman with a shaved head do here?” And something about it is giving me the ability to make bolder choices with more boundaries and less self-abandonment than before. Like when a man stood so close to me in line at Nordstrom Rack that I could feel his breath on me. It turns out that a woman with a shaved head doesn’t politely move herself away, she tells him to back up. Without apologizing.

In hindsight, I see that shaving my head was self-care. Not the fake self-care of “let’s trick moms into taking care of themselves so we don’t have to” that’s served to us in make-up subscription boxes and budding alcoholism via “rosé all day” wine tumblers, but the real deal self-care that shatters toxic norms and takes back what’s rightfully ours as women who also happen to be mothers.

To any mom reading this and thinking, “I wish I could shave my head,” guess what? You can. And if you feel that you can’t, sit with that and explore it for a moment. Why can’t you? Who or what agreements stand in the way?

I just went on a weekend getaway, and for the first time since I was a child, I didn’t pack a blowdryer, curling iron, straight iron (or crimper). My load, lightened–quite literally.

Brandy Ferner is a mother, author (Adult Conversation: A Novel), and podcaster (Adult Conversation Podcast). Her writing and social media posts have been featured in Good Morning America, and at The New York Times, HuffPost, Romper, and more. In addition to writing and fulfilling her kids’ endless snack requests, she spent the past decade working as a doula, childbirth educator, and birth trauma mentor, ushering women through the intense transition into motherhood. She currently lives in Southern California, and her love language is dark humor and sleep.