It started, as it often does, with a phone call.
“Hi, Mom, what’s up?” I said.
“Well.” There was a pause. “Now that you’re pregnant…”
There was another long, portentous pause. I wondered if my mother was calling to reveal some female family secret, something which could only be passed on to pregnant daughters. Then again, my mother is capable of making a dramatic production out of telling me to eat more dark, leafy greens.
“Yes?” I asked, with some trepidation. “What?”
“Oh, nothing serious! I just wanted to tell you that I mailed off the baby clothes today.”
“The baby clothes! Oh, that’s great,” I said, relieved that there would be no drama. I had long known that my mother had saved the finest of her children’s baby clothes to hand over to the next generation, and I loved to think of those tiny caps and sweaters, hand-knit by my grandmother, clothing my own child. Then Mom dropped her bombshell.
“Oh, and I’m sending the maternity clothes, too,” she added, breezily.
“Uh, what maternity clothes, Mom?”
“Well, mine, of course! The ones I wore when I was pregnant with you!” The enthusiasm in her voice made me blanche.
“You saved your maternity clothes?”
My mother was pregnant with me in 1965. Perhaps if I’d been a pregnant, retro-hipster, I would have been excited about this news. But I wasn’t. Perhaps if I’d always considered my mother a paragon of style, I might have been a bit more enthusiastic. But I didn’t. I was barely ready to think about myself in maternity clothes – and certainly not about to contemplate putting on the pregnancy garb of three decades ago.
“Mom, I really don’t think – ”
She cut me off. “Now these are perfectly good clothes; you could wear them to teach in! There’s a lovely dress, lime green with blue polka-dots; yes, yes, I know how it sounds, but wait till you see it. And there’s another one, very simple, navy with big white buttons – what’s wrong with that? Really, these are things that never go out of style.”
My mind reeled, and I tried to squelch the vision that arose instantly: myself in one of these ensembles, facing a class of gawking and snickering adolescents. It was not a pretty picture.
“Uh, I appreciate the thought, Mom, but no thanks,” I told her.
Mom was not to be put off.
“You can do whatever you want with them, but I’m sending those clothes.”
I recognized the obstinate note in her voice. My mother is a world-traveler, well-read, and a very open-minded person – most of the time. This is a woman who has been, in her day, a cocktail waitress, editor, actress, and newspaper reporter. She has worked at the United Nations, written travel articles for major newspapers, and raised three children. She joined the Peace Corps at the age of 62, and subsequently traveled through Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. At the time of our conversation, she was in graduate school pursuing an M.A. in literature and getting straight As.
My friends are always telling me how cool my mother is, and they’re right – up to a point. That point ends at clothing and items with sentimental value. Both were colliding here. To my mother, certain clothes are “classics”, and thus deserve a place in anyone’s closet, (especially mine) no matter what their vintage and/or degree of hideousness. And clearly there was nothing imbued with more sentiment in her mind than these garments she’d worn when carrying her “firstborn.”
I knew when I was defeated. “Fine, send them along,” I said in resignation. “But I’m not wearing them!” I added, secretly vowing never, never to be caught dead in those clothes.
When the box arrived, its contents lived up to all my worst imaginings. There was the garish, yellow, heavy cotton dress with black trim and buttons (for that pregnant bumblebee look), the vaguely hippie-ish flowered polyester top with a big, lacy yoke neck, the short-sleeved, brown and white, scratchy wool dress with a drawstring under the breast, the dreaded lime-green and blue polka-dotted smock, which looked like something a Holly Hobbie doll would consider high class. Most of these numbers were short and tailored (unlike everything else I own), and impossibly dowdy. The fact that my mother actually believed I might wear any of them was preposterous.
If I’d had any sense, I would have told Mom I loved the clothes and was wearing them every day. I would have raved about how useful they were. Especially in the classroom! But I couldn’t bring myself to lie (and she would have detected my insincerity, anyway). Instead, her wretched maternity clothes became a topic in each and every phone call between us for the next three months.
“So, are you wearing the clothes?” my mother would ask.
Never a diplomat where my family is concerned, I told her frankly that I thought they were horrendous, they made me look ridiculous, and it would be a cold day in hell before I put them on.
“Ungrateful girl!” she’d retort. “You’re just not giving them a chance. I spent good money to send those clothes!”
“But I told you I didn’t want them!”
“Well, you’ve got them now, and I want you to try them!”
Finally, I told her I was Not Going To Discuss It Anymore, and the matter subsided.
Of course, I did wear the clothes. Once, anyway. I tried each of them on and modeled them for my husband and a few selected friends. As I struggled into each vintage garment it became clear not only that my mother must have been a toothpick back then, but that there were apparently only two sartorial options for pregnant women in her day:
1) the childlike, short, smock dress or top with a big collar
2) the high-waisted, tailored, secretarial look
Still, no matter which look one chose, the garment was designed to resemble a tent covering a pumpkin. Unlike today’s maternity wear, which for the most part is geared to look flowing and natural, the pregnancy duds of yesteryear, with their big collars and floppy bows made women resemble pregnant little girls. I felt infantalized in them, and found the look creepy and disturbing.
Mom never stopped harumphing about my refusal to wear her “perfectly lovely” maternity clothes, and several years later, she was vindicated. My oldest friend, Katherine, who had of course heard the entire saga, came to visit six months into her first pregnancy.
“Come on, let me take a look, at them,” she coaxed.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” I warned.
But when I dragged the box up out of the basement, Kath was enchanted. Granted, she’s far more hip and stylish than I am, but I was still bemused by her enthusiasm for these relics.
“Ooh, look at this!” she raved, holding up the awful brown wool number. “With some black tights and Doc Martens this would be so cool! You never wore it? Well, I’d certainly teach in this.”
“Take it,” I told her.
“And this blue one – it’s a classic, so simple, elegant – Look at the label: Lord and Taylor! I bet your mom paid good money for this stuff.”
“A crime, isn’t it?”
“God, you’re so negative. Well, if you don’t want them, I do.”
Kath took the clothes back to DC, where she dressed them up with funky accessories and proudly wore them out on the town, to services at her synagogue, and in the classroom. On her, they were a hit. (Of course, elementary-age kids are so much less judgmental.)
It would have been too cruel to keep this development from my mother.
“Ha!” she crowed. “So Katherine wanted the clothes you scorned! That girl has more fashion sense than you do, and that’s all I have to say. Tell her to send pictures, and pooh-pooh to you, Ms. Snooty.”
Eight months after my last child was born, I was collecting items to take to the resale store when I pulled out the box of my own maternity clothes from the back of the closet. There were the striped knit shirts from Target, the sensible jeans with their stretchy panels, the loose cardigan sweaters. All supremely forgettable stuff – except one item.
It was a dress I’d found in a consignment shop. Made of deep, rich, wine-colored velour, it was long, with close-fitting sleeves, a high waist, and a velvet tie in the back. No matter how awkward and huge I’d been in my last trimester, when I put on this dress, I felt graceful and dignified, like a pregnant Jane Austen heroine.
I took the dress out, held it against myself and looked in the mirror. I remembered the way my husband would put his arms around my heavy, round belly and whisper that now he understood why ancient peoples worshipped those pregnant, fertility statues. I thought of the way it felt to be the focus of so much expectation, and recalled being unable to comprehend that there would soon be four of us instead of three. I remembered wondering if this one would be a girl.
In my day-to-day life of grappling with a nurse-all-day baby and a contentious three-year-old, I hadn’t given much thought to any of that in a long time. I looked at the dress once more. There was no way I was going to take it to the resale shop; I wanted to pass this garment on. And in that moment, I realized that if I’d had a daughter instead of two sons, the velour dress would have been saved for her. For her to reject if she pleased, but saved all the same.
In my situation, my mother would undoubtedly have saved her maternity clothes for a future daughter-in-law. But while I understand now why my mom saved those 60s threads, I’m not getting carried away. A good friend is pregnant now, and I’ll send the dress to her. She can save it for the daughter she already has, if she wants to.
I’m sort of hoping she does.