The hardest moment in a new mother's life comes the day she leaves her baby and returns to the workplace. The second hardest moment comes the day before, when she returns to the closet.
After nine months of bulging, swelling and waddling, a new mother often feels like The Person Formerly Known as Stylish.
While a pregnant woman is allowed certain lapses in fashion, the grace period for style violations expires once she's given birth. The early postpartum months become like the early months of pregnancy: People look at your wider waist and wonder if it's a baby or a super deluxe pizza.
For the record, I am a new mother, and that tummy bulge is the work of Eli Aron Cohen, a gorgeous and mighty 9-pound, 9-ounce newborn who now is almost 3 months old. Only now, in my first week back at my job, does the impact of my odyssey register fully: I have nothing to wear. I haven't worn real shoes in five months, and even my hair doesn't recognize itself.
In the early postpartum weeks, you can actually put on a stained T-shirt and your husband's old gym shorts and think to yourself, "Hey, I look pretty good." However, once you decide to actually leave the house--say, in two months--rehabilitation must begin.
Start with the face. It's a fine distraction from the stomach and hips. Reacquaint yourself with makeup. (Hint: It's that dusty pile of colorful tubes in the bathroom.) Be adventurous and buy a new lipstick. No time? Try this technique. Wheel your stroller past the MAC lipstick counter and repeat in a loud voice, "Can someone help me?" The noise of you and your crying baby will get that Cosmo pink lipstick and Spice lip liner into your bag pronto.
Can't get to the hairdresser? Have her come to you. For an extra $20, a kindhearted stylist made a mercy-mission house call--and shaped my eyebrows. With good hair restored, my spirits followed.
Having a baby doesn't mean you've lost your right to be stylish. After all, there's nothing like losing 27 pounds in an afternoon to rekindle lust for clothes. Unfortunately, our clothes don't love us back. New mothers know that postpartum depression arrives at the exact moment you try on your old trousers.
Finding styles to fit your flubber (that stomach-centered mix of flab and blubber) will refocus your fashion sense. Think of your new wardrobe as maternity clothes in reverse. Eventually, you can buy fitted waistbands, clingy dresses and tiny tops. Concentrate on mixable separates that resist baby spit.
Now that you have 30 seconds a month to shop, hone in on anything that stretches, wraps or gathers. Stores such as Banana Republic and Gap feature stretch separates in basic colors. My favorites? The new wide-leg, flat-front stretch wool pants, elastic-waist mid-calf jersey skirts (lately at Old Navy), and stretch cotton tailored blouses--all in black. I wear black, head to toe, because it's still the best figure camouflage, the best all-purpose day or night color and the only color that mixes with itself no matter the fabric or particular hue.
For your new figure, create ensembles with a strong vertical line. That means jackets with high necklines, tailored V-neck blouses or sweaters, and single-color outfits.
Add the latest jacket--hip-length, zip-front and fairly boxy--to update the skirts and pants already in your wardrobe. Splurge a little on the jacket, because its shape is likely to fit well as you lose your pregnancy weight.
Think like a pickpocket and use distraction. A knockout purse, the most killer shoes you can afford and every precious gem you own should be on your body regularly.
Then get on the floor and kiss the ground where trendy designers walk. They've given us roomy drawstring pants, stretch micro-fiber shoes, bias cut (and therefore stretchy) skirts, enormous turtleneck sweaters and forgiving jersey separates.
Do not fear dressing like a high school fashion victim. She is your friend, she of the baggy cargo pants, hooded sweatshirt and boat neck T-shirt. She has made this look of studied casualness appropriate for grown-ups, and not just on Casual Friday.
The trendy teen has even made it OK to show your bra strap. However, the new mother strains fashion credibility by exposing her nursing bra straps. They're always 7 inches wide and never come in black.
If you have to dress like a grown-up and wear a real suit, go for skirt suits. A simple, straight-lined skirt can more successfully survive major size alterations better than pants. For evening wear, full, ballgown-style skirts are the hip way to hide hips. If you need to look sexy, use your best new weapon: cleavage.
Other breast-feeding mothers may find it is easier to laugh than fret about our buxom figures. Sweaters needn't be off-limits. Properly fitted in a sturdy weave, they can be a comfortable cornerstone for work and casual wear (and they're returning to vogue this spring). Never overlook the power of color to brighten a face darkened by circles under the eyes. A colorful shell can update your suits.
Resist the well-meaning but awkward "nursing" clothes. The flaps, straps and buttons meant to disguise your breasts and baby ultimately draw more attention to them. More effective is a button-front shirt or cardigan (that you unbutton from the bottom for some coverage). Wearing large cashmere scarves, shawls, stoles and even ponchos hides the feeding baby and reveals your awareness of fall's newest trend.
Last, don't forget your beauty sleep. Sleep deprivation can create a kind of fashion dyslexia. I've since learned that if your pants aren't pulling on smoothly, it might help to first remove your shoes.
Valli Herman-Cohen can be reached by e-mail at Valli.Herman-Cohen@latimes.com.