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How Does a Woman in her Prime Define Success?

When asked his opinion of the President for a recent article in the Washington Post Magazine, a third grade student replied, “I don’t think we need a President. I think we should be free.” This response caused an upwelling of understanding and agreement in me about the President and myself: I just want to be free. I am slowly but surely working toward becoming free of my own prison, a self-inflicted construct stemming from Western society’s idea of success, or more precisely, my own idea of success that is based on some conglomeration of the American dream, the self-made man (not woman), and the notion that as a woman I am as valuable as a man because I can make as much money as a man. Say what? How does one really define success?

Yes, I am admitting it – when asked to define success, I have a skewed sense of the term. I cannot shake this nagging feeling that I should be doing more. I am constantly judging myself in terms of career success – what have I done to support my family financially; what have I done to utilize my innate gifts, training, and education to that end; why don’t I have it all? Paula Drexler, a PhD research psychologist from Cornell University, writes in her Forbes article from 2014, “How Women Define Success,” that “for many, male or female, money is tied to feelings of security and self-importance and often very directly related to how much a person is worth at work.” Herein lies the problem.

Even though I have been the stay-at-home parent in our family for two decades, I still look at my worth in terms of how much money I make, which I may add, is not even a third of my salary of 22 years ago. The truth comes tumbling down on you all too quickly when you have to fill out the FAFSA for your college-aged child and the family income is broken down into mother and father earnings. What does my piddling salary of $302 say about me? Is it telling me that I have not succeeded in life because I haven’t worked hard enough? Is it telling me that I have failed because it is my fault and I have some kind of character flaw?

What it’s telling me is that my definition of success is akin to other women who believe success is based on career goals. Drexler also notes that when a 2010 study of business school graduates published in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business asked 2,000 women and men what success was to them, the women answered, “career goals” and the men answered, “personal growth.” Maybe we should define succcess as “attaining a goal that is very challenging,” rather than just attaining any goal, such as getting up in the morning. Maybe women see career goals as more challenging than personal growth and visa versa for men.

I know I have character flaws and I am not a failure, but am I a success? I don’t have a large income because I still spend a lot of time taking care of my family, pursuing a work-life balance, and writing blogs that may someday be lucrative. I am on call 24/7 emotionally and physically for my family as therapist, confidante, chauffer, chef, launderer, financier, etc. I spent my early years dreaming of putting on a business suit and heels, grabbing a briefcase, and whisking off to a job I loved in the city.

Although that’s not how my life turned out exactly (I realized business suits and high heels are really quite uncomfortable to wear all day), I did spend a very satisfying decade after college researching, writing, and editing for a consulting company as well as getting my Master’s degree. I had intended to go back to work at least part-time after my last child was in kindergarten, but that didn’t happen. Instead I took care of my family, sacrificing my career and any extra income. For whatever reason, that is the path I chose and I do not regret it.

I do regret, however, that I have internalized the need to be a successful businessman (and not, unfortunately, a successful businesswoman, or a successful mother, for that matter). Sometimes I’m embarrassed by not having a full-time job outside of the home because my friends who are mothers have full-time jobs outside of the home. Sometimes I’m embarrassed because we can afford for me to not have a full-time job outside the home. And sometimes I think I am just a whiny baby who doesn’t know what she wants.

In an attempt to free myself of this figurative thorn in my side, I’ve read through various studies theorizing about the definition of success in terms of gender and listened to podcasts of various authorities addressing the meaning of success. Newsflash: it is I who must define what success means to me to the core, devoid of societal expectations.

Success is doing something well. It is impossible for any single person to do everything well, to have success in every activity she pursues. So maybe, if I engage in activities that I do well and that make me happy, I am being successful. For instance, I think I do a good job of taking care of my family and it makes me happy that they are less stressed because of my hard work. We have a new puppy, and I am not a puppy or dog person, but the fact that I am available to take care of the puppy means that as a family we will be successful in having adopted this rescued animal and raising her in a loving, clean, and happy environment.

According to author Shawn Achor, we have to reverse the happiness myth, which says if we work hard and become successful we will be happy, to the happiness truth, which is if we are happy, we are more successful. I like it. Now my big challenge will be to help everyone around me be happy so I don’t feel guilty about succeeding at my own happiness.

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