The day before I started writing a story about mom hair, I was sitting placidly with my two-and-a-half-year old when she decided to run a plastic race car over my face and down my shoulders. The wheels entwined themselves down the length of my hair and tugged, leading me to pull away with a sterner-than-ideal, “Stop!”
Ah, the life of having long hair with a young child in the house.
If we all have our beauty things—the visual calling cards we’re most often associated with—mine would be my hair. It’s thick and wavy, thanks largely to genetics although I’ll admit I lucked out finding the absolute right combo of tools and products that work for me (bless you, Oribe). I’m not particularly good with makeup and have average skin, so when it comes to the upper fourth of my body, I’d be nothing without my hair.
That superficial self-awareness might be why I never considered cutting or drastically changing my hair post-baby, didn’t want to participate in the dreaded trope of mom hair. I might have been grappling with all the other identity crises that accompany having a child, but I had an unshakeable awareness that if the hair went, so too did the ship.
My hair is certainly done far less than it was before a child (and pandemic remote work) came into play, but it’s still long and looks the same as ever when I carve out the time to pay it some attention.
But the real question is, why do long-haired women feel the need to chop their hair after having a baby in the first place? Part of it, I realize, is biology. The wild hormonal roller coaster that is pregnancy often includes the happy benefit of lustrous, shiny, thicker than normal hair while you’re expecting—and the not-so-nice reality that it can go away when your body begins to stabilize after delivery. The scientific term for this type of hair-shedding is postpartum telogen effluvium, and while it’s often erroneously pointed to as hair loss, it’s actually just a delay in losing the strands your scalp would naturally have cast off had you not been pregnant.
“The hormonal changes of pregnancy cause a shift in the hair cycle such that all hairs remain in a growing phase and do not transition into a resting or shedding phase,” explained Jessica Weiser, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and medical director of Weiser Skin. “At the time of delivery, there is a sudden change from growing to resting that then triggers an abundant telogen shedding phase.”
So the same pregnancy hormones that might have given you fuller, bouncier hair while you were expecting are also to blame for when it starts to recede approximately three months after delivery. In the end, the amount of hair discarded is approximately the same, but seeing it go in a more concentrated manner can be alarming.
Here’s some real mom talk for anyone who hasn’t been in the throes of caring for a newborn. The three-month milestone that docs point to as the start of hair shedding comes when you’re just starting to regain some grasp on reality. Prior to that marker, I probably could have gone completely bald and wouldn’t have cared. The first few weeks and months are about survival, tinged by terrifying sleep deprivation and a bone-deep exhaustion I’d never known before. Then, just as you’re getting the tiniest bit of your groove back, you’re hit with another physical injustice.
There’s a cruelness to this timing that doesn’t feel quite fair. Your body is healing, you’ve made progress in getting your child in a feeding groove (by whatever method you choose), and you can summon the energy to put on real clothes and get out of the house. Cue another “Where did this come from?!” moment, and it’s not surprising that the first appointment back with your stylist might include an order to go shorter, if only to just save some time.
“My hair has always been a huge part of my individual self-identity,” says Nikita Charuza, founder of Squigs Beauty. “I’ve always been blessed with really thick hair, and it’s something I’ve been proud of my whole life. Postpartum hair loss was not easy for me—especially when you’re dealing with so many other things as a new mom. While I didn’t do anything drastic, I did end up cutting off a few inches because my hair was starting to look really thin, and I wanted it to feel fuller and more like myself.”
Along with hormonal changes, motherhood brings an aspect of casting about for a new identity or a physical way to claim yourself, similar to how we talk about breakup haircuts. The new mantle of mother and caregiver is a heavy one to bear; cutting inches off to try a new do—or get closer to the hair you knew prebaby—is a quick way to put a stake in the ground.
There’s another frustrating timing coincidence that might impact how significant this stage is when establishing your identity as a new mother. On average, women in the U.S. take 10 weeks of maternity leave, putting the return to work squarely in the period where they’re most likely to be experiencing the height of hair shedding. The shift back to your job and career can feel monumental, whether it’s met with tears and trepidation or a full-throttle “Finally!,” and the psychosocial connection between self-confidence and our physicality is too strong to be ignored.
Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, a best-selling book and movement focused on a woman’s return to work post-baby, conducted hundreds of interviews with mothers when researching and was initially reluctant to dive too deeply into fashion and beauty. Both topics felt superficial when compared to the pressing issues working moms were dealing with (hi, pay disparity!), yet there was no denying that they were hugely important factors of the mental and emotional journey underway.
“It mattered to the women I interviewed and felt like such a tangible thing you could fix. There’s the motherhood penalty and implicit bias—there are all these big, systemic problems, but when you look in the mirror, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just make your hair do what you wanted?” she says. “There’s a lot of research around self-confidence and first impressions, and the return to paid work after a baby is a renewed first impression of someone after you haven’t been around them for a while.”
It’s a funny contradiction in some ways. For me, one of the very best parts of becoming a mother is seeing my priorities shift in the healthiest of ways, understanding that health, security, and safety matter far more than some of the stuff I put so much stock in 5 or 10 years ago. Yet at the same time, my personal identity has become a lifeline, a vital connection to the me that’s always been there—and what I wear and how my hair looks are true manifestations of that.
If your hair was an important element of your life before baby, it doesn’t magically change. What does is how much time you want to, or can, spend on it. “My hair has always been such a huge part of my identity,” says Chloe Hall, digital beauty director at Elle magazine and new mom to an almost six-month-old. “There was one day—and one day only—during early postpartum that I thought, ‘I’m just going to cut this all off and it will make my life so much easier,’” she says. “Having superlong braids, extensions, or twists always makes me feel like me, and it’s been so important for me to still feel like myself.”
After experiencing the radical shift of having a child, it feels as though we took our hair, and the everyday identity confirmation it provides, for granted. Comparatively now, I notice and appreciate a day when my hair is “done” so much more. It’s a reminder of who I am and what I love—and that I’m so much more than the person responsible for keeping a small human alive. “It’s your personal brand,” says Brody.
Essentially, we are our hair in a way that might not have been so even 15 years ago when the term mom hair seemingly took root in pop culture. In my unofficial study, the phrase started with the emergence of “soccer moms” in the mid-’90s—women wooed by politicians and described by Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway (nee Fitzpatrick) to The New York Times in 1996 as “the supermoms of the 1980s.” “Many of them have kicked off their high heels and replaced them with Keds to watch their kids,” she said. “If you are a soccer mom, the world according to you is seen through the needs of your children.” Needs that are demanding and time-consuming and don’t allow time for blow-outs or curling irons.
Pop culture went on to attach mom hair to the soccer mom persona. Urban Dictionary defines it as “short, easily managed, but completely unfeminine and unflattering haircut.” In 2007, TLC reality TV show Jon & Kate Plus 8 premiered, and Kate Gosselin’s spiked coif was relentlessly referenced in the zeitgeist. The irony is that Gosselin’s mom hair is a perfect example of a cropped look that is not “easily managed” and definitely harder to style than long hair, which can be swept up into a ponytail as needed.
The women I know—the ones in our 30s who are adjusting to life with kids—are a new version of the soccer moms we grew up with. We’re having babies later in life, when we’re more professionally established, and with an independence that lets true sense of self flourish and develop. The average age for first-time mothers has been steadily creeping up the past few decades—26 in 2018, versus 23 in 1994. While there’s a correlation between secondary education and family planning (in the mid-’90s, 60% of women with bachelor’s degrees had given birth by age 29; in 2014, that number was only 49%), the trend for having kids at a later age is evident.
I’d argue we’re less likely to frantically search for a way to define ourselves as we adjust to life after welcoming a child (the sort of panic that might result in, say, a well-intentioned bob) and more inclined to want to reach for the things that made us who we were in the era before baby. I’m still startled if, after an ambitious morning when I decide to style my hair, a colleague remarks upon it. Instead of feeling flattered, I’m amazed: “How do they not know this is me?” My stock response has been to say thank you, then joke about how if they’d known me at prior jobs, this was just how I looked regularly.
There’s another undeniable part of mom hair. Time is at a premium; alone time is a treasured gift not to be squandered. I’m well past the life-with-a-newborn stage, yet I still have a hard time not letting myself rush through my skin-care routine or eke out another day in between washings. The hours of my daughter’s nap and the space between her bedtime and mine are precious, and I’m routinely debating whether to do work or read a book or catch up on Housewives. When she’s awake, I’m dealing with snot and crumbs and a person who can’t grasp the idea that it’s not ideal to grab a hunk of hair for support while they put on their pajamas. At least half the time I accept (or convince myself) that it’s a fool’s mission to spend time on my hair when it’ll invariably end up twisted into a knot and left to linger long after bedtime or school drop-off.
My “mom hair” isn’t a short crop or a curtain that falls above the collarbone. It’s not relinquishing or abandoning the part of me that was sexy and carefree. It’s the hair I’ve always had—long, wavy, and mostly unchanged—and just buying more hair clips and elastic ties. It’s spending less time on it, but knowing it’s there, part of my arsenal that’s ready to be called into service when I need to touch something that’s just me.