My house is filled with hot spots. Not the warm, cozy kind, but the little storms of matter and memories that amass when one woman, one man and three little boys live together under one roof.
Take my bra drawer for example. It’s the middle drawer of my night table; not a typical place for bra storage, but just the right width to hold a collection. They sit, facing forward, one behind the other, like measuring cups stacked together on their sides. I flick through them like I’m scrolling through a recipe box, each bra evoking a stage in my pre- and post-baby life. I’ve tried to purge the collection; over the years I’ve whittled it down to eight bras, even though I wear only two. That’s as far as I will go because those cups hold memories. I used to keep a journal before I had children. Now, three boys later, the bra collection is my way of remembering.
In the back of the drawer sits a soft, cotton, turquoise bra from Elle MacPherson intimates. I bought it at Selfridges when I lived in London, shortly after spotting Elle herself on the Portobello road. A little Australian colour was exactly what I needed in grey London. I was twenty-eight at the time, freshly married, without children, and one year into what would be a four-year stint in London. I worked at a cookbook shop off the Portobello road while my husband was an investment banker in “the city.” We rarely saw each other; he worked all the time. But I had faith that a splash of colour would do wonders if our ships collided in the night. I grabbed the bra from the rack and tried it on behind a heavy velvet, boudoir-inspired curtain. It fit my one criterion: loose enough to avoid back fat. In just a few years my criteria would change and back fat would become a necessary by-product of a bra tight enough to “lift the girls.” Ignorance is bliss.
Next in my bra drawer is an amber-coloured, super-firm strapless job I purchased at a little shop on All Saints Road in Notting Hill. The cookbook shop granted us a 60-minute lunch break, not long enough with streets to explore, bakeries to visit and more shops to browse. I say browse because most stores in Notting Hill catered to the Elle MacPhersons, the American ex-pats, and the wealthy London ladies with posh children on scooters. I was none of those. I was a white, middle class Nova Scotian, wedged between selling cookbooks and dreams of writing them. I preferred the grittier All Saints Road that cut right through Notting Hill bringing memories of ’70s race riots and ’90s crackheads. The bright young chefs and soon-to-be discovered designers were just starting to move in, however, and that’s where I found a fabulous and affordable strapless dress for my sister’s wedding. I didn’t own a strapless bra, of course; TopShop t-shirts don’t require such a thing. But I had 26 minutes left on my lunch break that day and spotted a lingerie store right across from the dress shop. I rushed behind the curtain with bra in hand, paused briefly at my reflection—were those my breasts, suspended in air?—paid with plastic and returned to my fledgling career.
In my drawer, between that strapless All-Saints-Road bra and a stunning silky number with Chinese dragons dancing over the cups, lie the ghosts of nursing bras past. I’ve thrown them away now, but I remember when my frazzled husband ran out to find them, two 36ZZs, after our first son was born. He’d described my size to the sales lady with just two outstretched hands. Those nursing bras, and the breast pads within them, informed my outfits, my confidence—and indirectly, my career—during the early days of motherhood. I’d always expressed myself through clothes but now jeans squished my post-baby stomach, tight tops emphasized that squished stomach, and fitted blouses and dresses that required unzipping or unbuttoning to breastfeed seemed scandalous. A black stretchy top with matching skirt seemed the only, boring solution.
It was a Mâitre D at the Ritz who brought my groove back. I was having tea with my mother-in-law, trying to sip, smile and simultaneously juggle a fussy baby. I bounced my son over to the Mâitre D and asked if I could breastfeed at the table.
“I rather see breasts than hear that baby cry,” he said.
Strangely, I felt set free, not just to feed my baby at the Ritz but to wear whatever I wanted. To thrive in a big city like London, you have to stick out your elbows and make a space for yourself. This goes for mothers and aspiring cookbook writers, too. So I wore those 36ZZs with jeans and blouses and dresses. I wore them again after my second son was born. And again after my third.
Of course it wasn’t just my bra that landed me a publishing deal. My shop-mate, New Zealander Pippa Cuthbert, and I stuck our elbows out far and wide. We realized there were a few titles lacking amongst the ten thousand or so in our store. We pitched ideas to twenty publishers and were rejected by nineteen. (I started opening letters over the garbage can for sake of efficiency.) But the twentieth letter was positive. We wrote one cookbook, which turned into a series of seven and sold worldwide.
Back in my bra drawer, somewhere in the midst of those first cookbooks, we arrive at the Chinese dragons. My husband, son and I moved back to Canada when my son was four months old, but I had to return to London twice a year to work on the photography for our cookbooks. On one particular trip, I weaned my son cold turkey. In just two weeks, my breasts morphed from huge globes of nutrition to two small sport socks. Fortunately, Rigby and Peller, the Corsetiers to the Queen, were holding a sale at their Heathrow airport location. A bra-fitter followed me into the changing room, shoved my armpits into the cups, smoothed the straps with her practical hands and spun me around with her eyes at breast level. I walked out looking like a 16-year-old.
A beautiful bra not only lifts the breasts, it lifts the spirits. The puke down your back, the unfinished deadline, the greasy hair? It’s all going to be fine because you have a purple bra peeking through your old, white t-shirt, confidently saying, I’m beautiful.
It was this yearning for beauty and a desire for quality that explains the next bra in my collection: a black lace French Lejaby. It was purchased, sadly, before I weaned my third baby. I knew the rules—never invest when the globes are still full—but I had no choice. I was hired to host a food segment for television and needed serious infrastructure to hold myself in place. Crossing the threshold of Lily’s, a Halifax lingerie institution where you’re fitted English-style, meant I’d be transformed and I needed transformation. Standing in front of a camera requires confidence. In a 2012 TED Talk, Harvard associate professor Amy Cuddy explained that “power posing”—standing like Wonder Woman—not only makes you appear more confident, it changes your brain chemistry. You become more confident and courageous. I’d say a good bra does the same thing. I stayed intact on camera and felt fabulous, even though the bra wasn’t leak-proof. Thankfully, hair and make-up were happy to blow-dry my shirt between takes when milk spots emerged.
The collection ends with me, today. I am the average of my past and future life, suspended comfortably in the middle with two simple staples, one black, one white, both from Wacoal. The bra-fitter at Mills in Halifax sold them to me after staring, furrowed brow, at my post, post, post baby breasts in the changing room. She vanished into the storefront and returned with two curvy, thick-strapped bras with firm cups that automatically point to heaven. They’re not as luxurious as a Lily’s bra, but they do make me look like a sweater girl from my mother’s 1963 Dalhousie University year book. That will do.
Eventually, my bra collection will spill into the drawers above or below. This will mean purging belts, books, creams, nail clippers and other random and less sentimental items. But I look forward to what the future holds. I am a writer, a cooking show host, a stylist and most importantly, a wife and mother of three boys. I am surrounded by Playmobil, dirty socks, tangled iPad chargers and water guns. The toys will evolve, and so will my career. Through it all, I’ll remain the only woman in the family, standing tall like Wonder Woman and wearing a beautiful bra.