The Mother of Consumption
Seven years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, I had a baby shower. It wasn’t traditional. My husband (or babydaddy as he was then) and I hosted it ourselves. It was attended by both men and women and featured a performance by my friends’ costume rock band as well as some epic Sangria. It began in the evening and ended early the next morning. It was in fact just a shade grander in scale than any party we would typically have thrown in the pre-baby era. I may be the only one who can remember every detail of the day (in my condition I was the only one not drinking the epic Sangria) but what sticks with me the most is feeling loved and so lucky to have the friends who traveled, planned, cooked, shopped, helped, and sang for me as I prepared to step into the unknown realm of parenthood.
I was the pregnancy pioneer in my circle of friends; I didn’t know anyone who had babies or young kids at that time. I remember feeling overwhelmed and astonished by the number of products it seemed I would be required to buy in order to take care of the baby, beginning with books on healthy pregnancy and childcare, all of which described items I would need to acquire to ensure the baby’s safety, health, and development both before and after she was born. The non-medical expenses of a typical American baby’s first year of life add up to around ten thousand dollars. To me it just seemed like so much stuff, it couldn’t all possibly be necessary.
Of course there are tons of products marketed to new parents, and of course not all of them are necessary. And of course it is only possible through experience for parents to know what the best things are for their own children. And though rationally I must have known all that, I also knew I was totally clueless. I hadn’t really been around a little baby much since my sister was born in the late Seventies, the blogosphere was still under construction, my peers were out at the bar and I couldn’t go with them. I had a lot on my mind, I was busy working, I was moving to a different house, I was giving up my studio space, negotiating changing relationships, eating lots of broccoli. I had no resource for evaluating the future usefulness of available items to the baby I had yet to meet and the parent I had yet to become. I had enough to do; I gave up trying. I registered for a baby registry at Target. Since my friends knew even less about childrearing than I, most of them were more than happy to choose things from the registry, and my relationship with Target as a simple fact of my child’s life was solidified.
Years have gone by and some of that stuff is still hanging around, in part due to consumer guilt. I’ve given things away, thrown things away, repurposed others, and yet every once in awhile a tube of diaper rash cream or set of sippy cup valves turns up in the back of a drawer to remind me that of all the hats parents wear, Consumer may just be the empty 10-gallon Stetson of them all. Parents also carry guilt around with them constantly, for a million reasons that can all lead to compulsive spending.
This cycle of guilt and spending can be viewed through the clinical lens of addiction, though compulsive consumption is so ingrained in modern American life that we’re conditioned to the way it makes us feel and rarely recognize it when it’s happening. The word “shopaholic” to me conjures dated pop culture caricatures of Valley girls and mallrats, but could be applied to some of my own behavior. Shopping addiction is linked to identity issues and loneliness, which were things I experienced when I became a parent.
My pregnancy was a surprise, so unplanned that I mistook my first bout of morning sickness for a hangover. I’d never had maternal instincts whatsoever, and even regarded people with kids suspiciously. Maybe because I’m an artist, I saw the expectant parents I occasionally came in contact with as mistaking procreation for creativity, using their helpless little bundles of joy as excuses to proudly buy lots of stuff that would shape the poor kids themselves into the artistic products of their parents’ tasteful consumer choices.
So when I was pregnant I needed to reevaluate my ideas about creativity and parenting. I viewed the baby as someone with whom I would certainly enjoy collaborating on future projects, but less herself a project of mine than of my body, which was eating and growing until I was nearly twice the weight at which I had graduated high school. I wanted to be a good steward of my body’s pregnancy project, so I took the appropriate vitamins, dutifully attended doctor’s appointments, and read about how to care for babies. I had no idea how my own creative work would be impacted by the baby’s arrival and naively imagined that my lifestyle and work habits would continue as before, except that I would be accompanied always by a tiny person. The “mother” component of my identity clearly was not quite established.
Additionally, the idea of motherhood brought to mind my own mother, with whom my relationship was strained. Through the Vaseline filter of childhood memory I recalled her passing judgment on the parents of babies given bottles and pacifiers, diapered in Pampers, and taken to theme parks. I can remember her telling me that other kids had toys I didn’t because their parents were “materialists”. When I was older I realized that her tendency to judge others was rooted in her own fear of being judged, but when I faced the fact of my own impending parenthood I felt preemptively judged. I was determined to create a warmer environment and better dialogue for my own child, and embracing shopping was somehow part of making this distinction. I was a lonely kid about to form my own parental identity upon doing what my mother had not.
Then there were my friendships to negotiate. Although I loved rock’n’roll as much as before and insisted on naming my baby after the hard-living KISS guitarist Ace Frehley, some of my friends felt betrayed by my pregnancy and didn’t know how to interact with me outside of noisy, smoky clubs. A friend whose kids are around my age told me that when she had her babies in the Seventies she was never again accepted by some of her peers and colleagues, although her ideas and achievements, and eventually those of her children, remained prolific and relevant. Would I ever be hot again? Would I ever have someone to talk to about whether or not to put baby bottle parts in the dishwasher, if it was okay to play Velvet Undreground albums for my newborn, or how to manage my time and wardrobe with regards to baby-vomit-cleanup? If I couldn’t even answer these little questions, how could I expect ever again to be taken seriously as an artist and professional?
These days, if I wanted to answer those questions, I could find anything I wanted to hear on the Internet. I could find the best products and services for my child. I could find friends for both of us, but would feel funny that they weren’t made organically. In short I bet I could have gotten pretty wrapped up in the online parenting world if it had existed then as it does now, but I would never feel fulfilled in the same way I do talking over real life issues with real life moms who have been my friends since before any of us had kids.
So when I think back to our baby shower, I’m really so proud to have such awesome friends in my inner circle, the ones who have stuck by me through all my awkward parental phases. I’ve remained connected with most of those friends, and many of them now also enjoy friendships with my child as well. After all, the most meaningful things in life are the personal connections we share with others, not the things they buy us at Target.