A Mother’s Style Awakening
Melissa Harris-Perry

Back-to-school shopping is one of my favorite tasks. It’s the one time I’m able to indulge and live vicariously through my child (an impulse ferociously destructive in other arenas but fairly harmless in fashion). Having inherited her figure from her dad, my elder daughter, Parker, is long, lean and sample-size, making her easily able to wear the clothes I adore but can’t pull off.

I was eagerly anticipating our annual September retail excursion when she less-than-gently informed me that I would not be accompanying her: “Mom, this year can Morgan take me shopping? I mean, let’s face it. She is the one who’s fashionable.” Ouch.

But she’s right. Morgan is hands down the most stylish person any of us know. We first met her when I started commuting every weekend to New York City from New Orleans to broadcast the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. Parker no longer required a full-fledged babysitter, but she needed an adult to accompany her to dance classes and to help her with homework. Morgan, who’s a sixth-grade teacher, fit the bill perfectly.

Early in our family’s relationship with Morgan, I realized her influence was only partly about helping my daughter multiply imperfect numbers. She was also teaching Parker style. Far more than mine, the beauty and versatility of Morgan’s hair inspired Parker’s big chop and subsequent commitment to natural dos. My tween rarely dons the petite silver Tiffany charm I gave her to match my own, but Morgan’s bold accessorizing draws Parker’s eye to chunky bracelets and quirky hats. Parker has also developed a reflexive side-eye for the “everyone is wearing it” gear of middle school after spending weekends thrift shopping with Morgan in Manhattan.

It all makes me a bit jealous. Isn’t it my right as a mother to mold a mini-me? But here’s the truth: When I use the designation “nerd” to describe myself, it is not just about my love of reading and enthusiasm about regression coefficients. I am a nerd, in part, because I am socially awkward and unfashionable. At 40 I have figured out what flatters and what to avoid, but I’ll likely never possess the creativity and flair that makes one chic.

Setting aside my bruised maternal ego, I can admit that I, too, would rather go back-to-school shopping with Morgan instead of myself. She makes ordinary outfits look high-end. She once texted me a picture of my younger daughter, baby AJ, whom she’d dressed up to take out for a walk in the stroller. Somehow, under Morgan’s hand, even an infant had serious swagger with white jeans and rolled cuffs on her sweater!

When I asked Parker what it is that makes Morgan so fashionable, she responded, “It’s her attitude. She wears what she likes, not what other people tell her to wear.” Morgan is beautiful, but she is also kind, smart, hardworking and fearless. She’s a model of hip, urban, young Black womanhood for my daughter. Through their relationship, I have learned an important parenting lesson: You are not everything your child needs. No matter the strength of our mother–daughter bond, Parker and AJ will need other women who are strong where I am weak and stylish where I am a geek to help usher them into adulthood.

This article was originally featured in the September issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now!