Against maternity clothes

What does a hipster mom-to-be do when she has to trade her leather jacket for pink jumpers? She cries.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Not long after I learned that I was going to have a baby, I had my first pregnancy dream. In it, I gave my husband a present -- an imposing armoire that, in dream-fashion, folded up into a handkerchief that I kept for him in my pocket. The idea of carrying a baby was full of grandeur and part of the pleasure I felt early on was that no one who passed me on the street could guess the momentous goings-on in my belly.

It was a feeling of power that changed once I started looking pregnant.

Toward the end of my second trimester, I went on my first expedition in search of maternity clothes. I was wearing torn jeans and an aggressively reddish-brown leather jacket. I'd been dressing like a slob, in my biggest pants and my husband's T-shirts, and I had finally faced the fact that I needed some clothes that fit. I wanted to be more comfortable and to look more presentable. But the transition from the slatternly sensation of knowing my top button was undone to the oppressive security of a big, elasticized stomach panel was rougher than I'd anticipated. I took one quick pass through the sweet pastel summer dresses, the stone-washed jeans with narrow ankles and the happy-colored stretchy leggings and began, unexpectedly and uncontrollably, to cry.

I couldn't help thinking about how I must've looked, weeping before the racks of cheerful maternity frocks. Everyone knows that pregnant women are awash in hormones and are expected to cry at the drop of a hat. Maybe I should learn to revel in the temporary freedom to cry whenever I'm moved to, without explanation. This type of pregnant woman's prerogative represents a unique privilege and, at the same time, a precipitous loss. The loss has something to do with this: I've observed that men just love a woman crying in public. It's as if she immediately becomes more mysterious, evoking dramatic questions, then imagined explanations, then fantastic resolutions.

But the pregnant -- along with the drunk and the ugly -- are exceptions to this rule. The pregnant woman holds no mysteries: She wears around her waist a physiological excuse for her tears. End of story.

Now I can't really deny that hormones may have had something to do with my in-store breakdown, but that is a reductive way to think of things. Another easy explanation would be that my tears were all about a woman's alleged fear of becoming fat and unattractive. That may have had something to do with it too, but not much.

I feel self-conscious about my big, round belly when I am naked, not when I am clothed. My husband never ceases to find ways to tell me I'm pretty and also to indicate gently when he doesn't think I'm wearing the right socks for my shoes. No, this black despair at the maternity clothing store was not about losing my figure; it was about losing my style.

Clothes give us our public identity. This is especially true for women, who are more intensely scrutinized by men and women alike. Our clothes have a big job -- they moderate between our naked selves and an often hostile public. In the store that day, however, applying my own exhaustively arbitrated principles of style was out of the question. Judging from the racks of clothes in front of me, I was being welcomed into the ranks of the gentle, the sweet, the profoundly uncomplex.

Insulting in principle, this struck me as more egregious because the experience of pregnancy had, in fact, made me less gentle and sweet and certainly more complex.

It's hard to argue with the fact that a pregnant woman is quintessentially feminine. The scary thing is how these clothes defined femininity. They gently communicated a new set of rules: Even though a pregnant woman is uniquely potent, she should not look strong. Even though she is tangibly more than she was before, she should look simple. Even though she is fulfilling a biologically mature function -- and a sexual one -- she should look childlike.

Like many women do, I cry when I'm angry. I cried because I didn't like the rules.

By the time I was burgeoning my way through my third trimester, I had learned a few things. I checked out a few other maternity clothing options, including a chain of upscale and overpriced stores that caters to the career woman. There I sank a few hundred dollars into several black separates that kept me looking professional when necessary, which luckily was not often.

I also found more answers in my own closet. I wore a few forgiving dresses for as long as possible. I bought a couple of sleeveless dresses two sizes too big. In retrospect, it is clear that the clothes at the first store were some cut-rate designer's archaic vision of the stay-at-home mom-to-be.

Maybe my problem is that, over-educated and underemployed, I don't fall neatly into a pat category. But how many of us, in our hearts, really do? Why does anyone get to decide? Where are the clothes for the pregnant girl,in the cheeky, provocative, reclaimed sense of the word? I turned to Uma Thurman and Lisa Kudrow, who offered a single sensible solution: big overalls.

Either silly and juvenile or staid and matronly, manufactured maternity clothes reflect our collective lack of imagination, our belief that it is not possible to be simultaneously pregnant and hip. For myself, I cobbled together a maternity costume from my hipster past and my maternal present. I got out of storage the tiny, cropped T-shirts I wore last summer and wore them under my sleeveless dresses; no matter that they no longer reached my bulging navel. The look of snug little sleeves around my same old arms often reassured me when I caught my unfamiliar figure in the mirror. At one glance I looked somewhat frightening, at the next, simply odd.

In a way, I never seemed more mysterious.

By Sarah Madsen Hardy

Sarah Madsen Hardy is a freelance writer living in Boston. She has returned to normal shape after giving birth to a baby girl.

MORE FROM Sarah Madsen Hardy

Related Topics ------------------------------------------