I look at the shirt hanging in the closet. Look again. I have been avoiding this moment for months as I slowly declutter my wardrobe. I have tried on business suits. Tailored pants. Boxy button down shirts. All have gone in a bag to be donated to a local charity that helps women get back to work. Each time, I have deliberately avoided the corner where this wildly patterned #silk shirt hangs. But now, the moment of reckoning has arrived. I will never wear this shirt again, and I know it.
Why do I cling to this shirt? Because it represents the moment when the tide of my life began to shift. I bought this shirt when my two older children were babies, on a shopping trip to the store where I bought everything from baby formula to refrigerator light bulbs. Wore it when I had professional pictures taken for the first time since #college. One of those photos became my profile picture on social media.
And when I wore this shirt walking down the street? People did double takes as they recognized me.
Swim goggles. Olives for my husband. Laundry detergent. When I go shopping, at a glance my cart is loaded with items that add up to a whopping total at the cash register. But if you look more closely at the cart? You will see that there is nothing in there for me. And that? Is the normal state of affairs.
When I began working from home, I stopped spending money on myself. With the arrival of our first child, every available dime was sucked into the black hole of her needs. I was unable to successfully breastfeed, so formula consumed a substantial portion of our household budget. And with plans for another child, there was no point in spending money on clothing that would not fit in a matter of months.
I kept everything in the early parenting years. Bags of boy and girl clothing in case we decided to have a third child. Toys. And also? My work wardrobe. I had one goal when I became an entrepreneur – to keep my career alive so I could return to work when the children grew older and more self-sufficient. Those business suits and button down shirts were a promise to myself, a symbol of a future when I could reclaim my paycheck.
The day when I could fit back into my work clothes is one that shines in my memory. Why? Because it was a step toward independence. But also? Because it was the day I was mistaken for a waitress. I dug out a jacket and skirt to attend a fundraiser to benefit a local park. By dressing professionally, I was making a statement that I was moving toward returning to work. But in a room filled with casually – and expensively dressed – moms, I looked more like the wait staff.
The moment when I made my way to the bathroom, only to have a mom reach out and touch me on the arm to ask for more bread? Was the moment when I knew I had to begin investing in myself. Specifically, in my wardrobe. And now? Eight years later, I have a closet full of separates that I can mix and match to take me anywhere and make it instantly clear what I stand for.
Kathy Zucker is an international social media Shorty Award winner, mother of three and a startup founder at companies including the Metro Moms Network®.