Measuring Success

Female Hands presenting a red heart.
Female Hands presenting a red heart.

Recently, my older daughter left for college. It has been a little difficult for me to see her go. It's not only that I miss her, but as a mom, I have struggled with brutal self-evaluation: Did I teach her enough? Did I give her what she needs to succeed? If you've watched your child walk away from you and into the next phase of her life, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

One of her first college assignments was to provide a personal profile. She shared it with me to help her edit before submitting to her professor. As I read through her words, I was excited to see she had set the bar high for herself. I enjoyed reading about her goals, her aspirations and her future as she envisioned it. I thought, "Maybe I did ok." And then, in the very last paragraph, almost like a side note, she included a very small statement that made me reevaluate my whole life. She simply said, "Coming from a family with two very successful parents...."

I had to take a step back for a minute and try to understand her definition of success. For my husband, its clear. He has worked hard and is one of the leading dentists in our area. He is a skilled clinician and has a special talent for delivering top shelf cosmetic improvements. He not only teaches and mentors but continuously strives to better himself by learning new technology and staying current on dental trends. He makes a good living and thoroughly enjoys what he does. That is the standard definition of success in our culture and yes, I agree. He is successful.

Then there's me. I have been married for 20 years and have never contributed one penny to our household income. My efforts have gone into caring for my children, running our household, supporting my husband's career and volunteering my time to causes that are important to me. How would someone measure my success?

I look back at the last 20 years of my life, my accomplishments, and my aspirations. What was I shooting for? What was I hoping to achieve? With last month marking the 11th anniversary of my son's death and the birth of Me Fine Foundation, I think about all the milestones along the way. Me Fine has provided financial assistance and emotional support to over 1000 families from all over the world who come to North Carolina hospitals in search of life-saving treatment for their children. We've saved homes from foreclosure, filled pantries with food, provided travel expenses, held hands during end of life situations and organized events and activities to help make the journey feel a little less ominous. Our efforts have been recognized locally and nationally. Families, caregivers and even hospital staff applaud us as one of the leading resources in the pediatric community. But yet, a whole classroom full of children continue to be diagnosed with pediatric cancer every single day. Is that success?

As a breast cancer survivor, I draw from my experience to share insight with other newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to help ease fears, provide comfort and offer support through treatment. With 1 in 8 women in the United States being diagnosed with some form of breast cancer in her lifetime, do my efforts make a difference? Is that a success?

As a grief coach, I work with individuals tackling the grief process and help them reframe their story so that they may make peace with their circumstances. But yet, bad things happen to good people all the time. Is that the success my daughter refers to?

I'm really just not sure sometimes if our efforts make a difference but I have come to understand that our lack of effort changes nothing. Even with our limitations, I think we are all designed to do something to make an impact on humanity and especially the people around us. We all have gifts and talents that can be used to improve the human condition. It might not come with a large salary, preferred parking spots or our name on a corner office door. It might never even be publicly recognized, no accolades, no fanfare. It might simply come as a sigh of relief when a battered woman has a safe place to tuck in her children, or a teary thank you from a dad as he accepts a proper meal for his family. It might come in the form of a nod when we share a moment of understanding with a grieving neighbor or a firm handshake from a wounded veteran with a new purpose in his life.

I think my daughter revealed that her version of success is more broadly defined; that it can be achieved by doing what we are capable of doing, helping someone overcome life's challenges, offering a hand to someone who needs it and even providing temporary solutions to obvious needs. Success is not only measured by numbers on tax forms but also by the effect we have on our children, our neighbors and those we meet along the way. None of us may be able to change everything but we become successful by changing the things we can. For today, my biggest personal achievement is realizing that my kid gets this at such a young age. Maybe I did do okay with her.