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At a recent baby shower it was a joy to "ooh" and "ahh" as the mom-to-be unwrapped and displayed so many ducky print layettes, onesies, hooded terry cloth towels, fleecy blankets and cozy sleepers.

So many new clothes, in fact, she might never have to do laundry again.

Yet just as eager as people are to supply new moms with brand new clothes, they're equally pleased to equip them with a hefty stock of hand-me-downs -- sometimes garbage bags full. Do we accept or reject them? Do we take them with a smile and never use them? Or do they become a fundamental part of baby's wardrobe? Sometimes you wonder whether you're just an easier drop off than Goodwill.

A former colleague gave us a refrigerator-box-size carton of her son's hand-me-downs when we were expecting our first son five years ago. "Don't worry, you don't have to return them," she said. "I already took out anything sentimental." She failed to mention that she had also taken out anything stylish or chic.

I was mortified to find sweet potato and formula stains speckling the first few outfits. And they were three or four years out of style. No firstborn of mine was going to be seen in spit-up stained threads or yesterday's fashions. Eight months pregnant, I abruptly shut the box and hobbled to the nearest secondhand boutique I could find and sold the entire contents for $40.

Oh, how times have changed. Waste not, want not is our new motto. Now we have two boys and a baby girl, whose wardrobe is filled with Cousin Kelsey's hand-me-downs. I don't have the time or money to shop for clothes my daughter will only wear once. Luckily, I am blessed with a sister-in-law who passes along bulk quantities of beautiful clothes.

Cousin Kelsey is exactly a year older than my daughter. Her clothes are not only the right size for the right season; they're also trendy and hip.

The other half of my daughter's wardrobe resembles a lending library. These clothes are from friends who aren't quite sure they're done having kids but hope their favorite outfits can get some use in the meantime. There's no need to send out overdue notices. The ground rule is: return everything when it no longer fits -- hopefully, without any sweet potato stains. The tags indicate the original owner. "V's" are for Vivian, only two months older, but a bit taller, with a passion for pink. "E's" are for Emma, a fashion maven, with a penchant for purple. My daughter will don her lavender Columbia fleece snowsuit this winter.

My friend Karen philosophizes: "Hand-me-downs recognize that kids outgrow some clothes faster than they can wear them out and build a sense of community as you share. Giving and getting them reminds me of how fast my kids are growing, and it always makes me smile to see another baby in an outfit I remember my own boys wearing."

So far, we've done much more receiving than giving. I don't know who in their right mind would want my sons' grass-stained, holey clothes, already handed down from brother to brother. Our inherited clothes sure do come in "handy." Before a recent outing, I asked my husband, "Could you look through the hand-me-downs? I need a purple shirt to go with Madeline's purple animal-print pants."

"I found one, but you know there's a little stain on it," he said. Who cares? I thought. We can always cover it with a bib.


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