Defining Success

Do you ever equate your success at your work with your value as a person? I’ve been stuck in that place more times than I can count. When people hear you’ve adopted five kids, they say things like: “Look at what you’ve accomplished!” Well, I’m here to tell you that adoption does not feel like much of an accomplishment years after the “event” when parenting – my work — is sheer drudgery or, worse yet, a growing list of my failures.

Right now, I’m trying to find appropriate private schools for three of our five children. I never imagined I’d be doing this. John and I both support public education, and we’ve had a tendency to shake our heads at the families who jump ship. We’ve judged the parents who take their money and talent to homogeneous, privileged environments when that money and talent is so badly needed in the public school system. And, yet, here we are watching our own children fail and feeling desperate to change things for them.

If I’m honest, our judgment of others was based on the assumption that those parents had children who could get a good education in the public school and that their children’s achievement would help raise the standards and prestige of public schools. We judged them for taking away. We didn’t consider they might worry about their children the way we worry about ours now.

Last night, Journey was distraught. Her upset-ness started with a conversation she tried to have with her dad. She didn’t think he was listening to her. Poor John was trying to clean a bathroom flooded by Becton after Becton had denied wrongdoing and the whole family had been called to account for the mess. K.J. did his usual judge-and-jury routine, hovering over Becton to extract a confession. Skye did her usual blaming anyone else but herself and chastising her brother. Journey did her usual worrying about the unfairness of privileges being taken from everyone until the situation was resolved. Emily claimed her absence from the house during the relevant time period removed her from suspicion. Becton felt oppressed and backed into a corner, unable to understand that he would receive worse consequences for lying than for the unfortunate deed. We have been down this road many times before with each of the children. Eventually, Becton confessed, privileges were restored to the other children, and Becton was reminded that lying is a greater transgression than making a mistake or having an accident that is reported when it occurs.

Journey became inconsolable when John did not give his full attention to her as he worked to return the bathroom to its previous hygienic form. I took her to her room. We worked on deep breathing and calming her down. After thirty minutes, she was ready to ask Daddy to come to her room to resolve the conflict. I thought I was done. Two minutes later, I was called back to the room. The two of them were sitting on Journey’s bed, and John said, “She’s upset about something else. She doesn’t want to go to middle school. She wants to stay in elementary school next year.”

Through her tears and gasps for air, Journey said, “I don’t want to go through all the problems that Skye and K.J. have.” Wow. It was my turn to speak and it better be good. Just that afternoon, K.J. had a meltdown in Journey’s presence over the loss of his phone. He had said some ugly things, and there was still a lot of work and learning to do related to the phone use, but things had calmed down. There have been many conflicts between the adults and the 13- and 14-year-olds in recent weeks and months. I could see why Journey didn’t want her own life to look like that.

What I said to Journey was that each of us takes a different path through adolescence, making our way from childhood to adulthood, and that her path won’t be exactly the same as her brother’s and sister’s. We have different issues to work on and work through because of our uniqueness. Yes, the middle school years can be hard – feeling awkward, not quite independent but not completely dependent any more, changing bodies and hormones and feelings — but we all get through it. And her daddy and I will be here to help her find her way. She would not have the exact same conflicts or crises as Skye and K.J. because she was a different child. Skye, who can be selfish and defiant, is working on that. K.J., who may lie or fail to put forth effort when he should, is working on that. I warned Journey that her tendency to get hysterical when things go wrong might get worse because that is her personality. But she would work through it and find appropriate ways to deal with her particular characteristics as she becomes a teenager and adult. Journey began to smile and wipe away the tears. John said, “I knew Mom would be able to help.”

I know there wasn’t anything earth-shaking about my words. Once again, I needed to hear them as much as I needed to say them. I needed to remind myself that we, as parents, are not failures because our children struggle. I needed to remind myself that finding an alternative, appropriate educational environment for each child – even if that was not in the original game plan — is not an indication that the child or the parent has failed. It is an honoring of their uniqueness. I needed to remind myself that struggling is part of the success story.

One thought on “Defining Success

  1. Rebecca- Thanks for putting it into words. My sense of accomplishment and success can vacillate day by day, minute by minute, depending on Cooper’s grade on today’s pop quiz or his lack of completion of an in-class assignment or whether that 89.65 in Science will still be there and “rounded up” to an A at the end of the semester. We’ve recently made that decision about a more appropriate school environment than our own (really very good) public middle school. Right now, I’m envisioning rainbows and sunsets throughout the next 6 years of school, sailing along on my own little pink cloud of success!

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