My father has never been one for face-to-face communication, but he always did know how to make a statement.
When I turned 18, he knew my route to high school and posted signs boldly declaring in thick sharpie markers SUZANNE LOWE IS LEGAL TODAY on stop signs, trees and telephone poles along the way. You could drink at 18 in North Carolina back then so I assumed that is what he meant. It wasn’t until I got to campus that I discovered the “HONK IT’S MY BIRTHDAY” sign on the back of my 67 Mustang and realized why people had been blaring their horns at me the whole way there.
When I turned 40, he had my face silkscreened on the front AND back of a t-shirt. The front was emblazed with a black and white photo of pigtailed two-year-old me with the words SOUTH CAROLINA BABY over my larger than life-sized face and on the back was an image of current me with the words CALIFORNIA LADY atop my grinning mug. Where would I possible wear that? I wasn’t even about to jog around my own neighborhood flaunting my own face. But it is the thought that counts.
Unfortunately daddy doesn’t always think before executing his grand gestures.
In my late twenties I landed my dream job. For years I’d imagined success meant a career on a Hollywood Studio lot. Before this position, I’d spent six years working my way up from temp to promotions manager at a local television station. I was good at that job and thought my skills would transfer well to the new gig. The interview was positive, but clearly I didn’t ask enough questions.
The office was spacious, and the people seemed nice, but there were impenetrable cliques. The majority of accounts I’d been assigned were small and I had considerable spare time. When I shared ideas of how I might fill it and expand our outreach, my boss mumbled suggestions or showed utter disinterest. She spoke in acronyms and requests for clarification garnered ill-tempered responses with no actual answers.
She also wanted our division to appear to be the hardest working group in the building. We had to be in the office at 7am, which made sense. Many of our corporate partners were on the east coast. But we were often unable to leave until after 7pm because she wanted to wait for her boss to leave. When the lights in his office went out, we could go home.
A colleague came back to work three weeks after giving birth. I remember hearing the whir of her breast-pump through the wall of our adjoining offices. Sometimes I thought I heard sobs behind her door. She reluctantly weaned at less than two months because the stress of pumping was too difficult and we’d already had to fly to New York, Chicago and Minneapolis to visit clients. Pumping on the plane was a bitch, she said.
So was our boss. Just six weeks into my job, we gave a group presentation at a conference in New Orleans. I was excited to be there and I nailed my part of the presentation, or so I thought. But when I got onto the elevator with some of the Big Wigs from our division, my boss introduced my colleagues but left me out of the introductions. As we stood in a group on the curb in front of the convention center, a steady rain coming down beyond the covered circular drive, a limousine pulled up. My boss, the Big Wigs and a colleague climbed in and as I was stepping toward the car, my boss leaned her head out. “Sorry,” she said, “There’s no more room” and the shiny black door closed as the limo slid away.
I grabbed a cab, alone and contemplated the career move that was turning into far less than I’d dreamed. When we returned to LA, I was taken off the high-profile McDonald’s account with no explanation. I was too insecure to demand one. I was instead tasked with finding a corporate sponsor for a syndicated show with a star who was all over the tabloids for alcohol and drug abuse.
I was being set up for failure, but I dug in my heels and dedicated myself to my accounts. My boss was still cold, but I kept a smile on my face and invited colleagues to lunches and I soon discovered that three people had my job in the year before I took it. They all left or were fired. A manager in another division said she’d heard I’d wowed the Senior VP in New Orleans. I never got that feedback.
Initially my husband and I were excited about my career and the potentially lucrative three-year contract I’d signed. I was too embarrassed about being a failure to talk much to him or my friends about my misery. And I couldn’t talk to my parents. Mom was a housewife and dad was a manager for the telephone company. They were proud to tell neighbors or friends at church that their daughter worked for an entertainment company in Hollywood. They didn’t understand the long hours and the strategy women had to employ to climb the corporate ladder. My mother did wonder how I could be a good wife if I wasn’t home in time to make a decent dinner. She often questioned when we were going to have a baby. My dad stayed silent, as was his way.
I was so preoccupied that I hadn’t noticed I’d missed my period. But then I threw up in the marble bathroom down the hall from our office suite, my high heels clacking loudly on the shiny marble floor as I rushed to make it into the stall in time. I went home early and crawled into bed. Stomach flu I figured. After three successive such flues in two weeks, I took a pregnancy test. At that point I hadn’t put a lot of thought into being a working or stay-at-home mom.
What I knew was that my contract was up for negotiation and I’d recently landed a few deals that should help solidify the higher pay range for year-two. If I could work through the pregnancy, I’d at least have eight months at the higher salary before deciding if I wanted to return to this job after maternity leave.
My contract negotiation was slated for a Monday morning in November. I would head into the office directly from a client meeting. On Sunday evening, I set out my favorite suit, knowing I wouldn’t be able to squeeze into it much longer.
That evening we called my parents. It was my father’s birthday, my mom was fighting breast cancer and, though I was only two months into the pregnancy, we decided to share the exciting news with my parents as part of his birthday present. They were over the moon with anticipation of their first grandchild.
The next morning, my client meeting went well, but as I walked into my office, my secretary and a couple other colleagues smiled oddly. I’d certainly not revealed my secret and had no intention of doing so until I was showing, and even then, I’d wait until people started thinking I was getting fat. I wasn’t going to jeopardize my tenuous spot in the fragile department hierarchy.
And then I saw it. Our inboxes lined the wall by the door that everyone passed coming or going from our wing and there, in my box was a fax from my dad. I know he was trying to be nice. I know he thought it was celebratory and I know it was sincere, like those signs that lined my route to school on my 18th birthday. He didn’t know about my contract negotiations. He didn’t know how fragile my position was.
The fax had a poorly drawn stork and the words:
CONGRATULATIONS MOM TO BE!
WE ARE AS PROUD AS WE CAN BE!
Right there in the clear Lucite inbox on the wall for everyone in my department and adjoin departments to see. I had no time to process. No time to call my husband. No time to think of a plan.
As I went in for my meeting, my boss and her boss gave me a look. “Is there anything you want to tell us?” she asked, clear as a bell, a knowing and nauseating smirk crossing her face. No mumbling or acronyms this time. My contract allowed both parties an out at the end of year one and my performance wasn’t strong enough to warrant a paid maternity leave. Yes, I could have fought for it. But I was spent and emotional, surprised and unprepared. I hated that job and I agreed to a severance that amounted to very little.
Of course I never told my dad that one little fax likely cost me six figures. I rarely think about it, until the college tuition bills for the fax-celebrated baby come along. But when I walked out that door and down that marble hallway, I said goodbye to disquietude and began a new and joyful journey that remains the best job of my life.