Call me shallow, but to me, buying clothes for my three kids is the ultimate expression of identity, the consummate exercise in therapy, the surest sign of love.
Take, for example, how I feel when my two-and-a-half-year-old son is ready for toilet-training. Yahoo! That means he will need underwear. What kind of an underwear guy will he be? A boxer man, like my husband? I don’t think they make those for such little tushes. That means it’s tighty-whities or boxer-briefs. Hmm. Let me check four different online stores so that I can see the options — then take a trip to the store to see what they have.
I stand deliberating in the underwear aisle for several minutes too long over how many packages to buy and if he’ll like white, grey, or football. I choose all three and throw in an extra set of whites, ending up with 12 pairs, nearly all of which stay pristine in their packages while I abort the potty-training for a few months until he actually seems more into it. But the point is, when he’s ready, we’ve got them, and I’ve decided: we are a boxer-briefs family.
Indeed, shopping for my kids is not just about what they need. It’s about my identity. What my children wear is a measure of who I am as a mother. It broadcasts who we are in this world as a family. Even if no one is receiving my signals, to me every clothing decision is defining, and therefore requires care and consideration. Short-sleeved undershirts or sleeveless wife-beaters? Everyday Mary Janes or ankle boots that are practical but have some pizazz? It’s not so much about making the “right” or “wrong” choice while I’m out shopping but about being the one to make that decision.
Think I’m a control freak? Maybe. I’d be lying if I claimed my love of buying clothes for my kids wasn’t at least in part about control. But it’s not about dictating what my kids can do, or who I’d like them to be; while I’m the one buying the clothes, they’re the ones putting the outfits together (which I’ve had to bite my tongue about!). This is more about placing a sense of control on motherhood.
Shopping for my kids gives me the perception that I’m getting stuff done. The act of buying clothing is something tangible that can go on a list — and be checked off. In motherhood, there are so many things that need taking care of but are unquantifiable. You can’t check off “spending more quality time together that doesn’t involve nagging.” But if the baby needs pajamas? A little online surfing with my laptop in bed and … check! How satisfying.
Such satisfaction helps explain why I get some retail therapy out of the experience, too. Shopping for my kids is unadulterated by any feelings I have when I shop for myself: the haunting thoughts of “do these jeans make my butt look too fat?” or “does this shirt make my stomach stick out?” It is the only time in my life in which I reap true vicarious pleasure; I get all the upside of buying something new (feeling refreshed and rejuvenated) without any buyer’s remorse.
And then, of course, the clothes themselves take on an identity and become a part of the family. From the lowliest sweat socks to the velvet and tulle party frock (now outgrown by my daughter but still visited by me, not infrequently, in the storage closet), I harbor a deep affection for nearly every item in my children’s wardrobes. Case in point: when my second son was born, I sat down on the floor and pulled out each stored piece of clothing from my first son’s early months. “Oh, hello. I remember you,” I said to a delicious blue-and-white-striped jersey with a grey elephant crocheted to the front. “I saw you in a catalogue. You were a little pricey, but I was so happy I succumbed and ordered you. I put you on my son and you just radiated ‘boy’ and ‘handsome’ and ‘stylish’ without being ridiculous baby hipster.’”
Sifting through these clothes and buying new ones remind me of how good it feels to be a mother. Unlike standing in the kitchen for an hour at dinner time like a short-order cook, with everyone hungry and tired and whining and asking (ahem, demanding) for things at the same time, shopping is fun. Rifling through the sale rack for three different sizes in the children’s section of a department store pushes a button deep inside me marked “primitive feeling of nurturing and providing for my brood.” And as throwback as this might be, I always take the time to pause for a beat and subtly acknowledge a great pride in being a mother and having children to provide for in this basic kind of way.
And I’m not alone in thinking this, which is comforting. A wealthy cousin of my husband’s used to live in our neighborhood. Every couple months or so she would drop off four or five shopping bags of her daughters’ old clothes for my little girl. Not everything was my style (string bikini for a four-year-old? No thank you). Nor was it my daughter’s style; much of the clothes were meant to offset a quirky, dark-haired, olive-skinned little girl with a penchant for all things camouflage, black, and motorcycle, while my daughter is a dirty blonde, skinny wisp of a thing with a left-cheek dimple and strong dash of femininity. But you better believe that every single item was beautiful.
I recall a deep teal, crushed velvet, boho-chic three-piece outfit: tiered skirt, camisole, and bolero. My daughter loved it so much she wore it everywhere: in her playroom, to the synagogue, at the park, in bed. I told my husband’s cousin about my daughter’s obsession with the outfit and asked her where she had found it. After telling me, she added, “I work very hard at buying my kids clothes,” with no hint of irony.
At the time, I found her comment over the top. I’ve since reconsidered. After all, don’t I think the same way? My love of shopping for clothes for my children is ultimately and simply about my ineffable, immutable, undying love for these little people who are of me but not me. I think she was trying to say the same: it all comes down to love. Maybe part of clothes shopping for our kids is narcissism, but mostly it is just about giving our children beautiful things with which to present themselves to the world. I get it.