My six-year-old daughter and I stand in front of her closet. It's "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," but Elizabeth hasn't heard about the dress code.
"No other girl will be wearing leggings and a ski sweater," I say. "How about this?" I point to a Black Watch tartan dress. Hand-smocked, it has a white Peter Pan collar edged in navy and a sash at the waist that ties in the back. "This would be perfect."
"Oh, all right," she agrees. The prospects of the train ride in and a visit to my office have buoyed her naturally good spirits.
And I am right about the attire. Gathered at breakfast later in my employer's guest dining room, my colleagues and I beam at each other over the heads of our dressed-up daughters. Elizabeth and I have chosen well. At 6, however, she is the youngest attendee. And though the program suggests a range of 9 through 13, I have brought Elizabeth because this could be the last year I work outside the home. I am contemplating a lifestyle change - going back to school to study creative writing - but I want my daughter to see what I have accomplished in the business world before I leave it all behind.
This is nothing like how I grew up. While there was no question that my mother ran the show in our family of seven, she did so from the command post of our kitchen table.
It was my father, the local surgeon in our small agricultural community, who went out into the world every day to care for his patients. I loved and revered my mother, but I would never let her sign my report cards. That was an accomplishment only my father could properly recognize. He knew what it was like to compete and encouraged the pursuit of excellence. My mother wanted to know if I was happy. To her, it didn't matter so much what the source of that happiness was, as long as it was the state in which I abided.
My memories of my mother are everything wonderful. But I want Elizabeth to know that the whole world is open to her and, as the T-shirt handed out to each girl today proclaims, "You can do anything!"
AS breakfast concludes, my male colleague and I stand to address the girls. Six-foot-four, wearing pinstripes and Ferragamo, he is the image of private banking, our line of work. He explains how we parents spend our days helping wealthy people with the "challenges" they face. He says this with a straight face, and I shudder slightly to hear our work described. He then turns the podium over to me, and I comment on the opportunity at large and how with hard work they can accomplish any goal. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my strawberry-blond daughter happily licking the frosting off yet another chocolate donut.
On the train ride home, Elizabeth and I play hang-man in her portfolio, part of the "goody bag" provided at today's event. I admit to myself that 6 is probably too young for her to have benefited fully from the day. It will be years before my daughter really knows what she wants to pursue. But I can't resist.
"Do you think you'd like to work in an office like Mom's when you grow up?" I ask in what I hope is an offhanded manner.
Elizabeth says quietly, "I don't want you to feel bad, but I think I'd like to be a stay-at-home mom." She looks up at me through pale lashes to gauge my reaction.
"Is that OK?" Her tone is my mother's exactly when she asked, "Are you happy, Sue?"
I take her hand and squeeze it. "You'd be a great stay-at-home mom."
As the train stops at the stations before ours, I watch mothers and young children spill out of minivans and form impromptu welcoming committees on the platform. Is missing out on this aspect of my daughter's life part of the reason I'm thinking about a change?
Maybe I'm ready to be a different sort of role model, one that combines the examples both my parents held out to me. Yes, strive for excellence in all you do, but let the benchmark of your success be your inner peace and happiness.
How will Elizabeth judge the choices I have made? What sort of role model will she one day try to be for her own little girl? I will be content if, from observing me, my daughter gains two things: confidence in the array of worthy choices available to her, and the ability to answer "yes" to my mother's trademark question.