I remember the first hand-me-downs I got for my baby, before I was even a mother. Five big black garbage bags from a new friend who had received them in turn from a string of friends—a veritable hand-me-down chain connecting moms of girls over a decade or more.
It was an absolute godsend, and I sobbed in gratitude as I unfolded outfit after outfit, sized newborn to 12 months. As a single mom, I was a mess of raging pregnancy hormones, living far from home and relatively alone. The money savings was incalculable, and the idea that someone else had been on this road before me was like a comforting hug of preloved cotton.
There were nearly new sleepers and onesies, adorable three-piece outfits, and a lot of older dresses with lace and bows and—new vocabulary for me—smocking. Decorative embroidery of baby bears and sailboats and lots and lots of floral—I loved it all. But there were also a few bedraggled and worn items in faded pastels that had seen better days, pilled sweaters, stained shirts, and hats that would never stay on a baby’s head. The hand-me-down chain had been going for years, added to along the way by newer moms, with nobody brave enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. A baby had actually worn these?! How long ago are we talking about?
Everything seemed clean, but I washed it all again in whatever scent-free baby-friendly detergent I’d purchased in my quest to be the best new mom ever. I sorted and re-sorted the outfits, along with the sleepers and onesies I’d bought at a consignment store and the perfect, brand-new outfits I’d received as gifts. I folded and hung it all so it was ready and waiting for baby.
It was tremendously reassuring to see the closet full of clothes, not to mention the small piles of tiny outfits that wouldn’t fit for another six months. Having been gifted it all by a new friend, whose daughter had once worn some of the items, I felt a bit less alone and scared about the road ahead. And the financial savings blew my mind—I’d just begun to realize how freaking expensive babies are.
But little did I know that my battle with overstuffed closets, groaning with all shades of pink, and toy boxes filled to the brim had just begun. A collector at the best of times and a pack rat when I was feeling sentimental, I now realize that hand-me-downs are the blessing and curse of motherhood.
More than 10 years after receiving those first bags of treasures that another mom had shared, I still get a little thrill when I open a new bag of clothes given by friends or family. Would we find a favourite? Something special that I couldn’t afford to say yes to in the store? Or something horrifically inappropriate that made me question the future of humankind? Black leather and white lace, in the same outfit, for preschoolers? Really? Heels for three-year-olds? Do some families actually like sequins this much?
This past winter, my tween was thrilled to get a tan knit poncho, along with two pairs of stylish brown suede boots from a family friend. The boots—a departure from the sensible running shoes I provided—gave her such joy and confidence that I questioned how I’d deprived her of such haute couture all her life. I was relieved to find a pair of purple Bogs in the same bag—good for an entire winter of warmth in a year when it seemed like her feet were outgrowing her boots before they could be unboxed.
From my daughter’s godmother, my girls and I have received the best toys, from wooden animals and fabric dolls to dress-up clothes and musical instruments for every age and stage. I remember the horror of another friend when she handed over a giant bag of Fisher-Price Little People toys and the moo and oink of a farm set came out—noise that threatened to reveal to her oblivious four-year-old that some prized possessions were being given away. From my brother, we’ve gratefully received second-hand scooters, hockey sticks and ski goggles and all the Littlest Pet Shop sets a girl could dream of.
But we’ve also been given things we can’t use or don’t want, from skin-tight jeggings my girls abhor to string bikinis they’re nowhere near ready for, as well as drab outfits that don’t appeal and Barbie gear they just never liked.
Jessica Tudos, a professional organizer and founder of Kika Creative in Toronto, says there is a trick to getting the benefit of hand-me-downs without inheriting the clutter of someone else’s past.“A shout-out to Marie Kondo for popularizing the notion of keeping only ‘what brings joy,’” says Tudos. “It does work. Trust your gut and be confident in your choices—your child will have enough.”
Tudos, a mother of a nine-year-old son in Toronto, keeps only one bin for “up-and-coming” clothes and toys and another for outgrown items to be given away. She recommends a methodical approach to hand-me-downs as they come in the door. “First, be thankful, and then be practical,” she says. “While we appreciate the generosity of others, if having too much stuff is making you feel overwhelmed, disorganized and stressed out, that isn’t helpful.”
Her advice for dealing with a new box of hand-me-downs? Open it and consider each item one by one. Keep anything that is a “strong yes” and will fit into your single “up-and-coming” bin. Pass along anything that produces a negative reaction in any way—don’t wait to see if it could possibly work. “Be a curator of content, not just a collector,” she says.
After years of receiving treasured hand-me-downs, as well as a small pile of things we never used (oh, the half-finished latch-hook kits that haunt my dreams!), I’m trying to adjust the way I give. Family and friends may find it hard to say no to a bag of my discarded lovelies (or simply question my plain vanilla taste in kids’ clothes), so I look for cues that they are unwelcome and spread my donations among a few families to gauge interest. They, too, may have closets and toy boxes that are already full. I remind myself that it’s not personal if they don’t like the same baby books or puzzles we did (Dora the Explorer grew on me, I swear, and Caillou has been demonized beyond reason!). Perhaps they would simply hate the frilly dresses my daughter loved at age three. I look for charity groups that welcome second-hand children’s books and daycares that always need more Play-Doh, markers and stickers.
Finding the gems in the trail of second-, third- and fourth-hand stashes, passed on from one family to another, takes a little luck and some patience. Having learned the hard way, I carefully sort my own pile of outgrown kids’ clothes and toys before I hand it over to the next family of little girls. Someone is ready for a gift, and no one needs more stuff.