The labels that matter most

Handle with care label

Many of us see a label and immediately we make a value judgement.

Atmosphere, Tu, Ellesse, Planet, Jigsaw, George… we know which woman buys those labels. We can tell a lot about a woman by the label in her jacket.

We become fixated by the brand logo, that identifying mark that establishes what group of women we belong to, like the brand burned on livestock and slaves with a branding iron. The label is a sign of where we belong and consequently, how we expect to be treated.

Labelling our children

My children have labels. My eldest son was diagnosed with ADHD at 21. My three adopted children all have FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). Actually, it’s ARND – alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder – a label within a label, like Marks & Spencer’s Per Una and Autograph.

My beautiful, funny, loving children have been judged and categorised by these labels that they have been required to wear. Yet I know, because I live with them and love them, that whilst my three adopted children each wear the same label, they are far from the same. My eldest daughter is chaotic and disorganised, compassionate and creative, overwhelmed at times with anxieties and insecurities. My son with ARND takes time to process all that he hears and sees; he has sensory issues that make each day a struggle; he’s fabulous at accents and facial expressions.

And then there’s my youngest daughter: she’s the one with the ridiculously poor judgement that lands her in all sorts of bother. She has mild cerebral palsy in her hands and feet and yet she’s an amazing dancer. She makes me laugh (and despair) every single day.

Many of us have a label to wear. Maybe it’s OCD, ME or MS; PTSD, IBS or COPD. Perhaps it isn’t an acronym, but a single word – unemployed, alcoholic, refugee, disabled, divorced, gay etc. We allow that word to define us, to be the first thing that anyone finds out about us, as if that label is the most interesting thing about us.

Of course, labels can be helpful. They can help us understand why we are as we are and access the support and strategies that we need to make life manageable. At the end of his first year studying engineering at Cambridge, my eldest son knew he wasn’t the same as everyone else around him. He couldn’t focus, study and concentrate like they could. When he was diagnosed with ADHD, everything suddenly made sense. He wasn’t interested in the label; all that mattered was that now he was getting the right help for him. He graduated with a First and has never looked back.

I’m not interested in labels and brands. I love clothes for what they look like, how they fit, how they feel, how they make me feel about myself. I pick clothes that are interesting and quirky, just that little bit different. My wardrobe is an eclectic mix. I spend hours in vintage shops and charity shops, where the variety of colours and styles and textures and eras and sizes delights me.

I choose my friends the way I choose my clothes. I’m drawn to women who are interesting and quirky, just that little bit different. I love my friends for what makes them unusual, the more unconventional the better.

I have another son. He doesn’t have a label, although ironically, he’s the most complicated of all my children. Which brings me on to the labels that matter.

In each garment we buy, there is another label, usually hidden away in one of the side seams: the care label – instructions for washing, drying, ironing and dry cleaning. Guidelines on how to care for your garment; how to make it last longer; how to handle for best results.

This is the label that really matters, because not all garments can be treated the same way.

Just as not all children can be treated the same way (which makes me ask questions about our rigid education system that is forcing my son with ARND to sit a bunch of GCSEs that he has no hope of passing, however hard he tries).

When I do bundle all my clothes into the washing machine on the same cycle and hope for the best, I know that when some items come out stained, misshapen or faded, I only have myself to blame. And on those occasions when I’ve expected each of my five children to behave the same in a social situation, without making any allowance for their differences or struggles, then I only have myself to blame when it all goes pear shaped and descends into ugly chaos.

I overlook the care label at my peril. I make assumptions and don’t take the time to care for my clothes and my people in the best way.

Be honest: have you ever checked the label before purchasing to discover that that fab shirt you’ve got your eye on is dry clean only and so reluctantly put it back on the rail? You know you won’t take care of it properly. You recognise it’s too high maintenance for you.

Do you treat the people in your world like that too?

Except sometimes, you fall in love with that Anna Sui cardigan with cream lace cuffs and don’t care that it requires dry cleaning. It’s so worth the effort. And you love that friend or partner or child so much that you want to care for him or her in the best way possible. You’d love to see their care label, because in this world where we’re all so wonderfully unique, wouldn’t it be great if each individual come with their own care label?

Requires plenty of sun, rest and water.

Handle with care: fragile particularly when tired.

Keep in a quiet, secluded spot where possible.

Why not start right now with your personal care label? How would that read?