Photograph by Max Farago; Styled by Rebecca Ramsey.
It’s long after dark on a weeknight in September, and all across Los Angeles parents are dutifully tucking in their children while obeying requests to read The Cat in the Hat for the 287th time. But on the front lawn of a midcentury house in the hills of Los Feliz, bedtime seems far from anyone’s mind. Fela Kuti tunes blast from the speakers and candelabras cast a soft glow on the yucca plants while a gang of exceedingly cute toddlers—one in Scandinavian pajamas, one in an outfit from a Buenos Aires boutique, none in a princess dress or a superhero costume—scamper around the yard. Their mothers, cocktails in hand, have finished serving dinner at the outdoor kids’ table and are now casually monitoring the postmeal chaos. In lieu of diapers and preschools, the conversation topics range from microdosing psychedelics to insider strategies for navigating Paris’s FIAC art fair.
“It’s a big thing to have a baby,” says Lykke Li, the Swedish singer-songwriter who lives in her own groovy 1960s house a few streets away. “So when it happens, you gravitate to other people who are similar to you.”
In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about L.A.’s transformation from a culture-deprived sprawl of suburbs and movie studios into a bona fide arts capital that attracts creative types from around the world. Accompanying the shift has been the rise of formerly inconspicuous neighborhoods in the eastern part of town—miles away from the coast and the ritzy Westside mainstays of Brentwood and Beverly Hills, yet increasingly packed with the city’s most interesting galleries, restaurants, and people. And perhaps no group epitomizes the arty, international “new” L.A. more than the mothers gathered here tonight at the home of the filmmaker Clara Cullen and the photographer Max Farago.
To get a handle on this clan of BFFs, start by thinking of the Hollywood Wives mythologized decades ago by the novelist Jackie Collins—those Bel Air socialites who spent their days scheming by the pool or seducing their tennis pros—and then imagine their polar opposites. Cullen’s projects include videos for The New York Times’s T Magazine and advertisements for Chanel. Kaylie Schiff, formerly of the New York–based band Guards, curates art exhibitions in independent spaces around the city. Sophie Wahlquist (formerly Holstein) is a German painter who traded her Berlin studio for a Downtown L.A. space three years ago. What unites them? Aside from their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their careers in the arts, and their natural flair for pairing vintage T-shirts with jewelry by their friend Sophie Buhai, there’s the fact that they’re all raising kids age 3 or under.
“Sometimes, while driving around, I’ll look in my rearview mirror and see the car seats and think, How did this happen?” Wahlquist says.
Before their outdoor dinner party, the group gathers for a photo session at Li’s ranch house, with its straight-out-of-a-Hockney-painting glass walls and lime green sofas. The English artist and illustrator Costanza Theodoli-Braschi, nine months pregnant, walks through the front door wearing a vintage tuxedo shirt that belonged to her Italian grandfather. After noticing that her friends are more primped than she is, she raises an eyebrow and says, “I didn’t realize everyone would be in evening gowns.” There’s a quick conference, and it’s decided that the dress code for the photo will be loose and laid-back, more reflective of the group’s usual style. Meanwhile, in the living room, Li’s long-haired son, Dion, is scrutinizing a tripod, while Schiff’s daughter, Edie, warns me that there are lions hiding among the thick palms in the garden. It’s obvious that these kids have all known each other since birth, and that they remember where all the snacks are hidden in each other’s kitchens.
Later on, when I talk with the women during dinner, many describe themselves almost like war buddies, bonded for life after leaning on one another during a vulnerable time. Most arrived in Los Angeles from other places— “normal cities,” jokes the painter Alina Perkins, whose 2-year-old son is named Atlas. They’d heard all the warnings about how lonely and alienating L.A. life can be, especially for new parents and recent arrivals. But as they began meeting each other through mutual friends, they realized that their babies were key catalysts for their social lives. Perkins sees the desire to be around like-minded mothers as “almost a primal force. You need other people to help you. It’s how our ancestors survived.”
Several women tell me that motherhood, despite its endless demands and stresses, has actually given their careers a boost. “The smell of milk made me feel like I wanted to go and start shooting something right away,” says Cullen, who regularly takes 3-year-old Alma with her to set. “Becoming a mother meant knowing how to bring Alma into my life, instead of adapting my life to hers.” For Theodoli-Braschi, too, less free time has meant more focus at work. “It’s a constant struggle for balance,” she says. “But now I don’t spend as much time navel-gazing. Before, when I had an idea, I’d research it for a while, and maybe do a drawing a week later. Now I’m at the desk thinking, You have two hours, and you’re going to do it.” Wahlquist adds that motherhood often serves as a counterbalance for the unavoidable struggles of artistic life. “As an artist you have so many reasons to doubt everything,” she says. “At least motherhood is physical, it’s real. Paintings are real too, but sometimes you lose the connection. And then you’re glad you have the baby that you can feed.”
If these women have a breezier, more communal approach to parenting than that of the typical L.A. helicopter mom—they routinely swap clothes and don’t hesitate to feed each other’s kids or give orders when necessary—they attribute it to their common roots in Europe and Latin America. Perkins, like Cullen, grew up in Buenos Aires; Alexandra de la Mora is from Mexico; Schiff’s mother was Puerto Rican and, Schiff says, a tireless hostess, just like Cullen. “You know, food always on the table, expecting 10 extra people every night, the music going, the kids dancing.” Since Schiff is the group’s only L.A. native, she also serves as the inside source on what to do around town. Don’t look for this clan in Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction, the Eastside’s established epicenter for 20-something Instagrammers. Preferred hangouts include the Lebanese restaurant Carousel on Hollywood Boulevard; the Latin drag club Los Candiles, in Glassell Park; and the Smoke House, in Burbank, a frozen-in-time steak joint with live music twice a week. But de la Mora says their real favorite haunts are each other’s backyards. “We used to travel a lot more, but having kids attaches you to a place, since you need to give them a sense of stability,” she says. Without the babies, de la Mora says, their friendships might not have cemented in the first place, since “we were all independent and free, bouncing around everywhere.”
And how do these aesthetically inclined women react when their children just want to wear rainbow pajamas to school or fill their bedrooms with pink unicorns? “Luckily, our kids are still at the age where they just do what we say,” jokes Li. For now she’s surrounding her son with the tasteful things she likes, “trying to give him a minimalist sense of style,” she says. “Of course he’s going to rebel eventually. That’s natural. It will be interesting.” At one point before dinner, Alma leads me down a hallway to show me her room; it’s a pristine white space, with a neat container of toys against one wall. Cullen knows the tidiness won’t last. “I love seeing Alma’s personality and style develop,” she says. “The reason I have my own style is because I had it from when I was a kid. At age 5, I was wearing all black, with short hair and black Nike Airs. And my parents thought it was fine.” Still, these women’s tolerance for questionable kiddie taste has some limits. During the photo shoot at Li’s, someone puts on the cheesy anthem “Baby Shark” in an attempt to keep all the kids in one place for a few minutes (it works!), and several mothers assure me that they never, ever play that song at home.
In a town where lots of parents struggle to shield their kids from the worst extremes of consumerism, one big plus on the Eastside is that “you don’t need to be a billionaire to live here,” as Theodoli-Braschi puts it. Nobody in this crowd has a Porsche or a pool, even though some could probably afford both. There’s no golfing. When Li isn’t recording songs or touring, she’s working with two partners on her side gig, a female-centric mezcal brand called Yola. “We’re all just hustling to have a good life,” she says. “So we enjoy the small things—making dinner, lighting the candles, having a nice wine.” It’s clear that the main draw for this group is a sense of community, which can be elusive for mothers everywhere these days. Schiff and Li have both split with their kids’ fathers and now rely on their friends like family. “Just last night, I called Clara and she didn’t answer her phone,” Schiff says. “So I called Max. And he’s like, ‘We’re down the street. Do you want to come for dinner?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes!’ This is what keeps me happy.” As Wahlquist sees it, the group is held together by a unique blend of tightness and lightness that’s “a miracle, in a way, since we come from so many different places. I wish I’d known all of these women when I was 8 years old.”
The music gets louder and a stream of friends shows up at the house, including the Argentinean dancer and choreographer Cecilia Bengolea, who soon demonstrates her skills with a headstand, and Sylvia Cash, whose focus is on nonprofits like the United Way. As the night wears on, some of the mothers admit that L.A. has affected them in ways they didn’t expect. Theodoli-Braschi says that she recently postponed a car purchase for a month because Mercury was in retrograde and her favorite astrologer was warning against all auto-related transactions. “So I waited longer for the car, and I ended up paying more for it—and then I still got into an accident!” She told her husband that the crash would have been far worse had she not followed the astrologer’s advice.
There’s a sudden chorus of squeals when two big candlelit cakes come out of the kitchen—tonight’s dinner is doubling as a celebration of Wahlquist’s birthday. All the kids gather around the table and sing alongside the moms, with varying degrees of intelligibility. Bedtime isn’t far off, but some of the children are eager to dance around the yard. They know it’s allowed because their parents have already beaten them to it.