Measuring Success

[In another thoughtful member post, Emily, mother of two, and a student of theology, shares her thoughts on re-assessing our personal measures of success and failure when it comes to our children]  

As usual, I was thinking about life as I Swiffered the kitchen floor. These question popped into my head: is Henry (my two year old) doing well, like with growing up? Am I parenting him well? I started ticking off a sort of naughty/nice list in my head, but with his successes and failures. Then it hit me. I was asking the wrong question. Instead of ticking off successes and failures, I should be asking myself: what defines successes and failures for Henry and for me? What does “doing well” mean for him? In short: where was I getting this measuring stick for Henry’s success and failures that I was holding up to his little life? What was my measure for success and failure?

It’s so easy in this busy world to just go with the flow. That’s because who we are has been learned and formed over a lifetime of living. Even if we’re introspective people, we usually don’t catch every bit of detritus that sneaks in; even if we’re trying to examine our choices carefully, it’s hard to catch everything. What was the flow I was going with? In this case, I had fallen prey to the same thing that was the emphasis of my parent’s parenting: doing well in school and in a career. The measure I was holding up to Henry’s life was this: is he on track to do well in grade school when he starts, years and years from now. The funny thing is, that’s not what I really think is important. But there I was, Swiffering the kitchen floor, measuring Henry’s success against a measuring stick I didn’t particularly like.

I had to dig beneath the fake, floating world of expectations for Henry that were masquerading as my own before I could see beneath it to what I really wanted for Henry (and for myself, for that matter). What did I want for him? Simply this: to be a wise person, who knows himself and knows how to love and live well. The rest would follow.

It’s freeing and challenging at the same time to realize that being a good parent doesn’t mean helping Henry reach standards that hang somewhere out there like Platonic forms, perfect and pre-designed, waiting simply to be reached for and attained. Parenting well means asking what parenting well means. Measuring Henry’s success means asking what success means, in general and for Henry in particular. The freeing part is that if you’re already used to introspecting and applying what you discover to the choices you’re making, all you have to do is apply that to this newer thing of being a parent. The challenging part is that reassessing your measuring stick means that, in the end, you might choose not to go with the flow of society or with the flow of how your parents or peers taught you to live, and that’s just more work. Walking upstream is hard on your muscles. But, fortunately, muscles get stronger with use.

Success doesn’t look one way, not for me, not for Henry, not for anyone.  In the future when I make my mental check list about how Henry’s doing and how I’m doing as a parent, I’m going to try to use a slide rule instead of the stiff wooden meter stick used for hanging picture frames and drawing long straight lines.