In the months leading up to my maternity leave I had been trying to piece together a more formal style than I had attempted before – things that required ironing, things that cost more than I could justify spending. I was starting to feel a need to look like an Instagram feed of Row-era Olsen Twins, or Phoebe Philo’s Celine. I urgently wanted things that a woman with a taste for structured neutrals would wear with nonchalance because she had her shit together. That year I had received a promotion that I’d long fought for, and felt both guilt about leaving work to have a baby, and fear that I would risk losing what I’d gained, that I would set myself back and things would come undone. Dressing with expensive formality might let me leave an image of myself behind, when I finally exited the building, of someone who still belonged there. And in the meantime, it would perhaps, on a surface level at least, help me to feel a little less fractured – present a unified façade – as I moved towards a new understanding of myself. This felt increasingly important as my pregnancy advanced. My body was evolving week by week, unfolding with its own rhythm that was grossly foreign. I had no continuity, I felt like a physical incarnation of time unfurling. In the office I was a countdown to when I would disappear from work and become someone else. I wanted to wear labels that suggested quiet power, a measure of success. I wanted sharp, clean lines to enclose the growing bulge of my stomach that gave away another persona I was moving towards, an impossible to conceal identity announcement.
It felt as if I was at all times inadvertently showing something too intimate and too beyond my control for the work setting. I became conscious of the way in which pregnant stomachs are walking reminders of birth. Those with experience would often, on seeing my stomach, gleefully tell me their personal horror story. However, you don’t need to have much first-hand experience of it (beyond your own entry to the world) for birth to conjure visceral imagery – heaving nakedness, secretion and pain, a nebulous disturbance. It felt like my new subtext, and gave me the sense of an erosion between my private self and the professional. I couldn’t escape the feeling of being exposed in the midst of a monumental change that I didn’t yet even have a grasp of myself. I wanted the order and construction of fashion to smooth over the primalness of pregnancy, to camouflage or distract.
To be pregnant, and then to be a mother, is to be reliant on others – to greater and lesser degrees dependent, like almost everything, on access to money, although family and community can play a vital role of support here too. I was reliant on the information and care of each different midwife I saw throughout my pregnancy. Then I was reliant on doctors, nurses, more midwives and the neonatal care team to keep me and my baby alive. I was reliant on my employer and the government to provide maternity leave, I was reliant on my boyfriend to provide income when I couldn’t, though many mothers, my own included, are reliant on government support instead. The extreme individualism of late capitalism both ensures this dependency, and does not make space for it having any value, any sense of positivity. It is simply a drain on resources. As I lost my privacy and sense of self-governance, I was no longer able to feel like an autonomous woman, and I craved the aesthetics of a woman who did.
I didn’t want to buy maternity wear, both because it felt like a waste of money and because it heightened the otherness of impending motherhood, but at a certain point practicality demanded I get a few pieces. I found the infantile aspect to dressing in later pregnancy was particularly off-putting – trousers and shorts with stretchy elastic bands around the waist, and needing rather than choosing shoes that are easy to slip on when bending becomes a logistical issue. It seemed to me a tactile example of the way that childishness seems to cling to the mother herself, an association of helplessness and naivete transferred to her due to her proximity to it. Aesthetically, there seemed to be either a soft, cutesy femininity in muted tones and flowing shapes, or the ‘boom-here-it-is’ of body-hugging, slightly sexy designs. Some kind of body armour felt more appropriate to me, because to be pregnant is to inhabit a suddenly more vulnerable body. This is not the way pregnancy is presented, but it was, for me, the underlying state of the experience and left me constantly uneasy. I lived it with a heightened awareness of proximity to loss – anyone who has experienced a miscarriage knows the fragility of expectation. Pregnant bodies are more susceptible to illness, with a weakened immune system and regular medications now off limits. And I found that once mundane choices became loaded – food was able to cause harm, the air I exposed myself – taking the tube to work for example – had additional possibilities for damage. Pregnant bodies are waiting for birth, which puts the body at great risk, there are any number of ways it can go wrong for mother and child. But not all pregnant bodies are equally vulnerable, and being white middle-class affords me greater safety and security than pregnant women of colour, particularly black women.
Vulnerability can be cushioned by resources and access, and motherhood and money are bound up together in the way all life milestones are today, but perhaps in a more discernible way than others. The lead up to having a child is tied to finances, many who plan to become parents feel a pressure to reach a certain level of success before they can have kids. And motherhood is a highly marketable category, there are an endless array of things you might be persuaded to buy in order to do it ‘correctly,’ safely, providing for a child in the best way possible. This creates a visible gap between those who can have all of this, and those who can’t. My own preoccupation with the money element of motherhood is driven at least in part by an awareness of its lack in early childhood, being born to a young single mother. Though ostensibly the only real damage I suffered – I was never without any necessity – is the preoccupation itself. It’s not unconnected that during pregnancy I wanted to dress in expensive labels.
Dressing the part of a Professional Woman commensurate with this particular life stage was, I think, an attempt to minimise the vulnerability I felt to a change in perception in how I was viewed. It felt clear to me that opting to downplay my role of mother, and instead, tooling up my work persona would help me to control the way I was seen. I would present my work self as my essential self, and regulate the rest to the background in the way that parenthood naturally exists for men – it sits in a place that will never impinge on the rest of him. On the work stage, pulling off the performance that your essential self is the one you present there is for most women an economic necessity. Social media, though, has made room for an alternative outlet for motherhood in which some are able to parlay it into their branded self, making it an asset. This can work for a certain subset of women in the fashion and lifestyle industry – high profile, quite a bit of money, looks good on Instagram – who present it as a seamless addition to their working life, but the working life is always tweaked, changed in a way to reflect this development. In fashion and related media she needs to have reached a high level of professional success, she needs access to a sense of exclusivity, to trigger aspiration in order to make motherhood an asset. She becomes a shiny showcase of the Working Mother, and trades in wider cultural relevance for the siloed experience of public motherhood. She also gives up more privacy.
When the collision of motherhood and work happened for me, my total lack of control was played out dramatically, my body would not follow the basic prescribed timeline. Five weeks before my due date, on a train into work I noticed liquid running down my legs. At first just a trickle, but by the time I got off the train at Liverpool Street Station, among the morning rush, my socks were soaked, my shoes full of amniotic fluid. I took another train into the hospital, changed into a hospital gown and in between scans and tests I emailed my boss to say I wouldn’t be coming into work. It’s been nearly one year since that day, and in that time I’ve been navigating motherhood as privately as possible, which has been very possible since the pandemic has shut much of ordinary life down. My need for seclusion has been both a reaction to the exposure I felt during pregnancy, and driven by an attempt to form an understanding of this new dimension of myself, what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained and what has remained. I’ve worn the same things again and again – old, baggy comfortable T-shirts and sweatshirts and worn-in jeans, and I’ve not bought anything new for myself. This has served purposes – comfort, ease, not needing any thought or planning, shaping myself outwardly as little as possible, an escape from consumption, and perhaps a return to some kind of softness. I don’t know what I’ll wear when I return to work soon, or what I’ll feel the need to project. My body is becoming my own again but motherhood still feels to me like treading at the border of chaos, though now with a heavy responsibility to someone else to stop things from unravelling. I’m not sure how I will move between motherhood and work and how the rest of me fits into these spaces, but I feel open to being in flux as it seems the only way to maintain myself. Motherhood has adjusted my sense of time, everything feels more immediate, more fragmented. As Rachel Cusk wrote, referring to Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ and its depiction of parenthood, ‘Perhaps moments, now, are all there is.’ I don’t have my shit together, but I’ve known that total loss of control and come through the other side.
Clementine de Pressigny is the editorial director of i-D magazine, currently on maternity leave.