Friday, June 21, 2013

On dressing children

I wrote this when I was pregnant with Alrik two-plus years ago and never hit "publish," I guess afraid my pickiness about clothing would come across wrong. I'm feeling willing to take the chance now that it will just spark some interesting discussions.

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I've been sorting through boxes of Mikko's baby things, trying to find (a) newborn clothes and diaper covers and (b) homebirth supplies. I've been piling things by size, and Mikko has been trying to help me, which has been not as helpful as he intends. "No! Not in that pile, Mama. Here, I do it right."

I'm astonished at how many of his baby clothes I don't like.

Unsnapped one-pieces made for good
boxing robes for our bruiser.
For one thing, his sex was a surprise, prompting everyone to load us up with pastel yellows and greens. Then, once he was born, it was all light blue, all the time.

Don't get me wrong — those are all lovely colors, in moderation. But I lean toward vibrant clothes for kids, and the pastels just look insipid to me.

And beyond the colors are the cuts. We got a lot of onesies and other one-pieces. I know people think onesies are the awesomest thing ever — except that we don't. I was doing elimination communication AND cloth diapering a baby who peed every five minutes (no exaggeration). PLUS, we had a huge baby who was wearing diapers that were on the bulky side — we could barely ever get the snaps closed in the first place, much less keep them that way. I intuited that we would need separates; I put several examples of kimono-style t-shirts and elastic-waist pants on our baby registry and pleaded in the comments that these would be "so convenient!" No one took the hint.

I mean, seriously. Is this
flattering anyone's shape?
So I look at the baby pictures of Mikko, and I just feel kind of "bleh" about how he looks in almost all of them, except for when he was naked or minimally dressed. Whereas I look at pictures of him now, when we have a lot more say over his clothing choices, and I think he looks adorable all the time. As a baby, there are so many of him in "tunics" of one-pieces that are hanging open at the crotch. And, frankly, with his bulk, one-pieces did his frame no favors. I'm not saying I judge babies for wearing pantsuits when it's all wrong for their shape — I'm just saying that when we dressed him in clothing we picked out, we somehow organically picked clothes that made him look more on the adorably pudgy side than on the oh-my-gosh-what-are-you-feeding-that-baby side.

Plus? I can do without chicks and puppies and ducks being scattered over every piece of baby clothing. Just my own preference there.

But, gosh, I sound picky, don't I? Clearly I am. And yet I swallowed it all down, and Mikko wore every dang one of the outfits gifted to him. Even the ones that were impractical, or sent too late to fit properly, or that I hated on sight. (Well, OK, the slippery Elmo tracksuit from a distant friend of his parents went straight out the door, but other than that!)

Despite our asking around, we got no hand-me-downs. All our friends hadn't had kids yet (we were like brave pioneers!), and all the people we knew with kids weren't close enough to us to offer their discards, even though I would gladly have accepted them.

So all the clothes we had for Mikko were brand new, and they were all gifts, and I felt bad rejecting any of them. I felt an obligation to take a picture in any outfit we received, so we could share it with our family as proof of how much we appreciated the gift. Even if we didn't.

A colorful outfit we picked out,
head to diaper to leg warmers to toe.
And now I regret dressing him that way. Which is stupid, I suppose. But every once in awhile, Sam and I would be in a consignment or thrift store, and I would gravitate toward the children's clothing and find something perfect for Mikko, and we'd sneakily buy it, knowing full well his overstuffed closet needed no such offerings from us. And it made me feel good to put on a shirt or outfit I had chosen.

We weren't financially well off then, for sure, so another factor was that we couldn't afford to look a gift horse in the mouth — or could we? I kept thinking, clothing is one of the cheapest things you can buy for a kid, if you just go to Goodwill. You can get shirts for 50 cents, for crying out loud. You can get them even cheaper if you go to the Goodwill Outlet where you buy by the pound. You can also find (I have) a ton of deals on eBay on gently used and still super cute name-brand clothing. I would much rather have had our close family members hold off on the clothing and devote that same amount of money toward a woven wrap for us, for instance — but, of course, a gift is a gift, not an obligation.

In fact, I did persuade my mom to transfer her desire to buy us a crib into buying us an ERGO baby carrier instead, and she was so, so, so unimpressed with her gift. Even when I showed her in person how much we loved it. Even when I posted ample pictures of us using it. Even when I sent her a magazine clipping saying it was the "hot new carrier." Even though I still use it today, with my three-year-old. Nope, crib was what she wanted, and we spoiled her fun.

But I think clothing is even more fun for gift givers. Because that thrill we received at dressing our own son is the vicarious thrill of all the gift givers, too — that they're choosing what this child will look like. And, for our closest relatives, it's hard not to read a strong element of control into that. The yellow came almost exclusively from Sam's mother, for instance, whose favorite color is — wait for it — yellow. We were sorting through Mikko's summer clothes recently and found that he had something like eight pairs of navy blue shorts. For Seattle. Where it's shorts weather for a few months during the daytime, if we're lucky. Guess what my mom's favorite neutral is. Guess how many times my mom's complained to me that it's "so hard" to find navy shoes or navy purses. Hmm. Both moms have vetoed my attraction to dressing a baby in anything brown — I suppose because they don't like it.

Apparently there IS crying in baseball.
Boy = sports. Of course.
The styles, too — the very babyish looks — those are direct preferences of our relatives. My mom has told me multiple times that she can't stand it when people dress their babies in "real" clothes instead of pajamas. So every time we bought Mikko a flannel lumberjack shirt that buttoned up the front, or a pair of baby jeans, I had dual thrills of fear of my own disobedience and delight at same.

Which means, of course, that we were controlling (or trying to control) how he looked just as much as they were.

I am actually glad now that Mikko has opinions about what he wears. He doesn't do too much of the shopping for clothes, just some — but he's learned where all his clothes are stored. He'll go to the closet in the morning and hem and haw over which color he wants to wear. He'll go to the shelf with his pants and choose between "comfy pants" (fleece pull-ons) or overalls (another favorite) — or both. I love respecting his opinions on these things, and hope clothing never becomes a battle between us as he grows. (If it does, I'm going to have to assume it's because of my own hangups, not his.)

My mom was such a fan of navy that I didn't wear black until high school, when I got my own job and therefore my own spending money. That's when I discovered the delight of black as a neutral. Why on earth had I stayed away from it for so long?

With this next baby, I have a not-so-secret (now) desire to toss all the baby clothes we got as gifts for Mikko and start fresh. I could consign them all and use the credit there to buy what we actually want. I have an equally not-so-secret desire that it will be a girl and we'll be "justified" in doing so. Although, that worries me as well, because that will open the floodgates of relatives sending us pink and flowery things, I'm sure. If we have another boy, maybe no one will bother.

I'm saying this from a place of privilege, though. We are financially stable now — even, dare I say it, comfortable. I can afford to be cavalier about thumbing my nose at gifts of clothing and insisting on buying based on our own preferences. I can even buy new at actual stores instead of only secondhand. I can make some of the clothing myself, as a hobby and not as a need. Not everyone — not most people — have those luxuries.

So, I dither. I've gotten rid of most of the clothing that was functionally unacceptable (too many snaps and zippers, needs to be ironed — hello!), anything I really couldn't stand (masculinizing messages), but kept a lot that was on the bubble. I've definitely kept any gifts of clothing I did really enjoy, and absolutely anything that was made especially for him by a loved one. Then again, I do like the look of handmade clothing.

I just want your take: Do you enjoy choosing your children's clothes? Some of this will depend on the age of your children, but do you see it as a privilege, a necessity, a joy, a responsibility? How can we dress our children yet retain our belief in their independence and respect their own preferences as they grow? (Or, to be honest, even when they're babies — snapping up all those crotch snaps every time we changed him would have been intolerable for Mikko, as was dressing him in anything too fancy and scratchy.) How grateful are you to receive clothing from other people? Do you ever wish you could choose everything yourself?

My preference: Happy kids in happy bright colors!

Addendum: I found that onesies and one-pieces were more useable with Alrik since he wasn't quite so picky or prolific about peeing. They also looked more flattering on him since he's a bitty thing. So I'm sure some of this is on a kid-by-kid basis. But I was super stoked to get bags of hand-me-downs from a local family with similar fashion taste, as well as the opportunity to go shopping *with* my mother-in-law to pick out some of the patterns and colors I relish. Very few people gave us clothes for this child, probably because he was the second and another boy, and I've greatly enjoyed the clear go-ahead from the universe to outfit him myself — colorfully!

I'm still working on the shoes, though.


Unknown said...

Wow I love this post!! I am the same way -- I've gotten so many hand me downs -- but I have the little style I've envisioned for my boy -- and now girl.

It's funny because I love pastels :) And my son is always in polos because that's what we like!! And I agree about the logos and messages on clothes -- they are too distracting! I decided to buy some sweet smocked dresses for my girl bc that is what I want her to wear!!

Thanks for such a thought-out post, which now makes me feel a bit less guilty for buying her clothes we don't "need". And reminding me that the pictures will be there forever!!

xo, Amy

Olivia said...

We knew the sex of both our babies before they were born so we got a lot of gendered clothing from the beginning. Lots of pink for my daughter, but I do what I can to balance it with clothing I buy (thrifted or on clearance). My main consideration when I pick clothes is comfort. I want clothes I won't care (much) about getting dirty and soft, stretchy fabrics. For my daughter that also means I rarely bought skirts/dresses, but recently she has wanted to wear them so I just insist on shorts underneath.

For my son we were given a lot of hand me downs and quite a few gifts. I didn't by much of anything until he was a year old. Now I just go for bright or dark colors, and comfort.

Onsies I love until they are about a year old because I hate how shirts ride up every time the baby is picked up or when they squirm when laying down. Feety pajamas should only be made with zippers. I hate doing up all those snaps.

Right now I do all the buying (except for gifts) and my daughter wears it however she wants. What I'm nervous about is when she reaches the age when she will want to pick out what I buy.

Inder-ific said...

We have tons of hand-me-downs, and I tend to just put aside the ones that don't fit my taste. This has especially been true for my little girl, because ugh, every box I open is like an explosion of pink vomit! But it was also true for Joe - I reject all military (!) and sports-related gear (unless it's actually our local team, then it's okay for games).

This is one reason I love sewing clothes for my kids. I can make bright and colorful clothes for both kids, that aren't gendered up the wazoo (or not barfola pink or dreary navy blue).

Christy said...

Definitely my experience with my first as well, except we were inundated with PINK PINK PINK! And not the bright, fun pink that I actually like but pastel, muted pinks with bows and ruffles and such. I lol'ed when I read how you took photos of Mikko wearing every outfit he was given as a thank you - totally did that as well. Even to this day (well, before I gave away all our baby clothes) I could tell you who gave us which outfit and when. Weird how import an this was to me at the time. I guess I wanted people to know that I was grateful for their generosity and I didn't' want to hurt their feelings. I could hardly wait until I could buy my girls clothes I wanted them to wear, but then oooops! They quickly developed tastes and preferences all their own (as in by 14 or 15 months old) and now I've given up trying to influence them. They wear what makes them happy, just like I do. I sometimes beg my mom not to buy them clothes for presents because I just know that they will hate most things they are given, but alas she does not listen. I hate the guilt I feel when she is sad they don't like the clothes or wear them often enough, but I tried to tell her. As for the crib - totally! My SIL insisted on giving us one, even though I knew we'd never use it, but she went ahead and bought one and put it up without me knowing. It was a very good storage container for all the baby clothes we received as gifts, lol!

Anonymous said...


I like neutrals and stripes and I hate ducks and teddy bears and sports motifs. I also hate onesies, as we cloth diaper chubby babies too. (We too registered for kimono tops and elastic-waist pants!)

I had never really thought about it being about control but it is, isn't it? For a lot of people anyway.

Your bit about the clothes being flattering made me laugh a little. I'd never really thought of that being a factor, maybe because I just love me some fat babies! (I have actually been thrilled the bigger mine get, although Mikko puts them to shame for sure. Squee!)

Watching them get old and choose their own clothes is so much fun! Sebastian just got a Ninja Turtles shirt and it's the first piece of clothing he's shown a real preference for. As in, he was begging to wear it even when it was filthy and headed for the washing machine. Felt like a milestone!

C said...

I totally get what you're saying. When we found out Peanut was a girl, we immediately received approximately 5,001 pink outfits. Including SIX super fancy poofy dresses in 0-3 month size! That is ridiculous! I don't know what baby has 6 fancy occasions to go to before reaching the age of three months, let alone will wear anything with a tulle skirt without crying. Honestly, it's a huge part of the reason I had no baby shower with my second.

I hate the whole obligation factor of buying someone a baby gift. My in-laws were nice enough to buy us a crib (back when I thought we wouldn't co-sleep), which we promptly didn't use, later turned into a side car attached to our bed, and then happily returned for a full refund when all drop side cribs were recalled. I honestly think they're still mad about the whole thing to this day, though on a very minor level. Luckily they've stopped bothering us about co-sleeping in general, which is something they've made it very clear they don't believe in, but it still bothers me that they felt like they had some special right just because they bought the crib.

It's the same idea with buying clothes. It really is their way to control how your baby looks. And I've had people actually get upset with me over not seeing my child wear what they bought (mostly family). My grandmother specifically told me that I shouldn't be like my mother and never let her see the girls in what she bought (she's a very blunt 90-something year old with English as her second language, but still!) and my mother asked if one of my daughters didn't like the dress she bought because she wasn't wearing it as the same time as sister. I let them choose their own clothes and she didn't want to wear the dress. Simple as that! Ugh. People are ridiculous.

Unknown said...

this is such a great post. I also favor bright colors and am not big on pastels. And since I have one boy and one girl, I really didn't want to fall into the pink/blue trap. I bought a lot of clothes that were neutrals so they could share a lot of their newborn clothes. The kimono shirts (ours from Baby Soy) were so convenient and cute when we were starting out with EC. I also think that since I have twins each baby has less clothes individually than if we'd had them one at a time. I don't think I have as much fun dressing them as I would if they were singletons because I always take into consideration that there are two. Not that they have to match, but just, I don't know. It's a weird feeling. I will say, though, that I do get nostalgic for the pastelery just because it kind of represents newbornness and I miss that stage a lot! But, I do love dressing them in 'real' clothes. I think I will have to do a post on this!

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting!

I didn't find out the gender of my child before she was born, so I washed a big pile of neutral clothes and had the rest sorted into boys vs girls. After she arrived, we washed the gigantic pile of girl clothes and put the boys' into one measly little box. (I admit, I was a little gleeful as I packed up the boy clothes my MIL bought, in her insistence that I'd have a boy.)
I had a huge amount of girl clothes - my mom saved practically every item of clothing that ever touched my body from birth to age five. I inherited a box of Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, and other name-brand from one cousin and a box of well-used and loved on-sale Baby Gap and Old Navy clothes from another cousin. I got a HUGE box of purple and black clothes from a lady at church with three daughters.

I am not fond of frilly dresses for small people. I don't like the itchy lace. I really don't like black clothes on babies. I don't put clothes with words on my child or myself - I prefer solid colors with some prints. I happily put her in onesies that proclaimed how much she loved her Auntie because it made that Auntie so happy. I didn't like putting her in shirts that said, "I'm cute!" and when she got a shirt that said, "Diaper loading!" it went straight to Goodwill. I've never liked putting her in jeans or denim - it doesn't feel nice to cuddle her. In fact, I have given away every pair of jeans she owns and I feel silly for having just bought her a super-on-sale pair of jeans in size 5 for in a few years.

Now she's two. I'm encouraging her to have opinions and to know that her opinions are worthwhile, so I offer her a choice - green PJs or blue jammies? Purple dress or yellow? Red or orange cup of water? She gets to pick, she has a vested interest, she's more cooperative about getting dressed or enjoying her water.

Her current toddler clothes look a lot like her baby clothes did - a wide variety of colors, all soft comfy things. She has many dresses to wear to church and at home. She has soft cotton pants and plain t-shirts without words, logos or cartoon characters. (Well, except for Superman. Truth, Justice and the American Way! I love it! Just as much as I love her Superman jammies and her Supergirl dress with a cape.)
I don't put her in tank-tops or sleeveless things because I don't want her wearing 'sexy' things. I don't put her in mini-skirts. I don't even put her in shorts. I try really hard not to put her in tight leggings because it grosses me out completely when women and teenagers and pre-teens wear skin-tight leggings as pants, although I did accidentally buy her a pair of leggings because it didn't occur to me that size 3T clothes would be sexy leggings.

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