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I Was A Postpartum Shopaholic

Then, as narratives involving childbearing always go, Everything Changed.

Sartorially speaking, I was in a good place when I got pregnant. I had my uniform down, knew what I liked, liked what I wore: elderly tan Frye Campus boots, unfussy messenger bag, easy tops and dresses over slim jeans, ancient denim jacket. A couple of vintage pieces in heavy rotation: 1940s silk slip dress, 1970s sweater coat. Mint green Marc by Marc Jacobs army jacket I bought myself one spring in my early-twenties, half-empowered half-terrified, heart pounding as the salesgirl swiped my card (would it work? It worked!). Always the favorite wide thin silver "Hula-hoop" earrings from Lisa Levine in Williamsburg. Not a fan of straight lines, which never did a thing for my body. Empire waist, long legs, wide necklines, little eyeliner, little gloss, done.

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Then, as narratives involving childbearing always go, Everything Changed. A constantly growing body is an impossible riddle. A rapidly shifting identity is a mindfuck. Who was I becoming and what might that person wear?

I fashioned a maternity wardrobe out of Uggs, American Apparel, and a huge grey wrap sweater from H&M. My already microscopic tolerance for discomfort in the name of fashion gave way to a less-than-zero tolerance for discomfort in the name of fashion. Six months along, I wore a pair of consignment-scored black suede Christian Louboutins to a friend's lavish wedding. An hour into the reception, cursing like a sailor, I took them off and literally abandoned them somewhere on upper 5th Avenue. (I hope I made someone's day, and I hope that person's feet and spine aren't too grotesquely misshapen as a result.)

The only style imperative is to dress for your own particular body, so having a kid threw me off, as my particular body was no longer a familiar entity. Also, newborns are—to put it mildly—all consuming. I vaguely remember shuffling around the apartment for some weeks in an infernal combination of leftover maternity wear and jammies, often nude from the waist up because really, why bother? Suffice it to say, the emotional life reflected in my postpartum wardrobe was a rather savage one.

"Look good, feel good" goes the old saw. I did neither, and it was months before I took the proverbial deep breath and decided to get my sartorial shit together. To that end, I went on my first solo outing, a dizzy and disoriented walk to Urban Outfitters in search of jeans. They were all horrible: cut wrong, too small even when they were too big, riding up the crotch no matter how loose in the hips. Forty-five minutes later I still lacked pants, had in fact lost all faith in the concept of pants, and I was so desperate to get back to my baby I actually started crying and broke into a run out of there.

Leggings and dresses it would have to be. Wit would have to take the place of youth and self-possession and abdominal integrity. I pretended not to care. I had bigger problems, you see: I was someone's mother. Promptly I chopped off all my hair, just to make things worse. I was in distress. That carefree longhaired chick gallivanting around the city in her badass boots and vintage femme treasures? She didn't live here anymore.

You can only eat one lunch, as Neil Diamond is rumored to have said of wealth. You can only clothe one ass.

Have I mentioned my feet grew half a size? At least the Uggs still fit. The Hula Hoop earrings, which the baby seemed to think were gymnastic rings, I gave away.

I was desperate for some stylistic satisfaction. I tried sumptuous tent dresses and caftans from CP Shades and Matta. "Why do you dress like a 75-year-old?" asked a blunt friend. "You're young, you have a nice body! Show off your tits!"

"Maybe I like dressing like I'm 75," I protested weakly. She waved me off, disgusted.

I tried going vaguely rockabilly in jaunty 1950s housewife dresses. (Archerie does fantastic things.) Fine for once in a while; too severe for every day. Felt like I was in costume. Couldn't commit.

I got addicted to a line called Prairie Underground designed and manufactured by two art-school besties out of Seattle. Architecturally interesting, insanely flattering, and endlessly durable organic cotton-and-hemp sweatshirt dresses, plus the ultimate high-waisted jeggings—effortless as can be. But too much of any one thing in a wardrobe, no matter how great the thing, can be a bore.

If shopping can be said to fill an emotional void, what can be said of us when we do too much of it? Now I had some clothes that felt okay, but I was spending way too much time and energy on the hunt. I bought a lot of clothes. Stressful, those piles of clothes. There's only so much wardrobe you can actually wear. You can only eat one lunch, as Neil Diamond is rumored to have said of wealth. You can only clothe one ass.

I shopped for another life, a former life, a future life. Comically overdressed for play dates and preschool pick-up. Trying on possibilities: will I be the kind of woman who wears this? A dumb compulsion: Maybe the article at hand will be the missing piece. Maybe in this Feral Childe summer cotton flapper dress, I will not think twice about homemade play dough and another round of Itsy Bitsy Spider. Maybe, having stumbled into a Betsy Johnson liquidation sale in San Francisco, I can start enjoying the rituals of stroller wrangling and sleep deprivation. (Current events might render this whole line of inquiry rather absurd, but clothes are a fun distraction, and pretending we don't need distraction is a self-righteous lie.)

Things balanced out the only way things ever balance out: with the passage of time. Also, I started keeping a running list of the clothing I bought, which very effectively eroded the illusion of salvation by articles that, at the moment of acquisition, seemed sure to be the missing piece. There was no missing piece; I'm just not the homemade play dough type.

On this late fall day I'm wearing fleece-lined grey leggings, knee-high striped thick brown cotton socks from the food co-op, my favorite (half-size bigger) boots, a wine-colored A-line silk shift over a long sleeved Splendid layering tee, an intentionally irregular dusty-rose "investment" wool sweater, and a cashmere beanie. I am someone's mom, but in small ways I mark myself as my own territory. I am entitled to this small space in which I belong only to myself. I invent myself, I enjoy myself, I am comfortable and cozy and cute and capable of getting my day done, beyond which I don't have to give another precious thought to what I'm wearing. And hasn't that been the goal all along?

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different. Her new novel, After Birth, will be out in February.


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