When I attended my first friend’s first kid’s first birthday party, I was secretly pregnant. I had just decided to go through with the not-quite-planned pregnancy, and let me tell you: That birthday party very nearly changed my mind. It was like a slow death by rainbow-colored materialism. Over the course of an hour’s worth of unwrapping, I watched the adorable 1-year-old become buried in more toys, books, clothes, and gadgets than anyone could possibly need — or use — in a lifetime. I thought, There has to be another way.
I asked my few parent friends about just how necessary the influx of manufactured crap really is when you’re raising a child, and precisely half of them assured me there is another — minimalist, inexpensive, largely plastic-free — way. The other half? They continued to preach the gospel of baby tubs, baby bags, baby-wipe warmers (!), 11 different swinging-chair options, and supposedly intellectually stimulating multicolored play mats.
I don’t mean to criticize “manufactured crap” in a sort of crunchy “I only want my child to play with organic daffodils” kind of way (my child plays with the subway pole; it's fine). I just don’t want that much stuff — organic or otherwise — surrounding me and my kid and filling our house. Because, honestly, stuff gives me anxiety.
Whenever my siblings and I try to talk our mom into selling her giant house filled with objects that have lost their (or never had any) use, she says she must stay there, alone, “because of the memories.” Instead of traveling or dating (my father died 12 years ago) or taking up macrame or whatever 60-something ladies do, she’s working hard to maintain 16 rooms and three acres she can barely use. I never want to feel that sense of obligation to a non-human entity. Hence, my carry-on-only travels and the obsessive frequency with which I Kondo the shit out of my closet.
But that’s me, and my own family baggage. Unsurprisingly, the list of what you “need” to buy or own in life — as a parent and as a person — is different for everyone. And while it’s true that I’ve never considered myself a person who needs a lot of stuff, having a baby is an inarguably life-altering business; perhaps it would change this part of me. (Spoiler: It hasn't.)
My son is one and a half now, and other than disposables like diapers, I've only spent money on two items for him: baby carriers and socks. This is partly out of necessity. Nobody gives you hand-me-down socks, because by the time a baby has outgrown hers she has also lost them. And partly because, in my book, you can never have too many of either. Although we did get a secondhand Mei Tai baby carrier, we also shelled out for a structured one and a woven wrap that holds up to 35 pounds (a.k.a. a 4-year-old). These carriers have been instrumental in bringing kiddo around the world as well as on various modes of public transportation. And then there were the socks. Other than that, pretty much everything my son has ever owned was secondhand, broken-in, and free.
Pretty much everything my son has ever owned was secondhand, broken-in, and free.
I started telling people I was pregnant at about six weeks along, which, I know, is abnormal etiquette to begin with, but so is telling everyone you run into that you’re happy to intercept their baby garbage before it hits Goodwill / the Bermuda Triangle / the actual trash. Because, of course, even the most minimalist baby does need some things — a car seat, for example (New York City hospitals won't let you leave without one, and mine quickly shot down my proposal to take the subway home with a newborn and stitches in my vagina). After I put the word out, I soon got a used car seat — and the used stroller it fit into, and a used crib, and a used breastfeeding pillow, a used high chair, used bottles, hand-me-down baby clothes of all sizes, and yes, even a used breast pump — from kind co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and my dentist. My son has never worn new clothes, but I promise you he hasn’t noticed.
Clothes, car seat, crib, carrier: I’ll concede those were pretty key. But there are a few supposed “necessities” — according to many baby sites and shower registries — that I’ve done just fine without: a diaper bag, a bottle warmer, a bottle brush, a bottle drying rack, burp cloths, baby bowls, bibs (IMO there’s no point trying to contain the mess), a baby food maker, a hooded bath towel, a sleep sack, baby washcloths, a “play mat,” a “splat mat,” an “activity center,” a “play gym,” a “Rock ‘n’ Play,” “a swinging seat.” I put all those last ones in quotes because I’m honestly not sure what they are or whether they’re all secretly the same thing?
My son has a few secondhand toys, but he prefers empty cardboard boxes and tupperware containers. And although I did not have a baby shower (my second-least-favorite kind of party, after bridal showers), my book club did sweetly contribute some baby books at one of our gatherings — plus I was able to pilfer quite a few ancient kid-lit tomes from the aforementioned treasure trove of 30-year-old garbage at my mom’s house. My kid isn’t living a deprived, bedtime-story-free life or anything. But all his toys fit in one little basket, and when my family travels — which we do fairly often — we do it with one backpack for the three of us.
I know I’ve been very lucky. I have an amazing support network (and let’s be real, an amazing dentist) that supplied me with all the hand-me-downs I truly needed, and none of the junk I didn’t. But don’t think you have to know a lot of people in order to get a lot of free stuff. There’s Craigslist, Freecycle, Huggies Rewards...even some fancier brands will send you free diaper samples (although in my experience they aren't the most efficient, probably because they’re made from recycled organic tomatoes or something). And for formula-fed babies, Enfamil offers an almost shocking amount of sample packets.
So I’ve been lucky, but also resourceful, but mostly just decidedly un-picky about what my kid wears, uses, and consumes. Which is something akin to tough love in the time of Insta-moms and their chic, hyper-curated kids’ wardrobes and Paleo snacks. I mean, my son plays with shoeboxes, and sometimes he wears "girls’" clothes. It just happens; they’re free. I’m not saying I force him into tutus, but he rocks a fair amount of pink, and his favorite sweatpants are frilly. Oh well.
All that said, the most fun part of hand-me-down life isn’t saving money, saving space, bucking gender norms, or watching my kid impressively create his own complex toys out of twigs. Although that’s pretty fun.
The best part is paying it forward — watching my friend’s kid learn to crawl while wearing my son’s old sweater, which is actually my nephew’s old sweater, which actually used to belong to the kids my sister used to nanny, and maybe even had a life before that, who knows? It’s getting to bring my stressed-out pregnant neighbor a bag full of baby goodies without clicking through a godawful online registry or spending $35 on a rubber giraffe. It’s getting to watch coworkers of all shapes and sizes magically wear the same maternity dress one after another like we’re some Sisterhood Of The Traveling Preggos. And I kid you not: My breast pump is currently on its third owner. Which is great, because those things are expensive.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.