Twelve years ago, my mom bought me a suit. I was 22, a recent college graduate and had just been hired for my first real desk job, which was about as real as All-Star Wrestling. She called it my “power suit.”
“Every woman should have a red suit,” she declared as I unwrapped the suit on Christmas morning. It was wool and fire-engine red with built-in shoulder pads. When I put it on, I felt like the center for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Growing up, my mom defined ‘90s businesswoman chic. She wore department store suit sets, silk blouses, gold Anne Klein earrings, neutral hose and Joyce pumps that she called “timeless.” She spritzed on Red Door perfume and shielded herself from the world with a hair-helmet lovingly cemented with Aqua Net. People treated her like a senator’s wife because she looked the part. Before she left for work, she’d strike a model pose in front of her full-length mirror and click her tongue approvingly.
I wanted to grow up to be just like my mom but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. Mom had been in sales most of her life, and I too imagined myself as a corporate 9-to-5 something-or-other—someone in a corner office of a high rise with an administrative assistant taking my calls. Someone people listened to. Someone important. Someone in a red power suit with Joyce pumps.
After college I worked an unfulfilling desk job for three years. I answered phones, filed papers and watched the second hand slug around the clock. I dressed nice and people respected me enough, but I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t respect the work I produced. I never donned the red suit. Not once. The red suit seemed like something reserved for a real businesswoman, whereas I was merely acting the part.
I could have returned it. The tags were still attached. It didn’t fit in with the rest of my clothes; instead it hung quietly in the back of my closet. I felt guilty when I saw it there, glowing like the red-light district in a seedy part of town. Guilty because it cost my mom $100. Guilty because I told her that I wore it to every important meeting. Guilty because it reminded me of what I hoped to become but hadn’t yet achieved.
Then one day, with my husband’s blessing, I walked away from my desk. I went back to school, earned a graduate degree and started teaching college courses. Then I had a baby and went back to school to get a second graduate degree and now I’m raising our daughter and making a living teaching and writing. And I do it in jeans and ballet flats. Sometimes I do it in my pajamas. Most importantly, I do it all without the red suit.
Last year, I tried to part with the suit at our garage sale. My friends mocked me when they saw it saying, “Hilary Clinton wants her suit back.” Like “Alf” and Def Leppard, the suit was no longer relevant—its time had come and passed. So I took it to Goodwill and I didn’t look back. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I did feel a sudden sense of relief when it was gone, as if someone had pulled a nagging, rabid monkey off my back.
Today as I sit down and quietly reflect on what I’ve accomplished in my life and where I’m headed, I realize that the red suit represented the woman I felt I should be, not the one I wanted to be. I wanted to be a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I didn’t want my mom’s 9-to-5 desk job, and she didn’t necessarily want that for me either. Giving me that suit was simply Mom’s way of saying she wanted me to be my best person. Isn’t that what every good mom really wants?
It took me a while to discover that life is about finding fulfillment by opening yourself up to possibilities you never thought possible. I have not accomplished everything I hope to accomplish, but I feel as if I’m headed in the right direction. Mom wasted $100 on that suit—but maybe that just depends on how you look at it. Rather than representing what I wanted to become, the suit showed me what I didn’t want. As far as life lessons go, $100 is pretty cheap—at least I hope Mom sees it that way after reading this.
Sorry, Mom. And more importantly: thank you, Mom.