It began with the deliberate undoing of the top button on my jeans, a secret rebellion known only to me as I sat at my computer at work. I'd been thinking about this sweet release for the better part of an hour — weighing discomfort against decorum — before deciding my shirt was long enough to hide any evidence. No one had to know.
Thus began my struggle with one of the less discussed aspects of pregnancy: the maternity wardrobe. This was in April; I was two months pregnant and not showing so much as bloated. If the books were right, it would be another two months or so before my belly became an actual issue, and I planned to delay maternity shopping as long as possible. The whole exercise struck me as impractical, spending hundreds or — let's not kid — thousands of dollars on clothing that I'd wear for five months. (Or less, as I eventually learned, because one, the seasons change, and two, the pants you fit into at month four will morph into a medieval waist-torturing device by month seven.)
This attitude apparently puts me at one end of a retail spectrum that doesn't have much middle ground. At the other extreme are the high-end shoppers who frequent Rosie Pope and other upscale boutiques and online stores. In New York City, it seems these women are everywhere. I'd see them and admittedly feel a dash of envy; they did look stylish in their body-conscious dresses, projecting an ad-worthy vision of impending motherhood. But I remained unswayed. Let them celebrate their bumps. Cheap comfort was my mantra.
For the rest of the spring I persisted in my make-do phase of maternity wear. I'm lucky to work at an office where jeans are acceptable on days other than Friday. I untucked and unbuttoned, avoided back-zip dresses, and discovered the utility of popover tops from J. Crew and oversized cotton shirts from Splendid. (It was of course okay to buy clothing if I could wear it again after the pregnancy.) At one point my sister-in-law advised that I could MacGyver my pants closed using a safety pin and elastic — a neat trick but eh, what was the point?
In June I entered phase two — desperation — because for all my I-don't-need-this attitude, my growing belly insisted otherwise. An online search one Saturday morning turned into a crash course in all things maternity wear. (Almost 4 million babies are born in the U.S. each year, and their soon-to-be moms fuel a market valued at $2.4 billion.) I visited the Rosie Pope site out of curiosity, but $168 for jeans with hidden stretch pockets was not going to happen. The prices at Shopbop, an Amazon-owned online retailer, soared higher still; even something seemingly basic, like a yoga tank, went for $95. Recalling A Pea in the Pod from the malls of my suburban youth, I learned after some quick clicks that it was still around (and part of the giant Destination Maternity Corporation, which includes an eponymous brand as well as Motherhood Maternity). But ideally I wanted a store I knew from personal experience.
That led me to places like H&M, Gap, Old Navy, and Loft. Here finally were affordable tops and shorts; pants, too, although their design was mystifying. Some had what amounted to a thick elasticized waistband, which made sense to me, but others sported what looked like a long spandex wind sock rising from just below where a waistband would normally be.
"Maybe it's protective?" my husband Philippe said.
I granted the prophylactic resemblance but doubted that was the reason. Protect my belly from what? "Maybe it's to create a smooth line," I said, quoting my mother on the subject of Spanx. And I assumed it'd be just as organ-shiftingly uncomfortable.
Several weeks later, a supplementary trip to Macy's revealed the truth. The bizarre stretchy-tubed pants were the opposite of confining. As opposed to the thick-waistbanded options that I'd already bought — which required constant hitching up, dug into my lower abdomen, and (I was convinced) created cramped in-utero conditions — these gently cradled my belly. And, rising as they did to my rib cage, there was no danger I'd be dropping trou. I felt so unrestricted, so free.
I vowed never to wear pants with a waistline again.
And so summer progressed. I packed away clothing that I finally accepted wouldn't be worn for a year. I shrunk several of the newer pieces (why the majority of them — including sweat shorts — were hand wash and line dry, I'll never understand). I did the math, calculating how much I had to wear certain items to make them worth their price. I settled into a six-day rotation of blousy shirts and relaxed linen pants. "You can't hold this against me in the future," I said to Philippe. "But there may be a lesson in all of this about how little clothing I actually need."
Still, wearing pajama-equivalent clothing all the time has its effects on the psyche. Even as my physical presence grew, I started to feel like a faded version of myself. The lone bright spot was a loose navy-and-white-striped dress that had the perfect amount of swing, satisfying the six-year-old who still hides inside me. In my pre-pregnant life, a favorite dress like that would be something I saved for vaguely defined "special" occasions and eventually regretted not wearing more often. Not so now. I needed those shots of sartorial pep.
Late August ushered in the third and final phase of my shopping. With the baby due in early November, I was determined to buy even less than I had in phase two. After all, September was really just an extension of summer, and if I could bridge October, I'd be home free. I took another trip to Macy's, picked up jeans and some long cardigans and leggings. But I also had a wedding to attend, which meant buying a more formal dress.
A leading contender was a navy blue number with silver polka dots and an empire waist — a classic maternity style that flowed over my bump like a gossamer table cloth. Dinnertime associations notwithstanding, the dress was sweet. It had that coveted swing factor. It would even give me an excuse to wear the sparkly silver shoes from my wedding. But I hesitated. Another was calling to me — at $190, one of the decidedly uneconomical kind those ad-worthy women wore. It was a bright floral print, full of rosy hues and indigo, lavender, and mauve. And it was made with enough spandex, lycra, and nylon to slingshot me to the moon.
Wiggling into it, I wondered if I'd be able to reverse the process. I tugged and I twisted, took a step forward and then back. And I looked in the mirror. For the first time in months I had a shape, one that was not me and me all at once. A different me, who, I realized, wouldn't be around for too much longer, and who maybe I hadn't spent enough time getting to know. She was beautiful.
I tried the blue dress on again. Then the flowers. And I made my choice.
I wore those impractical flowers just twice. They were worth every penny.