I started wearing black when I went back to work after having my first son.
Oh, and I also started dressing like a man.
This is not what you think, I promise.
Becoming a mum is like a dozen crash courses in human nature all happening at once. Insights galore. (Snot didn’t make me gag when it came from my baby’s nose…who knew?!)
I wasn’t prepared for a lot of it. And if no one tells you about how truly hard it’s all going to be, they certainly don’t say anything about the insights that are nothing to do with child rearing but are just as important.
After having my first baby, my Self was cut adrift for a while. And when I started to haul it back into shore, things I knew about myself that had always been fuzzy and in the background came into a new, sharper focus.
Something had to change
When it came to clothes, something just snapped.
I’ve never liked fashion but I do like clothes. MY clothes. But the general look that had been my constant companion through my twenties was grating.
I couldn’t stop thinking about why it involved so much work, time, and effort, both physical and mental.
And a bit like CheltenhamMamanHQ’s own journey to style enlightenment, I started genuinely to not care what others thought. But for me, I knew this wasn’t just about clothes. It was bigger than that.
Something had to change.
This wouldn’t be the rebellion of my teenage sartorial choices, but a show of real confidence.
It started to dawn on me that I wanted to look good (at least basically presentable and clean) but with the least possible effort.
Motherhood made me realise a few things that I’d be denying for most of my adult life.
1) I’m not above caring about clothes but want to be.
2) I’m lazy. I hate choosing what to wear in the morning and always have, even when I was young and free. Now I don’t have enough remaining brain cells to do it without silently screaming.
3) I’m rubbish at things like laundry. I hate it and I’m bad at it.
4) Having to wear stuff I owned but didn’t like because it was the only clean thing available made me inexplicable cross (all the clothes I liked being dirty due to above incompetence and laziness). Then add a baby and a job.
5) Most of all, I couldn’t turn off the conversation in my head that I was somehow failing at the working mum Superwoman thing. And then Serious Feminist Me would step in for a while and reassure me, but would then make me feel bad for being shallow about my blimmin’ clothes.
This wasn’t new information. I’d been musing over this stuff long before becoming a mum, often while digging out slightly whiffy jeans from the laundry basket. (I love you, Febreze!) Motherhood just meant I didn’t have the time or space for any more fannying about.
Surely it wasn’t so difficult to look and feel good while putting in the absolute minimum effort and thought?
It’s a man’s world
The answer was staring me in the face. Often literally.
It dawned on me that Husband didn’t have these issues as far as I could tell. He wore a suit during the week. Jeans and jumpers at the weekend. DONE. I had dismissed it as something poor men were subjected to. Boring, monotonous and functional. I used to feel sorry for them.
But there is a genius in it. A freedom.
If I dressed “like a man” (thought about clothes “like a man”) then lots of my problems would be solved. But Social Conditioning Devil stepped in, settling down comfortably on my shoulder. Not for the first or last time, either.
“But you’re a woman. You have so much lovely choice. It’s your right (and your duty) to dedicate brain space, actual space and actual time to choosing and caring for your clothes…As a woman, this is the only way you will look and feel good.”
Well, Serious Feminist Me stepped in, this time coming to my rescue rather than confusing me like she normally does: “She’ll be expressing herself perfectly well by not doing that. And feeling and looking better than she has done for years in the meantime, thanks very much.”
For a life hack choose black
Gradually I started wearing some black. And more black. No sorting my clothes or worrying about grey work blouses now.
I bought black socks, bras and pants. Black jeans, blouses and jumpers. I felt quite stylish. And more like ME than I had done for years.
Most importantly I never, ever had to think about it. I just GOT DRESSED. I chucked it all in the washing machine once a week. BOOM.
The whole black clothes thing is not so radical, style-wise. But the contrast with how I dressed before Mum-dom provoked reactions I wasn’t prepared for. Was I depressed? Was I in mourning for single fun me?
“You used to be so colourful,” my husband would say, softly and sadly. Following up with: “Are you in training to be a mime artist?”
But there was concern and confusion. I can see why. It coincided with a big life change. I’d always tended towards lots of colour. Eclectic is a kind way of putting it: oranges, purples and turquoise. All in one outfit.
Black is negative, right?
But it wasn’t for me. It was my liberation.
I hadn’t had more comments on my choice of clothes since I was a bit of a mad charity shop dresser in my youth. And once Serious Feminist Me worked through the initial annoyance, I tried to accept that reactions had more to do with the contrast than anything more sinister, and kept on keeping on. But I couldn’t help but suspect that the wariness was partly because my attitude towards clothes was now more masculine than feminine. Somehow it didn’t seem “quite right”. It wasn’t really anything to do with the colour.
A friend of my husband actually asked me if I’d been listening to a lot of the Velvet Underground recently. I kind of wish that’s what it was, but I’m simply not that cool.
But people would have their opinions and make judgements. Fine. I just truly accepted it for the first time in, oh, 33 years and couldn’t care less. Revelation!
Clothes don’t say it all and they don’t define you. I’m only a bit shallow.
But they do say something about you. Like it or lump it, clothes matter. They matter to me. I admit it now.
I’m not talking about having to follow fashion or being dressed in designer clobber from head to foot (or even being presentable 24/7). I’m not any of those things.
My conversion to black wasn’t a fashion statement. It was a result of working out my new life, what matters to me and a way of expressing it.
The truth is that if I hadn’t been through the bonkers, wonderful, exhausting experience of putting someone else first, totally first, I’d still be a slave to my own conventions and other people’s expectations.
As it was, it’s been one of those happy accidental lessons you learn when you become a mum. The ones the baby books can’t teach you.
You may be lost for a bit but you can come back stronger, more focused, more real.
And I’m pleased to report that Serious Feminist Me is quite proud of this result.
A Guest Blog from Helen Pardoe
Helen is a full-time mum of two rambunctious boys, Henry and Rufus. She is a media relations specialist, a news addict, a lover (and sometimes hater) of social media, a feminist and a runner. She also attempts to be a freelance proofreader and copy editor. She spent ten years living and working in London until baby number one got too big for the tiny flat she and her husband Alex called home. Office working wasn’t working so she gave up the job and they all upped sticks to lovely Cheltenham. And then added baby number two to the mix.