Watch, as the mother breaks away from the herd, refusing to be tamed by her new role.
The transition to motherhood, it seems, provokes a certain pragmatism in a once-wild woman. Her jewellery? Banished, since the delicate glimmer would be irresistible to magpie kids. Her white pants? Relegated, for the fabric itself seems to threaten, ‘I’ll get dirty, just you wait.’ Her heeled sandals? Exiled; wearing them would be akin to madness.
So what rushes in where impracticality once joyfully made a home? Domestication.
Just as raising children can feel like a constant stream of small reprimands – Brush your teeth! Put the toys back! Stay in bed! – many mothers, I think, similarly police themselves. They do dutiful things. Make practical choices. Keep their feet firmly planted on the (play)ground.
But not me. If anything, motherhood has intensified my fantasy life. And buying clothes is how I will those fantasies into reality.
A few months ago, while interviewing for a job I wanted but did not get, I bought three different pairs of Jesse Kamm sailor pants in the span of three weeks. First, to get myself in serious interview mode, a black pair. Then, when the season changed and buds began erupting from the earth, khaki. Finally, when the job felt within my grasp and I could picture myself striding across the office’s concrete floors as my pants billowed behind me, Bill Cunningham Blue. I was wearing this third pair when I got the recruiter’s call: ‘They loved you, but they loved someone else more.’ From that moment on, the pants began to pinch and chafe, like they were made for a different sort of animal.
So I switched tacks and began buying for an alternative fantasy: one in which I, prisoner to no one, could dress as casually as the nineties Winona Ryder. I purchased band shirts. A motorcycle jacket. Low-slung vintage 501s. I stuffed my hairdryer under the sink and began watching air-drying tutorials on YouTube.
Lately though, the fantasy I’ve been nurturing sits somewhere between ‘I’m not a regular executive, I’m a cool executive’ and ‘I picked a Tom Waits tee off the floor and threw it on.’ I tell myself that this in-between person – polished, but not precious; simple, but not slovenly – reflects my true nature. Or at least will, once I track down the perfect cropped cardigan and linen tank to summon her.
Self-sacrificing mothers may post stories on Instagram, saying ‘Momlife is spending $300 on summer clothes for your kids then deciding $20 yoga pants for yourself are too expensive.’ But mothers like me treat an ever-evolving wardrobe as a reason for being. We daydream in browser tabs. We overspend and promise it’ll be different next month.
We play a movie reel in our minds of the women we want to be – wearing chic sunglasses, dazzling in diaphanous dresses, striding down sidewalks in lug-soled loafers. In those reels we’re browsing coffee table books, peering thoughtfully at art gallery installations, and maybe sipping matcha. Crucially, we aren’t caring for children.
The mother observes her offspring with jealousy, for they possess something she does not.
My two children have ‘capsule wardrobes,’ a term I chose in the hopes of casting the asceticism of their closets as an aesthetic choice. They each have a dozen or so tops, five or six bottoms, maybe three sweaters, and so few socks that I can pick them all up in one hand, my palms taking on bear-paw proportions.
Given the way I imbued my poor pants with the weight of my professional aspirations, you might peg me as someone who sees my kids as an extension of myself, guiding them towards child-sized sambas and Yves Klein-blue chore coats. But I don’t try to bend my children to my stylistic will.
Instead, every morning, they reach into their cave-like closet and dress themselves in whatever comes out, like sartorial mad libs. The [polka dot] shirt with the [blue] pants with the [firetruck] socks.
Much like their food choices, still uncorrupted by notions of what’s virtuous, allowed, or ‘good,’ there’s an unstudied ease to my kids’ appearance. The way they instinctively reach for things that feel good on their skin, that stretch comfortably over their heads, that enable them to run, leap, and give chase with ease. Plus, at age five and two, they aren’t yet capable of subjecting their clothes to existential questions. They could no more ask themselves ‘What does this sweater say about me as a person?’ than they could shear the sheep, spin the yarn, and knit it themselves.
But my laissez-faire attitude is also, I know, because they’re boys living in a world that lionises rakish, unstudied, occasionally dishevelled men. I’m married to a man like that, whose lack of care reads as charming. Being unstudied is a privilege, a luxury he can afford. My boys will be able to afford it, too.
I, on the other hand, haven’t been genuinely unstudied since I was, well, their age. Oh, but how hard I’ve tried to appear that I am! And my closet is a testament to that. Physically, my closet is comprised of three side-by-side IKEA wardrobes (the assembly of which severely taxed my marriage) lined up like Stonehenge-sized boulders. Emotionally, it is the staging area for my performance of insouciance. It’s the place where I routinely interrogate the cut, colour, and fabric of ten near-identical button-downs, only to casually shrug, ‘This old thing?’ when the winning one elicits a compliment. It’s the space where I try on various versions of myself – a corporate leader, a nineties ingénue, or someone in-between – as I work to decide who I want to be that day.
The closet also gives me away. Out in the world, I’m just a woman wearing, at most, a half-dozen items. But in my closet, those items come home to roost with hundreds of their friends. They suggest not merely accumulation, but addiction. I buy and I buy and I buy, and then I colour-coordinate my spoils until they form a rainbow-hued progression from white to black. I was so confounded by my striped tops – Do I file blue and white stripes in the blue section? The white one? Or does it depend on which colour dominates when you do the ‘step back and squint’ test? – that I created a special section just for them. That section takes up a whole drawer.
I have, to put it plainly, more nautical tees than my boys have articles of clothing. More pants too. More sweaters, more jackets, more shoes. More, so much more, than a self-sacrificing mother could ever justify. But I do justify it.
My kids, after all, don’t need much. Their lives are straightforward – they go from our home to nursery school to the park and back again. So are their identities: big brother/little brother, kid/toddler, brazen guy/shy guy. They don’t even know they’re New Yorkers yet.
But I’m different. My life is more complicated. I need outfits to work in, travel in, relax in, care for my kids in, and yes, try and evoke that movie-reel fantasy in. My identity, too, is complex – a deep, undulating, and often-divergent set of markers to which I want my clothing to adapt, chameleon-like.
And so the tale I tell myself is this: if you are indeed a woman who contains multitudes, then so too must your closet.
Try as she might, the mother cannot stop comparing herself to the clan’s matriarch.
I’m the daughter of a mother who seemed – who still seems, most days – to exist entirely for me. Whose body carried me, fed me, protected me, and played with me. Who now plays with my own kids, spinning wonderful worlds for them with her words and letting them rub their dirty hands directly onto her clothes. I try to avoid this with a swift deployment of a Wet Wipe.
My mom buys her clothes from Amazon. And fast fashion retailers. And sometimes from one of the outlet malls lining the highway between her home in the Canadian woods and mine in Manhattan. She’s reluctant to spend much. She scours sale racks, hunts for coupon codes, and frets over ‘big-ticket purchases’ like winter coats, even though she lives in a part of the world where even the fanciest down parka would simply be a practical choice. Her clothing is down-to-earth, unpretentious, and comfortable. So is she. She’s also the platonic ideal of a self-sacrificing mother – one who not only puts herself last but also does so uncomplainingly. But just because she wears her sacrifices lightly, it doesn’t mean they didn’t cost her.
I worry that the same could not be said of me. That the compulsive buying, the resulting sprawl, and the sheer amount of attention I pay to how I dress connote not-so-nice things. Not simply that I’m wasteful, shallow, or self-absorbed, but something worse: that I’m the inverse of my own mother. Roiling, yearning, striving. Wanting rather than whole. It’s possible, it turns out, to recoil not only from the life of the self-sacrificing mom but also from my own life, the life that rushed into the vacuum where martyrdom might otherwise have resided.
Though I slip on a different self every day, I do it while asking myself the same question: beneath the adornment, who am I? If I’m not ‘my mom,’ then what sort of mom am I?
The answer, I think, is ‘searching mom.’ The mom who is trying to figure her shit out. The mom who wishes her search was cheap and charmingly Victorian – journaling or baking come to mind – rather than capitalistic and influencer-abetted (but hey!). The mom who will probably always want more than she has, yet try to teach her kids to be happy with what they have. And who will wish, desperately, for their unstudied ease to last forever.
Justine Feron is a writer and advertising executive living in New York City. Her debut chapbook, Cleave in Two, was recently published by Bottlecap Press.