On being a heavily-tattooed parent in the “white picket fence” suburbs

Guest post by Caffeine&Fairydust
Photo by Nadia Coetzee Photography, Tattoo by Tamar Thorn from The Body Architects Tattoo Studio
Photo by Nadia Coetzee Photography, Tattoo by Tamar Thorn from The Body Architects Tattoo Studio

My husband and I both have careers, we live in the suburbs, we live in a house, we each have a car, we are not substance abusers, we support charities, we love animals and are both tattooed.

Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of art, laden with as many different meanings as there are global cultures. And they’re all fun and games when you are young and carefree — society is more likely to accept your tattoos and move on with their lives.

But I have found that the rules change when you become parents.

I grew up in a very small town called Upington, situated in the Northern Cape between nothing and nowhere. My family is open-minded-yet-somewhat-conservative and I knew hardly anyone with a tattoo. I was always different, I liked bright coloured hair, I listened to all genres of music you can think of, I loved rock ‘n’ roll, I was fascinated by the extreme sports culture, I was intrigued by goths, I wanted to marry a surfer, and I couldn’t wait to move to the big city.

When I was 17 we had the annual Upington Expo, and walking through the stalls I came across this tattoo artist from Cape Town. I got my 21-year-old friend to pretend she was my mom and sign a permission slip, and I got my first tattoo in a truck container… and it looks like shit, but I love it. I was hooked.

I collected a number of tattoos over the years, and I love every single one of them. I will probably carry on getting them until I run out of space.

My career never suffered because of my tattoos. People stared, asked questions, but no one was ever rude. But I will never forget the first day that my appearance attracted a negative comment — accompanied by a snarl of utter disgust. I was a couple of months pregnant, sitting in the waiting room at my gynecologist’s office when the woman opposite me said to her husband, “Why can someone like her have kids and I can’t, it’s not fair, her child has no chance in life.” I knew she was saying it out of hurt and anger of her own personal situation, but it cut like a knife. This woman didn’t know me, how could she possibly judge someone like that?

My pregnancy with Mikayla was very difficult and we had a lot of complications. We went from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, gynea to gynea, and the first thing each and every one of them would ask was “Will you be keeping the baby?” or “Are you happy about the pregnancy?” I am not sure if this is something they have to ask, but I took it very personally.

I eventually got fed up with all of them and decided to give my doctor back in Upington a call. We drove 830 kms to have my baby delivered by my family doctor. Funny how in a small, conservative town, you end up receiving the least amount of judgement and the most amount of love.

I often get asked about how I think my tattoos will affect Mikayla — I always wonder that myself. I hope they do. I hope they teach her to be accepting of different kinds of people and to never base her opinion on someone’s looks alone. If more kids had that lesson growing up we’d have a lot fewer adults who are quick to judge solely based on appearance and stereotypes.

I would also just like to add that we are now pregnant with baby #2. This experience has been completely different and very positive. I am not sure if it is because we are older or if society has just become more accepting of tattoos. Either way, this is how it should be.

Are you a parent with tattoos? Or are you someone with tattoos who plans on having kids one day? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Comments on On being a heavily-tattooed parent in the “white picket fence” suburbs

  1. This.

    I want tattoos – but am VERY afraid of the judgment that I hear comes along with them. I want to applaud you for being your wonderful self, and wish you the very best!

  2. I’m a 41yo father with 3 daughters who waited until I was 40 to get tattoos. When I got my first my oldest (12yo) kind of questioned it and I could tell that I had made a mistake in the way that I raised her in regards to accepting others. Somehow along the way she had already begun to think differently towards those that didn’t look like her etc. I have used this as a learning and teaching experience and ultimately they all think they are now “cool”. I didn’t get them to be cool, I got them (up to 4 now and will get more) as a sort of therapy. The last few years have been extremely difficult and they remind me to stay positive and enjoy each day. Also once you turn 40 it can be somewhat liberating in that you don’t have to worry as much about how people think of you, I’ve been through enough to earn them in my opinion and if folks don’t like them that really has nothing to do with me. Anyway thanks for sharing and stay up!

  3. I have tattoos–not heavily, but noticeable in that they are around my ankles. I am also a single mother by choice (donor sperm) to a 4.5 year old, and go between my natural salt and pepper and blue-tinged hair (when I can get a shower long enough!). I, too, come from a fairly conservative background. I haven’t had as vocal comments as you have received, but I know I have had some eyebrows raised.

    We also live in the ‘burbs in a very working-class, blue-collar neighborhood. I think I stick out more for my ultra-liberal, humanist, non-religious views than for my single-motherhood, but that is in part of who I am. I tend to get asked more about how I will deal with the “no father” issue with my daughter than about the tattoos, and I just bring up that has a donor, not a father, and that we’re a mom and kid family. That’s all she’s known, she knows her mommy was getting older and that I hadn’t met someone I wanted to marry, yet I wanted to be a mom, so I went to a doctor who helped me get pregnant using a donor.

    I take things one smile and wave to the neighbors at a time. There’s always going to be someone who jumps to conclusions without knowing who I am, but as my daughter and I continue to mature in this alt-family process, I am more comfortable gently correcting misconceptions, and changing the look of the ‘burbs.

  4. Tattoo’s are not my thing. But one of my neighbors has tattoo’s (I can tell when he takes his shirt off when he mows the lawn) and his oldest son has some too (same thing, can’t see them unless he is mowing lawn or trying to look sexy for the ladies (he is 19)). Honestly, while the community is a mish mash of a housing community (not the standard cookie cutter type housing community, but still is one (horrible HOA included)), I think the people in the area don’t really care if neighbors have tattoo’s even if they have their shirts off. Point being, I think at least in my area, as long as you treat myself, my husband, and all the other people who live in the area like I want to be treated, then who cares?!

  5. I just had my first little one in September so I was pregnant and about as naked as I could get all summer. I have several tattoos on my arms and I’m sure I got plenty of crazy looks. One cashier looked at me and asked if I was in a gang. There are several other reasons I get looks (taking classes on campus as a 26 year old Black female with tattoos and piercings, being in an interracial relationship and now, carrying around a biracial baby that looks White), and it really bothers me but I hope to raise my son to be accepting. None of these people know me but I can guarantee I am NOTHING like the person they stereotyped me to be.

    • I find it insane that in this day and age people are still looked at funny for being in interracial relationships – the stares about my tattoos I get, but the race thing… hell no.

  6. Change this from tattooed to pierced, and you pretty much have me. I was older when my daughter was born, so I was better equipped to deal with the pettiness of people, but that didn’t make it easy. I will never forget the woman who came up to me when my daughter was still an infant, and smiling, said “Oh, I expected the baby to have a nose ring”. All I said was “No”, but the look I gave her must have been vicious because she turned tail and ran.

    Today I am a single mother, living in a moderately affluent part of the suburbs, raising my now 11 year old daughter on my own. The other families have two parents and houses, we have me and an apartment. The vast majority of mothers in this area do not work, while I work 40-50 hours per week. I knew that fitting in here would be an uphill battle, but I never had any idea just how hard it would be. At school events, *no one* would speak to me other than the teachers. It wasn’t until my daughter entered 4th grade that this changed, and then it was only the few other not-so-traditional mothers. I accepted this; what else could I do? The only place where I have found acceptance was the last place I expected to – my daughter’s ballet studio. Sitting there for hours on end, surrounded by wealthy professionals, the type who have live-in nannies for even their school age children, I found perfectly “normal looking” women eager to talk to me. It’s funny, because they only thing we seem to have in common are kids with a passion for the arts. It’s enough.

    In the end, I’m satisfied. My daughter has been brought up on a steady diet of punk rock and people with piercings, tattoos, and “unnatural” hair colors, but she is nothing like me. She isn’t like the other kids at school either. She dresses like a French ballerina 24/7, not like a preppy clone, spends too many hours at a ballet studio, while her peers are playing lacrosse and field hockey, listens to Bach and Haydn, not Katy Perry. She is totally her own person and I take some pride in having instilled that in her. She also doesn’t judge anyone on how they dress or what music they listen to, and I couldn’t be happier about that. The path I chose isn’t an easy one, but I can see the rewards of it already, and that is all that matters.

    • I miss the pictures from OffbeatFamily! I would leave to see your daughters style, it sounds awesome!
      My husband and I are beginning to look so conservative these days, it’s like we’ve just become too tired for our alternative looks. So my hair is natural instead of blue and my husband has a beard instead of his usual giant chops. Our tattoos are still us, though. And thankfully our daugher’s style is all her own! She’s only 4, but she desperately wanted short purple hair, so got that last summer. And she loves super frilly dresses so she can dance to Shakira in them. Hah! As a mom, its my absolute favorite part to watch my kid grow into her own person.
      Oh, I guess that was off topic. I suppose I got lots of strange looks when I was pregnant and blue haired. But, I also have an incredibly young face, so mostly people we’re just judging me because they thought I was an unwed teen mom, or something. It takes away a lot of the boring small talk of life, so it wasn’t the worse thing!

  7. It’s sad that this still happens in society today. Even in the most “informed, non-judgmental, accepting” communities. I was on the receiving end of this as well, except not for tattoos (although I do have one, and hope to add more in the future). When I was pregnant, I had hot pink hair, and I also have a lot of piercings…not to mention I look about 5-10 years younger than I actually am (depending on who you ask). I’ve seen tattooed pregnant women, pierced pregnant women, and on the rare occasion, pregnant women with colourful hair. But these sightings were few and far between.

    While I live in a fairly liberal city… my province is a very conservative at the same time. I distinctly remember getting a lot of obviously stares, glances, and double-takes. One time I clearly remember some women chatting behind me in the coffee line, and one loudly stated, “Geez, girls are getting pregnant at all SORTS of ages these days.” I was partially upset because I was 26 at the time (not too young to be a first-time mom I would hope!), but I also shrugged it off because I’ve had comments regarding my perceived age since I was 16. I also heard the “I would never dye my hair while pregnant because it would poison the baby”. And the one time where I was asked how old I was because I seemed a little young to have a baby. They did it politely, but that underhanded politeness. OH! And the one time during a prenatal course, run out of my local birth centre, once of the doulas offhandedly made a comment that my baby’s hair would come out pink because the hair dye would seep into it’s hair colour. Whaaat…

    • ” And the one time during a prenatal course, run out of my local birth centre, once of the doulas offhandedly made a comment that my baby’s hair would come out pink because the hair dye would seep into it’s hair colour. Whaaat…”

      A DOULA said that?? I…I just….please let no one ever hire her for anything regarding their well-being ever. Wow. At least she’s not a brain surgeon, right?

  8. My fiancé is covered in tattoos and has gaged ears. Even though he is a top level manger at an oil company he gets looked down on because of his tattoos. We are use to it. When we had our son 7 weeks early this negativity hit us hard. I went in the hospital very sick not knowing what was going on looked at Brian and gave me a drug test. They swore up and down that my sickness must be from drug use. Later that day we had our son with a C-section due to my preeclampsia. Even after my son was born we kept dealing with the negative looks and comments from other parents. Coming so early my son had to stay in the NICU for a month. At first the other parents kept their distance but after spending 14 hours a day at the NICU more than any other parent they warmed up to us. We have learned to deal with this and will keep trying to change peoples thoughts and feelings toward tattooed people.

  9. This post and its comments are really making me mad. Who do these awful, mean-comment-throwing people think they are??? I’m lucky enough to never have had any experiences like the ones being mentioned, looking “old enough” and outwardly traditional (although I had someone apparently expect me to agree with her racist, elitist beliefs and then be totally shocked to discover that I had non-white immigrant family members). I think you are all awesome and I’m sorry that there are any other people who think otherwise. To hell with them.

  10. More than my tattoos, my wrist piercings have gotten looks and comment, but not necessarily around my parenting. This must be because I’m in a burb of Seattle?

    My 3 year old son loves my tattoos, and asks where his are. And that’s all that matters to me 🙂

  11. I have tattoos and piercings and dye my hair weird colors and have a shave-out on the right side of my head – and two beautiful children.
    The only mean or upsetting comments I’ve gotten from people around us are from ones who assumed I “had” to get married at a young age (I’ve been married for over 5 years and our oldest child is 3 so, no). But, we live in a city with a big university presence and a large (HUGE!) immigrant community. Not to mention, in Polynesia! Aka, birthplace of modern tattooing.
    BUT – when I go to visit my family in small-town Canada? Eesh… I have gotten VERY dirty looks and whispered comments, and had a couple instances of being stared at until the person could no longer see me. Very weird and uncomfortable 🙁

  12. Great post. I have two daughters and two sleeves myself, and am currently living in the suburbs… at least for now. After 5 years of trying to make it work “for the sake of the kids”, I really can’t stand the constant judgement I feel here — not as a tattooed person but as a woman and mother with tattoos. I’ve hosted charity events, volunteered at the school and local animal shelters, written for the local newspaper, attending meet ups of all kinds, and have totally tried to remain open-minded and objective myself but no matter what I do, the fact seems to remain the same: I simply don’t fit in here. We’re looking to move back into the city (with the other weirdos ;)) this spring.

  13. I get this as well. My son is four now and although we live in Southern California, right outside of LA, we live in a pretty conservative neighborhood. I have a rockabilly sort of style, whereas the majority of the other moms in our neighborhood are not any sort of alternative. Basically, it’s taken me four years to break through and be taken seriously. It’s funny, too, because people will find out that I’m a professor at the university in our town and are like, “Really?” As if I can’t be a professor because of my tattoos and piercings.

    There were times when my son was younger when I would get asked if I was the nanny or babysitter. For some reason, tattoos are still looked at as being irresponsible or that people from alternative cultures can’t effectively parent. It’s been fascinating to watch how mind-blown some women in the neighborhood are that my secular, raised by a tattoed and pierced mama, kid is super well-behaved and a great human being.

  14. I am a mom of two boys, ages 4 and 6 and have two sleeves. My boys love my tattoos. Even when they were little they would play with them. I volunteer at my oldests school and am going to school to be a pre school teacher. I live in s slightly conservative area but it is also a ski area. I am definitely the only one at my sons schools with tattoos, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t get too many weird looks but I feel I don’t fit in either. But I honestly don’t hang out with the parents from the schools. Most of my friends are outside of that parenting group.
    I also volunteer as an advocate for victims of assault. Most of the people in that group completely accept me as who I am.
    I also feel I know when it is appropriate to respectfully cover my tattoos and when to show them off 😉

  15. Just wanted to put this out there: not all small communities are small minded when it comes to ink and piercings.
    I grew up in a small town in western PA where the people are inwardly conservative but outwardly liberal. All of my friends and most of my family from home have tats and piercings, but are pretty conservative when it comes to their personal beliefs. I took my mother for her fist ink on her 50th Bday yet we cannot discuss same sex marriage rights without issues.
    In contrast, I now live outside of NYC in a very chic suburban area where the majority of the people are very liberal in their ideas and thoughts, but extremely conservative in dress and outward appearance. My personal beliefs fit right along with the others in my neighborhood, but the fact that I have few tats and dress like a teenage boy from the 90’s (band t’s, jeans and converse) clearly sets me apart from the others who dress to the nines for school meetings in tory burch flats, expensive jeans and $200 highlights.

  16. I don’t have any tattoos (yet!), but as the child of two tattoo’d folks, I can say that experiences can be all over the place. My mom’s tattoo is hidden (she wants more, but works in a profession that doesn’t allow visible tattoos), so my friends were always surprised when they found out she had one. My dad, on the other hand, had a shaved head, pierced ear and a couple largish tattoos on his arms (one of which I designed) – my friends basically thought he was badass, which was a big help for a geeky girl who was prone to being bullied. My sister also has a large tattoo (and a child) and has noticed that people in her (very white, suburban) neighborhood tend to treat her better if the tattoo is covered. When I was growing up I was one of the only kids with a tattoo’d parent who was also middle-class. Frankly, I think that it was awesome having tattoo’d folks – it definitely helped me remain more open-minded towards body modification and the artistry of body art. I think you’ve got a lucky kid!

  17. I’m 34, have 16 and 11 year old boys, a Bachelors Degree in English, and plenty of tattoos (and for a long while I had a blue streak in my hair). I have had people not even blink twice at my tattoos and I’ve had people blatantly be stupid because of them- like the guy that asked if he could bum a cigarette and when I told him I don’t smoke responded with “…BUT YOU HAVE TATTOOS.”
    The counselor at my youngest sons school was probably the worst- he has aspergers and reading problems and I’ve been to my share of parent teacher conferences over the years. This one particular counselor looked me over from head to toe with a pinched face and switched her language to VERY demeaning/small words and started talking to me like I had no clue about my son. I (politely) ripped into her listing the research I had done, the therapies we have tried and pointed out sections in the school IEP contract that she didn’t even know were there and basically called for her head on a platter for pushing my son through the cracks (a whole different story). She has never come to another conference and pointedly avoids me at school functions now.
    In the general population I’ve had my share of questions about my tattoos but the funnies thing to me is the people that ask to touch them. THEY’RE NOT TEXTURED. My flowers are not scratch and sniff.
    I guess I’ve been lucky though that outside the school counselor no one has questioned my parenting abilities when they see me out with my kids with all my tattoos. My favorite thing is when people remember me specifically for them (I have a robot on each forearm) and they ask about them when they see me. The Starbucks guy always asks how Gene is doing (my boy robot). He always gets a good tip.

  18. I don’t have kids yet, but I plan to have some. It scares me a little about how people will view my one large tattoo as a mother. It isn’t anything super “badass”, it is two dressed up bears which the childish nature I feel like would get more frowns (like I will taint the minds of kids). Most of my feeling probably are shaped by my bosses, they are in their late 50s-60s and in some way progressive, and some way really conservative. Their view of tattoos are very much shaped as things irresponsible, stupid, and mean people get. They wouldn’t TREAT you differently, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t open about their feelings about them. Hey they can think whatever they want, but it is when they say things like “There was a Dad, a Mom, and a two kids looking at a house, and I thought the guy had a really cool long sleeve shirt. But when he got closer I noticed that it was all TATTOOS. He seemed so NORMAL.” It is always the thought that tattooed people have been to jail, or were/are troubled.

  19. While not a parent I understand your frustration. It appears to me that predominantly women get the short end of the stick on this one. I have several large tattoos and many small ones, including an MOS patch, most people see that patch and immediately give me a pass on tattoos. My SISTER on the other hand gets no end of grief from her neighbors for having sleeves and a back piece. There is no clear answer for you unfortunately, some people will just be heavily biased based on their closed world view, this is a sad fact but a true one.

  20. I am tattooed parent with a 2 year old in the burbs of our small city. I also have a pretty awesome job – as long as my job is not concerned about my Visible tattoos only the quality of my work (let’s face it I would rather provide food for my family) I don’t even pay attention to the strangers/neighbours/jerks outside of that. My daughter is flourishing, she knows she’s loved by her entire family and that’s ALL that matters. Don’t buy into the parent/mummy warrior bullshit. Be the best you can be and you know that has nothing to do with your appearance.

  21. I’ve got two tattoos but they aren’t visible with everyday clothes. When I was pregnant, the only thing I was told in relation to it was that my lower back tattoo might interfere with the epidural (it didn’t). No one I know, or the medical staff, said anything about the tattoos, though that might be because they can’t see them. However, I think I live and have lived in places where they are mostly accepted, unless they cover the neck and face (that is most likely to elicit comments about “how they could do that to themselves”).
    But (a bit unrelated…) when I went to Amsterdam I saw policemen and women with lots of visible tattoos, piercings and rasta. And I thought, despite the openness of the three other European countries I lived in, we’re not quite there yet and it’s a pity.

  22. I am a grandma and I have many tattoos.
    My husband (also has tattoos) and I are both professionals and live in the “burbs”.
    The looks happen. They just do. Depending on my mood I will make eye contact and smile. They hate that :). Sometimes they even smile back and ask questions.
    But for me they come from younger people as well. They seem to think I’m trying to “act young” but in fact, I got my first tattoo more than 20 years ago.

  23. I got my first one when I was 40 after wanting on for 30 years. All I 2anted was a little ladybug on my forearm. I ended up getting a huge version of my clan crest that takes up my whole thigh. I got it on my thigh so I could try to hide it. I am an elementary school teacher and occasionally kids ask, especially kindergartens, when they see part of it. Funny that seeing a tattoo causes people to judge everything about you, yet that isn’t done with eye colour or hair cut. I always find that the difference between those that have tattoos and those that don’t, is that those who do have them really don’t care if you don’t. I am so sorry for the way people were before during your first pregnancy. My friend with koi fish on her collarbone have a very similar experience…

  24. This is so timely, as my family just moved to the suburbs from downtown last month. Only a handful of neighbors have been friendly – I think they all got scared when my husband & 5 of our very heavily tattooed friends moved us in on the hottest day of the year.

    This was a lot of the reason I was hesitant to leave downtown, because it just wasn’t abnormal to see tattooed parents. But we made the decision for our daughter to be able to attend better schools and have a safer neighborhood. Hopefully it changes once she’s in school; I’m glad we at least have a few friends already in the neighborhood so it’s not like we’re completely alone. It’s just frustrating to be judged more in a conservative area.

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