I used to know how to define success. Receiving an "A" in class. Being promoted to the next grade. Receiving a raise, a year-end bonus or a glowing review. It was pretty simple to identify success when I worked for pay, because in the working world, everyone receives feedback -- the minimum wage workers and the CEOs. I worked in entertainment, where the trappings of success are even more apparent than in most industries. Success meant new titles, new parking spots and corner offices. It also meant lavish bonuses, the ability to buy a house in Los Angeles, a ridiculously impractical car and, above all, power. With success in Hollywood comes the power to make or break careers, the power to get things made, the power to do what every single person in that town wants to do, but usually can't because he or she lacks the requisite authority: create.
When I became a mother, I decided to opt out of that world for a while. I don't expect -- in fact, I don't hope -- to be out of the working world forever, though my Hollywood days are now in my past. For now, I no longer have to worry about the expectations of an employer, and I no longer feel that anxiety that comes along with running in that particular rat race. But I admit that sometimes, I do miss the feedback and the automatic recognition of my own successes. I miss the moment when someone says, "You did it. Job well done."
When you are a stay-at-home parent, how do you define success? Is a successful SAHP one whose house is pristine, clean and organized? Is he or she dressed in real clothes every day, reserving yoga pants for actual yoga and flip-flops for the pool deck? Are the children clean but still having fun, well-dressed but not too pretentiously, and fed organic, non-GMO, non-HFCS, homemade meals that they still enjoy and won't lead them to eating disorders? Do their children come home with straight A's on their report cards and sparkle with social prowess? Because if so, that's a pretty tall order for "success," and it is one that very few people can achieve. It excludes anyone with children who fit outside the mold of absolute average for whatever reason, and it assumes that just because a parent stays at home, he or she is solely responsible for the well-being of both the house and the children.
As a mother who does not work for pay, I'm not sure how to define success in my everyday. Catching up with the laundry? Getting the kids out the door without any screaming or crying from anyone, including me? Making a dinner that at least half of them will eat? It varies with the day and mood of my four children. I have my small victories, the days when things Go Well. A teacher compliments my child, or my child tells me that he had fun with me, or I made him happy. I feel successful when I check off every item on my to-do list and still have both the time and the energy to actually focus on my kids and give them each the attention they deserve, if only for a few moments, before they go to bed that night. Those nights are not the norm, though. Many nights, I am frustrated because I am drained, I had to order pizza because I ran out of time, my children spent too much of the day fighting, and I yelled. I go to bed knowing there is no parenting equivalent of a corner office or big bucks coming my way. And forget about power. I don't even always hold enough power to get my children to do what I want, much less anyone else.
As my children and I both grow older, I am actively looking for a way to redefine success in my life. I want to look beyond grades (for me and for my children), look beyond the titles and the salary grade, look beyond how clean my minivan is or what size clothing I wear. As a writer, I want to write without my eye on Facebook shares or retweets. I have decided that perhaps a key to my own success, not to mention my own happiness, is to stop defining success by external means. I am still figuring out what that new definition of success -- determined by me and me alone -- might look like, but I think it will be some combination of self care, well-adjusted and thriving kids, peace in my home, work that exercises my mind to its greatest potential and healthy relationships both with my friends and my husband. Perhaps, my new version of success could simply mean that I spend my hours in a way that makes me go to bed knowing I did my best every day -- the same goal I give my children.
Okay, and yes, success might always require more clean laundry than dirty.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here.
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