Published on July 5th, 2023 | by Sumitra Mattai0
Swagger Like Us
Our first child was two years old when my husband told me I’d “lost my swagger.” The comment hit me like a gut punch, and stuck much longer than the many times he said I was beautiful or that he loved me. I believe there is a defect in the human brain that allows hurtful words to blare like neon signs, and compliments to dissolve down the drain of our subconscious. Years later, I had forgiven but not forgotten. The idea that I had lost my swagger haunted me. It was easy to see what I had gained in becoming a mother — two bright and beautiful children, a bustling, colorful home, and the obvious pounds of extra body weight. But naming what I had lost was more difficult to define.
By street definition, swagger is an expression of over-confidence bordering on arrogance, often manifested in the body. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “to conduct oneself in a superciliously pompous manner.” Co-opted by hip hop culture, swagger is the elusive ability to assert dominance without having to say a word. “No one in the corner has swagger like us, Swagger like us, Swagger swagger like us…” I chanted these boastful lyrics with British rapper M.I.A. back in 2008, before marriage and kids, when I could stay out until the bars closed and sleep well past noon. I didn’t know then that I was at the height of my powers.
Growing up in the Metuchen public school system in the 1980s and 90s, I was one of a handful of kids of South Asian descent in my class. Chubby and acne-prone, I never thought of myself as having swagger. The only place I felt confident was on stage performing Indian classical dance. Under the spotlight, my nerdy self was hidden under layers of make-up and a shimmering silk costume. The adrenaline and applause left me high for hours, but at the end of the night, the make-up washed off, and the costume hung in the darkness of my closet.
Being seen as other or different didn’t feel like a strength until I grew older. It wasn’t until I attended art school and became a textile designer that I began to feel a bloom of confidence in my everyday life. I found a partner who overflowed with swagger, and helped me recognize my own. Together we traveled the world, led fulfilling creative careers, and enjoyed a vibrant circle of friends. Our swagger quotient may not have been high by Manhattan standards, but it was more than enough for me.
Looking back, I wonder when and how I came to lose my swagger. Was it on the operating table, during my son’s emergency c-section, or was the last of it pushed out with my daughter, four and a half years later? Did it drip away slowly, every time I breastfed? Did the levels decline with every sleepless night? I was too busy keeping humans alive to notice when it happened, let alone try to get it back. I joined the ranks of exhausted working mothers in loose layers and practical shoes. I exercised once a month and saw my friends even less. I knew I had lost some part of myself, but I was too overwhelmed to name it.
By the time Covid-19 hit, my youngest was three months old. I had been pumping all winter, preparing for my return to work, but lockdown hit before I ever stepped foot in the building. Lucky for me, 2020 was the year the whole world lost our swagger. At home with my family, furloughed from my job, I baked Bundt cakes, donuts and scones, nursed my baby daughter while doom scrolling, and cried often as I washed dishes and folded laundry and tried to pretend that everything was fine.
In the face of the unfolding apocalypse, with existential questions hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, something strange happened. I began to write again. I sat on the floor next to my daughter’s crib and typed when I should have been sleeping. First, I wrote her birth story. Then I wrote about my wedding dress. Then I wrote about how scared I was of raising kids in the age of social media. The pressure of lockdown opened a release valve inside of me, letting out all the words I didn’t know I needed to say. In a few months, I realized I was doing more than journaling.
“I think I’m writing…essays?” I told my older sister on the phone on my daily walks around Riverside Park. I didn’t know how or why, but I felt an urgent need to share these scraps of myself with the world. A decade earlier, I’d earned a degree in fiction writing, but I didn’t want to hide behind characters anymore. Reality was so surreal, there was no need to make anything up. After many, many, many rejections, my stories began to get published. Every printed sentence was like a length of rope pulling me out of the hole I’d fallen into. Even after I returned to work, I continued to write, fueled by a newfound purpose.
I had always used writing as a way to process my experiences, but the feeling of sharing my work and exposing my vulnerability was new, thrilling and scary. They say that growth, both physical and mental, happens just outside of your comfort zone, and I was well beyond mine. I’d been performing Indian dance less and less as I got older, and officially stopped after I had kids. But I still longed to be seen and heard, to feel in communion with an audience. The proverbial page — whether it was a URL or an obscure literary magazine — became my second-act stage.
Hunched over my laptop at 2am, staying up even though I knew how much I would hurt the next day, I could feel my synapses firing, and a hunger brewing in my gut. As I continued to pitch, take classes and write, I realized that these tremors of reinvention were critical to my sense of self. I had allowed motherhood to subsume my creativity for the wellbeing of my family. This sacrifice was necessary, especially in the early years, but it wasn’t sustainable long term. The idea of “swagger” was more than just a cool lyric from a pop song; it was an essential, unnamable force to be protected and nurtured.
I may never fit into the jeans of my twenty-five year old body, or rebound from a transatlantic flight as well as I did in my thirties. But after surviving four decades, two births and a global pandemic, I finally feel a swell of hard-won swagger — the swagger of knowing who I am and what I want to say.