Surrendering to the tyranny of yummy mumminess
Having a baby wreaks havoc with your body and wardrobe, yet you only get four weeks slobbing about, writes emily hourican
Among the many things I found myself unprepared for as a first-time mother (pretty much everything, really, except the need for muslin cloths – weirdly, I had loads of them), the business of looking presentable post-baby was surprisingly high on the agenda.
It wasn't the most important thing, obviously, but once the baby's welfare seemed assured, the idea of looking good (ish, very ish) as I trundled him around with his buggy or entertained the kind people who came to call, took on far too much importance.
Let's face it, having babies wreaks havoc on one's body and wardrobe. Even when you fit back into your pre-pregnancy clothes, you find its is not the Holy Grail you hoped for.
These clothes – seen from afar for so long, shimmering exotically in the distance like a mirage – will turn out not to be half as exciting as you had remembered.
Actually, they will look subtly wrong. You might have stretched them by wearing them a little too long or perhaps the simple turn of fashion's wheel will have left them behind.
Naturally, we all snigger at the word 'season', and the suggestion any of us would go out shopping with the purpose of updating our wardrobes. But if you think about it, we probably buy a few things every couple of months and they somehow keep our wardrobes ticking over. So even though we never have anything to wear, we don't actually have nothing to wear either. Missing those little bits of buying – a jacket here, a couple of T-shirts there, maybe a pencil skirt if we're feeling exciting – will have far more of an impact than you think.
Once you are back in the game of wanting to get dressed in a coherent sort of way, you will find, if you are anything like me, that your wardrobe seems to have been stripped back in the months since you last looked at it, like a pine table about to be varnished – that is, plain and barely functional.
Or, of course, the problem may well be what is inside the clothes ... yes, You. Obviously, this shouldn't matter a damn. I mean, you've just had a baby, right? You have more important things on your mind, like how soon you might get more than three hours' sleep at a stretch. How on Earth can the world possibly judge you on the way you look?
Except that it does. The world likes to see you conforming to society's norms and these days that means yummy mumminess. You can probably get away with four weeks (tops) of slobbing around in an old tracksuit, perhaps with baby puke down the back, as people will make allowances. "It was a difficult birth," they might whisper, to explain why you are still – still – not properly accessorised. But this indulgence has a limited shelf-life. Go much beyond the four-week mark and you will start to attract some sideways glances and concerned questions.
Before I go on, let me say that, of course, it is nice to look nice. We feel better if we reckon we look good. But I would argue, with a large bump or small child, this should be our choice, something that might happen once a week, even once a month, when we make a special effort because we're meeting friends or going out with our long-suffering partners. The rest of the time, we should glory in the freedom to wear an old sack if it pleases us.
And yet, ever since the media came up with the notion that being pregnant or having small kids was really no excuse for looking grotty (if not, what the hell is?) and coined the cosy little phrase yummy mummy to heap blame on those who persist in carrying on as if it were, well, the wearing of old sacks has become quite controversial.
At exactly the same time as society is telling us there can be no fulfilment for women without children ("look at her, CEO of a company, driving a new Lexus and holidaying in the Bahamas, no kids – poor thing, she must be so lonely"), it is also shrinking from the physical evidence of having children.
This is motherhood by stealth where you are meant to appear post-birth looking like someone who has collected a pre-ordered infant from a swanky department store.
In the good old days, when nearly all new mothers looked wild and unkempt, grooming didn't matter.
Now that so few do, it does. Not being groomed has become a political statement – as if by failing to get your hair done and wear a relaxed yet charming outfit, you are saying "look at me! I eat wholefoods and believe in extreme breastfeeding" – rather than it being a response to having very little time and very few clothes that fit.
By not keeping up with the accepted image of motherhood, we are seen to be signalling something more than just, "I'm too busy to find a clean top and anyway the baby is only going to smear it".
Now, there is nothing wrong with eating wholefoods (I wish I ate more), or extreme breastfeeding, but it is wrong that this presumption should be made about those of us who have opted to wear the first thing that came to hand.
If we are not making an effort, it is because we could not be bothered or because, on the scale of the things we have to do – including wrestling a struggling infant into a buggy – making an effort didn't make the grade.
Tedious as all this grooming and preening is, mostly, we do it. We buy into the notion of the yummy mummy and do our best to recreate it, offering it up as a token of our good faith around this whole mother business. It's a kind of visual code for the hearty, reassuring message, "Don't worry, we're not going to go offside on this one and start making yoghurt out of our own breast milk – we'll keep our end up".
And so we take on the extra time burden and the extra expense of trying to have appropriate clothes and a decent standard of grooming when we barely have time to wash our faces, let alone magic ourselves into a vision of Glamorous New Motherhood.
It is yet another thing we do as mothers that really has very little to do with actual babies and everything to do with our growing culture of Mothershould.
How To Really Be A Mother, by Emily Hourican, published by Gill & Mac-millan, €16.99.