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Becoming a Postpartum Shopaholic

It started off so innocently. A smoothie at the mall. A new outfit for my then 6-month-old son. Another nursing shirt from Motherhood Maternity. What else could I do? The mall was an easy way to kill a few hours  -- and my budget. While my son snoozed in the stroller, I licked cones of frozen yogurt from TCBY and sized up outfits I dreamed I could fit into. But trouble was brewing. For a while, I'd hide things I bought during the day, hoping my husband wouldn't see all the shopping bags. Every so often he would say, "I never noticed that shirt you're wearing." So I'd tell him I'd had it forever. It was easy to hide bags in the car, but when the credit card statements came, I always had some explaining to do. Most of the time, though, I managed to smooth-talk my way out of a money fight with my husband by playing the martyr, detailing how hard it was to stay at home with two children in diapers.

I never thought my shopping was a serious problem until this past Christmas. Beginning in September, I would spend my days roaming Kohl's, Target, and the malls for gifts. Of course, I'd always throw in a few things for myself. When it came time to wrap all the toys I had hidden, I felt ashamed. There were piles of things I knew the kids would never play with  -- I had even bought doubles of some toys. And the big fight my husband and I had been avoiding for three years exploded... the day before Christmas Eve. And so it was that I owned up to my dirty little secret: I'm a shopaholic mom. And I know I'm not alone. During my days at the malls, I'd see the same women pushing strollers week after week. And as I've since confirmed, many of these other new moms were as addicted as I was. So, what's behind our need to spend? Turns out, a new mother's shopping habits are more than pocket-deep. Here, a look at what's really causing our call to the mall.

Buh-buy, old me

I used shopping as a job perk and a way to cope with the major change of lifestyle that having a baby entails. Chris Stout, a professor in the University of Illinois College of Medicine's department of psychiatry, believes giving yourself little perks is perfectly healthy, but that there's a tipping point where the line can get crossed. New moms can be quite vulnerable. "For some women," he explains, "it's an issue of feeling like 'I'm doing so much work, I'm sleep deprived and exhausted, and my body is different  -- I'm due." This was absolutely the case with me. I knew that at no point would my infant say, "You've been working double overtime, thanks to that broccoli concoction Dad gave me yesterday. Here's a 'can do' attitude pin as a little token of thanks for your hard work. And give yourself a raise  -- a big one." Instead, I used shopping as a way to reward myself.

Not just reward myself, but reclaim myself. Despite all the wonderful cuddling, kisses, and belly laughs I shared with my new baby, I couldn't help but cringe when I looked in the mirror: "Who are you, and what have you done with the old me?" my reflection asked. So I hit the cosmetic counters in search of my pre-mommy face. I found something else: some savvy salespeople who sized me up in full transition-wear attire and marked me as an easy target. I have pretty hair? Oh, thank you, thank you. I'll take two of whatever you've got. Somehow, spending sprees reminded me of the girl I used to be  -- that fun girl living in the big city who would spend an entire month's rent on a new shirt. I wanted so badly to be her again.

It's a common desire. After giving birth to her first child, Kim Gennocro of Bradenton, Florida, was feeling tired, overweight, and frumpy. She walked by the Lancôme counter at the mall, and the girls (made up like models) cooed over her baby. "Next thing I know, I'm in 'the Chair' getting all dolled up." By the time she was done, she had invested in eye shadow, foundation, lipsticks  -- the whole shebang. For another mom, Jackie Saril, from New Rochelle, New York, the symbol of her prebaby life is  -- what else?  -- shoes. And so once she became a mom, her shoe collection tripled, despite the fact that running errands with kids while wearing stilettos isn't comfortable. "It's out of control," she says.

It's not always makeup and sexy heels that new moms long for. Before she had kids, Linda Urban, of Montpelier, Vermont, was all about organization and believed in better living through office supplies. Afterward, she was crazed from sleep deprivation and trying to manage a 30-plus-hour week working from home. She kept thinking the right Filofax or just one more set of multicolored folders would calm the chaos and bring on some prebaby peace. Her spending sprees consisted of cute staplers, colorful paper clips, and Zip disks with fancy labels. But nothing worked. "What I needed was time  -- not stuff," she says. Linda had to face up to the fact that no matter how much she bought, her life would never be as tidy as it had been before.

"There can be a grief issue for some new moms," says Terrence Daryl Shulman, an addiction therapist in the Detroit area. Loss of income, identity, intimacy can all fuel the urge to shop. "Issues like that can get you thinking: What can I buy that will make me a little more like I was before I became a mother?"

Janene Mascarella is a freelance writer in Miller Place, NY.