On an extremely rainy night this past autumn, I stood under an umbrella, looking up at the generic chain stores of NYC’s 34th Street. New Yorkers know that you don’t go to 34th Street for shopping unless you’re a tourist; this mall-like thoroughfare exists to enable our passage elsewhere, period. But on this particular night I was armed with the new knowledge that every chain store with a maternity department in New York City had placed that maternity department at its 34th Street branch. So I closed my umbrella and began my assault.
I was optimistic. My mother had already taken me to Macy’s for basics like jeans after I hit about 14 weeks pregnant and resorted to fastening all my pants with a hair tie. We’d had so much fun trying on the fake plastic belly they had in the fitting rooms that I was sure this solo shopping experience would also be a lark. December was looming, and one of my annual indulgences has always involved a spare hour or three poking into stores and seeing what frivolous sparkly, velvety or shiny item might usher me through the gauntlet of holiday parties. I don’t always buy, but I always look. With a pre-dinner time slot to kill that night, I thought I’d scope out a few maternity departments and ponder purchasing something “cute” that fits my style (a third bohemian, a third Jewish American Princess, a third hipster if you were wondering) to last out the festive season.
Soon I learned an un-cute truth. Maternity departments—at least these ones—were where fashion-minded pregnant souls wither. Each “department” was grimmer than the next; H&M stashed its line next to the forgotten home goods department, miles from the fitting room, and lacking most sizes in the middle of the range. At The Gap, the department was a single, dark nook in the basement next to the kids’ clothes—again, far away from women’s clothing. Finally, at Old Navy, the department was shoved up against the remainders, clearance racks, last season items and other “undesirables.” To find anything, one had to sort through piles of discarded clothing in dim lighting. Most of what I did find at all these places was shapeless, dull or made of a material that made my ultra-sensitive pregnant skin itch preemptively. Worst of all, nothing sparkly nor velvety was to be found.
Maybe it was the weather, or my hormones, but I began wondering about the metaphor, the feminist implications: why was pregnant women’s clothing not allowed to be housed with other women’s clothing? Was this the sort of bullshit that plus-size, extra short or tall women always had to endure? Why couldn’t pregnant women wear “fun” fabrics and textures? Did this placement mean that we pregnant folks are considered “home goods,” or accessories to the baby department?
That evening made me feel separated from the non-gestating hordes I once walked freely among. I had always been suspicious of women who worried about their looks and obsessed about getting their bodies “back” after pregnancy. But now that I was excluded from my own pre-December ritual, I felt a pang of understanding. Even though I consider myself measured in my interest in fashion, I’m consistently measured. Losing the opportunity to occasionally sift through clothing racks for a morale boost felt surprisingly, foolishly poignant.
Pregnancy at its core, of course, is the willing and often joyful surrender of one’s body, not just to the embryo-turned-fetus-turned-baby that occupies it, but also to pain, to fatigue and flux, to a future of nourishing and nurturing another person as well as yourself. It amazes me that so many women, who are socialized to loathe our bodies—thanks to diet ads, snarky comments, photoshop and the patriarchy—are able to happily submit to what pregnancy asks of us: to let go of the rituals and routines and yes, sometimes outfits, that we once relied on to help us cherish our physical selves in a hostile world.
For me this relinquishment was encapsulated in part by that night’s shopping fail (and ultimately being too exhausted to attend the holiday parties I was invited to, anyway), and later in the winter, not being able to ice skate or go sledding. For gender non-binary people, finding maternity clothes is tricky on a whole other level, a deep compromise between different kinds of comfort. Others I know had less angst around shopping but were frustrated by other indignities: giving up their morning run, lacking the energy to meditate before work or to hit a bar with friends afterwards, wearing hand-me-downs not reflective of their own taste. These may seem like insignificant, even selfish reasons to be wistful, but such losses were likely “self-care” priorities that helped women feel happy in their pre-pregnant skin.
It’s nigh-impossible to maintain that kind of rigorous practice of self-care in the face of a ballooning waist, a bra size that changes every two weeks, hair that turns brittle, then soft, then brittle again, bleeding gums and nose, pain while walking, trouble sleeping, nausea, fatigue, and swollen wrists and ankles—and that’s for an easy pregnancy. Remember being a teenager and realizing that, in a matter of months, your jeans now bunch around your ankles or don’t fully zip? Pregnancy (if you’re a fully-grown adult) catapults you back to an adolescent state, with all the sleeping and the crying too. The resources accumulated in the interim are of varied use: there’s no magic bullet, no little black dress or healthy activity that you can always count on to feel “pulled together” and “more like yourself,” because today’s bump-concealing tunic is next week’s frumpy tent, today’s invigorating walk is tomorrow’s vomit-inducing torture, today’s “I feel amazing, I love being pregnant” is tomorrow’s “Put me out of my misery, or at least back under the covers.”
As it turned out, my December ended up producing something entirely different than the usual party-going spirit: after a week of catatonia, my belly “popped.” Around this time, I also felt the baby kicking for the first time, a sensation which lived up to expectations, so exciting that it made up for (but definitely did not cancel) my discomfort. The emergence of my bump resulted in my third (and, I hope, final) maternity shopping trip, once again courtesy of mom, who is still clearly helping carry me along even as I’m carrying my own pregnancy. Together, we trawled a post-Christmas sale at a maternity-only boutique and learned from one proprietor that most other such stores in the city had shuttered. I understood by then why the metropolis’s thousands of pregnant women weren’t flocking out for a fun time trying on massive nursing ponchos with their pals. At this point, I had moved on from trying to hold on to old routines. I was far more interested in items like warm leggings than I was in anything “cute,” particularly the kind of bump-hugging dresses that looked far more fetching on celebrities than on me.
In a matter of weeks, my attitude had already shifted. Comfort in my skin had once meant dressing flatteringly and according to my personal aesthetic. Now it literally meant being comfortable, in my skin, for the sake of me and baby-to-be. A year ago I worked full time, made it to hot yoga, wrote fiction on the side, and socialized regularly. Now at the end of most days, I don sweatpants, shout “Thank the fucking lord I survived!” and do little else of consequence—except incubate a future person and feel overwhelmed by love, fear, and anticipation. It’s quite a beautiful change, even a liberating one: a daily life without the imperative to look a certain way for myself or anyone, mostly free from the hamster wheel of material consumption (at least for the few weeks left before I start baby-gear shopping, which will be a whole new gauntlet). This temporary state is meaningful—even profound—and I’m embracing it. But I am also looking forward to next winter, when I can run my hand across velvet and sequins at America’s most generic chain stores, without feeling like I’ve been exiled to Siberia.
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the Editor-at-Large at pop culture website Flavorwire.
Illustration by Jim Cooke