Poems & Essays

20 Jun

My Life, Refashioned

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As adults, we rarely wear each other’s clothes. We may occasionally borrow a dress or accessory for a wedding, but adopting another person’s wardrobe wholesale is a sign of unhealthy obsession. Or, as it turns out, pregnancy.

The first time a friend handed me a bag of her old maternity clothes, I was grateful but unenthusiastic. The idea of wearing clothes chosen by someone else seemed infantile and unappealing. But then two things happened. My belly grew until my own clothes became impossibilities, grotesquely riding up my bump to reveal my stretched and bruising navel. And, I discovered the exorbitant cost of buying new maternity clothes-items that, by definition, I would wear for only a few months.

Reluctantly, I revisited my friend’s bag of garments. None of them were items I would have chosen myself. I don’t care about fashion, as dictated by Cosmo or Marie Claire, but I do have a few personal rules. They have developed after years of haphazardly buying clothes that look great on the hanger but terrible on me. For example, I never wear black. I rarely wear patterns. I favor hems falling just below the knee.

However, faced with the choice of dressing differently or going to work in my yoga trousers, I decided I’d just have to bend my rules. Rummaging through my friend’s clothes, I chose a white wrap dress covered in large black splodges, with a hem ending just above the knee. The first time I ventured out in it, I felt self-conscious and silly, as if I’d been caught raiding a child’s dressing-up box. But to my astonishment, I received only positive responses. Colleagues commented on how good I looked. Friends noted how flattering the cut was on my bump, and, truth be told, I felt great. I felt elegant, which I had not felt for a long time.

But I didn’t expect to keep on borrowing. I thought after my child was born, I would hand back the clothes and return to self-sufficiency. As my due date approached, I realized I was wrong. First there were the emails. Long, warm messages, from both close friends and slight acquaintances, listing all the baby equipment they no longer needed and inviting me to take any useful items, free of charge. The most startling of these was a note from a university friend, instructing me in the firmest of terms that on no account should I purchase nipple cream, as she still had several unopened tubes. I was a little shocked, since I had no idea what nipple cream was or why I might require it. Once I began breastfeeding, of course, it turned out to be a welcome gift. It was the first of many lessons I unexpectedly absorbed from other mums.

After I gave birth, walls I hadn’t known existed came tumbling down. Peers from my ante-natal class shared experiences of breastfeeding, dealing with colic, handling nights without sleep and coping with explosive nappies in a lively, affectionate and occasionally panic-stricken Facebook thread that still flourishes today. And slowly, almost without noticing, I learned to accept help.

In the early days I packed my changing bag with military precision , seeking to be prepared for all situations without relying on anyone else. So the first time my daughter did a catastrophic poop and I didn’t have a change of clothes, I felt a fool, a failure. But the friend I was with just laughed and offered me spare pants. I felt something inside me relax just a little. It was OK to be imperfect in this new world.

Since I became a mum, I’ve given and accepted many items from my fellow parents. I’ve taken their time and offered my trust when I’ve asked mums I don’t know well to watch my baby when I run to the loo. I’ve let other mums at toddler groups make me cups of tea and fetch toast while I breastfed my baby, quashing the sense I did not deserve such assistance. I’ve borrowed books, written down recipes and stolen parenting techniques without the slightest sense of shame.

And yet when I returned to work, I forgot everything I’d learned. I marched back into the office with rigid rules in mind, ready to depend on no one but myself once again. My plan was I’d work full time, my daughter would attend nursery four days a week and my partner would drop a day’s work so he could spend every Friday with her. I’d had a whole year of maternity leave, so this was only fair. Staying full-time meant I could maximize my maternity pay if we had a second child. And, it reflected our commitment to equality-we did not want our daughter to grow up thinking childcare was solely a woman’s job.

At first it was fine. Being away from her was hard, but I coped. And to my surprise, I enjoyed my work more than ever. My new, additional identity as a parent helped me to keep perspective on what was and wasn’t important, so I was a calmer, more rational manager. I felt confident in my work and certain I was doing it to the best of my ability.

Then my job changed. Completely unexpectedly, my boss decided to split my role in two, handing part of my responsibilities to somebody new. It didn’t affect me financially, but it shattered my newfound confidence. Suddenly I was doubting my ability to do my job – I’d thought I was doing well, but clearly my manager didn’t share that view. Maybe everyone thought I was doing badly? Work was no longer a rewarding place to be. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, as though everyone perceived me as a failure.

After several anxious days, I took a step back and considered what I could do next. I didn’t want to leave-I believed in the work I was doing and besides, in my late thirties, I didn’t have time to build up maternity pay entitlement in a new company. I couldn’t control what was happening to my job. But I could control how much time I spent there. I did some sums. I talked to my partner. And I asked to go part-time.

It was the right decision. It helped me re-balance my priorities again and focus on what was important-spending time with my daughter, while doing the best I could at work. Fitting all my tasks into four days was hard, and obviously we have less disposable income now. But it saved my confidence, and my sense of self.

Like my friend’s monochrome dress, part-time working turned out, quite unexpectedly, to suit me perfectly.



Carolyn Roberts lives in Scotland and is currently on maternity leave with her second child. She has two daughters. Her writing has appeared in Oh Comely magazine, Hippocampus and The Magazine and an anthology by the Scottish Book Trust. In 2013 she won the University of Glasgow’s first narrative nonfiction contest. She has completed courses in Crafting the Personal Essay and Advanced Memoir with the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.

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