I try not to judge other parents, I try my best – their plight is my plight, their weekly struggles to remain sentient in the soft play, their daily wrestles and nightly fights are my weekly etcs – but sometimes I am… tested.
I’m talking, of course, about the devotees of what has recently been described as “sad beige”. These are parents who, following current fashions, dress their children like small peasants in mournful shades of oat and camel, buy simple toys in “earthy” tones and decorate their bedrooms with such deafening taste and restraint that it’s clear the children are less likely to be playing with Lego here than whittling a bowl for mother to fill with her own milk.
It’s an aesthetic that crept in on the back of minimalism, a word which has long made me shudder. To me, the idea of a minimalist home does not suggest its intended serenity or peace. Instead, it suggests fear. Fear both of stains and spillages, but also fear of getting it wrong. Of stepping out of line and revealing the dark, grubby truth of one’s inner desires, of people thinking you haven’t tried hard enough.
Its exquisite emptiness is still seen as morally superior to a home filled with furniture, let alone mess. And while this sense of moral superiority is nothing new, increasingly it is bolstered by more modern ideas about environmentalism. “Stuff”, such as raucous plastic toys or piles of felt tips, becomes proof that their owner doesn’t care about the devastation of the planet. Which is where the brands trading in “sad beige” come in, with a range of toys made of wood or recycled plastic in muted Farrow & Ball-ish colours like “sodden scone”, sold online for twice the price of simply, “red”.
I’m yet to investigate the benefits of buying a recycled plastic toy or organic cotton babygro, compared to simply recycling one yourself, either by gratefully accepting hand-me-downs or popping down to the charity shop, but I have my suspicions. I have my suspicions! I find the greenwashing that parents are subjected to particularly grim – the shameless grabbery of companies masquerading as activists, selling more and more useless crap to desperate people under the guise that buying their product is somehow akin to planting a tree – and this is no exception. Smug perfection can be bought, from Amazon, for £26, or £23 if you catch a Black Friday deal. Sometimes it comes in its own little hemp tote, which can later be fed to the mother tote which lives under your sink, and growls quietly when hungry.
I’m sorry. I do this. I do this thing where an idea irritates me, like a mosquito bite, and then I scratch and scratch at it until it’s not only bleeding but simply gushing so much blood that all my surroundings are threatened and any poor cow unlucky enough to be standing in my vicinity will be very likely drowned.
I mean – of course it’s OK to dress your kids in beige. Of course it is. Of course it’s OK to aspire to a life of cleanliness and peace. I do, regularly, especially when wading through the pit of my own kids’ bedroom, where small pieces of sharp useless plastic go to loudly die. My issue lies with the idea that these choices are somehow spiritually better than the other choices available, either because of “nature”, or because they’re more expensive, or because (as many feminist enthusiasts claim) the trend for old-fashioned clothes in varying shades of linen is “gender neutral”.
Which – again, the itch. By all means boycott the brands that insist on making T-shirts that say things like: “LOVELY SOFT GIRLIE / SHOW ME TO THE KITCHEN PLEASE” in pink glitter, or “DADDY’S BIG BOLD MAN” above a cartoon of a muscular CEO on a truck with a gun. But it’s not the clothes that fuck up kids – we all know the poem. It’s us, Mum and Dad, you and me, bringing our own tastes, anxieties and shit to the table and forcing them to eat it by candle light.
Just as the purchase of a minimalist rug does not come with free inner peace, buying into the children’s lifestyle trend it spawned does not ensure a perfect life for your child. Ruched linen dresses will inevitably become stained by your messy memories, strained relationships, those lingering, grubby fears. Exquisite little coats will not protect your child from the bad weather of your own childhood, even if it has a darling buckle at the waist.
And by micromanaging the appearance of your homes and families, buying this “sad beige” illusion of class or taste, you sacrifice chaos. You sacrifice the kind of wildness and carelessness that, in childhood, is fleeting and sometimes gorgeous. As I type through the dying moans of a battery-operated Peppa Pig obscenity, that’s what I’m choosing to believe, anyway.