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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.

Boredom buying

Stay-at-home mom Krissy Siliverdes of Freehold, New Jersey, says that by the time her son was 3 months old, she was beset by boredom and clawing at the walls in need of stimulation. Her outlet? The mall, about three times a week. "Shopping was an excuse to do my hair and put on a little makeup," she admits.

"It starts simply," says Shulman. "Sometimes you go shopping as an escape from the doldrums, and before you know it, it escalates." Siliverdes says that she visited the mall just once a month prebaby. "Now, I have clothing in every size from 4 to 14 and clothes for my son until he's 12." Another stay-at-home mom, Megan Campbell, from Atlanta, also uses shopping as an excuse to get out of the house. "I love Target because I can buy things to occupy the kids while I stroll around for long periods of time." But it's not just SAHMs who succumb to boredom buying. One Macomb Township, Michigan, mom who is the vice president of a banking group says she's so busy at the office all day that she's not sure what to do with herself and her daughter on the weekends. So they regularly turn to shopping. "I'm a big buyer, and then always have something to return. The problem is, when I go to return, I find something else to buy. It's an endless cycle."

The baby buyosphere

Beginning even in the hospital, baby products are pushed on new moms, and we're made to feel that if we don't buy a certain brand or item, we're not good mothers. "New parents feel guilt-tripped into making purchases, like they have to buy the latest, the greatest, the safest, the most overengineered," says Stout. "Otherwise, [moms are made to feel] their baby won't have the advantages."

Elizabeth Currie Moseley, a military spouse in Kailua, Hawaii, moves quite often, but she and her old UPS driver from California still exchange Christmas cards. Why so chummy? Perhaps because of some excessive online shopping. Elizabeth "proceeds to checkout" on sites like babyGap, Hanna Andersson, and Pottery Barn Kids, to name just a few. Overboard? "Yes, but I want to make my kids and family happy. Especially when my husband leaves on deployment, I want to buy special things for the kids."

Compulsive shopping like this is driven by emotional needs, not concrete needs, says BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women. She also felt lured into the pressure to provide. Recalling her son's first Christmas: "He was just four months old, but I bought expensive wrapping paper and bows, pricey baby clothes, and toys he wasn't ready for." Her reasons are all too familiar: "I wanted his first holiday to be perfect  -- and I wanted to be the perfect mom." Siliverdes wanted to be "perfect," too. "Not only did I have to buy one of everything I thought my son needed  -- strollers, Pack 'n Plays, favorite toys  -- I bought three of each. As if having so much gear made me a better mom!" Is this money well spent? "Each person gets to decide what is too much," says Shulman. "It's not just a matter of your income. Shopping may not break your budget, but it does channel your energy away from other things, like spending time with your child. That can eventually cause a crisis."

What money can't buy

The key is to catch the problem before a crisis happens: before fights about your shopping have created major rifts in your family or you've gone into debt and/or ruined your credit. Compulsive shopping is considered an impulse-control disorder, says Deborah Serani, a clinical psychologist in Smithtown, New York. If you go on a spree or overindulge occasionally, there's probably no need to worry. But if you're shopping regularly because you feel sad or angry, and your spending has put you and/or your family in financial danger, it could signal trouble. She suggests simple strategies: Get rid of all credit cards except one (use cash instead), don't shop alone, and make a shopping list of only what you need and stick to it. Ultimately, though, compulsive shoppers need to find other ways to feel empowered. A skilled therapist can be greatly beneficial. "In some cases, medication can help alleviate depression, thus interrupting the destructive shopping cycle," Serani says. "And financial guidance from a professional may be necessary if you've gone into debt."

While I didn't fill the bill of a true shopping addict, I came dangerously close. After my Christmas blowup with my husband, I was forced to acknowledge what was behind my buying and that no MAC lip gloss could take me back to my younger years. And why would I want it to? That 20-something girl sipping champagne wanted nothing more than a husband and kids to kiss goodnight. As soon as I really accepted my life, everything changed. Don't get me wrong, I still love to shop, and we moms do deserve to treat ourselves. It's just that now I know I don't need a pair of Gucci sunglasses to feel rich. I already am.