I have always loved what writer Ayun Halliday calls “the small pickle-barrel transactions” of everyday life, the ordinary constant shopping that can, if you’re lucky and not too strapped for cash or pressed for time, lend a little color to the daily grind. When low on hand soap, for instance, my mind doesn’t say, “Ugh, add hand soap to the list” but rather “Ooh, an opportunity to explore an exciting new variety of hand soap”—maybe an excuse to go into that new boutique that sells useless things such as $7 hand soap!
But recently, I found out that I am pregnant. While I’d call it a pleasant surprise, it still was, you know, a surprise.
Meaning that, in addition to not having stockpiled reserves of cash in anticipation of my blessed event, I also just plain hadn’t thought through how being pregnant would affect my purchases.
Suddenly, there was a world of baby-related stuff being aggressively marketed to me, at the same time that expenses I’d never anticipated, like childbirth education classes, seemed to be popping up left and right. The idea of buying anything that wasn’t a true necessity was suddenly less appealing than it had ever been before in my life. And the moment I lost my boner for shopping was also the moment I found myself needing—yes, really needing—a bunch of new clothes.
Why is shopping for maternity clothes so excruciatingly horrible? Turns out: several totally different yet interrelated reasons! Spending money is, of course, more fraught when you are looking at a lifetime of new bills to pay. But the other parts of the problem are a little more mysterious and multi-pronged.
The first reason is, of course, that it feels stupid and wasteful and pointless to buy a temporary new wardrobe. My initial approach to this problem was as simple as it was ineffective: pure denial. I persisted in my attempt to make my regular clothes work for as long as I possibly could, but when a friend told me my fly was unzipped and I was like “No, that’s just how I wear it now,” I realized I had to start facing facts. Besides, it was winter, when clothing reveals itself as a functional necessity whose worth should be measured not in cuteness but in thermal value.
When zipping up my winter coat started making me feel like I was being swallowed by a down-lined boa constrictor, I began to explore option two: hand-me-downs. I lucked out and borrowed a nice maternity winter coat from a friend. High on that success, I set out to borrow more, and soon acquired a bunch of secondhand gear, mostly loose, tunic-y striped tops suitable for wearing with leggings that my friend Lori had rocked throughout her recent confinement.
The only problem was that I hated them. On busty, slim-shouldered, curvy-hipped Lori, who is a candidate for the Kourtney Kardashian Pregnancy Hotness award if ever there was one, these clothes had looked adorable. On me, they looked matronly and square.
Pregnancy feels like wearing a costume anyway, and not in a fun Halloween way where you know you can take off the hot, scratchy wig as soon as everyone’s seen it and an appropriate amount of selfies have been taken. Add the costume-y feel of wearing another person’s outfits and you just start feeling like you’re trying to be another person. “Feel like yourself again, only more comfortable” is the tagline of Storq, a stylish brand of maternity wear. The copywriter responsible for that line deserves all of the money, which he or she probably has received, since Storq sells a handful of pregnancy essentials in a (to-me-pricey) $250 bundle. Which brings us to option three: suck it up and spend serious cash, or try to get by with as little expenditure as possible?
The math here is just bad. When you buy maternity gear so cheap it’s essentially disposable, from H&M or Old Navy, it’ll look and feel flimsy, and at a time when you’re already struggling not to feel deformed, that’s the last thing you need. But the alternative is spending the kind of money you usually justify by amortizing the purchase over thousands of wears over the course of a lifetime. Now, it’s all only good for a couple of months unless you end up getting pregnant again at some point, which is about as appealing and conceivable at this point as getting Ebola or moving to Ottawa. I can’t tell you how often my cursor has hovered over the J Brand “Mama J” Jeans buy button, but the thought of spending $219 on pants when I still don’t know exactly how much of prenatal care my insurance will cover takes my breath away.
I know that these are luxury problems. Plenty of people get pregnant and make do with much less than I have, while others have stringent work dress code requirements to take into consideration. I am also extremely grateful to be able to fixate on this shit instead of my health or my fetus’s. But the thing is, these don’t feel like luxury problems; I can’t avoid thinking about this stuff any more than I can leave the house without putting on some kind of garments. What this problem really feels like is the most extreme manifestation of the tax that’s levied on women throughout their lives, in the form of the heftier price tags attached to all our everyday purchases.
Spending money is only fun when it feels like a choice. When the options are “feel ugly and uncomfortable and alienated from yourself” or “spend money you don’t have on stuff you won’t need for very long,” it might be time to start demanding better options.