The surprising joy of hideous maternity clothes

I rolled my eyes at the dowdy dresses my mother sent, but I didn't understand then what she was really giving me

Topics: New Mom Confessions, Motherhood, Pregnancy, Real Families,

The surprising joy of hideous maternity clothes

A few months into my first pregnancy, I got a phone call from my mother.

“Now that you’re pregnant — ” she began.

There was a long, portentous pause. I wondered if Mom was about to reveal a family secret, something that could only be passed along to pregnant daughters. Then again, my mother is capable of making a dramatic production of advising me to eat more dark, leafy greens.

“Yes?” I asked, with some trepidation.

“Oh, nothing serious. I mailed off the baby clothes today.”

I relaxed, relieved that there would be no drama. For over 30 years my mother had carefully saved a box of her children’s baby clothes, many of them hand-knit by my grandmother. I smiled, imagining those tiny hats and sweaters on my own child. Then Mom dropped her bombshell.

“Oh, and I’m sending the maternity clothes, too,” she added, casually.

“What maternity clothes?”

“Well, mine, of course. The ones I wore when I was pregnant with you!”

The enthusiasm in her voice made me blanch. “You saved your maternity clothes?”

Had I been one of those hip mamas so ubiquitous in my Portland neighborhood, sassy in their retro outfits, I might have been excited by this news. But I’ve always been a jeans and sweater gal. Besides, I was barely ready to contemplate maternity clothes at all — let alone don the pregnancy garb of 1965.

“Mom, I really don’t think –” I began.

She cut me off. “These are perfectly good clothes. You could wear them to teach in! There’s a lovely dress, lime green with blue polka dots. I know how it sounds, but wait till you see it. And there’s a navy outfit with big white buttons — what’s wrong with that? Really, they’re classics.”

I tried to squelch the horrid vision that arose: myself in one of these ensembles, facing a class of gawking and snickering adolescents.

“Uh, I appreciate the thought, Mom, but no thanks,” I told her.

My mother was not to be put off. “Do what you want with them, but I’m sending those clothes.”

I recognized the obstinate note in her voice. My mother joined the Peace Corps in her 60s. She performs in local theater and goes dancing every Friday night. “She’s so hip,” say my friends, admiringly. They’re right — up to a point. That point ends at clothing and items with sentimental value. Both were colliding here. Clearly there was nothing imbued with more sentiment in Mom’s mind than the garments she’d worn when carrying her “firstborn.”



I knew when I was defeated. “Fine, send them along,” I said, resigned. “But I’m not wearing them.”

A week later, the box arrived. Its contents would have elicited a shudder from even the most retro-chic pregnant hipster: the thick yellow cotton dress with black buttons and piping (for that pregnant bumblebee look), a brown wool number with a drawstring under the breast, and the dreaded lime-green and blue polka-dotted smock, which even my old Holly Hobbie doll would have scorned. That my mother believed I might wear these dowdy dresses was preposterous.

If I’d had any sense, I would have told Mom I loved the clothes and was wearing them every day. But I couldn’t bring myself to lie. Instead, those vintage maternity dresses haunted our phone calls for months.

“So, are you wearing them?” my mother would ask.

Never a diplomat where family is concerned, I told her frankly that it would be a cold day in Hades before those fusty old threads got near my pregnant body.

“Ungrateful girl!” she retorted. “I spent good money on those clothes.”

“But I told you I didn’t want them.”

“Well, you’ve got them now!”

Eventually, my approaching due date overshadowed the clothes as a topic in our conversations. But though I never told my mother, I actually did wear her maternity dresses. Just once anyway, for a select audience of friends. There were universal groans as I emerged from my bedroom in each outfit.

“Um, what about jazzing it up with tights and boots?” offered one friend gamely after I struggled into the scratchy brown wool dress. I rolled my eyes and reached hastily for the zipper. My mother must have been a toothpick back in the day; this outfit barely fit over my belly. Not for the first time, I was thankful to be pregnant in an era with more sartorial options than the ones available to my mother’s generation. These high-waisted smock dresses, with their big collars and floppy bows, made me resemble a pregnant little girl. I couldn’t shed them fast enough.

It took awhile for my mother to stop harrumphing about my refusal to wear her maternity clothes. But by the time my baby boy turned 2, Mom had bigger fish to fry: Now she focused her energies on pestering me to produce a sibling for him. This time, I was happy to oblige.

Eight months after my second – and last – son was born, I was collecting items to take to the consignment store when I came across a box of my own maternity clothes in the back of the closet. There were the loose, comfy cardigans, the jeans with their stretchy panels, the overalls I’d vowed to burn as soon as I gave birth. All supremely forgettable — except one item.

It was a dress I’d found in a resale shop. Made of wine-colored velvet, it was long, with close-fitting sleeves and an empire waist. No matter how awkward and huge I’d been in my last trimester, when I donned this dress, I felt graceful and dignified, like a pregnant Jane Austen heroine.

I took the dress from the box and held its soft folds against myself. I’d been wearing this the day my husband surprised me in front of the mirror, ruefully surveying my girth and wondering if I would ever go into labor. He put his arms around my huge belly. “Now I understand why ancient cultures worshiped fertility goddesses,” he whispered.

Grappling with a nurse-all-day baby and a contentious 3-year-old, I hadn’t spared a thought in months for those final, mysterious weeks of pregnancy, for the anxiety and overwhelming anticipation of those days. I looked at the dress again. I couldn’t get rid of this. I wanted to pass it on. With a sudden pang, I remembered how cavalierly I’d rejected my mother’s maternity clothes. Sure, they were frumpy. I never would have worn them. But now I knew what emotions those dated dresses represented. I understood why she kept them for me. If I’d had a daughter instead of two sons, I realized, this velvet dress would be saved for her. For her to reject if she pleased, but saved nonetheless.

In my situation, my mother would undoubtedly have set aside the dress for a future daughter-in-law. That much moxie I don’t have. Instead, I mailed it to a friend who was expecting a girl. Maybe she would end up saving it for her own daughter. I couldn’t help hoping she would.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. She writes about books, motherhood and Peace Corps Morocco in her zine, Miranda. Her essays have appeared in Brain,Child, Babble and the Toronto Star. Her website is Katehaas.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>