Editor’s Note: Elena Sheppard is a culture writer who focuses on books, fashion, theater and history. Her first book, “The Eternal Forest: A Memoir of the Cuban Diaspora,” is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last week, a story went viral after an employee at the popular and pricey children’s clothing company Kyte Baby lost her job. The employee, Marissa Hughes, had put in a request to work remotely while her newborn and premature, adopted son was in the NICU. Hughes says that Kyte Baby fired her after she put in the request, even though she had offered to work from the hospital. Kyte Baby told CNN that Hughes had qualified for two weeks of paid maternity leave and needed to sign a contract saying she’d return to her job for at least six months after those two weeks were up. Because of her son’s situation, Hughes did not feel she could make that commitment.
Kyte Baby CEO and founder Ying Liu, a mother herself, publicly apologized twice on TikTok to Hughes. The first apology — stilted and clearly read from somewhere just off camera — was attacked in the comments (“I love the sincerity of an apology that’s being read from a piece of paper,” read one comment that has been liked more than 25,000 times so far). So, Liu came out with a second apology later the same day. “The comments were right, it was scripted,” she says in her second apology video. “It wasn’t sincere, and I’ve decided to go off script.” In the second video, she’s markedly less polished and more panicky (according to commenters) as she goes on to apologize to Hughes and the Kyte Baby community, saying, “We need to set the example because we are in the baby business.” The more than 15,000 comments on her apology show that customers haven’t forgiven. “I’m due in May and I took all your stuff off of my baby registry,” one commenter wrote. “RIP KYTEBABY,” wrote another. The anger is real.
That anger also reveals the depth of investment many parents make in the brands and fashions they choose for their young children. It’s not just about a sleep sack or a romper or a sippy cup — it’s an identity and a community. Not for the kids, for the parents. But the bottom line is we are focusing outrage on a company and a CEO’s albeit massive misstep, when the real focus of our rage should be the country that affords parents zero parental leave and allows workplace episodes like this to happen in the first place.
To an extent, the individual and group attachments to brands like this make sense. Becoming a parent is a brain scramble. Your identity shifts, your responsibilities grow, your world changes. In tandem with those more existential transformations is the reality that having a kid requires a whole lot of new purchases — clothes, a crib, a car seat, a stroller, diapering accoutrement. For many, myself among them, there is a real trust put into the brands that we choose for our children. In addition to selling items, those brands are also selling a promise that they’ll add a hint of control to this totally uncontrollable moment in our lives and that they will help us take care of our children along the way. Tucked into that promise is an assumption that they are pro-parent and pro-baby — a situation like what just occurred at Kyte Baby calls that trust into question.
I first learned about the Kyte Baby incident via a group chat I’m in comprised of parents whose children were born in 2022, the same year as my sons. Many of us had purchased Kyte Baby items for our kids in the past. Everyone was outraged. The situation itself, of course, highlights the perilous family leave situation in this country, and the lack of protections parents of young children face when it comes to parental leave or the need for flexible work conditions. But the broader context for the firing, as well as the backlash, also exposes the messy reality of how baby companies are able to successfully sell a polished version of infancy — and what that says about the parents doing the buying.
Items for sale on the Kyte Baby site right now include bamboo sleepers in “sage” and “dusty rose,” and a lovey in “storm” with a removable wooden teething ring; they’re adorable. Social media makes those brands and their perfection feel ubiquitous and even attainable, as if all infants to millennial parents are wearing the same pristine, overpriced PJs and playing with the same enriching toys plucked from neatly organized Montessori bookshelves, all of this happening in neutral palette nurseries. It can feel competitive, this purported perfection, and of course it is nothing new. Competitive parenting has existed likely as long as parenting has existed, and adorable clothing and a cohesive décor are simply a way that many play the game.
If you’ve stumbled upon a mommy blogger on Instagram, or checked out a fashionable friend’s baby registry, or have a kid of your own, you’ve likely seen the currently popular aforementioned baby aesthetic in action: beige (called “sad beige” thanks to a term made viral by online influencers), muted jewel tones, organic fabrics, wooden or silicone toys, delicate prints. A little bit homesteader, a little bit Brooklyn cool.
It’s a seductive aesthetic (I’ve often fallen prey to it), one that in its simplicity seems to promise an ability to control the chaos of parenting through harmonious visuals. It’s an aesthetic that is particularly popular with millennial Instagram influencers, and those interested in a gender-neutral vibe. It presents a façade of perfection that is certainly enviable to many parents of young children out there, but also foreign. Instagram: polished children wearing ecru bloomers. Reality: washing poop out of a onesie.
As with all brands, baby brands offer a promise to customers. Buy our item, and perhaps your life will look a little more like our ads. With Kyte Baby, those ads have a splash more color than sad beige but a similar undercurrent of sustainability and polish that millennial parents look for. There is the added expectation that since we are purchasing these items for the most important people in our lives, the companies behind them are both walking the walk and talking the talk — treating their employees with a respect for their family lives, especially when it comes to their children. Kyte Baby’s blunder exposed an upsetting truth that brands hardly ever keep the promises they make. That’s why social media has been brimming with videos of parents throwing their Kyte Baby products right out the front door.
Here’s the thing: We’re all adults. We should know that these promises from brands are empty, and perhaps I’m speaking for myself when I say I feel a bit naïve now for expecting more from Kyte Baby. As parents we may feel lost, but that’s because here in America we are not given the time or space or safety net to find out who we are in these new roles. We search for identity and sometimes that searching leads us to pricey brands and the illusion of perfection or control they afford us — we want to give our children the best, and Kyte Baby’s pajamas are legitimately very cozy. To respond to this Kyte Baby fiasco by throwing out perfectly good baby pajamas defeats the purpose of all of this and only means one less baby is going to sleep in cozy pajamas. We may feel duped by the brand, but the real object of our ire is American parenthood.
As for what’s next for the Kyte Baby saga, it’s unclear. A GoFundMe for Hughes’ baby’s medical expenses collected nearly $100,000. Kyte Baby, I must imagine, is, indeed, panicking. This story has laid bare once again the real and systemic issues in this country while also revealing a truth that while these “Instagrammable,” deliciously soft, baby items may look perfect, there’s nothing about parenting that is. Parenting is a mess, parental leave is a mess, and now Kyte Baby has revealed that, like many other companies, it is a mess too.
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