By Katherine Ozment
I am in the dressing room at Schwartz’s Intimate Apparel in an affluent suburb of Chicago. There is nothing intimate about the place. Signs in the front windows blare “Girdle Sale!” The overhead lights are a bright, unforgiving florescent, and the round, middle-aged woman with a bad dye job who greeted me at the door is now telling me to take my sweater off.
I used to be shy about my body, but nearly nine months of regular prodding and pulling and palpating by my obstetrician have excised whatever sense of modesty I once had. I remove my sweater without pause, and I am not even bothered when she stares directly at my chest for several seconds. “Okay,” she says as if she knows everything she will ever need to know about me. Then she disappears behind the click of the closing door.
I have come to Schwartz’s at the direction of several friends, none of whom know one another, but all of whom have babies and are thereby connected through the great ethereal web of mother wisdom. Before you get pregnant, you know nothing of mother wisdom. You see babies in strollers, but you don’t think about what brand of strollers they are or how they were chosen or if the cup holders are any good. You go about your business. And then your pregnancy test comes up blue and you begin to realize how little you really know.
The wisdom is given in small bits, like pearls, at first, but soon you realize there are entire categories of knowledge you must acquire now that you’re with child. I’d long since bought the Snap-n-Go, the Pack-N-Play, and the castle-themed saucer. I’d signed up for prenatal classes and swept a whole row of instruction manuals off the bookstore shelf. Now it was time to get down to business. It was time to buy the nursing bras.
My friends had told me that Schwartz’s was the place to buy nursing bras. The nursing bra Mecca. The nursing bra bomb. So here I stand, facing the mirror in the dressing room, trying to see what the saleswoman saw.
My stomach is an enormous orb, my skin stretched beyond what any Thanksgiving feast–or my wildest imagination–could ever yield. My satiny black bra pulls tight across the top of me, seeming to cordon off my ever-growing breasts like police tape.
In the midst of my reverie, the saleswoman returns, several bras clutched in her hands like caught fish. She stands in the doorway staring through thick-framed glasses, and it takes me a moment to realize that I am to continue disrobing, strip-poker-like, while she watches. Obediently, I remove my black bra. She instructs me to lean forward, and as I do, she whips a particularly thick, textured, flesh-colored thing around the front of me, pulls it taut, and latches it together across my back. I feel lassoed.
I look up and see my grandmother. No, it’s me, but my breasts are trapped like objects never to be viewed or even thought about. I feel mummified.
“Hmm,” I say, afraid to offend her. Maybe I’m supposed to look like this. I caress the top of the bra, as if contemplating its beauty and functional appeal. “Maybe something a little smoother,” I say. “I kind of like my bras smooth.”
“I know you do,” she says, as if she has known and disapproved of me all my life.
She reaches down and scoops up a smooth, white Olga. “Try this one,” she says. It’s a brand I wear in more normal times, and it feels better. The only difference is that this one has these two little snaps on either side of my breastbone for the baby’s easy access. I touch one of the snaps and try to casually undo it, but I feel her watching me, and I can’t get the snap undone. I pretend instead that I’m just scratching my breastbone.
“This one’s the wrong size,” she barks, grasping the material beneath my underarms and pulling it snug. I let out a small shriek, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. She is out the door again, leaving me to ponder my bloated reflection once more.
She returns with the same bra, this time in a 38D. A 38D! All my life I have wondered what it would feel like to wear a bra so deep into the alphabet. Long years I have dabbled in petty A’s and B’s, always curious if I would feel more beautiful, more womanly in a D-cup. But as she hoists me into it and explains that I’ll need the extra pockets of space for nursing pads, my visions of taut bikini tops and sexy, skin-tight sweaters disappear.
Still, it’s a good bra, so I tell her I’ll take it.
“Whew, that was easy,” I think. “I’ll be home in time for The View.”
But then, as if tossing a verbal hand grenade into the dressing room, she asks, “Do you have your nightgowns?” Like having one’s nightgowns is a matter of course equivalent to having one’s underwear. I don’t want to tell her that I usually sleep in sweatpants and one of my husband’s T-shirts. Women who come here wear nightgowns. They have robes. Probably even slippers.
“No,” I confess. “I don’t.”
“I know just the one,” she says. “Have you seen the ‘I Love Lucys’?”
I cannot even imagine what she is talking about.
“They’re just what you’re going to need,” she says, leading me to a rack of long, flannel nightshirts emblazoned with oversized, cartoon-like pictures. One features Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates into their mouths. Others are adorned with animals, some with Victorian footwear. But the one she has picked out especially for me is a virtual extravaganza of Oreo cookies–Oreos stacked on top of one another, Oreos dunking themselves in tall glasses of milk, Oreos floating free on a pink-and-blue-striped background.
“This is what you’ll be needing now,” she says.
What I’ll be needing now? And just what is going to happen to me now? I’m going to have a baby and suddenly need to wear cartoon-cookie-emblazoned sleepwear?
“I was thinking of something, you know, a little smoother,” I say. And then, “Something a little sexy.”
A small smile appears on her lips. It tells me that she thinks she knows more than I do about all this. That what I will really want will be that Oreo cookie nightshirt and I had better just get used to it. Still, without protest, she turns and marches to the back of the store. I follow her and watch as she pulls several nightgowns from a rack along the wall.
All the gowns she shows me are variations on a theme–floral prints with about five buttons down the center of the chest, topped with a tiny satin bow. They flare out at the hips and end somewhere just below the knees, and I can’t help thinking of the cotton A-line nightgowns I wore as a little girl.
It dawns on me that there isn’t anything sexy here. I think back to some of the items I noticed upon entering the store–plastic flower-dotted shower caps, “easy-to-fasten arthritis bras,” the flagrant “Girdle Sale!” sign–and I realize that this is the place you come when sexy is no longer the priority, when breasts aren’t so much erogenous zones as nutritive vessels. It occurs to me that my body has left the make-up counter. I am in the cereal aisle of my life.
“Maybe pajamas,” I offer.
“We have those,” she says, turning to the circular rack beside us. She riffles through the “large” section as I stand mute. She pulls out a cropped aqua-and-white gingham set. I can tell by the way her face lights up that it is a favorite of hers, and there is something so pure about her love of it that I wish I could love it too. The sleeves are cuffed in blue satin, and I think how easy my life would be if I could just be happy lolling around the house in gingham pajamas with blue satin cuffs.
“This is what you’ll want,” she tells me, and though I want to believe her, I know that she is wrong.
“I don’t think it’s my color,” I say.
She begins to flick the hangers across the metal bar with sharper motions, and I fear she’s losing patience. The next set she pulls out is similar to the previous one, except the top of this one is a tent-sized, button-down expanse of purple. The pants are purple-and-white gingham, slashed vertically at the ankle, for what purpose I cannot imagine. (Cowboy boots?)
“I think I’ll just take these instead,” I say, gesturing to a pair of flannel bottoms and a tight, scarlet top the likes of which I haven’t worn since high school. It is an impulse purchase, and it feels as it should: daring and wasteful and wrong.
I can tell she disapproves of my choice–that a tight, sexy top is not what the baby will need from me. But the baby’s not here yet. Except for taking my prenatal vitamins and trying not to drink, smoke, or sniff glue, there’s not much I have to do. For now I am free. In a few weeks, my son will come screaming into the world. The pain of that moment, and the joy, will transform me. I will enter the ranks of this woman. The knowing glance and the tone of self-assurance will be mine. I will look back on all that came before as if it were one big keg party–a frivolous, three-decade-long affair in which caring for others was easy because their very survival didn’t depend on it.
But I’m not there yet. I still have some time. And so, tight scarlet top in my grasp, I hand over my credit card and seize the day.
Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when I was eight months pregnant and consumed with all things baby. The original ending was different. At the time, I had no understanding of what it would mean to be a mother, so I ended the essay with some pat image of buying a pair of blue baby booties in addition to the other things (which I did). But later, when revising the story, I realized that buying that tight red top at the end of the comically tortuous trip to the nursing bra store was my last gasp of reckless independence. At the time, I had no idea what was about to be lost–or gained.
Brain, Child (Winter 2005)
Katherine Ozment is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Boston magazine, where she also writes a weekly parenting blog. The baby boy she was pregnant with when she wrote this essay is now ten years old, stands up to her shoulder, and has two younger sisters, ages six and two. More of her writing can be found at katherineozment.com