"Eat this." Nicole hands me a crystalline pebble of MDMA and her Modelo. It's Saturday, 1 AM, at Webster Hall's "Grand Ballroom." A DJ is standing on the main stage in front of a laptop, the origin of a techno song that sounds like every techno song. It plays in time with a screen of undulating color bursts. Turn in any direction and there are entranced dudes amusing themselves with light-tipped gloves.
A hulking guy in a beaded facemask occasionally appears on the periphery. His name is Kirby, I learn when Nicole trades kandi with him, linking fingers and pulling a beaded bracelet from her arm's thick stack onto his. Mostly, the room is sparsely populated by horny teens grinding against each other. Compared to the multi-day EDM festivals Nicole's been telling me about—in which ravers don their zaniest outfits, take drugs for days on end, and taunt the possibility of getting rushed to the emergency room—this is amateur night. The party, however, is just starting, Nicole assures me.
With that she drift-dances away and eases into the incoherent mix of partygoers. The multi-color lights that stream out from the stage hold everyone in an indiscriminating glow, Nicole included. No one—especially the guys who attempt to dance up behind her in a steady flow—would ever guess she was a mother of two. Why would they?
Being a mom, even the mere proposition of becoming one, comes with endless questions and assaults. As Joyce Trebilcot points out in the preface to her anthology Mothering, the concept of mothering "is central to every woman under patriarchy, whether or not we bear or care for children." Once one decides on children in the affirmative, it becomes a matter of hows. How should a mother be? Everyone's got her needless take. The New York Times Styles section would have you believe that exemplary moms are clamoring around the best strollers money can buy, killing themselves to get their kids into an avant-garde preschool, and eating their placenta—wait, no. That last one is out. The Bravo network's first scripted show, Odd Mom Out, recently premiered with promotional ads everywhere, on bus shelters, subway platforms. The poster zooms in on four women, each presumably a mom; three are blonde and white and holding lipstick, while the "odd mom out" (a brunette, still white) forsakes cosmetics for French fries, suggesting that it's wildly abnormal for mothers to eat food.
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To stay within the nebulous parameters of "good," how should a mother be? Well, for one, she should be able to eat some goddamned fries—only a monster would have a problem with that—but anything more specific gets tricky. Is it OK if I don't want to breastfeed? Can stay-at-home motherhood be feminist? And in Nicole's case: Can I still party on molly?
At 32, Nicole has two young boys. Terrifying or refreshing, depending on one's view of mothering, she's raising them under an unorthodox gospel of mom-dom. On her Instagram page, Moms Who Rave NYC, pictures of ravers in furry rainbow bras at EDM festivals exist next to mother-and-son selfies—they're the same women. Nicole's Instagram page is an East Coast offshoot of the original Instagram account Moms Who Rave, which has nearly 1500 followers and an active hashtag. Some moms are staunchly against festival culture, but one of the photos on Moms Who Rave NYC features a raver mom adorning her son's wrists with kandi. The caption reads, "I'm not like a regular mom... I'm a PLUR mom!" PLUR supposedly defines the ethos of raving—peace, love, unity, and respect. It's a value system that Nicole hopes to pass onto her kids.
To stay within the nebulous parameters of "good," how should a mother be?
Two weeks before we rave, Nicole meets me at a Houlihan's in Weehawken, New Jersey. Unexpectedly, and an hour late, she arrives at the sit-down chain restaurant with her two boys in tow. She is makeup-free, hair showing ample black roots. The kids are dressed in their school uniforms, though on this particular Friday they get to wear jeans with their blue polo shirts. The exhausted mother explains that she forgot her kids had a half-day at school, so she's late because she had to scoop them up. She also would've been here earlier, she apologizes, but one of her clients booked a hair appointment that took way longer than expected, and the money was too good to pass up. $700 for a few hours of hairstyling can do a lot for a single mother who works a mix of odd jobs including doing hair and bartending, especially for a single mother who needs a festival budget.
The restaurant's patio, gated and lined with Corona advertisements and potted faux palm trees, opens up to a grassy courtyard. "They can just play out there while we talk!" Nicole says breathlessly, referring to the boys who are patiently waiting for us to decide what to do with them. I ask if they'll be okay out here, suggesting that I don't mind more company at the table. "We live in an apartment. They love any chance they get to roll around outside," Nicole reassures me. We pick a table on the patio, with the boys in our sightline, close enough to run up and ask for a soda every few minutes.
"Ravers live PLUR," Nicole says, setting up her theory of motherhood while sipping a giant margarita. "We bring everybody in; we take care of each other. I started Moms Who Rave NYC because we get a lot of flack. No one sees the positive side. People think that just because I party all night means I'm a deadbeat mom. But I work two jobs, I pay my own rent, and no man is taking care of me. Do I let loose one or two nights a month? I absolutely do."
Raving and parenting aren't mutually exclusive, either. At Nicole's PLUR meetup group, whose members often organize canned food drives and other civil service initiatives, tiny smiling ravers make kandi alongside the hoola hooping adults. A good-natured scene like the one documented in Thomas Bencivengo's Plur Picnic is typical.
Nicole shows me a photo on her Instagram page of two tiny raver bracelets with her phone number written out in beads. "I put my phone number on my sons' bracelets when we went to Disney World because any child can easily wander off there. I figured that in the worst-case scenario—if they really get out of place—they can find another mom and show her the bracelet and say, 'This is my mom's phone number. Can you call her? I'm lost.' They're been around rave culture their whole lives; it's an easy way to stay safe because I just incorporated it into something they were already familiar with," she says. When the kids run up to the table asking to go to the bathroom, the younger one happily shows off the PLUR handshake to me. I hold my fingers up to his, first in a peace sign, then in a half-heart. From there we hold our palms flat against each other's and then link fingers. Respect.
For Nicole, raving isn't just a night out to blow off steam. It's a core part of who she is—akin to another mother insisting on holding onto her career after she has children. "You have to have your own time and be your own person," Nicole says. "Your kids have to see you happy. When my kids see me pursuing what makes me happy in life... If that's something they can learn from me, I'm proud to be a raver," she says. "I wasn't a mom when I started raving, and I'm not going to change who I am now."
People think that just because I party all night means I'm a deadbeat mom. But I work two jobs, I pay my own rent, and no man is taking care of me. Do I let loose one or two nights a month? I absolutely do.
Nicole started going to raves in her senior year of high school, and from the very first time, she was hooked. She finally found a place where misfits like her could gather. Near the end of each week, she would trek with a friend from New Jersey to Manhattan, hit up Club Exit (now Terminal 5) on a Thursday and then show up to homeroom on Friday, still rolling on ecstasy. "Back then I did a lot of X, a lot," she laughs. But after graduation, the party was over. Not having the funds for college, she decided to join the army in July of 2001. She figured she could go to college for free through the military, and even run track, like she did in high school. Then, as she describes it, "9/11 happened."
"I was being trained to ship to Iraq for chemical warfare," she says. With her tour of duty set to start on September 18, 2001, her anxiety mounted. Living a bridge and tunnel away from Ground Zero, "you could smell it. The sediment was floating throughout the air; there was white dust all over the place." She started getting migraines that eventually led to a minor brain aneurysm. The stress of it was too much; she got medically discharged.
Single and childless, this wasn't too much of a setback—though Nicole again felt directionless. Job searching by day and raving by night, she eventually found a gig marketing new hair salons. But after two unplanned pregnancies with a man she didn't want to marry, Nicole had to stop going to raves and doing the drugs came with them. Her marketing job involved too much travel, so she gave that up, too, going into full-blown mommy mode. "I was breastfeeding and doing the whole mom thing," she says. "But a part of me was missing. I actually was getting really depressed. You can't just live on Cartoon Network and Mickey Mouse." As much as she lived for her kids, she also lived for festival life. The energy. The music. And, of course, the vibes.
I wasn't a mom when I started raving, and I'm not going to change who I am now.
PLUR moms tend toward the old-school, peace and love side of rave culture—its other elements aren't as naturally compatible with taking a care of small children, most notably staying out all night until the next morning. "When I get home there's no sleeping," Nicole admits. "I'll get home from the club at 8 AM, and by 8:30 I'm flipping pancakes. It's hard, but it's a sacrifice you make if you love the life [of a raver]." Though not wholly necessary, drugs are a part of that life, too. Nicole will cop to doing molly occasionally, but like a true mom, she's also careful to express the dangers of the drug as much as its vibe-enhancing benefits.
Once the kids were old enough to be watched by her parents or her ex-boyfriend, going back to raving wasn't even a decision. "It was a matter of time," she says. "I stopped nursing and I had them situated in their routine. I needed to dance. To let it out. To express... me.
At Nicole's apartment, as we're getting ready to go out, I see that Nicole's expression of "me" takes the form of bags and bags of costumes: tutus, a tangle of beaded necklaces and bracelets, light-up bras, rhinestone bras, flower bras. It's an impressive collection, and she makes them all herself.
In whole favor of the idea of messy motherhood, I was still somewhat expecting a molly mom to "have it all" with two kids, two jobs, a penchant for partying, and, somehow, a neat home life for it all to revolve around. But messy motherhood is... messy. As soon as I sit down on a chair at the table off to the side of the living room, where Nicole and her boys eat dinner, it sort of breaks underneath me, its seat dislodging from the frame. I tentatively move to the chair adjacent. (It holds.) Nicole sits on the sofa, which is covered in cat hair, and says that we're not exactly in the best neighborhood. This explains the giant pit bull, who's been barking non-stop from his cage in the corner since I arrived.
Nevertheless, it's still a home and an adequate one that feels lived, and loved, in. The boys, who are spending the night at their dad's, have their own rooms, and the walls are lined with smiling family portraits. In Nicole's bedroom, where her new fiancé is slowly moving in all his stuff, there's an empty frame for the inevitable wedding photo. Nicole's life seems full yet has room for possibility. She tells me that the place is in a special state of disarray because she and her family are moving into the unit downstairs soon, which is being renovated for them.
Nicole dumps out a large shopping bag onto her bed. Out from it spills years' worth of wristbands and tickets from various festivals. It makes a towering pile, and she admits that she just purged a bunch of her souvenirs. Yet another bag is filled to the brim with kandi, the bracelets she trades and acquires at those festivals. Nicole has a few that say "rave mom" and others that say "moms who rave." She slips on some, explaining their significance to me and the photographer. There's one she got last year, while attending the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, where she met the founder of Moms Who Rave for the first time; they bonded over their shared passions for raving and motherhood. They traded kandi, and the bracelet Nicole ended up with is beaded in pastel. On it are three butterflies, symbolizing each of the other woman's daughters.
After a photo shoot and some drinks—rum and bodega cola—we're almost ready to head out to Webster Hall. "Do you think you'll take molly tonight?" I ask her as we're on the move. She says she's not sure. After last year's EDC Las Vegas, Nicole confides, she's weary of the drugs. "I took acid and molly for eight days straight," she says. "It was fun, but I'm getting old. I've been partying for 13 years. I don't want to get Alzheimer's; I want to be able to remember my kids." At this year's EDC here in New York, she stuck strictly to jello shots.
A walk, two different gypsy buses—questionably legal and packed with migrant workers—and a cab ride bring us from New Jersey to Manhattan. Whenever Nicole heads to the city for a rave, this is her routine.
Once we're inside Webster Hall, Nicole gives me the low-down. "That's called gloving," she says, pointing to a guy who is whirling his gloved hands fast, making light trails. From a sober outsider's perspective, it's not that exciting, so I take the solid rock of MDMA and drink Nicole handed me moments ago like a beer-shot combo. I ask Nicole if she "gloves," and she says yes. Affirming my hypothesis, she explains that the act is best experienced while rolling, hard. Speaking of, she mentions, "this stuff"—the MDMA I just swallowed like a pill—"is good," though she decides against taking any for herself.
It turns out partying with a mom has its perks. When the molly kicks in, my mouth is dry, but I also want to smoke a cigarette? I note the trashcans along the walls of the dance hall and yearn to throw up in them. I make my dilemma known, and Nicole makes sure I get a bottle of water, which she also has to buy for me because I'm out of cash.
Once I'm hydrated, Nicole introduces me to a guy who calls himself "Rave Dad." He's wearing a custom-made shirt that says, "RAVE 'TILL THE GRAVE." Rave Dad is sort of famous in the scene, as witnessed by the various bros who keep coming up to him and shouting, "Are you rave dad!?" A group of three guys takes turns getting selfies with him. There is no stigma, it seems, against rave dads.
After the crowd of bros thins out, I ask Rave Dad how he earned his title. He says that at three years sober, he just loves the music and the inclusive scene—the PLUR life. An elevator mechanic by day, he got the nickname for showing up at events with his daughter, who's 19. He says his wife is in full support of their hobby. "This stuff saved my life," he says. He also credits EDM for bringing him and his daughter closer together. "I was close to my daughter before, but now we're like this." He crosses his fingers and breaks out into a lighthearted, genuine smile.
I locate Nicole amid the throng and ask her if she thinks she'll start bringing her boys to raves when they're older. She's says she's already looking into it. Nicole has found a few venues that are all ages, but she's still worried about exposing them to the inevitable drug use. Both boys love the music, though, she beams.